Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@ is on a mission to help academics see, explore and secure professional opportunities beyond the professoriate. She blogs at Beyond the Tenure Track, where you can also find her downloadable video guide, “How To Expand and Explore Your Options.”
Stepping Off the Tenure Track, Pt. 2
In last week’s blog post, I shared a bit about my journey considering a life and career beyond academic teaching and research. As a first-generation college student, the first in my family to earn a doctorate and a woman of color, my stepping off the tenure track could not be decoupled from community, professional and social responsibilities. I experienced the struggle that many Ph.D.s describe when they venture out into the broader world of work, attempting to refashion their selves and their careers in new and sometimes strange ways.
For me, it was worth it to make this transition so I could exercise the skills, talents and voice that make me feel most myself. As a career consultant, I work with academics who are exploring their career options by choice and by circumstance.
Still, most Ph.D.s come to the process a bit behind the job-search learning curve. That is how I came to develop resources such as the “Top 45 Nonacademic Careers” list and the online seminar and guide “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.”
It is not uncommon to wonder whether it is worth it to leave a career you know for one you do not, even if you feel disenchantment with where you are and are curious about where you could go.
Here are three things to consider as you contemplate your options.
First, consider what is going on in your life that is causing you to doubt an academic career. Doctoral programs span a good portion of our adult lives, taking anywhere between five and 10 (or possibly more) years to complete. During this time, your ideas about your preferred lifestyle, career and way of working may shift.
Life events may also raise questions about whether to remain in an academic career. The birth of a child. A partner’s job relocation. The desire to increase your income. An aging parent who requires your assistance. Before taking the leap, consider whether a temporary break might help you reconnect with your work as a scholar. Ask yourself: Are your degree and career trajectory still aligned with your interests and career goals?
Map out your updated career goals, interests, ideal work environment and lifestyle goals to see if the degree is still a core requirement for getting there. This process is kind of like doing a personal strategic plan.
Second, get information and take advantage of the resources available to you. Too often, graduate students and faculty members feel the nudge to explore their professional options, but the fear of even the thought of curiosity beyond the academy holds them back. They worry that they may get distracted from their primary goal of finishing the dissertation or securing tenure.
But I cannot stress this enough: exploring is not the same thing as leaving. Learn your options so you can take advantage of them should you need them or desire them.
Get as much information as you can about your interests outside academe. Conduct informational interviews and attend professional events in your area or events around your interests that have nothing to do with research and teaching. Talk with friends, former college roommates, family members and a career coach who can help you consider industries and careers of which you may not even be aware. I developed the Top 45 Nonacademic Careers resource list to familiarize graduate students and Ph.D.s with career fields and industries that have been successful transition points for academics.
You do not have to settle for any career path because supposedly “people with a degree in (fill in your discipline) do (fill in the career),” or “people your age do (fill in the career)” — or any other standard line that you may hear. But you will not have the courage and vision to see what you can do and who you can be if you do not first explore your options.
Third, reframe your definition of failure. Ask yourself these questions: What does it mean to fail? What would it look like if I failed? How would I move forward if this endeavor failed? By the time many grad students and faculty members contact me for coaching, they feel like they have given up on academe and on themselves.
Some are working through deep feelings of shame and rejection and the feeling that they have not been successful in their careers. Some have not been awarded tenure as they expected, while others have made the choice that their relationship with academe needed to end. No matter the impetus for change, they all share a lingering sense of loss and failure.
Asking the questions above help you to identify what failure is and is not. You may find that failure is really just transition. There is always a next step and a second avenue if the original idea does not result as you had hoped.
In addition to these three steps, you will want to be aware of the most common assumptions and missteps that academics make when leaving the academy. I held an online seminar on this very topic. Gathering the feedback from the 73 attendees, I developed a quick guide from the seminar called “30 Strategies to Launch Your Nonacademic Career Transition.” When you have worked so hard for your degree, you should not have to stumble around to put it to use however you need or desire.