“Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. II” By Fatimah Williams Castro

CastroNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@FatimahPhD) 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.

“Stepping Off the Tenure Track — Pt. I” By Fatimah Williams Castro

CastroNote: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column.  Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (@FatimahPhD) 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. I

I remember when I made the decision to apply to graduate school. I was excited about the prospect of being able to dig into topics that interested me and to make a life and career out of those interests. I really wanted to examine deeply questions of race and political mobilization among Black populations in Colombia. I wanted to take an in-depth look at the relationships between constitutional laws recognizing Black populations and the diverse lived experiences of Blackness in Colombia. I marveled at the prospect of being paid to read, write and teach about topics that I was passionate about. What could be better?

Fast-forward six years. I had had a great run as a graduate student. National fellowships. International conference presentations. Publications in refereed journals. An offer for a postdoctoral fellowship at a great university located close to my family.

Yet I started to have doubts. I had a nagging feeling of unease. What if the academic path would not allow me to exercise some of the best parts of my personality and talents — at least not until after tenure, if I could bear it that long?

What If I Decided Not to Pursue an Academic Career?

I will admit that the very thought of forgoing a traditional academic career felt indulgent and selfish. I was the first person in my family to earn a doctorate. Organizations that support diverse scholars had bestowed recognition and fellowships on me. I went to a prestigious, predominantly white university as an undergraduate, so I knew just how powerful it could be as a student of color to have women and men of color as faculty members.

As I considered the cost of leaving, I consulted the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates to calculate how many doctoral degrees in the United States were conferred to African-American women my graduation year. I discovered just 4 percent were — and even fewer were awarded to Black men. Who exactly did I think I was? People were counting on me — and literally counting me — to help turn the tide on the low numbers of faculty of color and to contribute great scholarship to my field.

Ultimately, however, I stepped off the tenure track. It was not a straightforward process, but transitions rarely are. To find my first post-academic job, I struggled to determine what was best for me next.

I did not know whom to confide in about my idea to pursue a life and career beyond academic teaching and research. My dissertation advisers had invested so much time and energy in developing me as a scholar. I felt that I could not let them down, and I did not think they could help me determine what could come next for me professionally.

I talked to my college friends who had gone into public health, medicine and consulting careers. They did not understand why I felt stuck at considering and applying to new options. Unlike them, I did not see the world in terms of industries, skills and abilities. They had no clue how to help me reframe my skills and the last six years of my life into a convincing narrative and application materials that hiring managers would find valuable.

I attended workshops at my university’s career services office. I met with a campus career coach. I did my best to overlook the fact that the programming was geared toward undergraduates in their early 20s eager to find their first job, while I was in my 30s with a Ph.D., married and looking not just for a new career but for a new way of being, operating and expressing myself. Neither my friends nor campus career services understood what it meant to be an academic in search of a new space and place for myself. For better or worse, under current training models, a doctorate is not just a degree, it is also an identity.

I spent countless hours scouring large job sites like indeed.com, usajobs.gov, and idealist.org. But I did not see myself or my skills represented in the job descriptions.

My curiosities led me to professional events in such diverse fields, which, on one hand, was exciting and eye-opening, but, on the other, inefficient and costly. Each event would require me to describe myself in new ways, when ideally you want to hone a particular professional introduction that can eventually lead you to the right contacts and job opportunities. The cost of registration and travel to networking events can mount up quickly, especially with an unfocused search.

I struggled to determine what was best for me next, networked tirelessly and sat through demoralizing interviews. I did not have the information or resources to help me understand and evaluate my options. So I created them.

I desired a more streamlined, step-by-step system for the job search, as an alternative to piecing together information from disparate books, blogs and other sources. I wanted career advice customized to the particular challenges of Ph.D. job seekers who are searching for new career options by choice or by circumstance. I wanted a program that had empathy for what it means to be a person of color or first-generation graduate feeling the weight of social, professional and economic expectations during this career transition.

I took everything I learned and designed a career exploration program called Options for Success. The program allows academics to explore their career options in a safe space. There is no pressure to transition to a non-faculty career; rather, the emphasis is on information on career options and professional work environments, strategies for determining what you want in your post-academic career and life, and assessments to identify your skills and their value to employers.

Those same tools led me to interview for director-level positions with annual salaries ranging from $65,000 to $95,000 and to secure freelance contracts with nationally recognized companies and nonprofits. But I am most proud of participants in the Options for Success program who have successfully transitioned from being unemployed history, linguistics and mechanical engineering Ph.D.s to employed professionals in data science, nonprofit management and research. I strongly believe that academics have the opportunity and skills to work in diverse careers. We just need a streamlined and empathetic process to help us explore our options and to get us from point A to point B.

If you are wondering whether it makes sense to leave the academy, stay tuned for part two of this article, where I’ll share three things to consider as you prepare for your future.