5 Fallacies About Leaving Academia

It’s now been almost two years to the day that I defended my dissertation, packed my bags, and moved to France to begin a totally new life. While I certainly had some reservations at the time about leaving the academy for good, I can honestly say that I don’t regret this decision in the slightest. Over the next few weeks, I am going to try to blog more regularly about my various #altac experiences, but I figured I would start by debunking a number of misconceptions that I had before leaving and that I expect others have too.

Changing careers — especially after 5-10 years as a sort of apprentice — will always be daunting, but it certainly does not need to be as jarring as it currently is. I will introduce each of these fallacies as a question I most definitely asked myself on more than one occasion towards the end of my graduate studies, and then explain an experience I have had that directly contradicts that fear. While obviously, this blog post only reflects my personal experiences and might not be true for everyone reading, I hope current graduate students or those considering such a career change can find solace in these reflections.

1. Will non-academic work be intellectually fulfilling?

I chose to pursue a Ph.D. because I was passionate about learning. Being paid to read, write, and learn languages sounded like a dream. Since I got to choose my own research topic, I was able to pursue knowledge that I was passionate about, finding intersections between disparate fields and presenting, publishing and teaching everything I learned. One of my biggest fears about leaving was that I would no longer be doing what I loved, or worse — that I would no longer be a lifelong learner.

Perhaps my experience is unique, but I believe I have learned more in the past two years than I learned throughout the entirety of my formal education. Working in a school that has programs dedicated to creative and technical fields such as audio production, filmmaking, and video game creation has allowed me to turn things that used to be hobbies — listening to music, watching movies, and playing video games — into professional development. Now, I get to approach these cultural objects from a new perspective, learn how they are made, and help train the creative media professionals of tomorrow. I have not only learned a great amount about these topics, but I have learned about managing a team, managing budgets, and managing relationships with our university and professional partners. Every day is new and different and I no longer experience that peculiar intellectual burnout that comes with prolonged attention to a single topic.

2. Without conferences and summer breaks, will I be able to travel?

This one is likely specific to working in an international company, but my first week on the job, I was sent to our regional headquarters in Barcelona for training. In my first year alone, I got to attend the Cannes Film Festival (where I actually saw Catherine Deneuve and Sylvester Stallone in person!) as well as a special graduation ceremony for our students at Middlesex University in London. Additionally, now that I live in Europe, I can literally take a weekend in another country, as I did last April when I went to Florence to visit some friends. I even attended a conference last summer in the Netherlands, where I got to discuss my research in a new and exciting location.

3. Without an academic affiliation, will I ever be able to publish my research that I worked so hard on?

Since completing my dissertation, I have been able to get an article accepted for publication in Modern Language Notes (should be out very shortly!), an essay in a collected volume (the editors are currently looking for an outlet), and a third article in a special edition of Études littéraires (also forthcoming, but likely delayed due to the current pandemic). On top of that, I was invited to a journée d’études at the École Normale Supérieure to present my research on the Oulipo as well as to the annual History of Science Society conference to present my research on Bourbaki where I was even contacted by an editor who wanted to learn if I had any book projects on the horizon! While I was pretty satisfied with all of that, I was even selected as a winner of the Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in French Studies, an honor that came with a book contract. I am now diligently working on revising my dissertation into the book manuscript I always dreamed it would be (another blog post to follow on this!). Surely not everyone who leaves academia wants to continue publishing, but for me, it felt important to find an audience for all of that work I did that was a bit wider than my dissertation committee. So if anyone else feels the same way, I can promise you that publishing is still very much possible without an academic affiliation.

4. With my extremely specific training, will I even be able to do a non-academic job?

This was one of my biggest concerns. In France, every job has a 3-4 month trial period, during which both you and the company are able to call it quits with no repercussions. At the beginning, I was pretty nervous that I was going to fail that trial period, especially considering the fact that upon arrival, I was informed that my job was in fact a management position. Not only that, but that I was essentially the #2 at the school. It was almost summer vacation, much of the staff had already left for weeks of vacation. I had to spend the majority of my trial period figuring things out by myself, understanding the challenges the school was facing, and putting in place processes and procedures. After a few weeks of getting the lay of the land, I realized that my graduate training was indeed enough to manage this situation. I was good at looking at complex situations, analyzing data, and isolating problems; I had extensive experience managing large projects longterm from my Digital Humanities work and my dissertation; and most importantly, I was good at communicating to people at different levels and helping everyone understand what was at stake in our work. So it turns out those fears were unfounded — a Ph.D. is training for a specific profession, yes, but it is also legitimate work experience. Once you can prove that to an employer and get a contract, there is no doubt that you can excel in whatever job you land!

5. What if I regret leaving?

This was perhaps my biggest fear, especially considering the fact that it seems unlikely to secure a tenure-track position from outside of the academy. While it’s true that I’m still teaching and publishing, I do indeed suspect that hiring committees would prefer a candidate with a more traditional academic trajectory than mine. This may just be yet another misconception, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Indeed, I’ve barely glanced at the academic job ads (which were already limited in my field) and even if there were a dream job, I’m not even sure that I would be interested in applying. Now that I’m managing not just an academic department, but all the academics at a school, why on earth would I want to take a serious title cut and become an Assistant Professor? Why would I want to give up the freedom of living where I want to live in order to be on a track, where my future will be far more limited than it is now? Long story short, I don’t regret this decision at all.

While it is impossible to know if I would be happy elsewhere, I feel confident that this decision was right for me. In fact, in the middle of this global crisis, all I can think of is what would have happened if I had taken one of the two postdoctoral fellowships that I was offered back in 2018. If so, then I would be at the end of one of those two-year positions, counting down the days until both my income and health care expired and most likely without another academic appointment in hand. Instead, I am living in Paris with my wonderful husband, working a job I love with fantastic colleagues, and still getting the chance to engage in the teaching and research that first brought me to higher education.

As it turns out, even my biggest fear about leaving academia was totally unfounded. Since we are once again at the end of what was bound to be a grueling cycle of academic hiring, I hope this post can help those who might be facing a difficult decision in the midst of uncertain times. Best of luck to all!

4 thoughts to “5 Fallacies About Leaving Academia”

  1. Thank you for sharing your important pieces of advice, Natalie! Not going for or wanting academic jobs should not be considered “alternative” (in the sense of being secondary, inferior) for PhDs. All careers are careers.

    1. Exactly! While I used to think that anything other than a TT position would be a disappointment, I can honestly say that my current job isn’t “alternative” at all! In fact, I think I like it more than I would have liked the wrong academic position!

  2. Dear Dr. Berkman,
    Thank you very much for the post and for giving some ideas about your alt-ac experience. However, what one can do if (s)he is attached to the topic/area of study not to the way of academic life or methods of conveying information in academia? I several times in my life took non-academic or alt-academic jobs (as a PhD and now, after the first postdoc). And I all the time merely feel sorry for wasting my time on something not connected with the Medieval Studies. I work well (I assume, though I may be wrong), but, every day, I just look forward to return to my beloved texts and images, no matter whether I paid for studying them or not. There are also days when I simply hate people around just because I can’t concentrate my Greek or Latin translations and forced to talk about some contemporary rubbish 🙁

    1. Hi Anna! That’s a really great question. I too feel very attached to my research topics. That said, I haven’t felt any qualms about taking non-academic jobs to pay the books while still working on my research on the side. Since beginning my job at SAE, I’ve been able to teach both undergraduate and graduate-level classes (and on topics that I never got to teach before, such as XPath, XSLT, and XQuery and Broadway Musicals for two MA-level seminars!), peer-review for an amazing journal on video game studies, be an external examiner for a fascinating doctoral dissertation on musicology, and revise my dissertation into a manuscript for publication! But now, I’m doing this work on my own terms, which I’ve found freeing.

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