People often ask me how I came to be an entrepreneur of professional development and a career coach for academics. Given that I have a PhD in Cultural Anthropology, I “should” be a professor or at least working in international development somewhere. Well, like any life/career story this one has some twists and turns, so sit tight and grab a cup of tea because this is the story behind the story. If you want the official (read: “professional”) bio, click here.
The Nagging Question
I had been on the academic job market for about two years when I began to question whether or not academia was for me. I really liked the people I met at the campus where I’d received a nationally awarded postdoc offer. The location was great – I have family that lives about an hour away—the location was conducive to writing, and the package I had been offered was complete with faculty development support and a very manageable teaching load. It was the best scenario for a junior scholar, but for some reason, I felt like I needed to try something new.
It was one of the crappiest times in my life. I appeared to be an awesome position, but on the inside I was on the fence about pursuing an academic career. I felt like I was letting down everyone around me. Several members of my cohort wanted academic jobs but still hadn’t gotten offers, and there I was with a postdoc in hand but saying, “thanks, but no thanks.”
I knew if I took the postdoc it would mean that I was committing to develop my faculty trajectory. But there were all these other parts of me that I wanted to express. I love speaking in front of groups. I’m a leader. I enjoy creating new things—building them from the ground up. I wanted collaboration and fresh ideas. I wanted a shorter time to reward. Academic publications take incredibly long to go to print.
Promotion and tenure are measured in years. And knowledge production in my field is painstakingly isolating. If I were to stay on the academic career track, I could see myself directing a research center or working in administration, but I knew that those things only happen close to or after tenure. I felt like something in my soul would die if I had to wait that long to express the full range of my gifts and talents.
The Search Begins
A few months before graduation, I applied to three nonacademic jobs: a research position at Human Rights Watch, a partnership development position at a nonprofit, and another that I cannot even recall.
I’ve always been good at interviewing and speaking off the cuff, and the grueling nonstop, multi-day academic job interviews I’d been on for two years had a way of preparing me mentally for almost any kind of interview out there. My interviews had not prepared me, however, to condense my seven page CV to a two-page resume.
Thank goodness for my friend Sherenne who helped me tackle the task. She had the patience of a saint! Still, it was tough for me to be vulnerable in this process. She loves me like a sister, but as someone with a professional master’s degree geared toward practice, she did not understand the depth to which my identity and sense of accomplishment was wrapped up in my research and my status as an academic.
In the end, I received the offer in partnership development, managing a brand new program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The Professional Grind
The nonprofit job I had accepted was a two-year grant. I had applied deciding that I would give it at least two years. I called them my “postdoc years,” even though it wasn’t a formal postdoc. My thinking was this, “I’m still not sure about academia, so I will maintain presence in the academic world while working at the nonprofit job.
Everything moves so slowly anyway, you don’t really have to do much to have presence in academia.” So I took the nonprofit position thinking I would publish one paper each year, attend one conference each year, and teach a course in a university unlike while in the job.
So that’s what I did!
Throughout that two-year period, I basically created the conditions that would help me eliminate variables of what was and wasn’t working for me in academia, so I could figure out if there was a future for me there or not. My exposure and professional connections from my nonprofit job allowed me to leverage my skills to impact important social and health challenges. Toward the end of those two years, I built my practice as an independent consultant, supporting nonprofit, corporate and philanthropic agencies such as Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, March of Dimes, and National Institutes of Health in strategic planning and program design.
Beyond the Tenure Track
I was six months into my first job at the nonprofit, and my inbox and voicemail were full with messages like, “I’m thinking about leaving academia too, how did you do it?” “How did you know what else you could do besides be a professor?” “You’ve published, taught, and received national fellowships, no one would have expected you to leave. What did you tell your committee?”
One person’s story really broke my heart. It was from a grad student who was very close to finishing her dissertation. She was practically done when one of her faculty mentors offered her a one-year graduate assistantship. On the surface it sounded good, but she was through, “My committee members want me to take this one-year appointment, live out the whole year, so I can wait out the academic job market. The position is less than $20,000 and is really a lot of grunt work for this new center on campus.”
She had done this work before and felt like she had maxed out on what she could learn; furthermore, she felt like her skills were being undervalued. “I’m almost done with my dissertation. I don’t want to stay for a whole year. I’m ready. I have a child. I have a husband. I’m ready to live. I’m ready to be an adult.”
But when she described the interpersonal workings of her faculty mentors and their expectations that she follow an academic career at all costs, I knew her challenge. I understood exactly what it would take for her to satisfy her committee, yet get them to release her. She needed to be able to show, “yes, I’m committed to my work, (even if not necessarily committed to academia). I’m committed to seeing this through, but I need to go.” This type of open exchange between student/postdoc and faculty is largely absent from academy.
To outsiders, it really sounds like PhDs are in a jail sentence or a cult, but as a PhD I understood when she asked, “How do I get them to release me but still keep their confidence and respect for me and maybe even letters of recommendations a year from now in case I need them?” It’s a really tough, isolating situation.
I worked her through how to say, “I want the October degree, that’s all the time it’s going to take me.” I helped her set up a timeline for completing the dissertation, carefully craft when and how to discuss her future her plans with her committee, and determine what to say and not to say. We framed her plans in terms of the academy. We didn’t emphasize or even mention her openness to pursuing nonacademic work; that was irrelevant at that point. Long story short, she finished. She finished when she wanted to finish, not when they told her she had to finish. And she’s the one who eventually got a job at Twitter!
I started Beyond the Tenure Track because I didn’t want anymore powerful, smart, and oh-so- competent PhDs like my friend above to feel alone or without career options.
Why I Do This
I do what I do because I want academics to know they have options. I want academics to have the proper tools to be confident and strategic in their careers – whether they choose to stay in the academy or go beyond it.
I want PhDs to know that if they are going to stay in academia they should do so from a place of joy, with a plan and proper mentorship to accomplish their goals.
People come to me at all stages of their career to determine their career options – masters, ABD, junior faculty, after tenure denial, and pretty much all the complicated situations in between. I work with people who want to feel like their degree matters and wasn’t a waste of time. Academics who are looking for work that is intellectually stimulating and provides a respectable salary.
Academics who feel a little excited – and little bit uncertain and scared – about working outside the academy or taking their careers to a new level.
I create workshops, courses, and articles/blogposts for academics who can’t figure out how to transition from academia to purposeful work that pays, yet who desperately want to move through the time of uncertainty.
I give them the tools to get clear on their next steps and to do so with confidence. I’ve also been a career advisor at an Ivy League institution, serving PhDs in fields as wide-ranging as engineering and life sciences to linguistics and English. My people get results: jobs they enjoy that also pay well!