Escaping the Ivory Tower -- as a middle-aged, tenured professor
July 22, 2015 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Is it even remotely possible for me, a middle-aged, tenured professor in the humanities with a child to support, to leave academia? If so, how do I do it? Way more details follow below.

It's taken me months, if not years, to come to a place where I can actually say this out loud: I think I don't want to be a professor anymore. I am a tenured associate professor in history, and I teach at a respectable R1 university located in one of the most expensive parts of the US. I still love teaching (and I'm good at it), but frankly, I just don't give much of a shit about my research anymore. I don't mind the committee work, and perhaps administration is an escape route, but I know I would make a terrible department chair and I am also having more and more hesitation about being a cog in the machine of middle-class credentialing and student debt. I'm also really, really tired of being expected to work 60+ hours a week for laughable wages. So what do I do? I need to either find a way to fall back in love with my research or find a way out into the "real world" (about which I know nothing, since I come from an academic family and have been headed into academia since high school, if not before). Most of the information I've been able to find is directed at graduate students who are looking to bail out of grad school, but I can't find anything that might help a tenured professor move out of academia and into something new. I have been thinking a little bit about my skill set—I'm multilingual, I write very well (this AskMeFi notwithstanding), I have had some real success in writing grants, I have excellent research and analytic skills, I have a proven ability to tackle and complete long, complicated projects, I have experience running small organizations, I can read, translate, and analyse handwritten documents in Spanish, Italian, French, and other Romance languages written in the 16-21th centuries—but when it comes to figuring out how to turn these skills into a non-academic job, I'm utterly clueless. And I can't just quit and hope that the universe will provide, since that just doesn't work with my personality and I also have a kid and a mortgage. Have any of you out there ever escaped from the Ivory Tower? Do you know anyone who has (and who isn't a scientist or an economist or some other discipline that easily translates outside the university)? Are there career advisers for people in my situation? Any advice would be really welcome, because the idea of 30 more years of this crap is making me despondent and desperate.
posted by pleasant_confusion to Education (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I highly recommend the VersatilePhD community. Many of the people there are in earlier stages of this dilemma (e.g., to finish or not to finish the PhD) but there are a lot of post-academics, too.
posted by Frenchy67 at 7:13 PM on July 22, 2015 [6 favorites]

This might sound crazy, but what about teaching high school? Maybe at a private school?
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:22 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Get a job at McKinsey. You'll make WAY more money and have an infinitely better quality of life.

Alternatively, look into BCG or getting an MBA from a top 7-20ish school. Fuqua has a reputation for taking older students, so you might want to look into that.
posted by aristotlefangirl at 7:36 PM on July 22, 2015 [4 favorites]

Do not get an MBA on top of your PhD. MBA != easy employment if you don't have a management or corporate background, and maybe not even then.

Consider doing a software dev bootcamp if you have a local one with a strong placement rate.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 7:42 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Lots of pragmatic advice at , especially the blog and twitter, and a model for how people are getting hired as of 2015 in his Udemy course. If you read some of his stuff you'll get a good idea of his approach and might even consider getting a couple of hours of coaching to pick his brains. It sounds to me like you have many talents and could be doing lots of things, but have lost your mojo a bit, which is understandable.
posted by AuroraSky at 7:45 PM on July 22, 2015

Check here, too.
posted by harrietthespy at 7:46 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I see these kind of questions from tenured academics, my first response is to think they are suffering from burnout and are indulging in some speculative fantasizing as a balm to soothe their troubled souls. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but you might want to begin by getting a sabbatical or writing a textbook or popular book or doing something else to make your current position more attractive before making plans to leave academia altogether.

If you do want out, why not try historical consulting part-time while you continue to work your academic gig? I hear you about the long hours, but it is something you could do temporarily while figuring out if you really want to leave. I imagine you might find short-term work in museums or maybe a job writing the history of a corporation. Start with a list of topics you are excited about.

But my main suggestion is to really think about what this sense of dissatisfaction is telling you; of course you can leave if you want to (and management consultancy isn't the only, or best, option), but you will have to get out there and hustle and network and there will be things that suck out there in the real world too.
posted by girl flaneur at 8:18 PM on July 22, 2015 [10 favorites]

My question is, if you really only like teaching and research (when it's clicking), and dislike administration and cog-in-the-wheel stuff, how effectively do you think you'll be able to divest yourself of the need to give a shit when it comes to corporate clients? Could you care about cat food or soda or air conditioners? Would the money and variety of tasks and clients outweigh a need to feel connection and purpose in your daily life? It very well might - people surprise themselves all the time - but I think it's a question worth asking yourself.

Agree with girl flaneur, test things out now. (I thought literary translation might be an easy fit, but doubt it offers an improvement, wage-wise.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:24 PM on July 22, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'd strongly recommend The Professor is In.

But other ideas from a pre-tenure person:
- is there administrative work that is more appealing than being chair? Provost of student affairs?
- are you giving too much of yourself to teaching and service?
posted by k8t at 8:40 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also based on your other questions, I assume you are stuck in City of Present for child residential purposes?
posted by k8t at 8:42 PM on July 22, 2015

I escaped the ivory tower for consulting, as noted above. I was lucky, because I had a small side speciality in new media technology (my terminal degree is in Film) which I was able to parlay into a technology consulting gig. When I turned out to be good at it, I just kept getting promoted. (For the record, I have never regretted it for a minute.)

Consultancy firms like interesting people as product. The trick will just be to wedge your foot in the door. Do you know anyone in the trade who can give you some advice?
posted by frumiousb at 8:56 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

Having left business for academia, I cannot stress enough how little flexibility there is "in the real world" in terms of scheduling/flex time/vacation days, particularly at entry level. Do take into account the value of that and other benefits when you're calculating your comparative salaries.

Teaching high school/K-12 after the relative freedom of higher education... well, the few people I know who chose to leave higher ed for lower ed regret it. I briefly taught in a few different places with different groups of kids ranging in age from K-12 (admittedly all with troubled/at-risk populations) and there are so many more rules and regulations, the contact hours are way higher, and disciplinary issues are also more common (I've at least heard this is also true in general populations; it was really really true with the kids I was working with).

If you're not into your research any more but love to teach and are skilled at teaching, I would strongly urge you to consider applying to SLACs that don't have a big research agenda and attempt to arrive with tenure or with at least a shorter tenure clock. Or if you're really gung-ho about leaving academia, try to arrange for a year's leave as a back-up plan.

I'm not at all saying that there aren't people who've left academia and are super happy about it, but I'm just leery of your inexperience in working "in the real world" because at least from my experience I was (and still am) absolutely willing to give up a chunk of my business salary for the academic lifestyle. Yes, I work hard, but it's far more flexible as to when I work and I can have most of the summer to do my own thing, which for me is to focus on research (art production and exhibitions/presentations, in my case) but for others at non-heavily-research-focused SLACs can include picking up a second, temporary job for increased income or spending time with family.

And if you haven't already immersed yourself in the Chronicle's forum on leaving, here it is. There are success and regret stories.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:24 PM on July 22, 2015 [11 favorites]

I'm in a very similar position -- middle aged, tenured, associate prof at an R1 (for me a flagship state school) and lately I am feeling kind of trapped. And I have similar obligations to yours that prevent me from, you know, taking off and busking in the subway.
Unlike you, I spent years (pre-PhD) as a freelancer without decent health insurance options, and chose academia as a step towards security. Which it is, of course, when you make it through to tenure, though that' security's not always satisfying enough to make a life with.
I also enjoy teaching and have become disillusioned with a lot of the solipsism of research in my field. Here is my compromise with myself. Tenure means I can totally change my research. I mean, I can write a novel now if I want to, or whatever I decide. In my case, in order to feel intellectually alive again, I'm going to have to do a totally new project that connects in more palpable and ethical ways to the material world. Because I've changed -- parenthood, getting older, whatever it is has changed me -- and I'm no longer able to pour myself into the esoteric stuff that lit my fire when I was younger. So my post-tenure present to myself: I am giving myself time to figure out how to radically change my research. And if it doesn't fit in with my dept. anymore, or even with my discipline... so be it. (I'll still be poorer than any of my friends in other careers, but ... I'm not ever going to starve.)
That intellectual and creative freedom's what we worked for.
Good luck to you, I wish you all the best.
posted by flourpot at 9:28 PM on July 22, 2015 [15 favorites]

Get a job at McKinsey. You'll make WAY more money......


and have an infinitely better quality of life.

Ahhhahhaaa haa haa haaaaaa haa ha ahaaaah ahh ha. (makes joker laughing face)

Do you know the Mandatory, (non-schedulable) hours that consultants at high-end consultancy shops must work - to make their bones? 60hrs a week is VACATION. As well as the travel that they demand? And the complete lack of job security - "up or out" is applied regularly. Mckinsey at least has an interesting culture while they squeeze you dry - others cultures will make you wish for endless faculty meetings....
posted by lalochezia at 9:32 PM on July 22, 2015 [14 favorites]

I left after two postdocs (humanities subject), so not your level but deep enough in to do a lot of panicky flailing about what I could ever do that isn't academia. It worked out, though! Turns out, the "useful transferable skills" stuff we preach to our students continues to apply.

I got final-stage shortlisted for jobs in the following areas:
- teaching-heavy/teaching-only position in higher/further education institutions with a different kind of focus than mine;
- working for an (academic) funding organisation;
- working in government/civil service. (This is where I ended up, currently in a role working on policy.)

My husband also left academia at postdoc level, in the hard sciences, and now works in an organisation giving grants for historic building conservation. Nothing to do with his former field, but still uses a lot of the skills he developed then.

Some of that may be region-specific (I am in the UK), as might my speaking to a careers advisor at my former institution, although if speaking to one of those is an option I strongly recommend it. My point though is that there is stuff out there that will want and use your skills.
posted by Catseye at 9:45 PM on July 22, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, I have to agree with other commenters -- the "real world" has so much less flexibility than academia, notwithstanding the hours. In this sense, academia is hard work, and not well paid, but the pay comes in part from the flexibility. Your child might be older, so this may matter less, but it is huge to be able to have the flexibility to be home when your kid gets home, is sick, hang out over the summer, take vacations when s/he has them. So yes, if you hate it, absolutely get out, but definitely don't overlook how hard it can be to be parent at a 9-5 (or more likely 8:30-6:30, at best.)
posted by caoimhe at 12:52 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've certainly seen people move on from academia successfully. (Though most examples I know did it earlier - at the postdoc level.)

I'd echo what Catseye says. Often government roles are a good fit, particularly policy or research roles, or jobs at grant-giving agencies. The culture's generally somewhat similar - a bit bureaucratic, not the crazy hours of consultancies, not 'corporate', a sense of service to some social good. And the public sector values many of the same core skills - analytic and research skills, writing, ability to manage a long-timeframe project.
posted by yesbut at 2:10 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tenured professor here. See if you can move to a CC or something that isn't an R1. I don't know what state you're in, but here in CA we have the CSU. Students don't (for the most part) emerge with crushing debt, and it's a path from the working class into the middle class. Research expectations are less than those at a R1. I don't know if you have something like that where you are.

Or: just don't do research for a while while you think on this. You sound burned out. I went though a similar patch when I got tenure. I was thinking about law school. But I gave myself time to sit and think and reflect, and I was kind to myself (I'm very guilt-driven!), and eventually I decided that I wanted to stay where I was. Part of that was getting very clear about my alternatives. When I spelled them out concretely, they suddenly didn't look better then my job. I'm now very happy with my job, and am more productive research-wise than I was as junior faculty. But I took some time off research.

The committee member on my dissertation committee whom I esteemed the most had a similar crisis after tenure. He was brilliant and a deeply committed teacher. But he felt like a fraud and that his life was pointless after he got tenure. So he decided that he was going to be an amazing teacher and spend far more time doing it than he did on research. As he said, he wasn't going to be the next [famous philosopher], so what was the point of heavy research? But he thought he could be a good man, and teacher, and colleague. And he was all of those things, and he really made a difference in the lives of students. This was at a big-name R1, btw.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:17 AM on July 23, 2015 [7 favorites]

Be careful what you wish for.

For the record, I have a science PhD, and the work I do is related to the field I studied.

I understand your misgivings about being a cog in the student credentialing machine, but being a cog in the capitalist, money-driven machine is demoralizing too.

The corporate world has more money, true, but 60-hour work weeks, short vacations, and little flexibility are the norm, at least in the US. Plus the constant anxiety of job insecurity. Even if you work hard, even if you are good at what you do, some suit in a conference room 3000 thousand miles away can decide to restructure your organization and you can find yourself out on the street looking for work with little notice. I've been there, and so have many of my friends. Being out of work in your fifties is scary. I would kill for tenure.

Some years ago, I had a research/policy gig, and I wish I could stayed there or moved to something similar. Less money, but much better quality of life.

So I'd echo some of the comments above. See if there's some way to improve your life where you are, perhaps by focussing more on the teaching you love. Or look to government or nonprofits or research/policy jobs.

In the name of all that is good and holy, do not go to McKinsey.
posted by islandeady at 2:39 AM on July 23, 2015 [6 favorites]

What about looking for a professorship at a more teaching focused school? In my experience, small liberal arts colleges focus much more on students than on research. While most require some research work, it's at an entirely different level than R1 universities, and can follow your personal interests rather than prestige/ money.
posted by metasarah at 3:56 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you live close to central NJ, you might look into a job with ETS. Tons of ex- and transitioning academics there from all fields, so some of the academic lifestyle has crept in. Sort of the Mordor of credentialing, tho.
posted by apparently at 4:34 AM on July 23, 2015

There are lots of good suggestions here but also: stop thinking about it as 30 more years! You won't be supporting your kid for another 30 years. You won't be paying that mortgage for another 30 years. So even if this is what you need to do right now, you don't actually have to do it for the rest of your life, or even the rest of your working life.

I got out of academia (librarian) and am working in the private sector as a software developer (completely unrelated to my previous work) and I like it a lot. But I don't know whether I would have made the leap if I had a kid and/or mortgage and/or had been at a respectable R1 rather than a meh SLAC (with a reputation for below-market wages, and in a place I didn't want to live).
posted by mskyle at 5:28 AM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I left (sort of, I'm still dissertating) humanities academia to work in scientific publishing, and I LOVE IT. One thing I get to do at conferences is talk to major publishing about how ebooks work in the undergrad classroom, where I taught for many years (short version: NOT WELL).

There are so many rich and powerful companies working on making educational products and technologies, and yet they are very mediocre at understanding how people working in education use those products and technologies. If you've taught online sections, or used Blackboard (or another equivalent), or used ebooks (or been pressured to use ebooks), then you know a whole lot about topics that are worth a lot of money. I can't speak to specific positions, but please know that knowledge of teaching, academia, and how academics tend to behave are all forms of knowledge that these places need. If you are serious about looking for alternatives, I would look at the job listings of industries that are academia-adjacent. They want to know the things you know. (They also love having former academics on staff, because it makes their ability to design and sell a product seem more reliable.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:00 AM on July 23, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since you don't want to do your own research, perhaps you can do someone else's. For example, research some local hero for the local historical society. Or some local museum.

Another thought is to leave the big research university, and teach at a college where the emphasis will be on teaching and not on research. Salve Regina is not Brown. You might look at Community College of RI, too. I doubt you would enjoy going back to high school for the reasons given above.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:07 PM on July 23, 2015

I teach at an open access public college. We have several faculty who jumped ship from positions like yours to ours so that they could concentrate on teaching. It's a pretty great life, with the exception of the bureaucratic nonsense which is everywhere. I very occasionally work 60 hour weeks (midterm grades, the week before finals), but mostly I'm closer to 40. And this summer I am not teaching (and thus not getting paid). I have rarely worked anything like 40 and it has been lovely.

But have tenure. If you don't feel like doing research, take a break. After your break, look into new types of outreach, scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL is the acronym), or more mentoring students in exploring their own research possibilities. There may still be a way to make your job into something you like.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:41 PM on July 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think you're burned out and romanticizing life outside academia. Tenured professor at R1? Any entry to mid level corporate or consulting job is going to be less flexible, longer hours, and you'll have to work hard to prove yourself again and get to the point where you are doing creative work and making a difference. I agree with everyone else you are much better off staying in academia and mixing up your life a bit to get what you want.

For what it's worth the professors I've had who care about teaching are the ones that really made a difference in my life. I know that among your peers doing super sexy research is the big deal, but undergrad students really only care about the good teachers who expand their horizons. Do you interact with undergrads enough or is it mostly grad students? I think exposure to some bright and engaged young students might help reinvigorate your passion for the career. Would you consider doing a seminar or project to find students like that? Maybe if you find the people who are in school to learn more than credentials or a grade that will help?

Committees, admin work, and other BS like that seems to burn out academics more than anything else. Can you give up any of that now that you have tenure?

In short, try to connect with the parts of the job you love and really consider if you can cut back on the parts that are soul destroying.

On the money... it's certainly hard to make a lot of money as a humanities professor, but a lot of professors I know have made extra money through books (writing popular fiction or text books) or consulting. Consulting is more typical for business school professors, but maybe there is something you can offer the corporate world as a consultant on the side.

Finally, have you thought about switching gears and teaching at a business or other professional school? Professional schools have a bit of a different vibe and teaching is highly prized (see if you can watch any HBS professor lecture). Of course you don't have an economics, operations or marketing background, but there are a handful of business history professors out there, so maybe there is a niche for you. At a minimum you could come up with some lectures that may be interesting to professional school students (business, law, medicine) and mix up your work a bit by offering to do a special session for them at orientation or the like.
posted by rainydayfilms at 3:10 AM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Another vote for teaching high school. Here are some reasons:
1. Shorter work weeks. Yes teachers have to do a ton more than what it says on their job descriptions, but there's no publication guilt, and summers are truly free.
2. Unions. Even if you're teaching at a private school the presence of the union helps the entire profession (in my opinion).
3. They want you. Unlike these other professions your background makes you pretty desirable at many HS.
Good luck.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:23 AM on July 24, 2015

With Nth flexibility. I worked a "real job" briefly before I went to a TT position and I had to ask permission to go to the dentist. Fuck that shit.
If your parenting/household is built around your currently flexibility, and I know that mine is, it might be better to stay where you are.
posted by k8t at 8:03 PM on July 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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