Post-academic careers?
September 11, 2021 6:45 AM   Subscribe

Have you or someone you know successfully transitioned from academic work to something that is decidedly outside academia?

(For the purposes of this question, let's assume that academic publishing + administration are still academia.)

I am 49 and am thinking about quitting adjuncting. I could make more money at almost anything, so it seems that jobs that aren't particularly lucrative are on the table. My field is in the humanities so I'm not really qualified for anything technical, but I can write, communicate, and manage information. Looking for inspiring anecdotes about people who successfully jumped ship and found happiness doing something else.
posted by anhedonic to Work & Money (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I left academia and went to government then industry. My skills and knowledge are put to good use, and I have job security (!!) and flexibility about where I can live. I loved my old job but don't regret leaving. I was in my 40s without a faculty position and it was time to go.
posted by emd3737 at 7:43 AM on September 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

I did a PhD in English, adjuncted for a little while, and am now in middle management on the digital side of an insurance company where my work focuses on research and strategy.

I left academia because I saw the writing on the wall and had no desire to re-apply to teach the same courses year in and year out. My first job was working as a researcher / analyst / consultant for a local advisory firm that, fortunately, had a strong track record of hiring people with advanced degrees on the basis that they are good at learning and communicating complex ideas. (I was one of several people with a graduate degree there, from a variety of fields ranging from hard sciences to psychology to library sciences; they hired other English PhDs after me, too).

Once I got my foot in the door in industry and got over the "real world experience" hump, more opportunities opened up and ten years later I'm probably earning as much if not more than I would have on the tenure track and my work is for the most part engaging and interesting (even if the Zoom meetings are a bit much).

My advice is to take a close look at your strengths, which it sounds like include gathering, curating, and analyzing that information and try to turn it to your advantage. The type of person who earns a PhD and hangs in academia is more than likely highly capable when it comes to any kind of intellectual labour. You may need to prove to those "in industry" that you're capable of speaking their language—so apply your skills to learning how to do that. (That doesn't mean becoming a soulless capital drone, but understanding and being able to use the vocabulary was critical for me making that leap.)

I'd also do some deep consideration of what it is about academia that you do like. Odds are, you can find it elsewhere. For me, that was really about learning and sharing ideas; that translates well into my current career as a strategist.

There are also some strong communities out there for people making the transition, much more, I think, than when I left the university and people were more likely to put their fingers in their ears and deny there was a need for PhDs and academics to consider life outside of the university. For instance there is the Beyond the Professoriate group on LinkedIn that shares stories and strategies for people making the transition.
posted by synecdoche at 7:44 AM on September 11, 2021 [6 favorites]

(And OH YES: to emd3737's point, this whole "job security" thing? It's pretty great. And it's never 100%—I got laid off once; it happens. Nothing's locked in stone. But compared to my adjuncting experience where I was literally reapplying for my job every four months, it's pretty incredible. And if the terrible ever does happen, you don't necessarily have to wait for the next job market season to do something about it.)
posted by synecdoche at 7:46 AM on September 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I wasn’t as far along as you, but I quit a philosophy Ph.D. program to take an AmeriCorps position and then worked in social services for a number of years. I was in my 20s, but there were people of all ages at my AmeriCorps site. You can probably get an entry-level position at a community agency of interest without the AmeriCorps year, though. The problem is that an MSW is a de facto requirement for management-level positions in social services. You may be able to bypass this, however, at a small agency, or if the need for someone is sudden and you’re already on staff.
posted by 8603 at 7:49 AM on September 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I recently transitioned from contingent hell in the humanities to software engineering in tech. The transition was brutal but so far (early days yet) I'm very happy in my new position. The pay and hours are much better and the work is generally interesting. Feel free to PM me if you're interested in more details.
posted by crazy with stars at 8:45 AM on September 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I moved to journalism and it was great. Then I moved back to academia and I still wonder why. I've also done a bit of political consulting.
What I want to say is GO!
posted by mumimor at 11:08 AM on September 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'm in my 40s, and transitioned in my 30s from a liberal arts MA on what was basically a PhD track to the marketing industry. I run my own business now.

I use skills from my academic career (teaching, explaining ideas to people from different backgrounds, research, synthesizing knowledge into different outputs, navigating complicated bureaucracies) pretty much every day in my current work life. My experience is that coming from an academia background gives people skill sets that are extremely useful in the corporate world.
posted by allthethings at 11:12 AM on September 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have run across a lot of former academics in government policy work. Their original field of study never seemed to matter except for highly specialized positions, which are rare. Most of them were hired for their writing, analytical, and project-management skills.
posted by rpfields at 11:59 AM on September 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I went from my PhD (engineering) straight into a technical policy job in the government. I love it! Work-life balance is the best, it's very stable work, and I find it challenging in interesting ways. Echoing rpfields, policy could be a good route if you're coming from the humanities. Policy analysts are basically social problem solvers, and it involves a lot of writing.

For a total left-field story, my partner was a tenure track professor in the social sciences who quit to work in special effects for film. That's a real edge case (he has a lot of interest in specific software that is used in the field and is very good at teaching himself things), and he also got extraordinarily lucky. But he still uses a lot of skills from his old work and he's so much happier.
posted by Paper rabies at 12:14 PM on September 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

I know you said *entirely* outside of academia, but if you genuinely enjoy teaching, you might consider teaching high school. The money is considerably better (depending on your school/district) than adjuncting, it has been my experience that the work is more impactful on your students, and depending on what level you teach at college you may be surprised by how similar the content/depth of information you cover is. I taught freshman composition and now teach high school English and it’s been an excellent and rewarding career move.

In some states, your graduate degree will be enough to get certified to teach public school. There is also the private school or charter school option; Carney Sandoe is the primary recruitment firm folks use to find those jobs.

Entirely out of academia suggestion: sales positions. Teaching requires you to be personable and persuasive, which are two key qualities that translate well to sales. I sold real estate for a long time and while not quite as good a fit as teaching has been for me, it was mostly fun, not particularly stressful, and lucrative.
posted by nancynickerson at 1:30 PM on September 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

I think throwing acadiemia and academic admin together is a mistake. They are two different things. You can pull in a decent, stable salary from the second without the stupid hours (unless you get too ambitious). With either a research or teaching focus, and even within those categories there are lots of options.

I think only 2-3 of my 11 PhD grads has stayed in academia, soc-sci discipline.
posted by biffa at 3:57 PM on September 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I've run into many former academics in government work. The hours and benefits are jaw dropping in comparison to what you get in academia.
posted by Toddles at 7:13 PM on September 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

When I left linguistics after grad school, I got a job as a technical editor. I had some tech skills, but there were other editors on the team who didn't. What the job required was the ability to read complicated, poorly written things on topics I wasn't really supposed to understand, spot where the problems were, and offer some useful feedback. As far as I could tell, academia is the ideal preparation for it.

It was a pretty pleasant job. I made tech-industry money, worked normal hours, and got to do routine work that required some skill. It got boring after a while, but it was still an incredibly pleasant kind of boring. Eventually I moved on from tech editor to tech writer, which is less boring.

(What you should not do is try to get into textbook publishing. Big tech companies have money to spend on writers and editors. Even the biggest textbook companies don't anymore, which is kind of a problem. Half the people I met as a tech editor were fleeing textbook publishing like rats from a sinking ship.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:07 PM on September 11, 2021 [3 favorites]

Also important: like synecdoche, my first job out of academia was at a company that's known for hiring ex-academics. (In case you're in New England: MathWorks, I don't work there anymore, they were great, they're probably hiring editors, go apply.) I wish I'd found out about them through some clever route that I could suggest you follow, but in fact I just applied to a bunch of stuff — and one day, to my surprise, found myself talking to someone who was excited rather than skeptical about my advanced degree.

The sense I get is that there are companies like that everywhere, sometimes ones that sell to researchers, sometimes ones that were founded by ex-researchers, sometimes just ones that value independence and communication skills and figured out this is where they can buy them cheap.

I guess this is like the dating advice for weirdos that says you don't have to appeal to everyone, you just have to be one specific person's top choice. Don't try to appeal to most companies. You won't. Just trust that there are a few companies who actively want people like us, and eventually you'll find where they are.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:25 PM on September 11, 2021 [2 favorites]

I left academia (humanities) for tech in my late 30s. Communication and writing skills turned out to be transferrable and I ended up with a fulfilling career even though it wasn't my "dream" like teaching was.

Honestly, I make 10x more than I did when I was adjuncting, and work 1/10 as hard. Schools exploit adjunct faculty, and it's unconscionable.

Oh I should add: I do love my current job and my non-evil company. It's a great fit for me and the team I work with is incredible. I'm grateful I made the move!
posted by Threeve at 10:03 PM on September 11, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you are curious about your mind and psyche, re-training as a therapist might be an option.
I know many academics who took up psychotherapy as a 2nd career (admittedly this is in the UK). The advantage that there is no retirement age - you can be a practicing therapist as long as you have your wits about you, and arguably the older you get the better you are. In the UK training is part-time, one or two evenings a week for 4 years, after which you can start building your client base or look for a job in counselling at a school, university or charity. If you are in therapy or considering it you are already one step closer to getting into the field.
posted by slimeline at 4:52 AM on September 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

I left an academic career and am currently re-training as a mental health counselor. It's a field where older career trainers are common, and probably in a better position to have a successful career than people in their 20s. I'm finding that many of my skills are of value here. Leading group therapy sessions is like teaching without the prep! It's awesome. It has involved me taking on more student loans. But so far, I am loving it. It makes SUCH a difference to be in a professional community where people are sincere and care about each other.
posted by EllaEm at 6:06 AM on September 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Just wanted to say that I really appreciate all of the info, advice, and encouragement people have posted so far! I had a feeling I was asking in the right place but these responses are far above and beyond any expectation.

I'll mark the question as answered, but of course I will continue to hungrily devour whatever you want to tell me.
posted by anhedonic at 1:24 PM on September 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

I loved teaching but as a PhD candidate was not excited to continue my career in academia in a STEM field, and I was really not excited for the role adjuncts had within the academic system.

I moved to K-12 STEM outreach via Museums/Science Centers/Nature Centers in my mid 30s. Starting out in a new career notorious for underpaying meant I was living a pretty similar lifestyle to grad school, in terms of income and resources for a few years, but I stuck to it.

Ten years later I work for a public agency overseeing their education programs, I make equivalent or more $ compared to my former colleagues in my doctorate program which allows me to live comfortably, with a 40-hour work week a cultural norm. I do work I love and feel makes a difference. In my line of work a humanities degree and experience would be of benefit in multiple roles.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 9:59 AM on September 13, 2021 [1 favorite]

After getting an English PhD, I went to a 12-week bootcamp to learn to be a software developer. It's great! People are constantly emailing me trying to hire me!
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:01 AM on September 14, 2021

Do you have any non-academic job experience? I noticed when I decided to look for non-academic jobs, recruiters focused on my previous non-academic work experience in a technical field.

There is no denying the existence of ageism in the job market. This won't be as much of an issue in some jobs or sectors, such as government (local, state, federal) jobs, or certain sectors of banking, such as credit unions. As already mentioned, also consider technical writing - note that this includes areas such as medical writing, or writing content in the financial industry, not just tech companies. I've had some colleagues benefit from Society for Technical Communication resources when they were breaking into technical writing.
posted by needled at 2:27 PM on September 20, 2021

« Older Why do my vape pens break so easily?   |   Backing up my Mac to an external drive Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.