Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Practical Advice for Navigating the Leap - Part 1

Just today, it occurred to me that while this blog has chronicled quite a bit of how it feels to be leaving the academic life and the reasons why I'm leaving, I have not offered much in the way of concrete advice for making this leap.

To be honest, I sort of haven't felt like I was qualified to offer any advice. I haven't really left yet. I'm still living in the college town, still technically affiliated with my grad program (enrolled in Ph.D. credits, still on their website, etc.), and have not landed my big-time career job yet. I just didn't feel qualified to offer full-on career advice.

And I still don't. But what I have realized through this process is that it takes as much emotional work as it does practical (job-seeking) work to make the transition. Even if (like me) you know that you're making the right decision, and even if you're happier than you've been in years ... you will probably still deal with at least a little bit of emotional fallout if you decide to make this leap. Based on the search terms bringing people to this blog, it seems like at least a few of you are already dealing with some of it.

So ... concrete advice for dealing with this emotionally? I can offer that. Here you go.

If you are thinking about leaving academia, here are a few things that I have done that have made this transition easier on myself mentally. Most of these things don't require you to actually be leaving right now - they are just things you can do to "try out" leaving, or to give yourself a confidence boost or backup plan if you think you may wind up actually leaving academia.

Part 1 (with the biggest piece of advice I can give) will post now, with Part 2 to come later (possibly tonight, but more likely tomorrow).

So, here we go. Advice for emotionally dealing with leaving. First - the single thing that has helped me the most in terms of self-confidence.

Write a "skills resume"
This one is the longest section because I think it's the most important. The others won't be nearly as wordy. :)

This is (in my opinion) the most important thing someone considering the possibility that they may leave academia (either by choice or by crappy job market) should do. Heck, I'd advise people who are determined to stay in academia do this. A self-esteem boost and a reminder of the skills we have is certainly never a negative thing!

Anyway, writing this skills resume was the first step I took in my job search process. First, I listed in a Word document every single "post" I'd held in my adult life. I listed every "real world" job I'd had (going back to my job at a gas station before college), every class I've taught in grad school, and every individual research project I had worked on from my entrance to grad school through my dissertation. I included sections for "undergraduate coursework," "graduate coursework," and for each committee I'd sat on as well, and every volunteer activity I'd done. Under each heading, I'd list every single concrete skill I'd gotten and accomplishment I'd achieved in each position, no matter how minor.

Teaching assignments mentioned how I'd gained public speaking skills, learned how to design scheduled activities for others, learned how to translate research for a lay audience, etc. Research talked about concrete writing skills, conference presentations, library searching, data analysis. Committee work and outside jobs talked about my abilities to work well with others, my ability to stick to a schedule, and my "real world" experience.

Don't even think about your subject area. Don't let yourself write the words "18th century British literature" or "crime patterns" anywhere. Just focus on concrete, general skills. Hang onto the list, and keep adding to it. Soon, you will begin to see that you DO have skills. You HAVE learned things. And in terms of self-confidence and emotions, this will likely help you immensely.

Since doing this, I've honestly found myself thinking that there are too many things I could hypothetically do .. and now my worry is stemming more from trying to figure out what I want to do than whether I can do anything at all.

But doing this really, really helped me. I genuinely think everyone should do this exercise.

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