The emotional aftermath of leaving academics, part 2: new and old places

Part 2 of 4.  Part 1 of this three-part post addresses old and new colleagues, part 3 addresses your family and friends, and part 4 addresses reclaiming what you miss. If there’s a topic you would like me to address that you do not see here, email me at, or contact me on Twitter @akrook.

New places

If you move to a new location for your non-academic job, your transition out of academics is in some ways shortened, as your new location forces you to create new habits along with your new job: new job, commute, home, places to eat, get coffee, shop, and socialize.  There is no getting around the new, because everything is new.  When it seems a little brutal and you feel unmoored, console yourself with the reminder that this way is often a quicker transition, too.  Not always, but often.

That is the transition I made when I moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan as an assistant professor to Seattle, Washington, where I worked first as a bartender, then at Amazon in its early days.  What helped me was finding the bartending job and having new work colleagues who didn’t know or care about my previous work, only that I showed up on time and worked hard.  There’s a dignity in work, which is why I encourage those leaving academics to take any kind of job if you don’t find the one you really want right away; it’s easy to explain to prospective employers why you are bartending or working at the home improvement store or temping while you look for what you really want.  People understand and respect the need to pay bills and make rent.

Old places

If you remain the same city or town where you did our graduate work or worked as an academic, you may find yourself ghosting: going to many of the same places but without the same feeling of belonging and connecting.  If you find yourself doing that and being unhappy about it (you might not be), try picking a new coffeeshop, or new route to work, or something to remind you that you have new routines.  One ridiculously helpful, inexpensive trick is to treat yourself to some new pens and new socks that you really like.  It works because they are small changes and only you know you made them.  Yes, I realize this sounds a little nutty, but it works, giving you small, visual, tangible private signals about your new work and routines.

You may find that some of your former colleagues don’t include you in the same social gatherings that they used to, and you may see them at places you know without your having been included, which can sting.  That is partly because many social gatherings are work-driven, where people with work in common unwind together, and where people’s friends are often their work colleagues, because that is where they spend so much time.  If you find yourself not being invited and are unhappy about it (you might be invited, and if not, you might not be unhappy about it), remember that it probably isn’t about you as an individual; it’s more about your changed workplace.

Should you be working at your academic institution but in a role not on the teaching or research faculty, be prepared to bump into former colleagues.  These encounters may give rise to for some questions that are often meant well but are frequently shockingly rude: “Did you actually finish?” “You still here?  I thought you left!”  “Do you like what you do?” [sounding doubtful, as though how could you?]  and, when you describe what you do “Is that even interesting?”  People don’t always think before they speak, have you noticed?  More generally, people speak on the basis of what they know, and your former colleagues still live in the context of academics, and may not know your new context, so be prepared to cut them a little slack.

Because you have not changed places, you will have many reminders of what you used to do as an academic.  The real question those reminders should raise for you is how you value your new context and how you value yourself.  Remember, it’s not that you are a Ph.D., it’s that you have Ph.D. training but also other skills and talents, that, in combination with your training, make you valuable to your new employer and to the place where you live.  When responding to those questions, whether they come from others or from the annoying 2 a.m. voices in your own head, it does help to have an answer that you are happy with, both in terms of what you say (and how much) and how you say it.  Develop a two-sentence answer about what you do at your job, and follow-up responses when people ask if you like it or if you are looking for something else.  You don’t need to sugarcoat your answer if you don’t like your current gig; you just need to be clear to them and to yourself about what you are doing and why.

Pay it forward

One of the kindest things you can do for your fellow grad students or postdocs who leave academics is to say “congratulations!  Some employer is going to be really lucky to get you.”  If you like that person’s company or respect him or her as a colleague, exchange contact details if you don’t have them and offer to stay in touch if you do.  Your new workplace, whatever it is, rewards that behavior, no matter where you end up using your skills and training.

Good luck!