Part 3 of 4. Part 1 of this three-part post addresses your relationships to old and new colleagues, part 2 addresses how your relationship to places new and old might change, and part 4 addresses how to reclaim what you miss about academics. If you don’t see your questions addressed in these posts, send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @akrook.
If you leave academics, your family and friends will naturally ask you why you’re leaving and what’s next. They may also ask you, kindly, tentatively, or aggressively, depending on their temperament, how you feel about your time in academics now. The implicit or explicit questions include “was it worth it, with this outcome?” “would you do it again, knowing this outcome?”
The answers to these questions have two parts: what you think, and what you say. This post is more concerned with what you think as a way of helping you have something you are comfortable with to say, but remember that you do not have to say everything you think, nor do you have to justify your decision or your thoughts to everyone who asks. You might want to, which is fine, but you are not required to.
What you say partly depends on what the person asking knows about academics. It may not be clear to them, for example, that the number of academic jobs is much lower than the number of Ph.D.s produced, or that PhDs can be used in a range of jobs outside academics, or that non-academic employment is the more common path these days.
Here are some things to think about as you prepare whatever answers you are comfortable with for your friends and family.
Family. When you or someone else tells family members that you’ve decided to leave academics, you may be surprised to hear how much some of them had invested in you in that role, particularly if you are from a family where not many people have gone to college or had academic-related jobs. So you may find yourself addressing their disappointment, along with more standard surprise and what’s-next questions.
People with kids, especially those who had kids before they undertook graduate study, sometimes feel a family member’s disapproval. In those cases, the implication is often that if they had thought of the kids more, they would have pursued a “safer” career (not sure what those are, but there you are). And sometimes the follow-up questions seem designed to limit risk from future choices, along the lines of “well, now that you’re not going to do that, I assume you’ll look for something saner?” This doesn’t always happen, but if you have kids, it’s worth your thinking how to respond to it if you do hear it.
Friends. I have written about interacting with the friends you make in graduate school and your new work colleagues in the first two parts of this post. For your non-academic, non-work friends, you may actually find these the easiest of all such conversations, because most people now change jobs quite a bit, and relatively few careers outside tenure-track academics are designed to last a full career. Far more people change jobs than don’t, and more people change even careers than don’t, which is something you can point out. Your friends will probably understand this; older generations of family members, particularly, may not.
For non-traditional students. Students who undertake graduate work at non-traditional ages, by which I mean starting after their twenties, or finish their degrees at non-traditional ages, by which I mean finishing after their thirties, may hear additional questions that traditional students don’t face. Curiously, their time will be often be considered a more valuable resource than younger students’ and, not curiously, their judgment will be considered more mature, so that leaving academics may be considered a more negative reflection on their judgment. Sometimes the tone is “couldn’t you have figured this out sooner, at your age?” “why exactly did someone of your age undertake a Ph.D., of all things?” These questions are nothing non-traditional students haven’t heard before, but their emotional freight changes if those students decide to leave academics, or not pursue an academic job.
First-in-the-family members to enter graduate work have, in my experience, the largest reservoir of family investment and disappointment to address when they leave. They also often face the sharpest backlash of familial we-told-you-so, and the most blunt assumptions that this outcome represents failure, rather than a change of plans in the face of new data. It isn’t fair to them, and it is often unkind.
Non-traditional students have often made significant financial sacrifices in pursuit of their degrees, particularly in relative proportion to the resources available to them. The high level of sacrifice relative to resources is particularly true if they have kids, and most particularly if they are single parents. So the news that they are looking for non-academic work may be met with the spoken or unspoken dismay of “that’s what you did with the money?” In my college yearbook there’s an essay by a classmate who came to a private college from a non-traditional background and recounted how, when he told people where he went to school, the reaction was along the lines of “Jesus, I wish I had money to blow like that.”
I had a lot of these conversations with family and friends when I decided not to look for another academic job, two years or so after having been turned down for tenure. For what it’s worth, I found that the people I was speaking to were most inclined to consider, accept, and understand my decision if they thought I was factual and not defensive in what I said. That wasn’t always possible for me to pull off, but it worked for me when I was.
Good luck with the next stage of your career, whatever it is.