If you are one of the many professors who is looking at their current job and hoping that the next 5-10 years of your career don’t look like the last 5-10, please read on. Both career mobility within academia and exiting academia for industry/public sector/non-profit work require reorientation on your part, internally, even before you can reorient your CV towards a marketable resume.

In this newsletter, I’m going to offer you three mindset strategies that will support you as you think about making new choices around your academic career.

1. Know your “why.”

Simon Sinek, in Start with Why, said what life and leadership coaches have been saying for twenty years: be clear about what kind of impact you really want to have on your environment and on the world in which you live. Are you a people person? An ideas person? An action person? Do want your work to contribute to something? What is that thing?

Whether you are contemplating switching research fields, institutions, roles, or entire industries, being able to articulate what you are moving towards is at least as, if not more, valuable than being able to articulate what you are moving away from.

A client of mine who is ready to no longer torture themselves with teaching (their reasons don’t matter here; they’ve simply made the choice that they can’t do this for the rest of their career) can articulate: “I want my qualitative research skills and my ability to bring people together to articulate easily digestible explanations of some of society’s most pressing environmental problems, so that the media, policy makers, and the public can move towards action to resolve them. Knowledge mobilization and translation, using the latest digital tools, is an exciting path forward for my work.”

Not only is that statement true for them, it sounds a lot better than: “If I have to teach for another semester, I’ll run away and join the circus.”

The ability to articulate what you want and why gives you a North Star to guide some of the difficult decisions around career transition. You can consistently ask yourself, “Does this next move position me closer to, or further away from, my clear vision of Me 2.0, doing different work?”

2. Bet on yourself.

This sentence was an enormous eye-opener for me when I was making the transition from faculty to whatever-would-come-next. My coach was listening to me bemoan my interim situation—tenuously employed, limited security, etc.—for the millionth time. I was fixated on finding a career or role that would give me the sense of security, belonging, and importance that being a tenured professor had. She pointed out that I was relying on an external institution to give me my sense of worth and asked me if it was possible for me to bet on myself.

Programs close, leadership transitions bring new strategic priorities, research interests change, life intervenes, etc. The job of “professor” is not as stable as we would like it to be (and as colleagues in departments around the United States discover regularly). How might you act, how might you make decisions if you bet on yourself—your intelligence, ingenuity, values, work ethic, creativity, etc.—instead of betting on an institution to provide you with a sense of career certainty and security?

I eventually chose self-employment as my route, but that doesn’t have to be true for everyone who bets on themselves. Betting on yourself means that you are confident in your own ability to steer your career trajectory towards a future you desire and deserve.

3. Identify where you have agency and options

Your first impulse when thinking about career transition or change in the academy might be, “well, the only thing I am able to do is THIS thing I’m currently doing.” As a former professor of German language and literature, specializing in nineteenth-century historical fiction, I understand this at a profound level.

Or, perhaps you have a clear objective for your career growth or transition and are thinking, “I can do THIS job I’m in now, or/until I get THAT job.”

Both of these patterns of thought, while common, are incorrect. While they may represent the possibilities you see, thinking that your choices are A or B, or A or Nothing, will more than likely simply blind you to both where you do have choice in the situation and possibilities currently outside your ken.

Focusing on where you have choice and agency  in career decisions that frequently seem very much out of your hands is a powerful tool for getting unstuck and finding motivation and curiosity. Places where you have choice can look like:

  • Your assessments and evaluations
  • Your moods
  • Your actions
  • How you spend your non-work time
  • How you prioritize your work time
  • And so on

Some of these choices and options are tactical, e.g. choosing how to allocate your time if you are looking for new career opportunities, so that you prioritize the actions that will move your search forward.   Others, however, are choices of perspective.

Choosing optimism, choosing to see possibility, doesn’t mean that you put on rose-coloured glasses or stick your head in the sand. Rather, it indicates that you are willing to believe that your immediate way of interpreting the world is not the only possible way. Where you currently feel drawn to see only limitations or blocks may, from a different vantage point, offer up opportunities for small steps, pivots, growth, serendipity, and so on.

Sometimes your next choice might not be your ideal choice, and if that feels familiar, ask yourself what the price is for NOT taking action to change?

Cheers, Jennifer