Good Things Can Eventually Happen

I know I’ve gone quiet for the last two months, but there have been exciting things in the works that pulled my attention away from writing. Okay, that and a lack of material from not working on a college campus every day–but that’s a topic for another post.

I can hardly believe it, but in just two and a half weeks my two and a half year journey to a new career will come to an end: now that everything’s signed and official, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted an offer to work for Deloitte as a Pursuits Manager!

The path to this new career has been long and winding, and I owe an immense debt of gratitude to the many people who helped me along the way.  Family and friends who would probably have been happier discussing other things endured God-knows-how-many hours of deliberation as I made (what I thought were) fool-proof plans, suffered setbacks and disappointments, and struggled with periods of self-doubt.  I’m not sure I’ll ever get a chance to repay them, but can at least pray that I’ll be able to demonstrate the same patience they showed me if I’m ever given the chance.

The contacts I made through networking were also a critical lifeline and instrumental in helping me get here.  I was constantly amazed at how generous these people were in giving me their time as I took my first cautious steps into the world outside academia.  If anyone reading this lacks faith in the basic human inclination to help others, I challenge you to persist in that belief after asking ten strangers if you can take them out for coffee to discuss their careers and solicit their advice.  Even if it’s true that these conversations were usually one-off chats, a few of them turned into more sustained relationships and at least two blossomed into genuine friendships.  Special gratitude is owed to those of you who did double-duty as contacts then friends!

Given the subject of this blog over the last six months, I feel like it’s incumbent on me to reflect a bit on what allowed me to make this leap now that it’s finally happened.  While no advice is universal, in looking back on the process I think the biggest turning point for me was developing a narrative that allowed people to understand both why I entered Classics back in 2007 and why my departure made sense as a professional move here in 2017.

That’s easier said than it was done.  As I’ve written a few times, leaving academia often leaves you feeling adrift.  You give up the the identity that defined you for much or all of your adult life in search of something new, but few people are ready to believe that your experience in higher education is actually applicable to anything else.  “What,” they would always ask when learning your major or area of graduate study, “do you plan to do with that?”  As obnoxious as that question is, it at least has an obvious answer when you’re hoping to be a professor.  Once that option is gone, though, it’s tempting to accept that their dismissal or derision of what you’ve done was right all along.

I was never happy with that idea.  While I briefly considered hiding my doctorate and did, in fact, start putting my job at Tulane further down my résumé than is strictly traditional, I couldn’t stomach the thought of burying a part of myself that had been so central to who I was for an entire decade. Not only would it be disingenuous, but it would lead to some fairly major gaps that I might have trouble explaining.

The catch was that I couldn’t frame my departure in a meaningful way until I had a better sense of where I thought I might be headed.  This, I think, is why starting a new career took me so long.  Unless you have absolute clarity on your next step, you have to feel it out carefully.  And so I had more than one conversation while networking that was awkward, unproductive, or both.  This occurred most often at moments when I failed to convince somebody I was serious about a job change or unintentionally signaled to them that I wasn’t–usually because I fell back on explaining things I knew for fear of seeming lost.  This was foolish, of course, since they already knew I was in uncharted territory: why else would I have asked for their advice?

Whenever this would happen, I did what I could to turn lemons into lemonade.  I ran through the conversation in my mind and debriefed myself on what was said–not just what went wrong, but also what went right.  Most importantly I tried to take the insights people gave me as opportunities to look into a new job description or work area. If it weren’t for this I never would have known about the field of ‘Pursuits’ or even thought to apply for positions in Program Management–a title I found I was able to land interviews for with the greatest regularity (including two that called me back for a second chat).

Slowly but surely, then, I got a better sense of what sort of things I might be able to do well and then began to feed that information back into my résumé and the narrative I was telling about myself.  I never actually wanted to sit in the library for my entire life: what got me excited had always been the thrill of standing in front of a classroom, the rush of seeing people understand something that had been over their head just two minutes before, the challenge of structuring a program that prepared students for the next level of study without assuming everyone would pursue it.  There was no decisive moment, but as I spoke with more and more people I eventually came to see that plenty of jobs could offer me some or even most of the satisfaction I had sought from work in academia. While that shift happened under my nose, by the spring of 2017 a new feeling was clearly perceptible: confidence. Despite hurtling towards the end of my contract at Tulane and despite my ignorance of what I would do after it, the fear of the unknown had simply vanished.  I had begun to gain momentum and could tell that something was going to work out–it was just a matter of when.

The other side of all this–and another thing I hope some people will find useful–is what stands out from my really good discussions and interviews.  Invariably I knew I’d broken through a wall when I could sense that I’d shown somebody I didn’t fit their stereotypical view of an academic. This happened in different ways with different people, but most often when I was able to demonstrate that I had thought critically about my personal goals, my specific job, and the realities of the sector I was working in.  In that moment I stopped being the nerd from high school who just wanted to read his books and became an engaged, reflective individual who was ready to work hard and grapple with major challenges.  More than that, though, I gather people saw potential value in my ability to boil down the complexities of something like the academic labor market into a two-minute spiel, as well as my willingness to acknowledge how I fit into that system without pouting that things hadn’t gone my way when I first looked for a job as a professor.  That wasn’t something I could do two years ago, mind you, but with practice the narrative got more precise and my internal disposition fell into line with public face I was trying to adopt.  Eventually the person I was merged with the person I wanted to be, and people started responding to it.

So to other people who are staging an exit from academia, the best advice I have is to cast a wide net and meet as many people as you can.  Doing that will help you figure out not only what tasks and challenges led you to higher education in the first place, but also what jobs are most likely to sustain you in the ways you require.  Slowly but surely, you should find yourself able to reframe your story and refashion yourself as an attractive candidate for a new sector.  There’s no doubt that process will take time, but with effort and persistence good things can eventually happen.



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