Leaving the Academy: How I Transitioned into Industry at Mid-Career and How You Can, Too

Part 1: What on Earth Can I Do?

I had coffee with a colleague friend one day, and I said, “I think I’m done. I don’t think I can do this anymore without completely sacrificing my mental health.” She said, “You know what? Me, too. Let’s look for opportunities to get out.”

After 11 years of college and 15 years as a tenure-track/tenured and promoted professor, I had it made. I was about to go up for promotion to Full Professor, I had a solid relationship with my students, and I was serving in several leadership positions on committees and in my department. I was finishing up a book on my research topic, and it was going well.

So why wasn’t I happy? Why didn’t I feel as fulfilled as my annual tenure review report made it seem?

The answer hit me after a fall-semester sabbatical in 2021. I had suffered from depression for a long time. During my sabbatical semester, I felt the depression fog lift. I was sure that this sabbatical was exactly what I needed to go back to campus in spring, refreshed, ready, full of motivation and energy.

However, within a month of returning to campus, all that momentum was gone, and I was in as deep of a depression spiral as I had ever been. The light switched on; for all my love of teaching and being with students, the broader frustrations of university life were a major root cause of my emotional problems. The low pay (new faculty were coming in making only a couple thousand less than me after 15 years due to salary compression). The constant increase in workload (we need you on this committee, that committee, this project, that event planning group) with little recognition for the hard work, financial or otherwise. I was the director of my department’s general education course, and I saw just how underpaid non-tenured instructors were by the system of low-paying and inconsistent gig work they were hired under. It bothered me more and more that my colleagues were barely staying financially afloat, and I knew there was nothing I could do to change it, let alone the other things that were making me unhappy.

A year after that chat over coffee in early 2022, I got my first full-time non-academic job in January 2023. In this blog post and the next one coming out later in September, I will explain the steps I took (and recommend) for making the transition. This first post focuses on the basic research and communication strategies I used to get started on the process and learn about the possibilities beyond the academy. The next blog will focus on more tangible activities I took once I had a job goal established.

  1. Finding a new career. The first thing I had to do was figure out what the heck I could do beyond being a professor. The academy has a way of making you believe that your skillset can only be applied to higher ed. And industry has a way of backing that claim up. But the truth is, a lot of what I did as a professor could readily be applied to a variety of industry roles. I was lucky that my friend who also decided to leave knew about user experience (UX) research, and she convinced me that I had a skillset that would be a great fit in that field. After doing some reading and research on that career, I agreed with her. I also researched instructional design, grant writing, and a few other options before settling into UX research. The time I spent looking into all my career options via social media and books gave me the baseline for all the actions I took after. Being thoughtful about how you see your skills, how they sound and feel like other jobs, is time well spent. Be honest but optimistic about what you’re capable of as you read job descriptions.
  2. Networking. Ugh. The dreaded part, at least for an introvert like me. But what I learned through doing it is that people expect it and are almost always happy to help in some way. When I decided to start looking for another career, I sparked up my LinkedIn page, adding impact-based content (see number 3 in the next post for more on this), and started looking for content creators who matched my interests. I followed individuals with jobs I thought sounded cool, and I introduced myself when the moment seemed right. I looked for groups and organizations that matched what I was looking for. I signed up for LinkedIn Premium so I could take a few UX courses (I’m not sure how strongly to recommend this because the price is substantial, but you do you).I also looked out for connections I already had that were either in positions/fields of interest or who worked for companies I was interested in working for. Everyone I reached out to was gracious enough to give me some time by answering questions, offering resources to look at, and providing insight on building myself into a non-academic professional. Each one gave me one step toward success. I connected with former students, grad school colleagues, and people in my community.There was some trick to navigating this because I wasn’t eager to have everyone in my university know I was looking to leave. You will have to navigate for yourself the balance between building networks and keeping your information private. It will depend on the security of your employment as well as your personal comfort with risk. But ultimately, at least some networking will need to be done because, as in academia, finding a job is 30% hard work and 70% networking and referrals. (Caveat: I made that percentage up, but it’s probably fairly accurate.)

These two steps were the baseline for all that was to come in transitioning into an industry position. It may sound simple—it’s only two steps—but in reality this was a time consuming and sometimes daunting process. Take time to build relationships and expertise before you dive into the actual job market. In the next blog entry, I’ll talk more about how I took that next step into the application, interviewing and hiring process.

By Dena Huisman
Dena Huisman