Tips for Industry Switchers From an Ex-Academic

Out of the frying pan, into the fire. That’s what frightens many professionals who are considering switching industries. They think potential employers won’t see how their skills transfer and that peers or mentors won’t help, all while the clock’s ticking. And like a talented but green pitcher who’s been advanced to the majors too quickly, they’re afraid they’ll freeze at a crucial moment, start throwing wild pitches, and get thrown back to the minors.

But who says industry switchers necessarily end up discouraged and defeated? You can remain flexible and test the waters by selling your skills on a contractual basis, slowly qualifying yourself for a full-time job. It may help to think of the process as building a bridge rather than switching from one track to another. Life doesn’t work that way, and neither do careers.

I should know, because I’m standing on a bridge that’s half-built. In late 2000, I finished a Ph.D. in English and decided to switch fields, and there are few switches that could be as extreme.

No single moment defined my decision to leave academic life after I received my crisp, new doctorate. I was trained to be a college professor, and like most other graduate students, I expected to spend the rest of my life teaching and researching. But when I pondered an academic future, I realized that pure expertise and isolation didn’t appeal to me. I wanted to apply what I knew to a wide variety of venues, and I wanted to see the world. You know that phrase on job descriptions in the private sector that promises “attention to work and life balance”? Well, it doesn’t appear on academic job descriptions. I wanted an intellectual life, but not to be locked in a cubicle and assigned narrow tasks.

As I finished writing the first chapter of my dissertation, the Nasdaq boomed. What am I doing? I wondered. As I moved on to chapter two, Austin, where I live, blossomed with small companies run by smart people who were being innovative in business and technology. I felt left behind, far from the action. One graduate student, inspired by the possibilities, took the free technical training he’d received from the university and founded an educational software company, taking so many other grad students with him that he put a serious dent in the pool of instructors for freshman writing classes.

I heard about others leaving academia: He’s a technical writer, she’s a book editor. Gradually I learned they were the rules, not the exceptions, and that hundreds of graduate students were opting out of the academic life. But the most important influence was my writing and teaching. A writer by nature, I craved large audiences and projects unconstrained by academic expectations. In graduate school I wrote and published increasing numbers of stories, essays and articles, until I couldn’t ignore that I was meant to write, at least for the next portion of my life.

For years, I’d told my students to take risks with their writing, to stretch their language and play with ideas. I felt that if I didn’t take those risks myself, I’d be a hypocrite. I turned down a job interview for a teaching position and finished a part-time teaching contract at a small college. Then I was free.

Not everyone has the guts to strike out on their own. I knew people whose egos had been crushed after failed job searches, though happily most of them picked themselves up and developed successful careers in publishing, grant writing and research. I resolved to be uncrushable.

In the past year and a half, I’ve worked as a writing consultant and free-lance journalist, which in a better economy would be more lucrative, certainly. But I’m not married and have no kids, and years of graduate school had trained me to live sparely. When I describe my experiences to former academic colleagues, the response is usually wonderment and envy at the rollicking intellectual life I’m supposedly living. It’s harder to describe the fear, so I don’t.

I do, however, talk about the opportunities in teaching and writing. With a friend, I started a writing-consulting business that has brought inconsistent work but consistently interesting interactions with salespeople and engineers at public- and private-sector organizations.

In addition, I write for local and national publications. I round out my income with grant writing, coaching and editing academic writers, and writing copy for political direct mail — all of it real-world experience that makes me more versatile.

Because leaving academia is among the more extreme career switches, even those in the private sector can learn from ex-academics. Here are some general principles for making any industry switch:

  • Do the low-stakes thing before you do the high-stakes thing. The importance of a class, internship or entry-level job isn’t only that you learn, but that you get to fail in low-stakes ways.
  • Prepare an exit strategy for the switch, and set a goal that will act as a trigger for it. I gave myself a year to “make it” writing. When things got rough, I measured myself against that trigger. I wasn’t there yet, so I kept pushing.
  • Keep in touch with people in the industry you’re leaving. Just as important as learning the lingo of your new industry is not forgetting what you knew well, if only to have a benchmark for your own progress. The more you visit with folks who do what you did, the more you realize why the switch was good. And who knows? It might be an opportunity to return to your former field, with an added edge that no one else has.
  • Start a physical activity that will help with your move psychologically. If you need to be aggressive, don’t take up yoga. If you need to develop patience, avoid the boxing gym. I took up rock climbing because it’s an endurance activity that requires poetry of motion and rapid problem solving. It also allows me to tap the part of my brain that believes I shouldn’t be swinging 100 feet in the air — or untying myself from that monthly paycheck.

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