Leaving academia is hard and difficult. In this new short series on “Leaving the Academy”, I hope my experiences will encourage you as you explore and wrestle with God’s calling for your life as you transition to a perhaps unplanned non-academic career. Editor’s note: For more of Josh Wu’s work for ESN, see this link.
For the better part of a decade, my life ambition was to become a professor. I was confident that hard work and a few providential breaks would land me a tenure-track political science professor position. I believed that God had called me to a life in the academy, to be a witness pointing peers and students to Christ. Like Paul on Mars Hill in Athens, I dreamt of being a learned scholar and teacher who integrated my faith with scholarly passions and practice.
However, eight years after I started my graduate studies, my academic career was over.
I felt lost. I had never given serious thought or consideration to a non-academic career. I had always thought that going to industry or the private sector was at best “selling out” and at worse, a sign of intellectual failing. I was bitter as people seemingly less qualified than me from less highly ranked departments were hired for positions I applied for. I wondered if I had wasted so many years of my life. I worried how I would provide for my family, especially with a baby on the way. I was embarrassed and humbled, knowing that I would never feature on my department’s list of notable recent placements. And I was disappointed, confused, and even angry at God.
Now nearly two years removed, I am starting to understand why God allowed and brought me through such a trying period and tumultous exit from the academic world. And I am thankful for how these trying times led me to know myself more and dispelled my misplaced expectations of God.
I realize I had unconsciously made a quid pro quo bargain with God. I would serve Him while in graduate school with the unrealistic and ungrounded expectation that God would provide me with a tenure track job, because He owned me something. I elevated my intellectual life and potential academic career to be core to my identity. I had made the pursuit of a tenure-track position an ultimate good, an idol and false hope I had staked my life upon.
I also realize I had too narrowly construed God’s calling and purpose for my life. By coming to believe that being a professor was the only way I could serve God’s Kingdom, surely I could expect God to ensure an academic career for me. I was trying to back God into a corner, to bend Him to my will and force Him to make good on His end of the “bargain.”
I am glad and relieved God did not “give in” to my foolhardy expectations. Had I landed a tenure-track position out of graduate school, I would have probably been too prideful, too trusting in my own accomplishments, and too sure of my ill-defined ambitions.
But God is faithful and gracious. When he brings us through trials, he does not abandon us to hopelessness, doubt, and uncertainty. When all of my academic teaching options were exhasuted, God remained faithful and helped me find other potential career opportunities I had never thought of. In a whirlwind few months after being rejected at the last academic position where I applied and starting to apply to non-academic jobs, I would end up starting a new job in market research two days after my PhD commencement.
If you are transitioning out of academia, either by choice or by the lack of viable jobs, take heart in the promises of God. As Paul declares in Philippians 1:6, we are to be “confident that He who began a good work [in us] will carry it on to completion.” I encourage you to think and consider how your experiences and accrued skills can be used to pursue the welfare of those around you and serve God in non-academic settings. The character molding and ambition defining work God is doing in you is not done. He will bring it to fruition, perhaps in ways you did not expect or even initially want.
While it can be sad, depressing, and humbling, leaving academia is not the end of the world. And if you are making the same exit from academia I did, my hope and prayer is that you too will gain new insights into the motivations of your ambitions, your understanding of God’s calling for your life, and your confidence in our loving and sovereign God.