In my last post, I shared about my unexpected and abrupt exit from an academic career. In this post, I discuss how my examination of two questions helped me pivot to life outside the academy and become thankful for my graduate experience.
As it became clear that I would not have an academic job, I felt lost and overwhelmed. Having given no serious thought to a non-academic career, I wondered if my academic apprenticeship had any value in preparing me for life outside the academy. And I did not know where to start looking for advice or tips that could help guide me in my pivot to life outside the academy.
By God’s grace, my thoughts and self-reflection began to focus on two questions: what was I passionate about, and what was I good at? I spent time thinking about and identifying the pursuits that gave me the most joy in graduate school and the practices that I excelled in. Answering these two simple questions gave me insights into the non-academic jobs and careers I wanted to pursue. It also helped turn my bitterness and resentment into gratitude and thankfulness.
The first question I asked was what I was passionate about, what I enjoyed most during graduate school. At the end of an exhausting graduate career, it was difficult to find any part enjoyable. But as I disaggregated my graduate experience into categories of activities, I identified specific pursuits that were most enjoyable. I realized my passion for the testing of arguments and challenging of claims with empirical evidence. I also enjoy mentoring students to think more deeply and systematically about the world. While non-academic jobs would not have the exact mix of these two activities, I knew that I should focus on jobs and positions that would give me opportunity to continue pursuing these passions.
Second, I asked myself what I was good at. At first, I was tempted to do a complete career reset and think of graduate school as useless training you can never use again. However, I began to appreciate the skills and expertise I had acquired. Seminar classes with heavy reading requirements taught me how to skim large volumes of text and identify key takeaways. Completing long research projects like the dissertation helped me set goals, self-motivate, and manage deadlines. The constant contestation of ideas, theories, and claims sharpened my ability to deconstruct arguments, interrogate evidence, test logic, craft rebuttals, persuade skeptics, and update my beliefs. This gave me confidence that what I learned to do in graduate school could translate into jobs and careers outside the academy.
In identifying the passions and proficiencies I was blessed with during graduate school, I gained new clarity into the types of post-academic careers I would find interesting and could excel in. I began to see how I could use the skills I was good at while pursuing activities and responsibilities I was passionate about. That led me to work in market research, where I help clients leverage best available evidence to make data-driven decisions. I also have the chance to teach and mentor younger staff to deepen and grow their reasoning and analytical abilities.
More importantly, God used this time to help me surrender my bitterness and resentment. I realized how graduate school shaped and helped me hone practices of information processing, reasoning, and learning that would be valuable in non-academic domains. I could more joyfully and confidently, as Paul exhorts in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “give thanks for all circumstances.” I still struggle with knowing and believing that my graduate experience was not wasted even though I do not have an academic career. But I am encouraged by people in the Bible whose early career training proved useful in unexpected domains, like David whose shepherding experience prepared him to defeat Goliath, or how Paul’s rabbinic training gave him the intellectual credentials to engaged the learned elite. And I am humbled and reassured that our sovereign and loving God has a purpose for how I can serve Him with the skills I gained as a graduate student in new domains outside the academy.
If a pivot out of academy is a reality, or even a possibility, I encourage you to think about what you are passionate about and what you are good at. I hope and pray that in thinking about and praying through these questions, you too will gain insights into the types of non-academic careers you would find meaningful and be more thankful for God’s faithfulness. I don’t know what insights you may arrive at, but I am confident that God can and will use the passions, skills, and expertise gained in graduate school in the new careers He is leading you into.
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