Tom Lindsley: Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Choosing Between Academic and Non-Academic Careers

Tom Lindsley graduated from the RPC program at Iowa State University in 2015. He is now a Senior User Experience Designer at Workiva in Ames, Iowa. When he’s not busy easing users’ pain, he likes to stay busy with projects such as hosting AmesFindsFilms, an annual YouTube film fest in downtown Ames, Iowa.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Choosing Between Academic and Non-Academic Careers

Making the leap from the ivory tower into the non-academic workplace is an intimidating proposition for many graduate students, especially for those who may never have known adult life outside higher ed. The humanities culture is built around the expectation that we will spend the rest of our working lives making a career at the front of a classroom and in the pages of academic journals. Classmates expect this of us. Advisers expect this of us. Professors expect this of us.

Of course, we are also suited to play other roles outside of academia. I’ve learned this lesson first hand. After teaching myself HTML, Javascript, and CSS (so that I could teach web writing to my English 250 students), I began taking on consulting hours with a Brooklyn-based web development shop. It was an exciting, fast-paced environment where I was able to do concrete front-end development work on remote teams spanning the globe. So in 2015, after seven years in graduate school, I made the nerve-wracking decision to leave academia and I accepted a position as a user experience designer with Workiva in Ames, Iowa. For those of you who are considering a similar transition, I offer the following five reflections—the most important lessons that I have learned about leaving the academy.

1. You’re going to have a much smoother transition if you start doing non-academic work before you graduate.

This is one of the more emphatic reflections I can share: Very few hiring managers know what rhetoric and professional communication can do for their companies. (In fact, very few hiring managers even know what rhetoric and professional communication are.) Obviously, we all know what skills we’ve been trained for, but simply explaining your coursework and projects you did for a class won’t cut it for a full-time job.

As soon as you can, start making connections with non-academics in your field of interest. When I applied at Workiva, I had been consulting in web development for 20–25 hours per week for roughly two and a half years. Obviously, that’s a lot of extra time on top of studying, writing, teaching, and personal time. This amount of hours isn’t necessary to gain valuable knowledge in your field of choice. My experience, however, did provide a necessary immersion in an area of expertise I wouldn’t otherwise have learned on my own.

Ames and Des Moines have a handful of Meet-Ups where you can meet (and share free drinks and snacks) with practitioners in web development, user experience, technical writing, and other IT-related industries. Make an attempt to get some small consulting gigs through these connections. If you’re going to have a smooth transition, you want to be able to demonstrate that you’ve managed projects and coordinated with teams in the field where you’re looking to get hired.

2. Your biggest asset is your ability to tell stories.

Hiring managers may not know what rhetoric is, but they do know good communication when they see it. So much of what makes successful collaboration among teams, especially remote ones, is the ability to frame problems, decisions, and plans in ways that develop crystal clear understanding among everyone involved.

In my current position, I might one day be talking over a concept with a web developer on my team, and the next day presenting team progress to executive level stakeholders. Understanding the needs and motivations of those audience members is key to keeping everyone’s thinking aligned. It also minimizes the number of meetings you need to rehash misunderstood plans.

Many of you do this kind of work every day in your classrooms as you frame assignments or introduce new concepts to students. You understand that data doesn’t translate as unadulterated data. You must give it a plot, a setting, and other characters to interact with it. Storytelling helps you relate complex concepts in frames people understand and can use.

3. Leaving academia should be a proactive decision, not a reactive one.

Let’s face it: There’s a lot about being a graduate student that sucks. We spend long hours grading endless piles of student papers. We spend even more time writing our own papers. And many of us are secretly one advanced-level seminar away from letting our imposter sydrome send us to Student Health with a panic attack.

None of that should be the reason you leave academia. You’re going to encounter stress in any position. Rather than throwing in the towel following a rough semester, you might instead ask yourself this basic question: All things considered, do I remain hungry for the type of work I’m doing and do I feel inspired by the track I’m on? If the answer is yes, keep at it. Graduate school is temporary. It’s the training ground to be a card carrying academic—it’s meant to be tough.

On the other hand, if you can’t honestly see yourself on a faculty somewhere in five years, then it’s probably time to start planning your next move.  

4. Expect less of a road map than you had in academia.

For years, much of your work has been dictated by a program of study, by prerequisites, by a battery of exams, and by pre-set curricula. All that scaffolding takes some of the cognitive load off of you doing the actual planning. You know the milestones and you know the work that needs to be done.

Life in a non-academic job is often much less path-oriented. From day one, you will be expected to take the lead in identifying key problems to solve and then to work with teams to execute on those solutions by deadlines you define. Additionally, there’s no longer an obvious ladder to climb in order to grow in your position or possibly achieve promotions. Rather than a committee telling you the tests you must pass in order to achieve a title of x, it’s really going to be up to you to read the needs of your teams, your company, and your profession in order to know how best to show your value. Make sure to identify mentors early on who have the organizational knowledge to make you as successful as you can be.

5. The decision to leave academia seems a lot bigger now than it will after you actually do it.

As noted above, everything in your present academic experience is telling you that you’re on a single track to studying, contemplating, and teaching a specific discipline at some college or university for the rest of your life—and that if you deviate from that path, you’ve failed. Unless you have actually failed out (which is also a situation you can bounce back from, duh), you should always see using your degree for non-academic work as an equally legitimate option to the academic track. There are plenty of workplaces that value intelligent minds and which also create environments where you can do the same types of rigorous and mentally stimulating inquiry you’d be doing if you became a professor.

Conclusion

Be thoughtful about who you want to be and where you want to go. Just don’t panic about this decision. This isn’t the biggest decision or the most impactful decision. It’s just a decision. You’re always welcomed to change your mind again if the first path doesn’t work out. Whether you plan on making an academic career for yourself or jumping into the unknown waters of the non-academic world, the work you are doing now is certainly training you up with skills you can succeed with in many contexts.

One thought on “Tom Lindsley: Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Choosing Between Academic and Non-Academic Careers

  1. Well spoken, as always, Tom! I especially like this part: “ask yourself this basic question: All things considered, do I remain hungry for the type of work I’m doing and do I feel inspired by the track I’m on?”

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