Four Lessons About Transitioning From Academia to the ‘Real World’

When I left my tenured professorship for a nonacademic job, I thought I had already done the hard part: making the decision to leave the professional world that had been my home for many years. I had little inkling of the culture shock that awaited me in my new sphere of science policy and how disorienting it would be. In the 17 years since I’ve seen that I’m far from the only one who struggles with this transition. Regardless of career stage, leaving academia requires some adjusting. For those who, like me, make the move later in their careers, after decades as established academics, it can be even harder. Knowing what to expect beforehand can take some of the shocks out of the transition to the world outside academia.

YOU AREN’T THE CENTER OF THE WORLD, AND YOU WILL HAVE AN ACTUAL BOSS. If you’re a senior academic, teaching, advising, and managing a research group can turn your world into a solipsistic universe where what you say goes. Most students are attentive and agreeable, no matter what they really think. The dean and department chair are loosely construed as your supervisors, but they generally want you to focus on your own ideas so that you can bring in grant money and prestige.

Outside of academia, on the other hand, collaboration in service of a common goal is far more important than any one person’s ideas. That is true even if you are in a very senior leadership role. There are goals to achieve and relationships to manage; you can’t pursue just your own interests. Having a more formal boss might feel odd, but be open to it. Bosses can offer support in ways that university structures can’t.

YOU WON’T HAVE NEARLY ENOUGH TIME TO DO THE BACKGROUND WORK YOU’D LIKE.Completeness and thorough examination are hallmarks of a serious scholar. In academia, you can usually take all the time you need to do plenty of background research, talk to colleagues, and cogitate before producing a decision or a publication. But in the outside world, you may have 30 minutes to come up with an answer. This was a particularly hard lesson for me to learn. Sage advice from someone more junior than I but with more “real world” work experience helped immensely. They said that sometimes I just had to go with my gut and call it a day.

I had little inkling of the culture shock that awaited me in my new sphere.

SUMMER IS NOT SPECIAL. After a long academic year, summer feels different and, in some ways, special. It can be a time to regroup and refresh—write, develop ideas, even spend a few months away from the distractions of campus. Outside of academia, summer is generally three more months in the workplace. It might be punctuated by vacation, but by and large, work goes on as usual for 12 months a year.

THERE IS NO TENURE. This is a tough one! Many in the professoriate value this near-guarantee of steady employment for a lifetime. But leaving tenure can actually be liberating for a go-getter with a good work ethic. Employers want to keep strong, creative employees around, and they realize that individuals are not necessarily there for life. That means that organizations can be very loyal to their long-term, high-performing employees and treat them well. And if you don’t enjoy the work or feel badly treated, there’s no reason to stay.

If you decide to take the plunge into the outside world, take some time to acclimate to the new environment. You’ll probably experience some initial surprises, but give yourself a chance to see whether things get better. And if this article convinces you that academia is the right place for you and that you should stay and flourish there, then that is a win, too.

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