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09/03/2021

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M

Thanks for this interview--I'm always interested in and appreciate alt-ac advice, especially from those who have managed to make the transition.

I'd like to hear more about the "Why are you leaving academia?" thing.

Suppose the truth is something like: I really like philosophy, but the academic market is horrible and so the only jobs I'd be likely enough to get would involve too much sacrifice in other aspects of my life (like not being able to live in a place I want to live, having to move from country to country, or whatever).

Is it best in this case to simply lie or at least heavily bullshit? Does one need to spin a narrative according to which I should leave academia for an entry-level position even if I were to get a TT offer from NYU?

I guess I wouldn't find that too surprising, but it does seem a little strange. What do the recruiters care why I can't get a good enough academic job? I take it they wouldn't be assuming it's probably because I'm dumb, disorganized, disagreeable, or whatever. So why do they need the success narrative? I ask mainly out of curiosity, but the answer might also be useful for making sure one's narrative is doing the right thing.

In any case, assuming that the narrative is needed, I'd also be interested in advice about strategies for finding one (or making one up). This might be easy enough to do if one works in certain areas and is transitioning to certain kinds of roles. But if you're applying for web development jobs but have worked on consciousness or Kant or the ethics of self-defense or whatever, any ideas about how to spin something like that?

not OP

M, it isn't so much that the inability to secure an academic job reads to them as a defect. Say you apply to jobs A and B. For whatever reason, you substantially prefer job A to job B, but before interviewing for job B, you receive a rejection from job A. If your only reason for taking job B would be "well, I couldn't get job A, which was what I really wanted, and this is my only other option", even if it's the truth, what reason would job B have to hire you over another candidate, who not only has the skills and experience for the job, but also really wants it as their first choice, and not just as a plan b for something that didn't work out?

Think of it this way: if an employer is going to spend time and money interviewing, training, and hiring you, they don't want to be a plan b and have you jump ship when an academic job crops up and you happen to get it (regardless of how unlikely it is to happen). They want their investment to pay off in the form of a colleague who either intends to stay at that job or will go on to make waves elsewhere in the same industry (and that way they can say that they got their start at company A!) Besides, have you ever worked with someone who doesn't really want to be there? It sucks.

I really loved this blog post, by the way. In the vein of a lot of the honest, practical advice here, I highly recommend Chris Caterine's recent book 'Leaving Academia'. There, he also explains that these kinds of stories are a chance at a first impression, and if you do end up endlessly droning on about the horrible, unfair academic job market as the reason why you're leaving, it's not the inability to secure an academic job that paints you in a bad light, but the venting about how much your life sucks to a stranger (instead of taking the opportunity to create a positive view of who you are and what's important to you).

I suspect it gets a lot easier and more natural once you're less attached to academia and you have a better idea of what else you can and want to do. It's really hard when you're still in the thick of it, and still committed to making it as a professor somewhere to feel positive about anything (much less to fake enthusiasm about applying for a job you don't want and feel forced into).

In terms of a strategy for coming up with a story when your research doesn't obviously connect up with any non-academic roles, it can help a lot to reflect on things you did as a grad student that weren't directly related to your research. For example, if you were on a grad council, maybe you did some policy analysis as a part of that and you realized you wanted more involvement in bigger policy decisions. If you organized some conferences, you did some admin work, project management, etc. and perhaps found that it was rewarding. If you've taught (and especially if you've taught online), then you've done some content development work. Career centres on campus often have resources for helping you navigate this.

Samuel Kampa

To M's point (if I can interject): I think it helps to think of the first interview as a first date. You want to be sincere, but you don't want to overshare. Your date isn't *looking* for intensely personal details; they're just trying to feel you out as a person. The details will come later.

If you're applying for non-academic jobs, academia is your ex. And no one really wants to hear about their first date's ex; even if they misguidedly ask the question, they'll wish they bailed once you start rolling. And whether your broke up with your ex ("I couldn't stand the academic grind anymore"), your ex broke your heart ("I still wish I could be a professor"), or (worst of all) you can't stop trashing your ex ("Academia didn't deserve me"), there's really no good way to talk about your ex.

The best way you can ease out of that awkward conversation (imo) is with a script like this: "I wanted X, but I found that academia couldn't give me X. But I think you might have what I'm looking for. Now let's talk about *you*."

Alyssa

To answer M above (at least from my perspective as someone who made the transition from academia to alt-ac) -- People have lots of assumptions about PhD's. Some of them are super positive (people assumed I was smart!), and some are really awful (people assumed I was a total ass who couldn't work with others).

They don't care that you "can't get" an academic job - they care that you'll genuinely be interested in the work that they're doing, and that you'll be happy (at least most of the time) to do it. They don't want someone who shows up everyday bitter and sad that they're not an academic (even if that's what you feel on the inside).

So the purpose of the narrative is to get ahead of those possibly negative assumptions (you're a pompous jerk) and to get ahead of those legitimate concerns (that you may resent your work b/c it's not academia).

So the right thing to do is really try to find an at least partially genuine story about what you're interested in doing outside of academia. It's okay for some of that to be super practical, "The market in academia demanded more compromise than I was open to, and I'm really excited about your company's commitment to work-life balance, etc." But ideally you would include something that demonstrates a real interest in some content or skill the role asks for: "Academia didn't provide me with the chances I was most excited about, to tackle nuanced problems with significance."

Sure, academia didn't provide you those b/c there just wasn't a job, but they don't have to know that. All they need to hear is: "I like doing X, I'm great at it, and I'm excited about being able to do it with you."

And honestly, I've never met an academic without at least a couple grievances about the academy. Maybe it's that you didn't like the catty atmosphere, or you didn't like working alone all of the time, or you just wish some of your tasks were easier. Pick one of those and really play it up/flesh it out.

There is a little bit of bullshitting to this, yes. But I also think it's really helpful for you psychologically to begin telling yourself a story that is somewhat meaningful about why a non-academic life could be good.

Alyssa

Apologies, should have included this in my last comment, but final thing about this:

Treat that question not as a command to explain yourself, or make up a fake story about why you're thrilled to leave the academia, and instead treat it as a chance to give the interviewer/person you're networking with an opportunity to know more about what you value.

Do you value working with others? Do you value the concrete chance to make a difference (which can sometimes be tough in academia)? Do you value working on the toughest problem you can find, and not stopping until you get it solved? Etc.

Expect to both really minimize the specific content of your research (most people don't know who Kant is -- and explain it like you would to a high schooler), and to get pretty expansive in terms of how you think about a particular alt-ac job and what it can offer you/give you the opportunity to do.

M

Thanks everyone for these comments. To condense the suggestions so far, as I understand them, what a recruiter/hiring manager might be looking for in asking why I'm leaving academia is something that indicates that I...

(1) won't jump ship (for academia),
(2) will be interested in and happy with the new work rather than bitter and sad,
(3) am not a pompous jerk, and/or
(4) that my values will make me beneficial to the company.

Let me know if I'm misinterpreting or missed anything. And I'd still be interested if others have other suggestions that don't fall under these.

If these are all, though, I still wonder if one really does need a nice narrative linking one's academic career with the new one. Like would it be a problem to say the following? "I really like doing Kant interpretation, but that didn't work out as a career, and so now will have to be just a weekend thing. But I also really like programming (see my portfolio for all my cool projects), and so would be excited to work for your company doing that."

(Perhaps this is along the lines of Samuel Kampa's suggestion, except leaving the X that I wanted but could not get from academia unspecified. Suppose X is in fact "a stable living situation".)

It seems to me that something like the blunt (but non-mopey) answer would give about as much support for (1)-(4) as would a narrative taking something that web development and Kant interpretation have in common and saying that's what I really cared about all along. So perhaps it's fine to go with the blunt answer at least in some cases, but I may well also be missing some reason why the recruiters would prefer more of a story making a connection.

I should also say that though I find it interesting and potentially helpful to think about why they would want that, I'm also totally open to hearing that having some such narrative is just a convention that one should conform to and, at least as far as job applicants should be concerned, there's not much more useful to be said about it.

Malcolm

Here's a worry about this:
"I really like doing Kant interpretation, but that didn't work out as a career, and so now will have to be just a weekend thing. But I also really like programming (see my portfolio for all my cool projects), and so would be excited to work for your company doing that."

Your future employer might worry that if Kant interpretation ever could work out as a career, you'd bail.

Maybe to extend the analogy to dating that Samuel Kampa gives above, how would you take it if a first date said that their long-term goals with their ex didn't work out, and it had to be just an occasional fling, but that they like you and could see being with you too?

The analogy fails in all kinds of ways, of course, but the point is this: why mention that you're still seeing Kant on the weekends and that academia "didn't work out"? Instead, focus on what Kant couldn't give you that this new job can. It's your business if you still want to see him on the side, since, unlike dating under monogamous expectations, there's no deceit in continuing to read philosophy while having an industry job.

As Alyssa says, your potential future employer isn't really asking about how much you loved Kant, but reasons why you want to be with them. It doesn't need to be that Kant has something in common with web development. But what about web development do you like, value, etc., that you couldn't get in academia?

Revised attempt:
"I really like [thing I value present in new job], but that [why I wasn't able to get it] and so now [I am looking for opportunities]. I like programming (see my portfolio for all my cool projects), and so would be excited to work for your company doing that."

Thoughts?

Mike Barkasi

Here's another angle. The person doing the hiring isn't just deciding whether *you* are good for the job. They're deciding whether you're *better* than everyone else interviewing. If you were hiring an undergrad RA and were deciding between a super bright physics student who only applied because they couldn't get a physics RA spot and a super bright philosophy student who checks all the boxes, who'd you hire?

I thought Aaron's answers were great. I'll just emphasize:

“You need to start thinking from the perspective of a hiring manager and the organization.”

“I have no easy answers here. We’ve got to remember that there’s a huge shift in personal identity happening right now. This is painful.  If it is not, then either you are much better than me at life or you’re in denial. … Your answer when someone asks you “So, what do you do?” will have to change.”

These strike me as things philosophers struggle to do: genuinely take the perspective of those outside academics, and navigate the shift in personal identity. The latter is hard just because it's intrinsically hard. It takes time and emotional work to authentically change who you are. If you insist on being "a philosopher" who happens to work a normal 9-5 job, you probably won't ever come off well to hiring managers. Even if you embrace the change of identity and want to leave philosophy, it's going to take a lot of time (just like it took a lot of time to fully inculcate into philosophy).

It is painful.

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