When leaving academia isn’t ‘giving up’… it’s actually finding yourself

‘Changing your goal or vision is ok. You can be happy beyond academia: it’s not second best, it’s an alternative.’

– Dr Naomi Tyrrell

Image shows a person standing on a rock, arms out to the world


One of the most confusing conversations I had in my PhD went something like this:

Me: Yeah, I’m properly looking into careers in university professional services for after my PhD.

Fellow PhD student: But don’t you think that’s such a waste? Not staying in academia… It’s a waste of you and what you can do! Why would you give up on it?!

Me: Um…………


This threw me. Would working outside of traditional academic research and teaching be a waste of my talents, and a waste of the time I’d invested in academia so far? Was I just being lame?

Was I giving up?!

Luckily, I held onto my sense of what most resonated with me and my professional goals and stuck with my plan. But I really want to investigate this attitude more: the attitude that says moving into work beyond academia somehow represents ‘giving up’ or ‘selling out.’ But to really quell these fears around giving up and selling out, I wanted to talk to…

… someone who quit a permanent lectureship to leave academia.

Yep, that’s right… someone who had achieved that ‘holy grail’ of a permanent academic job… then said ‘no thanks’ and boldly went where many fear to tread (if we’re going to whack Star Trek together with E. M. Forster in a lowbrow/ highbrow mash up).

So, that’s exactly what I did, and I caught up with none other than Naomi Tyrrell… academic-turned-research-consultant, and creator of the Alt-Ac Careers UK Facebook group, who after more than 10 years working full-time in academia (including a 3.5 year Marie-Curie postdoc in Ireland, and a permanent lectureship in the UK between 2010-2016) decided to form an exit strategy.

Leaving Academia: When ‘permanent’ doesn’t = ‘secure’


So Naomi, I said, you’d done it! You’d got the hallowed permanent academic position!
What happened?!

Naomi smiles, because she’s more polite than I am. It wasn’t a toxic working environment that pushed me away, she explains. In fact, I would probably have carried on that academic career trajectory if hadn’t had children. With two children, work/life balance became a real issue.

I asked her to elaborate on the point about work/life balance. Her reply was super-insightful:

Yes, technically I was on a permanent contract, but there was always talk of cuts and restructure. That feeling of insecurity never fully went away, because of how the academic higher education landscape had come to be structured in the UK.

Naomi explained that despite being hired on the apparent panacea of an open-ended contract, I felt like I was on a ‘hamster wheel’ of constantly having to do more, more, more, to make sure that the axe didn’t fall on me in next inevitable restructure. Plus, once I achieved something, it was always straight on to the next thing, the next grant etc…  It was difficult to find job satisfaction when constantly thinking about what came next in playing the academic game.

What Naomi said here around permanent contracts not necessarily equalling job security really made me question the way that we tend to associate concepts like ‘stability’ and ‘job security’ with the ‘permanent academic job.’

So, what did Naomi do to get off the hamster wheel? She emphasises that she stepped away from academia gradually.

Leaving Academia: Taking Incremental Steps

I left through a series of steps. Firstly, my partner and I committed to changing our family lifestyle quite radically (earning less and hence spending less!). That meant I could go part-time, so in 2016 I left my permanent position and used a Research Council Grant to go part-time, research-only, for two years. That gave me a taste of work/life balance and flexibility that I didn’t want to give up! So, I decided to set up my own business.

Wait, Naomi… you gave up a permanent academic job to start your own business? That sounds terrifying!

Well, my absolute priority was flexibility. My partner was very ill in 2019; I was his carer and needed maximum flexibility above all else, so I decided to set up by myself. I actually think there’s an argument that working freelance is in a way more secure, because now I’m paid by multiple clients (and have multiple potential clients), so it’s unlikely that everything could suddenly just be cut as was my fear in academia!


Leaving Academia: finding your professional ‘holy grail’

It’s clear that a combination of clear communication with partner and family, an assessment of priorities, and a working out of incremental steps towards her goal of flexibility all played a part in Naomi’s exit strategy. But wasn’t this scary? Wasn’t she terrified about what she was potentially giving up after she’d come so far?!

It would have been scary if I had no idea what I was going to do! Naomi explains. Initially I didn’t know, so as a researcher, my first step was to research the options. I started looking at what other people with PhDs who had left academia were doing, and developed a flow chart of options. I realised that there are loads of possibilities and that it wasn’t a question of “what can I do” but more a question of “what do I want to do?!”

I think this is key to Naomi’s confidence in her journey beyond academia. She had some experience from her PhD days of working part-time in a commercial research company, so knew that it was possible to do exciting research outside of academia. For her, leaving wasn’t just like falling off a cliff. She had ideas; she mapped out the options. But she admits…

Oh, if 5 years ago you’d have told me that I would leave academia and be doing what I do now, I’d have been horrified…!  I would’ve felt like that would have been giving so much up: giving up the permanent position, giving up the experience… but I’d have thought this because back then, I didn’t realise there were things that could give me better job satisfaction and better work/life balance than academia.

Here, Naomi turned this concept of the permanent academic job as the professional holy grail completely on its head:
 

For as long as you’re chasing it, the permanent lectureship feels like the holy grail. But it’s only NOW that I feel like I’ve achieved my holy grail! Now I have the flexibility, time, and the chance to do work I really enjoy.

The purpose driving what I do now is aligned to who I am. I don’t do it for academic kudos. My work now is all about making a difference to organisations, and the job satisfaction is huge. In academia, I could work for months on something that no-one would ever really read; now, I can write a report for a client company and within two weeks they’ve changed their systems according to the findings of my evaluation!

I reflected on what Naomi had said, and produced a flash of uncharacteristic profundity.

“So what you’re saying is that by leaving academia, you didn’t lose yourself at all…… you actually found yourself.”

(I wish I could come out with things like THAT every day).

Yes, Naomi agreed, that’s a good way of putting it. The sense that you are ‘giving up’ by leaving academia is so often reinforced by those around you. But when you peel it back and look at your values and the kind of life you want… does academia align with that? Did it used to align at one point in your life, but now it doesn’t? Just remember…  changing your goal or vision is ok. You can be happy beyond academia: it’s not second best, it’s an alternative.

That was the perfect note to end on after such a great discussion with Naomi about why leaving academia does NOT have to equal giving up on your hopes and dreams. And if your own brain or the people around you suggest that pursuing your own professional holy grail beyond academia is in some way giving up or selling out, remember…

  1. What’s the real ‘holy grail?’ Are you pursuing a permanent academic job because the role itself aligns with your values and priorities… or are you just trying to keep up with everyone else? When you’re in an academic environment surrounded by academics, it can be difficult to lift your head up, but do some thinking as to whether the goals and identity you are chasing are aligned to who you are, what you stand for, and your wider life

  2. Permanent contract doesn’t always equal a feeling of security. One of my biggest learning points from talking to Naomi was how for her, the feeling of stability and security that she expected to come with a permanent academic job never materialised. Restructures and redundancies can happen in most sectors of work… but can we really say we’ve achieved job security if we’re always trying to prove ourselves so that we make the next cut?

  3. Don’t make it a leap into the unknown! Carve out time to research the options, as Naomi did. Talk to people who have left academia… the more you are able to visualise the options, the less you’re going to feel like you’re jumping into the abyss

  4. Don’t think in absolutes: Naomi admitted that she can’t definitely say that she’d never go back to academia. She can demonstrate a lot of impact from her current research consultancy work, and academia is increasingly interested in the impact of research beyond the ivory towers. If she goes back, it might not be to her old discipline of migration studies… but it could be in another area linked to the experience she’s gaining as a research consultant. Academia has many guises, and going back doesn’t have to mean going back into the same discipline you were aligned to during your PhD

You can find out more about Naomi’s research consultancy business ‘Research Your Way’ at https://www.researchyourway.com/ ; you can also find details of her work to support parents and organisations at https://www.naomityrrellphd.com/

3 thoughts on “When leaving academia isn’t ‘giving up’… it’s actually finding yourself

  1. Thank you for sharing this interview with Dr. Tyrrell.

    The biggest takeaway or resonance for me, though, was in the opening vignette about the academic’s reaction to your pivot into… university professional services. Pivoting to academic administration, operations, and/or services, I am always a little confused about this disappointed reaction. Doesn’t it make sense to have people who love and did well in academia—with first-hand experiences of academia—in these kinds of positions? Helping secure your funding at an administrative level, coordinating resources for your students (freeing up your time to do more research), and so on? Who else do they imagine to populate these roles, and who would they want?

    While I was good at my discipline, I have much, much more to offer the world and even the academy itself than my humanities research, and I (and my family) deserve better than the precarity and sacrifices demanded in the name of being an (narrowly defined) humanist in the academy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. What I didn’t have space to go into in this post was how my comeback to the accusations in the opening vignette was something like ‘in truth, I don’t think academic research is the best use of my most prominent skills, and I feel like there are other types of work I could do through which those skills could help more people, on a wider scale.’ And I guess I just had to trust in that as a response. It did get some blank looks… but when those people see my work now, I think they get it. Some of those peers who stayed in academia have even since invited me to deliver talks for their PhDs… so I feel finally they take my career choice ‘seriously.’

      I also think it’s really important to have humanities researcher alumni working in the areas you mention, not only as you rightly point out because of their experience and skills, but also because it gives some ‘warm’ examples, relatively close to home, of humanities PGR alum ‘doing other things,’ as important living examples to current PhD researchers.

      Like

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