"My PhD is in ethnic studies from the University of California, Berkeley, in the general area of racialisation in twentieth century America. Following my doctorate I moved on to teaching African American literature in Knoxville Tennessee.
"Among several reasons for choosing to leave academia, paramount was that my wife was not living in Knoxville at the time. Like many junior faculty members, I was in a long distance relationship with little chance to get jobs in one place as long as we both remained academics. Additionally, I was burned out as a teacher. Early in my teaching career I dedicated long, hard hours to my students. This hit a dead end when I realised how unhappy I was, and it made it easier for me to realise I was in the wrong profession. In fact I knew more examples of people who were unhappy than otherwise.
"I did not find it easy to leave academia – the transition period during which I made my decision was two years. However, once the decision was made, it became economically possible because I had family support to move through the transition. I was able to live on very little of my own income, instead relying on my partner for five years, taking a very insecure job at a non-profit organisation – but in this time I developed some skills that I knew I would need to learn. I did a lot of ‘consulting’ over those five years. I had a strong political profile, making it easy for me to walk into a mayoral campaign and volunteer to do whatever was needed. In doing this, I generated a lot of contacts.
"Over six years I started three different businesses. The first one was poorly conceived and unrealistic, but each time I started I had a new and better set of skills and perspectives which permitted me to see what of my skills was saleable, and to whom. The third one has worked for me. Having developed an interest in the electoral process after the US 2000 elections, and as a Marxist being naturally oriented towards workplace issues, I now conduct elections on behalf of labour unions. I manage between 18 and 24 elections a year and, since not many people administer non-state elections in the US, it is not a crowded marketplace. Lots of people need elections conducted, so there was enough work around to find my niche."
I’d put my success down to a combination of having the time to figure out what to do next, luck, and being able to identify a gap in the market. Though on the surface it doesn’t look like I use my doctoral training in my current work situation, many aspects of doctoral study prepare you for starting a business. For example, as a doctoral student and in teaching you have to be aware of your positioning and branding. This is in finding a gap to research and focus on, and in communicating the value of this to peers. Successful academics are successful because they can sell their work to other academics. Starting the business also involved a lot of research, being able to think on my feet, and a lot of strategic analysis. It also took some combination of becoming comfortable in sales and being able to do the analytical work at the same time.
People have a terrible sense in academia that they don’t know how to do anything else, and often perceive that it can be extremely difficult to get a job as good as the one they have. I can’t overstate the value of coming out of academia and having no immediate financial need to take just anything that comes along. If you can generate enough income to survive a couple of years of uncertainty there are a lot of things you can do – most who have PhDs and have uncertain jobs and are in the midst of uncertainty anyway, can use this experience to their advantage.
Most academics want to be their own boss. One thing academia is very unusual for is that, if you can get in, you have a job that offers you a monthly cheque and also no one looking over your shoulder every day. This is a very unusual combination and not to be given up lightly if this is something you value. A person who really needs the monthly cheque may have to take the job that will make them less happy. Someone who can manage the couple of years of transition and is willing to live a little more on the edge probably doesn’t have to do that. I was deeply unhappy in the late 90’s. I’m not now. The main advice is that leaving academia is not the panacea to all an individuals problems, but if you’re an unhappy person you should consider the possibility that academia is a contributing factor in your unhappiness.