How to explain why you leave the academy during interviews (opinion)


“Why are you leaving the academy?” “

I ask graduate students versions of this question every year in hundreds of hands-on interviews. I ask this because it’s a fairly common question asked of doctoral students looking for a job outside of academia, and I ask them to assess how they will approach their career development.

Most of the time, their first responses are not enough. The first impulse of people is, of course, to answer the question literally and talk about the things that push them out of academia, in all their messy details. But that’s not really what the question is: an interviewer doesn’t want your life story. They want to know why you are enthusiastic and what you can contribute.

What I recommend when debriefing someone after a training interview, and what I recommend here, is to talk less about what drives you out of academia and more about what drives you to something new. This small change can help you give employers what they want and better understand your way forward.

Why you should avoid the flare

There are many things that can cause you to quit academia. This is the case with many students and post-docs that I meet every year and who pursue a career beyond. They face very poor job markets in faculties. They are fed up with the relentless pressure to seek external funding. They are frustrated with spending months writing articles that hardly anyone reads. They have experienced micro-aggressions and prejudices in academia and just feel finished with it all. These are all important reasons for pursuing other avenues. But they are not the most useful answer to the question asked.

When you spend time explaining the inner workings of academia – which most employers don’t care about anyway – rather than talking about yourself, it may seem like you’re not ready to leave it. . Indeed, one of the main reasons they may ask the question in the first place is because they wonder how committed you are to the job you are applying for, as it may seem like you have spent years in prepare for something else. They may worry that if they hire you, they’ll just have to do another search a few months later when you return to academia. Or they may think that they are your second choice and that maybe you are not very interested in the job.

It can also make you look negative and bitter. What, honestly, you could be! There is a lot to complain about in academia and many issues that can keep you from thriving. But an interview for another type of job is probably not the place to explore this. In a session with your therapist or in a conversation with your friends, you might talk about all the complex mess of your career and all your complicated, messy feelings about it. An interview, on the other hand, is a performance in which you present a version of yourself that is accurate but not complete. And it’s generally a good idea to focus on the positive in this context.

How to focus on attraction

Focusing on what pushes you towards a new thing, rather than stepping away from the old one, can help both build your excitement and camouflage any bitterness. And it’s not just a question of tone. It requires a reorientation of your narrative strategy from a strategy that primarily looks back to one that looks to the future, actively and with some excitement about the prospect of the future.

How exactly you reorient yourself will depend on your situation and your personality, but here are three approaches to start your thinking in that direction.

I was excited about something new. Shift the scope of the story you’re telling by zooming in on a moment or experience that got you excited about this new path: aspects of it. As I was finishing my studies, I looked for opportunities to hone my project management skills, and I am delighted to be doing this job full time in the future.

This approach helps you explain why you are shifting gears while bringing home your desire for a job like theirs. (And zooming in helps you fight the urge to tell them your whole life story.) Keep in mind that you don’t have to be excited about everything about your new path. Indeed, you probably won’t. Instead, determine what is exciting and pivot on it.

In fact, it’s less different than you might think. One of the reasons people ask the question is because it seems like the most obvious next step after a PhD. is something else like that (although they’re not sure what it is). One way to respond, then, is to emphasize the continuity between what you have done and what you are interviewing for. This might sound like helping them understand the ‘work’ of graduate school, explaining what you did as a teacher or researcher in language taken from their field, or emphasizing personal qualities (curiosity , perseverance, etc.) school that you will bring to the next stage of your career.

Turns out your setting is perfect for me. They might be asking because they’re assuming that since you’ve spent so long in an academic setting, you must like it – maybe to the exclusion of other types of places. Think about what the new context would suit you and your goals. It might even be worth considering how the new venue is different from the academy and what you like about that difference: “I went to college to have a positive impact on the world and gained a ton of useful skills during the process. Now, I can’t wait to be in an environment where I can use these skills to have a more immediate impact on a larger scale, which is why this career is perfect for me. Not only will this help interviewers see how you would be a good fit, it has the added benefit of making them feel good about themselves and their jobs.

Doing this type of reorientation will help you more successfully answer a landmine interview question in a way that is attractive to employers. And it can also help you claim some power in your career change. When you’re just being pushed forward, you can go any direction you want and might not have a choice of where you end up. The kind of attraction I mentioned is not something that reaches out and grabs you. Instead, it’s about finding something interesting and attracting yourself to it. Much more than a push, you can set the route and follow your interests towards your next adventure.


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