I was pleased to contribute a blog post on my career change story for my former university, University of Sheffield. They run a fantastic blog series on careers beyond the academy for post PhD students. It can be hard to know how to transfer your skills and what use value a PhD has in the wider world. The v i s t a blog helps people see what’s possible through live examples! Check out my contribution here.
In September 2018, I was pleased to offer a workshop at the Contemporary Women Writers Annual conference. The theme of the conference was ‘Writing Wrongs’ and I offered a session riffing on this theme entitled ‘Righting Wrongs for Women in Academia’. The workshop was a space to share strategies, experiences and thoughts on how to shift academic organisational culture, where 1 in 4 professors are women and where BME women are particularly underrepresented.
This was my diary entry for my first day as a non-academic. It was in my diary from the moment I heard my request for voluntary redundancy from my employer of twelve years had been accepted.
The simple graphic makes me smile. I love the way the arrows indicate I will be ‘free’ for the rest of my life (!) precisely from 1st June 2017, that I have literally drawn a line to mark the end/beginning and that the freedom glows from the page!
The word ‘free’ had come to take on significant resonance for me following an earlier coaching conversation. I was receiving coaching as part of thinking through a career change, and without much of an idea what I wanted to do. The coach asked me this incisive question: ‘What would it feel like if you weren’t working as an academic?’ After a short reflection, my response was: ‘I would be free’.
My use of that word for the first time hit me powerfully, the implication being that at that moment I felt the opposite – trapped? – held back? – in chains?!! It all sounds rather dramatic!
Yet, the realisation I was ‘doing the wrong thing’ career-wise had hit me like a bolt one random evening a few months previously. It literally formed as a sentence that I said out loud to myself: ‘I am doing the wrong thing’. The suddenness of it came as a surprise and was somewhat overwhelming, yet the steady erosion of my sense of satisfaction with my choice of career had been working away for many years.
Thinking through a career change can be a huge, daunting task. Then at the age of 46, I felt I was young enough to make a shift but old enough to get cracking on with it! If I had wobbles about leaving academia, and of course I did, I would say to myself – ‘Julie, another 20 years’. The thought of another 20 years doing the same job felt unbearable; I knew that whatever I ended up doing, it would be better for my mental, physical and emotional health than staying put.
Careers are bound up intimately with our identities and status. On social occasions, when people meet for the first time, one of the initial questions is ‘What do you do?’ I had a relatively high status job which was reasonably secure and with a good salary. I also had some absolutely brilliant colleagues with whom I loved working. Academia had offered me so many privileges and opportunities, to research and to teach what I enjoyed.
However, I decided to leave, a move which was either bold or bonkers, or quite possibly both! The strength of needing to do something more in line with my values was what propelled me. I was keen to work where I could have more of a direct impact on social justice. I also needed to be ‘freer’ than the restrictions of working in a huge organisation such as a university permitted. I realised I could pursue my interests beyond the confines of academia more than within it.
So, I took small steps to open myself up to new experiences and to looking at things differently. I became (and still am) a trustee and volunteer with two amazing charities that support and develop women and girls:West End Women and Girls Centre, Newcastle, and Team Kenya CIO. I knew that I would need support thinking through the process of a career change so I had some coaching and also signed up for an online course in changing careers. I took a coaching qualification to broaden my skills. It was hard fitting all this in while still in a busy full-time job; however, I made time because it was so important to me. It was the difference between freedom and constraint after all!
Now that I am starting up as self-employed, I feel excited and scared at the same time. But mostly I feel thrilled that I can create my own job and do what I really want to do – make a difference, I hope, with regard to gender and LGBT equality and help people realise their own potential through coaching.
In a ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ moment, the final seminar I taught at university was on Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (on a core literature module not designed purposefully by me!). The play is an experimental drama, part of a movement known as Theatre of the Absurd. As the name suggests, Endgame offers a reflection on endings. It is a dark comedy dealing with, amongst other things, themes of entrapment and circularity. Its opening words are spoken by the character Clov:
‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. [Pause]. Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. [Pause]. I can’t be punished any more.’
While students in the group wondered if finishing the module on this text was a ‘lecturer’s joke’, I had to wonder what kind of joke it was on me! To finish a career teaching in various English Literature Departments on such a literalised symbolic moment was ‘absurd’ in itself.
What I know now, writing this piece several months after leaving, is that I have grown enormously. I still have my academic colleagues and friends and we are finding ways of working together while I have the added bonus of meeting and working with colleagues in new fields. I am so enjoying the learning and challenge of setting myself up as self-employed. I have done things over the last couple of years I would not have thought possible and I am absolutely looking forward to doing more that I don’t even know about yet!
And yes, I feel free!