book cover of Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide by Christoper Caterine

Book Review: Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide by Christoper Caterine

As billed, practical advice on transitioning from academia to the wide world beyond.

Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide by Christoper Caterine (2020, Princeton University Press) is exactly what it is billed as: a practical book of advice for people who want to transition out of academia into the post-academic world of regular people.

The book is relevant and realistic, especially for people in the US and in the humanities. In every chapter, Caterine, who earned a PhD in Classics and spent several years following as a visiting assistant professor before finding a new path, explains part of his own journey. He starts with dread: the feeling that you need to get out and find a new career. Then it's on to discerning a new path, discovering options, deciphering your past experience into the language of non-academics, developing your skills further, and deploying yourself in the world.

The book is brief, but it points to more in-depth resources and includes information from interviews—such as books like So What Are You Going to Do With That? (Read my review!). The tone is encouraging. Caterine emphasizes that you shouldn't have tunnel vision about career options—there are many directions you can go from wherever you start.

The book is less helpful for people in STEM fields than in the humanities, in large part because there's greater career diversity in STEM fields already. When I started graduate school, I probably knew more STEM students who were interested in pursuing careers in industry research or startups than were interested in becoming professors. But Caterine was in the humanities, so it's understandable that his advice is more helpful for people with experiences like his.

Skill translation

One strength of the book is the advice on how to translate your academic experience and your CV into the language used outside academia. Caterine shares tips on crafting a resume and framing your work experience to resonate with your chosen audience, with concrete examples showing how to separate what you study from how you study it—since in the business world, people care more about the skills your can offer than what your dissertation topic was.

Follow the money; don't be loyal

I also appreciated that Caterine includes advice that other people may shy away from saying out loud. For example, he points out that the loyalty many academics feel toward their institutions is misplaced, given how these institutions treat many of their employees. If you are working or teaching at a university, and receive a job offer that asks you to start immediately, he says,

"I would strongly urge you to accept the job and let your department or college manage the fallout."

Why? Your contract may not include any obligation for you to continue to the end of a semester, and further,

"if a college wants the security of locking you into your position through the end of the term, they should damn well pay for the privilege. Every other sector uses compensation to retain talent."

He talks money, pointing out that treating the professoriate as a vocation rather than a career traps people, when in reality there are many more lucrative jobs out there:

"there's no escaping a simple reality: money is the tool our society uses to help people acquire goods and services if they want or need. No amount of romanticizing what you do to earn it is going to change this essential fact."

Caterine explains how he personally finds far more satisfaction from his non-academic work. He can contribute and support communities and causes he cares about far more easily than from within academia.

How do you find a new career?

The book falls short on the exercises designed to help you find a new career. They're not bad, they're just not as excellent as the exercises in Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. (Read my review!)

Caterine's suggestions for discernment include journaling, thinking, considering what excites about your field and what you enjoy most and least in your work, and perhaps talking to other people about what they think you ought to do. What do you want out of life? What do you want out of a career? How can you best align the two? These aren't bad things to do by all means. You should definitely consider factors such as how you want your career to proceed, where you want to live, who you want to live near, what kind of salary you want or need, and the meaningfulness of your work.

But. In Designing Your Life, the strategies Burnett and Evans presented for discerning a new career path and developing a strategy to get there felt more concrete. More useful. More grounded. My review describes some of their strategies.

Caterine's recommendations about the actual job search process also fell short. He recommends informational interviews—but only for gathering information. Find job listings; apply for a couple positions a week. Typical stuff.

Burnett and Evans, on the other hand, emphasize that 85% of jobs are filled via referral or networking. They're clear that you're going to find your next job through your contacts, not by applying for positions that are posted online. Informational interviews are about building contacts who will, eventually, give you jobs.

That said, there are a few gems in the job search sections. For example, Caterine reminds the reader that they may need to revise closely held opinions on corporations and business culture. For instance, Caterine says that he personally had to rethink the black-and white-idea that all corporations are bad and all non-profits are good. He had to redefine what he meant by having an impact through his career. He had to realize that academia doesn't hold a monopoly on intellectual, demanding, challenging projects.

Being realistic

Transitioning out of academia can take a long time. Caterine shares stories from his two-year journey. While it may not take you two years, you still may have to try multiple times before landing on a career path that really satisfies you. And that's okay. That's part of the process.

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