When Leaving Academe, Which Research Projects Do You Leave Unfinished?

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By Erin Bartram

Once I ended my tenure-track search, after three years on the job market, I had to decide what to do withthe research and writing I had in progress. If you’re leaving academe for good, this can be one of the most painful parts of your career transition — and often the first thing everyone asks you about.

You’ll get a lot of advice and encouragement from family, friends, colleagues, and mentors about whether to finish your various scholarly projects. But they can’t decide — or do the work — for you.

It’s easy enough to tell yourself, "I’ll just stop thinking about all of it." Set aside that list of future projects. Abandon that conference proposal. But what about the conference presentation you’ve already committed to? Should you back out now? What about that journal article you agreed to revise after it was accepted for publication? Or the manuscript you have under contract?

Disentangling yourself from continuing research commitments can feel more difficult than finishing them. It can seem downright impossible when grants, editors, and other authors are involved. Sometimes it may be impossible — but often it isn’t.

I’m not saying you can get out of everything — or even that you should. But it is important to do some research and soul-searching before you make any decisions about scholarship that will no longer define your future. For each project, you will need a good sense of why you might want to complete it — and who will be the main beneficiary.

Should you finish for professional reasons? The most common argument you’ll hear for completing your work is that it will be useful on your résumé. And that might strike you, too, as a good reason to see some projects through. But whether it’s true depends a lot on your field and on the type of employment you’re seeking outside of academe.

Once you have a sense of the kind of nonfaculty jobs you’ll be applying for, try to get a look at the résumés of people in similar positions. Do those résumés list academic research and publications? Talk with people who transitioned out of your field and ask them how their publishing records shaped their experience on the nonacademic job market. Did it help? Hurt? Or not matter much? Will a list of paywalled academic publications on your résumé reinforce the notion that you are overqualified for — or insufficiently dedicated to — the nonacademic field you are seeking to join?

Think critically and realistically about each unfinished project and what it would add to your résumé:

  • Would it demonstrate unique skills that are not duplicated elsewhere on your record?
  • Would it help you stand out (in a good way) to nonacademic employers?
  • Would it illustrate your skills in a way that’s more understandable and convincing to off-campus employers?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, it might be worth finishing a particular project or two. But again, if doing so would essentially duplicate your existing record — especially from the perspective of a potential employer not immersed in the literature of your field — then finishing won’t be all that helpful to your prospects.

It’s important to take these questions seriously. Seek the advice of people outside academe, even if people in your scholarly circle are convinced that finishing your research would be helpful. That conviction — in many cases, and in many disciplines — is rooted not in evidence, but in a willful desire to believe that academic work can help you get a nonacademic job. That it hasn’t "all been a waste."

Should you finish for personal reasons?In academe, saying "I have to do this" often means "I said I would do this and I now feel obligated" or "It will be too difficult and awkward to get out of it at this point." Obligation plays a powerful and often unbalanced role in academic culture, and it can color your decision-making as you prepare to leave, even if it’s one of the reasons you’re leaving in the first place.

Before you decide to finish your lingering projects because you "owe" it to someone — or to the field itself — consider whether that sense of obligation is mutual.

Some people may urge you to finish your research entirely for personal reasons. Because they know you love it. Because you’ve put so much hard work into it already. Because it’s too good to abandon. And you may feel the same way.

Can you even finish the project, practically speaking? Even if you think there is a good reason, professionally or personally, you still face three key practical considerations:

  • Do you have the time? For some projects, this is an easy call, like bailing on a book in the proposal stage. In other cases, it’s more difficult: an accepted article that still needs revisions or a dissertation half-transformed into a book manuscript. If choosing to continue will mean sticking to a timeline, be honest with yourself (and others) about your ability to do that. You may not have the time if you’re immediately starting a new job. Only you can decide how much time each project will take, whether you have that time, and whether you want to devote it to this particular work — especially in light of the fact that you can’t influence the speed of academic publishing.
  • Do you have the resources? This will be the easiest to answer. Finishing certain projects may require money, equipment, and buildings that you simply won’t have access to once you leave academe. Even research that doesn’t require access to a particle accelerator can be costly for someone operating without any institutional support. In some cases, you may have the time to revise an article but can’t afford the necessary research or travel costs. Even if you can afford to go, that may not be how you want to spend the money, especially if you’ve already been self-funding most of your research as a non-tenure-track faculty member.
  • Do you have the emotional energy? I think this one is the most important. Do an inventory of your emotional reserves, especially if you’re leaving academe under duress, and repeat as needed. Research is one of the things that drew you to this career, and in most cases, it can’t be done the same way from the outside. But that doesn’t make untangling yourself from the work easy or painless. If you’re choosing to leave a tenure-track position, you may have more control over that untangling, but that doesn’t necessarily make the emotional issues any less significant. If you’re leaving because you couldn’t secure a tenure-track position, the idea of continuing to write for a community that had no permanent place for you can feel, at best, like a waste of time. At worst, it can feel like salt in the wound — the community didn’t want you, but it still wants your work.

Whether your departure is amicable or painful, whether you’re leaving as a tenured professor, an adjunct, a postdoc, or a grad student, you may also feel that you "just don’t want to do this" anymore — even if finishing a project might help you in your nonacademic career, and even if you love the work itself.

Making such an admission may shock your fellow academics, given the language of vocation, passion, and productivity that shapes scholarly labor. People in your field may view your admission as an explanation of your "failure" to land a job or as evidence of your lack of devotion.

But not wanting to do the unpaid labor of academic research and writing outside of academe is a perfectly valid reason for not doing it. If you are in academe and disagree with this sentiment, you should think about why, and consider the harm perpetuated by such views.

I faced several of these choices myself when leaving academe, and I have no problem admitting that I didn’t necessarily choose wisely in each case:

  • Only a few days after I’d made the decision to pursue a nonfaculty career — before I’d even managed to tell my family — I was accepted to a conference that I’d desperately wanted to attend for years. I hadn’t even begun to process what "leaving" would actually mean. At the conference I would be meeting peers and virtual strangers, and I didn’t want to admit to any of them that I had "failed." At the same time, I didn’t want to let down the friend who had organized the panel, so I said nothing and planned to attend — even though I knew I would be out of academe and unemployed by the time it happened.
  • Then, a week after my essay on leaving academe was published, a scholarly article of mine that had been out for review was accepted pending revisions. I didn’t need the article anymore, as I knew it would not be helpful on the nonacademic job market. But I’d been working on that project for so long, and loved it so much, that I couldn’t walk away from it. I spent my last semester in academe revising that article, which came out last month.

In retrospect, it’s easy for me to see that the first choice I made — attending the conference — wasn’t a great one, if only because of the expense involved. I feel good about the second choice, even though it hurts a little to see my work in print and know that it doesn’t matter in the way I’d once hoped it would.

Other people, faced with a similar dilemma, might not have had the time or the emotional resources to do those revisions — and that’s just fine, too.

Academe, despite the relative independence of scholarly work, is still a place that controls much of the course of a Ph.D.’s career. In leaving that world, you have an opportunity to take back some measure of control. You may well decide to finish that article or give that last presentation, but you can do it knowing you made the decision because it was the best one for you.

Erin Bartram, formerly a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Hartford, is writing about her career transition out of academe. Her web site is Erinbartram.com and you can find her on Twitter @erin_bartram .

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