How to Leave a Higher-Education Career on Your Own Terms

By Meredith Davis

The hardest professional and personal decision I had to make was to end my career working on college campuses. I did this very recently — shutting the door on more than 20 years as a student-affairs administrator to become an executive search consultant. 

Working at a university was not just a job for me but a calling. I am a first-generation college student whose career may not have happened without the mentoring, support, and commitment I received at my alma mater. The very reason I became a student-affairs administrator was to pay forward all of the grace, support, tears, dreams, and hopes that had been invested in my development. Higher education changed my life.

So leaving that world was like losing a piece of myself somewhere, knowing I would never feel the same way or experience any professional and personal venture like that again.

Yet I did it anyway, for a lot of good reasons. These days, many others out there are weighing the same stay-or-go decision. This article is for those on the fence. The nation is shifting, people and organizations are redefining work-life balance. As many professionals in higher education ride the Great Resignation wave, it is important to take the time for some serious self-reflection. Leaving one career and moving into another — regardless of stage in life or profession — has social, financial, and personal implications.

My transition away from a career in student affairs took close to three years. I would not recommend you take quite that long. Here are some key factors to consider before you make the leap:

Ask yourself whether you want to leave your job or your occupation. 

My decision was not a job hop but a career change. At that point, I was an associate vice president. As I approached more years behind me in the workforce than ahead, I had to consider if I wanted to stay in student affairs, try to move up the administrative ladder, or take a leap of faith and try something different. I knew I felt “over it.” But I had to reconcile two key questions:

  • Was I just over the institution where I worked?
  • Or was I over working in higher education altogether? 

Before I ever started looking at job postings, I came to the conclusion that I no longer had the same desire to continue in student affairs or seek a senior leadership post. I felt an urge and a pull that there was another way for me to contribute to education in this country. 

Are you dissatisfied with your position due to superficial and surface inertia that would occur in any profession or is it something deeper? Perhaps the political and cultural environment no longer aligns with your values? In its online guide, How to Change Careers, the Glassdoor team offers five steps to a new occupation. One is, “Follow your gut.” When I no longer desired to advance in academe, I knew it was time to go.

Make sure your new industry and/or position aligns with your personal and professional values. 

The phrase “values alignment” has become overused in online articles and forums about changing careers but it is a legitimate consideration. Be sure to find a line of work with values and a mission that you can embrace. 

Perfect positions do not exist. As a Black woman, for example, I had to face the fact that racism, sexism, misogyny, and white privilege were daily menu items at whatever table I chose to join. They are inescapable, and will be for the foreseeable future. I knew I had to choose a career and an employer that shared my own aspirational values around inclusion, equity, and opportunities for all. Fortunately, I have found that in my new career as an executive search consultant working to recruit leaders in higher education. 

Understand that a career change will require you to relocate your comfort zone. 

Higher education is its own special ecosystem — with a particular type of lifestyle, culture, and way of seeing things. In an essay last summer in the Times Higher Education, Janelle Ward, who left an assistant professorship for a private-sector research position, wrote about shifting out of higher education to a nonacademic career: “Part of changing careers is learning what can seem like a foreign language. Jargon-heavy professions are everywhere.” 

Like Ward, I was fluent in campus-speak and had to master the ability to converse and engage with a very different population of stakeholders in the consulting world. Your success with colleagues in any new environment will depend upon your ability to speak their language and adjust to their habits and culture.

Do a cost-benefit analysis of the career or company you are eyeing.

That old tagline from American Express commercials — “membership has its privileges” — would suit academe, too. Working on a college campus has so many perks. I helped my family navigate college. I met some of the greatest writers, political leaders, artists, and humanitarians that walked this earth. I got to travel, meet people from diverse backgrounds and experiences. I was able to pursue my doctorate while working full time because my supervisor understood its necessity in my personal and professional trajectory. 

All of which is to say: If you choose to leave higher education, make sure your next landing spot offers sufficient “membership privileges” to keep you satisfied on the job. Look for a company and/or an industry that is invested, not just in its products and services, but in you as a person.

Create your own version of a 360-degree assessment as an exit strategy. 

You don’t have to share it with anyone; you are doing this entirely for yourself. Take an inventory of the skills you have developed thus far in your career. List all the ways you have contributed to campus culture. Think about what brings you joy. Yes, joy. A 2019 essay in the Harvard Business Review, “Making Joy a Priority at Work,” argued that joy in the workplace “arises from a combination of harmony, impact, and acknowledgement.” 

In my own assessment, I asked students, peers, direct reports, supervisors, parents, and other community members a few questions: When did they see me at my happiest? (That is, when did I seem to experience joy in the workplace?) When did my work appear to be seamless and most productive? What disposition did I possess that drew people to me and made me a viable contributor to changing campus culture?

And don’t just pose questions that will lead to flattery. Ask the hard questions, too. Choose people you respect and admire and ask: Which areas of my attitude and presentation need adjusting? Those are valuable jewels of information to take with you as you embark on your next professional journey.

I didn’t leave campus life because I hated it. I left because I loved it, yet I knew that I was being pulled to make a different sort of contribution to higher education. You may leave your field or your institution. You may leave higher education completely or find adjacent opportunities. Just be sure you are leaving for the right reason — not out of a desire to jump on the Great Resignation bandwagon but because you see yourself elsewhere and want to make a journey of self-discovery and learning. After all, once an educator, always an educator.

This article was previously published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Permission to republish has been granted.