Today, I’m going to share why I quit academia to become an entrepreneur and start a successful business.
One year ago, I made the impossible decision to quit my job as a tenure-track academic professor in English. It wasn’t because I was unhappy in my position–I had been there little more than a year.
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It wasn’t because I lacked amazing opportunities for collaboration in a discipline I had fallen in love with years before. It wasn’t because I wished for more amazing colleagues or more engagement from students. It wasn’t because of outrageous expectations from my department or lack of support to accomplish the expectations of tenure. And it wasn’t so much for personal reasons either, as I had the unthinkable luck of landing a tenure-track job in the same city where my PhD husband found work he loved in the field of chemistry AND where my dissertation research took place AND where all of my immediate family lives.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the academic job market: That kind of luck does not happen in highly specialized university positions. From the moment I began my Master’s program, it was impressed upon me that: You don’t get tenure-track and family and what amounts to a partner hire and an opportunity to continue your region-based research. You will most definitely have to choose from among those desires, and hey, if you have to live apart from your spouse for a couple years and keep applying to jobs until you hopefully land in the same place, that’s expected and worthwhile, so dial down your expectations from the start. Getting that call on December 12th, 2014 with my dream academic job offer was one of the happiest and most surreal moments of my life.
So why on Earth did I quit academia and leave such a perfect and improbable professor position? The forces that pulled me away from academia and towards life as an entrepreneur and small business owner took me by surprise and delight. The universe’s calling for me to become a writing consultant–one who works with clients outside of academia at that–resounded softly at first, with a few neat client projects, and then grew louder over time as my professional identity expanded beyond the walls of the classroom.
For those of us inside academia–whether life-long professors or new graduate students–we understand that what we do is not just a job. Our scholarship and disciplinary knowledge become increasingly part of our identity as professionals, community members and human beings. We believe strongly in what we do: in the value of analytic thinking, historical study, pedagogical insights, creativity and communication with other scholars. By the time I began work as an Assistant Professor of English, my professional identity was tightly bound to the disciplinary knowledge of the field of Rhetoric and Composition. I was my research. I was my writing. Taking a different path–like working constantly with people outside of my discipline, outside of the university–seemed not only impossible, but sacrilegious. For starters, I felt immense guilt about the personal sacrifices my new colleagues made in order to hire me–the campus visit dinners, the other amazing scholars they could have hired, the many other interviews they held before choosing me–and the impossibility of entering back into academia after choosing to leave, all made my decision to resign that much more complicated and heart-wrenching. On top of that, within academia, entering the corporate world is not so subtly deemed “selling out.”
Before I had the gumption to leave, I first had to wrestle with all the disciplinary assumptions about entrepreneurship and corporate systems I had so deeply internalized. This is truly a key part of my alt ac quit lit story: It had become a core part of my professional identity to limit the scope of my work to that which would benefit students, and–because I am fortunate enough to be part of a field invested in community engagement–local communities. Yet as my consulting business continued to grow, and the interdisciplinary clients I worked with continued to express gratitude for my efforts and my projects continued to excite and challenge me, I started questioning whether a professionally trained scholar could, indeed, thrive beyond the university.
Could the insights of our discipline be shared more broadly? How much impact is possible through our scholarly publications, which are so deeply situated within our own disciplinary understandings? How can our comprehensive research on the power of stories, the social constructs of language, the impact of grammatical choices, and the organization of thought be articulated to audiences who have never heard of Francis Bacon or Peter Elbow or bell hooks? Over 80 million Americans wake up each morning to work in the private sector. Are we as a discipline reaching them? Are our insights impacting how they tell their organization’s stories? How they articulate their knowledge? How they collaborate and communicate with one other?
The main reason why I quit academia and resigned from a perfect academic job is because I wanted to explore the value of rhetoric and composition’s disciplinary knowledge beyond the university. After three years of consulting in addition to teaching and researching, I knew that a need existed for writing expertise, document development, and organizational storytelling in the private, public and non-profit sectors. And I discovered that for me, translating our expertise as writers and researchers is the most challenging, rewarding work I have ever encountered. (If you’re curious to learn what this work looks like for me, check out our technical storytelling projects or our work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.)
The second reason why I quit academia is because I wanted to creatively build my own economic future in a way that is not possible under the auspices of employment–whether by a university or an organization, corporate or otherwise. As I commuted home from my university during my last days as a professor, I frequently thought of Robert Frost’s now almost-trite poem, “The Road Not Taken”:
“I shall be telling this with a sighSomewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.”
Going down a less-traveled path demands a unique passion and hunger for the unknown. Looking three, five, fifteen years into my future as a professor, the road seemed quite predictable. Yes, the scholarly insights and publications and collaborations I would pursue would all be exciting and unknown, but the nature of the work I would be performing–teaching college students, writing academic publications, administering writing programs–felt very predictable to me. And though I know it’s taboo to talk money in academic circles, I felt that the economic benefits of university teaching were similarly limiting. I knew I would likely be making between $50-60k per year for the coming ten years, unless I engaged in administrative work, which I was excited to do, and made a few thousand more. Understanding that such a salary is an incredible blessing, especially when so many MA and PhD scholars are adjuncting for far, far less with far fewer benefits, I was thrilled at the possibility of lifting the ceiling on my income and the incomes of others who I could one day hire. (UPDATE! Since writing this post, I’ve hired four full-time writing consultants. Learn more about my powerhouse team of professional writers!)
While entrepreneurship is definitely scarier and less predictable economically, my experience in consulting thus far taught me that extra creativity, extra commitment and outstanding performance could result in immediate and highly rewarding financial outcomes–which ultimately impacts how I spend my time and whose lives I can bless through pro-bono community work and by becoming an employer myself. Getting a window into the potential financial and societal impacts of creating a consulting business ultimately gave me the confidence I needed to make the very difficult decision to leave academia. That, and a year of internal wrestling and conversations with my closest confidants. (Having two babies within two years also contributed to my decision, since flexibility in time and the ability to work from home felt even more important to me as a new mom. If you’d like to hear more about motherhood and work, watch my video on running a small business with a newborn.)
If you also have a deep desire to translate disciplinary knowledge for outside audiences, make broad impacts and build a unique economic structure through which to deliver your expertise, starting a business might be the right decision for you. Independent consulting is often a great first step–or even a rewarding add-on to your academic career (so long as you work within your university’s restrictions and put your students first)–as it allows you to gain experience articulating the value of what you can provide as an expert writer before taking the leap to working it full-time. I worked as an independent consultant (aka sole proprietor) for three years before deciding to become an LLC and build a company that could create jobs for other amazing writers.
What I’ve found is that, despite the lack of scholarly articles on the topic of consulting and the palpable tensions around corporate work within academic circles, there are many scholars out there who are taking “alt-ac” (alternative academic) paths and becoming entrepreneurs or small business owners. Because the work of building a business is new to most of us trained in the Humanities (and not in MBA programs), I’d like to conclude by sharing some of my favorite PhD entrepreneurs who are running successful consulting businesses. Get inspired by these creative academics or former academics who are making waves in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors:
Other Inspiring Academics Turned Consultants/Small Business Owners
If you liked this article and want to know more about becoming a writing consultant or starting your own small business, you should definitely join our community! We share advice and articles on entrepreneurship, thought leadership, public intellectualism. By joining our community (for free!), you’ll be the first to hear about new thought pieces, articles, courses, thinktanks, and workshops. It’s incredibly important to me that those of us pursuing alt-ac careers continue to engage in academia so that we can work together to articulate and spread our knowledge in ways that align with our disciplinary values. As Daveena Tauber challenged us, let’s not only pursue alternatives to the academic profession, but also expand our definition of success.