Resigning and Choosing a Non-Lateral Career Path

I have really struggled to write about my recent job resignation and to figure out how to communicate my experiences with it. We are in the midst of national (and even international) conversations about hiring freezes in higher education, so it’s difficult to imagine someone wanting or needing to resign from their job. However, that’s exactly the position I found myself in not long ago. I was wracked with guilt about how my resignation will affect my current employer because I was afraid they would be unable to replace me. However, after I had the difficult conversations I needed to have, I was amazed to find I felt more supported than ever in my pursuit of my career goals. Not only that, I was reminded of a painful reality in higher education – many faculty and staff are faced with a lack of mentorship and transparency as they navigate their workplaces. By opening up about my situation to my coworkers, I discovered I should have had many of these conversations much earlier.

Phase One: Deciding to Leave

After graduate school, I went on the job market several consecutive years before getting a tenure-track job. I always knew the odds were not stacked in my favor and that the hiring process is not exactly meritocratic, so when I got an offer it became hard to imagine ever letting go. Then, I spent the better part of two years examining the job I had gotten and trying to reshape it into the one that I wanted. A combination of what I have come to refer to as survivor’s guilt, job scarcity discourse, and a group of coworkers who seemed to dedicate their entire lives to one institution led me to feel it was nearly impossible to talk with anyone at work about my growing sense that this wasn’t the job for me. The one time I tried talking with the faculty mentor who was assigned to me, they responded: “You know, I think you just grow where you are planted.”

This spring, I was offered a non-tenure-track position that is a better fit for me. Some of you may think that leaving my current job behind is foolish, and you might double-down on your opinion when I tell you that my goal is still to get tenure somewhere one day. However, I couldn’t ignore that there was something about this career move that simply feels right. I recognize that my choice represents a willful decision to opt for a non-linear career trajectory, but I’m excited about this new institution, about the dynamics of the new work environment, about the place I will be living, and about the personal growth this shift will allow. So, I decided to take the job.

Phase Two: Waiting

After I made my decision, I was advised to wait until the new job was 100% finalized before giving notice. As many of you may know, university administrative decisions are famed for moving at a glacial pace. In hindsight, the period between deciding to leave and telling my current employer of my plans was incredibly taxing on my mental health. I doubted my decision, I felt like a liar in department meetings, I mourned the loss of the students I have grown to care about, I worried that my new job offer would fall through, and I dreamt up every possible scenario when I told my chair I wasn’t going to be returning in the fall. All of that aside, I would tell anyone else faced with a wait like this one that a new hire is not final until until it’s final, and that I’m glad I went into some of the conversations that followed with the reassurance that I had a job at the other end.

Phase Three: Planning

I knew I only had one chance to get the conversation right, so I put a lot of consideration into how to do it. Things I considered included:

  • The order in which to tell people
  • The timing of my news
  • How I wanted to have the conversation (phone, email, in person, etc.)
  • How I imagined keeping in touch with each person (if at all) and where I imagined the relationship might be headed
  • How to convey that I’ve been very grateful for the chance to be in the role I’m leaving behind
  • The answer I would give if I was asked why I’m choosing to leave
  • What (if anything) I might need help with as I transition away from my current work environment
  • What I was willing to do to help my coworkers to transition

Phase Four: Sharing the News

Headed into this series of conversations, I was terrified. Hiring freezes were not yet a reality, but rumors of them were starting to circulate. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was disappointing someone or that people would be angry at me. However, conversation after conversation, people were amazing. My coworkers asked thoughtful questions, they told me that they would miss having me but that this new job seemed like a good option for me, they offered help in various forms, and they suggested ideas for future collaborations.

Phase Five: Becoming the Safe-Space

Oddly, since resigning, several junior faculty at my institution have reached out to me and asked to discuss their own discernment process as they contemplate leaving or staying. It’s as though by announcing my departure I transformed into a safe space for these conversations. indicated to my environment that I don’t fit the archetype at our institution. I weighed whether to stay or to go and, ultimately, I decided to risk something we aren’t “supposed” to risk. I’ve enjoyed talking with various acquaintances about their situations and about their concerns in this workplace, but I also can’t help but feel it’s a shame that it took resigning to become a safe-space or to appear trustworthy to these folks.

Phase Six: Asking Bigger Questions

Now that it’s all behind me, I’ve begun to wonder if there’s space for a culture shift in departments and universities like the ones I’m leaving. Some of these questions include:

  • What if people were encouraged to weigh and discuss whether or not they want to stay in their current position?
  • If department and university leadership treated their faculty and staff like people who could decide to leave at any time, how would these work environments look differently? Would those changes be for the better?
  • How does one know when a non-linear career trajectory is for them?
  • How could I, as a future coworker to someone who might want to leave our shared work environment, support a career discernment process for others?

I don’t know the answers yet, but I’m confident I’ll carry this resignation experience with me and continue to contemplate how things could be better.


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