more Friday good news: an update

It’s more Friday good news — the updates version! Here’s an update from someone who shared good news here in the past.

I thought I’d offer an update to my Friday Good News from the summer (#1 at the link). I ended up being on a camping trip without signal for the weekend my letter was posted and didn’t get a chance to respond to the comments at the time.

Those of you who guessed that I was a librarian are correct. Not saying where, given the context, but my experience is pretty common. The Vocational Awe piece by Fobazi Ettarh that many people cited was the beginning of a major shift for me. Several of you asked what I do now. I am currently an instructional designer at a major company that you have definitely heard of. What that means is that essentially I design and deliver corporate training. The draw for me was that I still get to be a teacher, design curriculum, and be a part of that journey for someone from needing something to having something. That kind of teaching and bridging of knowledge was what took me to academia in the first place. I get to do more of it now than I expected.

That said, there are a lot of possibilities out there for academics. Are you good at analyzing big, disorganized sets of text-based data (humanists, I’m lookin’ at you)? You might be perfect for knowledge management. Do you feel good when you take a giant mess of a project, whip it into shape, convince a bunch of faculty to go along, and make the whole thing work? You’d probably be a killer project manager. There’s a lot of stuff out there that uses the same skill sets we develop in academia. The story academia tells you, that you are not qualified to do anything except (insert your particular research niche), is a lie. Just like the other stuff I talked about in my letter, like honor and job security.

I did several things that made my job search successful in the end, though I can’t say for certain which pieces were the most influential. Obviously, taking Alison’s advice was a critical piece. Other things I did that I’m pretty sure really mattered: taught myself to use a few of the most common kinds of software that are used in my new field, including paying for an asynchronous course for one of them that was a financial and time sacrifice, but resulted in me being really good at that software now. I started a side hustle offering trainings for adults to do things that I was already good at. And then I listed my side hustle first on my resume, applications, LinkedIn, etc. I was clear in all those places that it was part-time contract work, but I think it really mattered in getting onto the desks of the hiring managers. Since it was my side hustle, I could call myself whatever I wanted to, and the title I gave myself was “instructional designer,” both because that was true, and because it would help me get into the top pool in job applications. I built a pretty good portfolio of projects, both real and stuff I just invented to practice, to demonstrate my skills. I spent time learning from experts for free (for example, there’s an ex-academic on LinkedIn that I follow, from whom I learned a ton about framing this journey, and some recruiters who had some outstanding advice for what to do with my resume). I paid a lot of money to my counselor, who helped me find ways to keep going even though it took me a year to find something. Getting another job was a second job — I was doing something toward my job search for about 5-10 hours per week for a year — and I was so exhausted from the one I had, that it felt really really hard. But it was worth it in the end.

A few responses to the other comments on my post:

It’s absolutely correct that a lot of for-profit jobs also suck and don’t give you raises, and I don’t at all mean to convey that academia is always terrible and industry is always awesome. Anyone who reads this blog knows otherwise on both counts. What is true is that the job I had was terrible for me, and that the job I got is awesome for me. It’s possible it won’t stay that way, or I’ll never get a raise, or whatever. But all of a sudden I have all this freedom. Like, I can just leave. Since I started, I’ve been getting contacted out of the blue by recruiters who are asking me to apply for instructional design jobs at their company, because they’re impressed by the job I’m doing now. I feel like I have options I didn’t have a few months ago if everything goes south here.

In my decades-long experience in academia, administrative bloat and athletic programs aren’t actually the biggest sources of the problem. They’re easy to point fingers at, and as someone pointed out, those arguments line up with talking points of political groups who object to the whole concept of public education at every level. Many athletic programs are supported mostly or entirely by donations. Is that a messed-up measure of where people give money? Yes. But that’s not the same thing as assuming schools could use those same dollars elsewhere. What I have observed at my former workplace and many others is that the first-order culprit is the systematic de-funding of public education that is happening all over the country. One of the political parties actually states officially that “universities are the enemy,” and makes demonizing higher education a centerpiece of their strategy. In my university and, I’m sure, many others, inflation-adjusted per-student spending is down, inflation-adjusted salaries have tanked, and the reason is primarily (not entirely) because public funding has evaporated. My state now pays less than 1% of the budget of my former workplace, and continues to decrease, and will eventually be zero, thanks to the mathematically unavoidable situation created by our tax laws. States that used to provide 70-80% of their higher ed funding are down to 10% and falling. So yeah, administrative bloat, football, etc. etc., but the much much bigger source of the problem is that state governments, the vast majority of which are run by a party that objects to the existence of many of these institutions, have been spending the last 30 years removing as much money from higher education as they can. And succeeding.

One of the hardest things about this transition was the necessity of shifting my identity away from “librarian.” It wasn’t just what I did, it’s who I was. Side note: that is not healthy. So re-organizing my sense of self was a pretty important step, and was much easier with professional help. But I feel like in relinquishing that piece of myself, I have rediscovered the person who went into that career in the first place — I hadn’t seen that person for quite a while, and it’s nice to have her back.

The update-y part of the update is that I’m not quite five months into my new job and new career, and I am So. Much. Happier. Every day I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, like any moment I’m going to discover that actually I hate this, but every week I get to Friday and think, wow, that was a great week. I definitely hit the jackpot with a fantastic manager, and I’m lucky that the work I do is fun and fulfilling. It has changed everything about how I feel about life, work, and myself.

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Administrative Bloat*

    This is such a great follow-up. Right there with ya, OP. If it’s public, wondering if you would share the LinkedIn ex-academic you follow…

    1. JellyBean*

      Would love to know as well, as I have escaped academia and am waayyy happier where I am now, but also using a fraction of my skills and not sure how to parlay previous academic experience into viable biz speak.

      More importantly, congratulations! Escaping a toxic system truly requires courage and grit and takes a while to recover from.

    2. Pied Piper*

      Same! I’m an academic and my contract ends next summer, so I’m job hunting, both inside and outside of academia.
      The knowledge management piece is new to me, so thank you, OP, and I’d love to learn more about the ex-academic!

      1. knowledge manager*

        I turned (minimal!) library experience into a knowledge management job. Highly encourage this option!

        1. JellyBean*

          Thanks for that tip, Knowledge Manager! I had not heard of that sort of position before, but it sounds right up my alley!

  2. AnonymooseToday*

    Good for you OP! I’m so proud. It’s horrible but I love hearing good news of people leaving GLAM positions that turn out great.

    As someone in the same field, couldn’t help but laugh as I’m trying to move from govt to academic, lol, mostly cause the money is so horrible! I wish I had the drive to work on what I like on my off time. My job has killed any energy/motivation I have to get out (which is super not helpful). Actually realized in the last couple years I really enjoy project management and oversaw a content mgmt migration (which there was very little praise/acknowledgement over the smooth transition) and absolutely loved doing it. Am mildly hoping to leverage any prof development money that comes from moving into academia to work on project manager courses. It’s hard though cause every place seems to value outreach over organizing their internal systems to actually make nice features that maybe the outreach portion could be leveraged to help promote everything. So stupid.

    1. Hawk*

      Oof. That last sentence highlights why I left library outreach (it was all marketing) and ended up back in a branch.

  3. Calyx*

    Thank you for highlighting the role of a political party in declaring education to be the enemy. It’s been in train for decades and it is truly worrisome to see how far they’ve gotten. Easily manipulated mobs, unanchored by knowledge, whipped up into a frenzy with their hatred and violence focused on certain groups, are not the foundation of world-leading democracies and nations.

    1. RedinSC*

      That is mostly just a really recent event, I think though, no? I mean, we’ve seen the systematic de-funding of higher education for decades.

      Back in my day (Yeah, I just did that) the state (CA in this case) covered about 85% of the cost for me to attend college. And as OP wrote it’s down to 10% or less now. THis is both democratic and republican leaders in the state doing this, so it’s not just one party’s agenda.

      Those in charge have been making the case that having a highly education population isn’t a good thing for 40+ years.

      1. Boof*

        Has to be done the right way though; some of it was i think to generate tons of phds in the (1980s?), but now there don’t seem to be as much phd jobs; maybe industry is different (I don’t know those numbers) but there’s a lot less grant funding per person applying – sometimes getting A phd felt like a pyramid scheme near the end of it

      2. Princess Sparklepony*

        Higher education is easy to cut because the argument is that the students at that level should be paying for their education. The whole – they are getting the benefit, why aren’t they paying for it schtick. It’s not really fair or true, but it’s an argument that is hard to argue against when people want their taxes lowered.

        And one party makes that argument hard and constantly. The other not so much. It’s not both sides, it’s just that you got to pick your battles. Do you want Pre K and elementary schools to get grants or do you want to fund college… something has to give.

      3. Ally of Democracy*

        “That is mostly just a really recent event” because the decades-long effort is bearing exponentially increasing amounts of fruit. Part of the reason is the way social media’s algorithmically delivered content enables the spread of misinformation (which the undereducated don’t recognize as such), and that has been recently noticed and leveraged by enemies of democracy both foreign and domestic.

    2. Ally of Democracy*

      There’s also the fact that unions have historically been aligned with one party over the other, and by systematically defunding all public education, the non-aligned party can starve some big unions of members and funds.

  4. Exasperated Librarian*

    Current librarian on the job hunt and I definitely needed to hear this. It’s discouraging to think about leaving the field (especially since getting my Master’s!), but thinking about a higher salary, work life balance, and honestly just better organization has put me on the job hunt. I got into libraries straight out of undergrad so it’s been hard to imagine what else I could go into so thanks for that insight :)

  5. AuntieCrow*

    Hi LW! Another ex-librarian here (now in a STEM industry) and you’re spot on with the identity issue. It’s hard to let go of. I think librarianship really leans into that “it’s who you are” mindset, drawing people passionate about public service and education. I thought I’d moved past it until someone in my book club accused me of book banning based on how I picked our titles, and then the librarian came roaring out.

  6. OrigCassandra*

    OP, everybody, I am a librarian and I teach in a library/archives master’s program.

    The degree should be a KEY, not a CAGE.

    Working outside libraries or archives? Call yourself a librarian or archivist in good health, if you want to — you’ll be doing library and archives workers a favor by expanding people’s (often stereotyped and bogus) notions of what we know and what we do.

    If you don’t want to use those titles, that’s also totally fine! I have former students who are (yep) instructional designers, competitive intelligencers, industry taxonomists, software developers, information/data-governance professionals, privacy professionals, or doing one of the jobs that OP suggested. I am proud of them and would never even think to police what they call themselves.

  7. datamuse*

    Former academic librarian here and cosigning all of this, especially the defunding part. I worked for a private university but even there the lack of public investment caused considerable strain. It wasn’t a bad place to work but a combination of factors meant that it was time to move on.

    Fobazi Ettarh’s essay should be required reading in MLIS programs, if it isn’t already.

  8. Annon for this*

    At my university, IT and administration are under the same budget umbrella. IT is being asked to do increasing amounts of things, especially in the last few years, including having and maintaining increasingly elaborate AV setups for both in-person lectures, streaming, and recording. Even if a lot of the equipment was originally bought on grants, no new money has been set aside for repairs or maintaining the equipment. This means that already slim IT budgets are being strained even more because of all of this stuff. On top of this, everything is so much more expensive than it used to be, even more so in IT.

    Admin gets a lot of the blame for money woes, but we’ve had hiring freezes in IT that means that we cannot fill needed vacant positions — these are skilled field specific jobs, not front line support. We used to offer wages which were at least competitive, and other perks that made the jobs appealing. All of those have gone away due to budget cuts and hiring freezes.

    We have the same spending per student problem. Outside of the US so the political situation is very different, but some of it is just that there is simply not enough money to go around.

  9. Purple Teacher*

    I feel like I wrote this update but replace librarian with school teacher.

    I’ve left the field and thinking about doing instructional design or going into training from an HR perspective.

    Good for you, OP and I hope you have continued success!

  10. Llama Zoomer*

    This was an awesome update, and I love that you actually get to teach & design curriculum!

    Also…you wrote: “much much bigger source of the problem is that state governments, the vast majority of which are run by a party that objects to the existence of many of these institutions, have been spending the last 30 years removing as much money from higher education as they can. And succeeding.”

    100% Co-signing, higher ed/academia person for 25 years. It’s depressing and it is getting worse every day, along with the banning of DEI conversations & support. BOO.

    1. Librarian or not*

      Wow…I’m a Librarian with decades of experience, contemplating a career change. I do feel that my identity is “librarian” and I wonder if I can make the change. am I too old? do I have the skills? I’m just starting this path to decide what I want to do next and thus update is soooo helpful.

    2. Haiku*

      As to your last point: Judging by the failures of higher ed in the recent congressional hearing, that may not be a bad thing.

      PSSST Calling for genocide of Jews is bad no matter how they tried to contextualize it. incredibly depressing how the three presidents couldn’t say that. And with that I will comment no further.

  11. PivotTime*

    This letter update and these comments are massively helping me. I’m a current librarian (without the assigned title) and I’m almost at the end of my rope with my current position. I’ve worked at an Ivy League for over a decade and while they spend millions of dollars a year to tell you they’re the greatest, don’t believe the hype.
    I also started in the library field right out of college and while I’ve been unhappy for several years in my workplace, I’ve always convinced myself that I needed to be where I was- I won’t get paid more, they’re the best right?, other people would love to have my job so I shouldn’t complain, etc. I’m scared to change but I’m finally done. At this point I’d work on fishing boat in the Arctic if it meant I didn’t have to hear another patron whine because they can’t get an entire book scanned ( what an awful thing copyright is, I guess).

    1. Sara without an H*

      At this point I’d work on fishing boat in the Arctic if it meant I didn’t have to hear another patron whine because they can’t get an entire book scanned ( what an awful thing copyright is, I guess).

      “But it’s for educational purposes! Doesn’t that mean I can scan the whole thing???” I hear you, PivotTime, I hear you. I was my library’s copyright resource person for years.

      I also once had a job at an Ivy. The Ivy League has been living off its reputation for years and, meanwhile, has completely forgotten (if it ever knew) what it’s supposed to be doing.

      Based on what you say in your letter, it’s time for you to start a discreet job search. Career-changes take longer, so don’t put it off any longer. Check out the AAM archives for advice, turn your cv into a resume, and start looking. Best of luck to you and send us an update when you get something — even if it’s a fishing boat in the Arctic.

  12. Please remove your monkeys from my circus*

    Wow did I need this. I’m approaching 20 years in nonprofit education (non-academia), and I know I need to get out. I bookmarked this post and plan to reread it over and over until I actually internalize it. Then I’ll do my best to follow it like a how-to manual. Thank you, LW!

  13. the Viking Diva*

    “the first-order culprit is the systematic de-funding of public education that is happening all over the country”

  14. nervous wreck*

    Has anyone found a post that they are pretty sure is about them? I don’t mean, that could have been about me, but I GENUINELY think it was about me, from a couple of small details and the timing. The surprise me button took me to a post from 2019, before I started reading here, that I sincerely think was submitted by a boss at an old job about me. And it was embarrassing!!!!!! I knew the thing that person asked about was a problem, but something about it feels different reading it here lol. Wondering if anyone else has had this experience?

  15. works with realtors*

    Shoutouts to all ex-academics, I love my people. Especially the ones who turned into instructional designers ;)

  16. Lia*

    Former administrative staffer who made the jump to private sector almost 5 years ago, and it is SO much better. An actual BUDGET for software and training! Annual raises! And more PTO and a culture where I can actually use it.

  17. Jules the 3rd*

    Big ol’ YES to that ‘defunding public education’. Wake Co NC, 2008 onward, was a major target, because Art Pope (a Koch ally, ALEC member) and Bob Luddy (same) live in NC, and Wake was a large, wealthy county. Perfect for Bob’s New Private School Chain (Thales Academy). But public schools were so good, there wasn’t a big market for private. So they made one.

    2010, they got the NC legislature and gerrymandered it so that they could run through anything they wanted. Art Pope was NC’s Budget Director and pushed through double-digit reductions in school budgets, including NC’s highly-regarded public university system.

    The real reason there’s a student debt problem? Well, ok, insane interest and repayment programs that end up with paying more than twice the original debt, but also shifting the university cost burden from taxpayers (paying for a social good) to individual students.

    Expanding university access through cheap, tax-payer supported tuition and the GI Bill drove the US innovation on the 60s / 70s / 80s / 90s. The more people we can educate, the better the country as a whole does.

    1. AF Vet*

      One positive I see is that federally, the GI Bill got SIGNIFICANTLY better when it switched from Montgomery to Post 9/11 (current iteration). Now we can give it to a spouse / kids, it gives a cost of living stipend that actually allows you to study without working, and it can stop be used for everything from basics to PhD, vocational, etc.

      I wish that states could see how powerful the GI Bill is, and figure out ways to apply it at state levels. It still is an insanely powerful tool for recruiting and retention in the military (you can’t give it to your dependents unless you have at least 36 months time-in-service left on your contract, which becomes a nice retention benefit for someone that marries or has a child toward the end of their enlistment). Maybe you don’t join the military, but you work as a state employee doing the jobs no one wants for X years and earn it that way?

      It’s not perfect, but I’m glad we’ll be able to pass at least one to our kids. (I couldn’t pass mine down because of the time-in-service issue, so I’ll use mine to get a PhD at some point. For fun. Because I am an idiot. :D )

  18. GingerFox*

    That ‘Administrative bloat’ narrative in universities really drives me nuts. I have worked in the sector for more than 20 years in admin, and the workload is intense. I often hear academic referring to having too many administrative staff, but usually it’s because they have no idea what we do, and that if we weren’t here, then they would realise how much load we are taking off academics.

  19. Accounting is Fun*

    I feel like I could have written this post!!! I recently got downsized out of academia and moved back into practice (my subject matter experience is something that doesn’t need much more than a little updating of software skills to go back into practice). I honestly miss my students and the summer pace of work, but I love the consistent schedule in practice along with the perks of being able to work from home occasionally without having to explain to my boss why I can’t drive in a blizzard, and the reduced amount of office politics. It has been wonderful to be able to transition back into the corporate world. There is life after academia!!!!

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