Saturday, January 5, 2019

How I Fought Through Burnout And Found A New Career


I did it. I finally did it! After months of searching and weeks of interviewing (and lots of waiting), I got a new job.

I GOT A NEW JOB!

Better yet, after years of feeling like I was trapped in the wrong field, I got a new career. And that's a really, really big deal to me because for the longest time I thought I was stuck for good, a fear that sometimes kept me up at night and made me feel deeply regretful of certain choices I've made.

How did I end up on the wrong career path?


In the first week of my PhD program, my department's director of graduate studies asked me what my ultimate career goal was. I told him that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college. The truth was that I wasn't sure, but it seemed like the appropriate academic response. It seemed like something I should want to do.

I've always been vulnerable to the shoulds. 

The director took my response seriously and shared it with his colleagues. Soon all of the faculty knew what I (thought I) wanted to do with my life.

My department was small and supportive, and they gave me every opportunity to prepare for my future career. Throughout my four years of graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant and head teaching assistant, substituted when lecturers were out of the office, and attended teaching workshops and seminars. I even won a teaching award. 

My department's support was amazing, but I felt conflicted. When I was doing research - processing samples, working in the lab, analyzing my data - I felt centered and in control. I felt like I knew what I was doing. When I was teaching, I felt like I had to be someone else. I felt like I had to entertain my students to keep them engaged and justify the time they spent in my class. Standing at the podium, all eyes on me, made me uneasy. From the outside, though, I looked like I was doing it right. People kept telling me I was good at it, and I liked that.

In my final year of grad school, I applied for tenure-track teaching jobs. The job market in my field was unusually hot that season, and I landed a position right out of the gate as an assistant professor at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. It was exactly what I'd said I wanted to do. Feeling very lucky and very grateful, I signed my contract. My family moved to the middle of nowhere and I started writing lesson plans.

That was the beginning of the wrong career for me.

I worked as an assistant professor for two years. Once again, I gave the appearance of doing well. My lectures were lively and interactive, my students were pleasant to work with, I served on various committees, I made friends with the other faculty, and I earned an outstanding first-year review. Behind closed doors it was a different story. I was self-conscious, depressed, suicidal, and anxious. I hated living in the boonies. I hated the pressure of having to be in front of a classroom every day. I developed a stutter and started to lose my words mid-sentence. I cried on the kitchen floor most mornings before work. 

After the second year, I made the right decision to quit. We embarked on a six-month RV adventure across the country before landing in our new and expensive town, where it quickly became apparent that I'd need to make some money if we wanted to stay. Soon I found a job at a local university as a freshman academic advisor. I thought it'd be perfect for me: no teaching required, but I'd be able to deploy my experience in higher education. It didn't take long before I was once again feeling overwhelmed, this time by low pay, long hours, high stress, and the emotional toll that comes with trying to support a few hundred people who are going through an earth-shaking change in their lives. Within months, depression and anxiety returned, as did the stutter. I started job hunting.

Finally I found another employment opportunity - my current role. This one was in higher education, too. It gave me pause as clearly I'd struggled in my previous two jobs, but as an online instructor, I'd be able to work from home. My interactions with other humans would be buffered by distance, phones, and screens. Plus, I'd taught online before and hadn't totally hated it. I felt hopeful that perhaps this was the perfect fit. 

Within months it became evident that the position was little more than a thinly-veiled customer service role. The only students I interacted with were the ones who were unhappy, frustrated, and completely disinterested in the subject matter. I spent hours on the phone... and there was the stutter, right on cue, accompanied by the now all-too-familiar depression and anxiety.

This is what burnout looks like


Teachers aren't supposed to say these things, but here we are:

I've been working in higher education for more than 4.5 years, and I am spent. I am burnt out. I no longer wish to educate. I have no desire to try to motivate the unmotivated. I'm sick of administrations that expect me to convince people do things they clearly don't want to do. I am tired of having to make my area of specialty seem fun! and exciting! and applicable! so that students will want to engage with the education that they chose to pursue and pay for. I'm resentful of my job and sad that I'm using just a tiny fraction of the knowledge that I gained in graduate school. And while I empathize with the gut-wrenching hardships that so many students experience in their lives, I feel ill-equipped to help them navigate those challenges. I am not a counselor or a therapist. I am not their parent or friend. I'm just a science geek with questionable social skills.

Clearly something needed to change. 

Finding a new path


Several months ago I stumbled upon a job ad for a full-time academic editing position. I eyed it for a few days. I was intrigued yet doubtful: although I love writing, I have little editing experience and know next to nothing about grammar. But the application was brief and straightforward. I took an hour to fill it out, fully expecting to never receive a reply.

A few days later the company got back to me and asked me to try a test edit. I read through the manuscript and my stomach sank: it was a complicated piece of work. Where would I even begin? I almost deleted the message but finally decided to give it a shot. I set a timer, did what I could in 90 minutes, and returned my edits to the recruiter.

It must have passed muster because I was invited in for a preliminary interview. The interviewer's passion for the company and his work was obvious, and when he described the mission and culture of the organization, I felt a glimmer of excitement. I could picture myself in this role. It scared me because I started to really want it.

After a couple weeks of radio silence and some scheduling mishaps, I was invited back for two more interviews with various managers and other personnel. These, too, went well, though I had no idea how to answer some of the more technical questions. I kept expecting a "thanks but no thanks" email to materialize in my inbox.

Waiting... and more waiting... and then my references were contacted... 

and then suddenly there was a job offer!

Changing the things that aren't working


For me, the most amazing part of this isn't getting a new job. The amazing part is that my job life wasn't working for me and I found a way to change it. The result is that in a few weeks I will no longer work in higher education. I'll be an editor - or at least an editor-in-progress. 

I doubted myself at every. single. step. in this process. Putting myself out there was terrifying.  I felt like I wasn't smart enough, experienced enough, or articulate enough. I worried that they'd see my work history and dismiss me as a job hopper or notice my graduation year and think I'm too old. As unhappy as I am at my current job, part of me felt that staying put would be the better and safer option.

Still, I got out of my comfort zone and gave it my all. Every time they held up a new hoop, I made myself jump through it to the best of my ability. I told myself to focus on the process and what I could learn from it. I convinced myself that trying was a win in and of itself, an experience worth having regardless of the outcome.

I'm a worrier by nature, and so even though I'm excited, I'm also a little nervous. Okay, no. Really, really nervous. What if I give notice and then the new job somehow falls through? What if I give notice and the current place lets me go? What if I start the new job and I suck at it? And what about money? The new job pays less than the current one. We'll need to adjust our budget and extend our debt payoff goals. Financially, it's a big shift.

There are no guarantees, but then again, there are never any guarantees in life. So this year I've decided I'm taking some risks, and this is the first one. I'm going to take a chance on myself and see what happens because I think this next career step could be good. Really good.

6 comments:

  1. Congratulations!!

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  2. Congrats on finding a new job. And it's good that you realized that you need a change and take the step to get that done. Kudos to you.

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  3. I am soooo excited and even more hopeful for you with this new job. Congratulations again, my lovely friend.

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  4. This is huge and I am always excited to hear about how someone has navigated out of the academic life. Congrats!

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  5. Wow, this sounds great. With any business, there is always more risk than in the public sector, but it sounds like you weren't planning on staying in academia anyway. The job sounds like a great fit!

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  6. Very nice blog. Thanks for sharing.

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