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Leaving Academia: One Chapter Ends, Another Begins

Posted on April 23 2013

One day last summer I had lunch with my friends Nate and Brett at a local burrito joint. During the course of our conversation the topic of my uncertain future had come up. Nate, an entrepreneur who followed his passion for motorcycles into a new career, said something that really stuck with me. I don’t remember his exact wording, but it was something along the lines of “the best way to move forward is to cut the ties that are holding you back.” Nate’s words have been on my mind a lot over the past seven months, and I’m excited (and a bit frightened…) to say that my ties have now been cut.

Last Monday was a day I will never forget. Everyone will remember it as the day that the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon, and I’ll remember it for that as well. But, just a few hours prior to the tragedy, as the elite women were nearing the finish line, I was pressing the send button on an email to the Dean of my college announcing my intent to resign my faculty position at the end of my current contract (May 18). I had decided to quit a secure job to pursue my passion. Needless to say, it was a very emotional day…

My decision to leave academia was a long time in the making. I don’t recall exactly when the thought first entered my mind, but the momentum started to build rapidly last summer. Just before Christmas I requested and was granted a one-year, unpaid leave of absence so that I could contemplate my future and test the non-academic waters a bit. That gave me some time, but over the past few months I’d come to realize that a leave of absence was only delaying a decision that my heart had already made. It was time for a change.

Deciding to leave a tenured faculty position was not easy. In fact, it was terrifying. Having a tenured position is what most people in my line of work dream of, and most stick with it for life. It’s hard to let go of security and a stable paycheck, but I came to realize that happiness means more to me than security or money. I kept asking myself if I’d be happy doing the same thing for the next 25 years, and the fact that the answer was never yes was telling.

There were a lot of factors that went into making the final call. I’ve come to realize that though I love teaching, I’m not in love with academia. I’ve studied or worked in colleges and universities for the past 20 years, and I’m feeling a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the state of higher education. I don’t enjoy committee work, and I can’t stand academic politics. I don’t like that education is becoming more and more of a business where the bottom line matters above all else. The cost of a college education scares the heck out of me, and I can’t help but wonder if there is a better way of doing things (I’m intrigued by the thought of teaching a few classes as an adjunct at a local community college). I’ve come to hate the fact that I spend over an hour a day commuting in my car, and even more hours sitting in a chair in front of an office computer. More than anything I hate spending my days far away from my family. I could go on and on, but no need to air any more dirty laundry.

Perhaps bigger than any of the negatives that forced my decision is the fact that I’m incredibly excited about the options I have going forward. When I started this blog, I had no idea of the opportunities that it would open up for me. I had no idea that it would become an avenue to support my family. And I had no idea that it would allow me to continue teaching, just in a different way than in a traditional classroom lecture. I’ve fallen in love with writing, and I’ve come to realize that what makes me happy is helping others to get active and stay active. The latter has become my passion, and is the center that links all of my future activities together.

So what exactly is it that I will be doing with myself as I move forward? There are three main directions I’m pursuing, all running related, and all with a central goal of getting people active.

1. Websites. I’m going to continue to write here on Runblogger, and this will likely consume the biggest chunk of my time (it already does!). We are also nearing a launch for our Run Radar site, so I’m excited about getting that up and running.

2. Coaching. A few weeks ago I started coaching a beginner 5K group through my town rec with a friend I met through a running workshop I co-taught last summer (Erin Girzone). I never realized how rewarding something like this could be. The experience has made me realize that a coach is very much a teacher, and I’ve spent several workouts talking about exercise physiology with other adults out on the track (teaching on the track is way more fun than in a classroom!).

Erin and I are already planning on running our beginner 5K program again in the Fall, and are talking about building programs for longer distances as well for those who want to continue on from the 5K. We are focused on working with total beginners for now, as well as those looking to make a first attempt at a longer distance race. Our approach is comprehensive (form, footwear, strengthening, etc.) and extremely gradual, and is seems to be working well so far.

In addition to the 5K program, I’ve also been invited to be part of the coaching team at one of the Craftsbury Running Camps in VT this summer. Super excited about that!

3.  Clinical Work. My friend Brett Coapland has invited me to join his clinic (Performance Health Sport and Spine Therapy) as an exercise physiologist/gait analyst/form coach/shoe guy. I’ve worked informally with several of Brett’s patients over the past year and have very much enjoyed doing so – I’m so used to teaching students about the human body that it’s been a refreshing change to actually use my knowledge in an applied way. I will be working out of his offices at least a few days per week to start beginning next month, and we have a lot of big ideas about where this could go!

And so, off I head down a new path, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m giving up a salary, but refocusing on things that I love which should be able to support my family. And I will find my way!

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