Melanie Nelson

President at MRN Consulting

On Leaving: Always Be Able to Walk Away

Full full 04032014 bonvoyage


Image: "Bon Voyage by Western Union" (telegram to Mr. & Mrs. Prescott Stoughton from "Mae and Walter") - via Seaport Museum Archives

One of the biggest differences between academia and industry is job security. In academia, many Ph.D.s aim for a tenure-track position, in part, because it provides a great deal of security. The emphasis on security lingers when they decide to leave higher education. All too often, I see Ph.D.s focus on job security when looking for their first industry position.

That focus is misplaced, because even in a relatively secure nonacademic job, it is best to always be able to walk away.

I have spent my career in the volatile biotechnology industry — where five years at a job is considered a long run. Companies merge, redirect their efforts, or just close up shop. Working in an industry like that, you learn to focus on career security, not job security.

You also learn the importance of being able to leave. Even if your job survives a reorganization or a round of layoffs, sometimes the resulting company is not a place you want to work anymore. Sometimes, your role changes to the point that you can no longer find anything to enjoy in your work. Or perhaps you realize that your new role is incompatible with your long-term career goals. Sometimes, it isn’t the job that changes, but you. Your goals and aspirations are no longer met by the job you’re in.

Whatever the cause, the question is: When the time comes to leave, will you be able to go on your own terms?

Too often, people stay in a position long after they should, which can have negative effects on your career and on you. Careerwise, the longer you stay in a job that isn’t working for you, the more likely you are to lose your patience and do something unprofessional on the way out. Even if you maintain your professionalism, it is hard to maintain your enthusiasm in a job you dislike (or worse, hate), and that bleeds into your work. It is better to leave before those things create a negative impression on your colleagues, because there is a high likelihood that they will be asked about you in the future — either through a formal reference check or through the grapevine. Overstaying in a job can also affect your personal well-being if your company is no longer a place where you feel you can grow and thrive. Very few of us are naturally able to completely compartmentalize the stress from such a situation. Most of us will bring that stress home.

When that happens, you have three choices:

  • Leave the job.
  • Learn how to leave the stress and negative feelings from the job at your front door.
  • Become an unhappy and bitter person.

I don’t think anyone wants Option No. 3. Learning to leave the stress and negative feelings at the door is an excellent goal, but one that takes a lot of work and practice. Even if you aim to reach that level of Zen, being able to quit and find something healthier is a good option to have. For me, there are four components to being able to leave a job.

Your finances. Will you have the money to pay your bills while you find something else? It took me at least a decade, post-Ph.D., before I could honestly answer that question with a Yes. That was, in part, because of bad financial decision-making in the early years of my career. But it was also because it’s hard to build up the kind of large financial buffer recommended in all the personal-finance advice I have ever read. But once you have that buffer, I can personally vouch for the peace of mind it provides. Most of us prefer to find a new job while still working at the old one but that may be counterproductive for the reasons I’ve already noted. Therefore, it is smart to have a financial buffer that can support you during a period of unemployment and allow you to make a career decision that is best for you — and not just your bank account.

Your network. You need a solid network to help you find the next job. That becomes especially important when you are unemployed. It’s true that some hiring managers view applications from unemployed people as somewhat more suspect than applications from people currently in a job, but that is less pronounced in volatile industries where just about everyone has experienced a layoff at some point in their career. It is also an effect that can be combated with good networking. If one of your references is someone the hiring manager knows and trusts — who can vouch for your good work ethic and strong skills — that will more than compensate for the inevitable question about why you are unemployed. This is one reason why you should spend time on networking even when you’re happily employed. A good network can only be grown over time, via genuine engagement with other people in your industry. Think of the time you spend on networking as career insurance.

Your skills. Another form of career insurance is to constantly broaden your skills. The more you have, the easier it is to find your next job, and the easier it is to feel confident enough to walk away from an unhealthy work situation. You can grow your skills in many ways. Look for opportunities to try new things at work, or look outside your company to find a side project that allows you to develop new skills. Take advantage of training opportunities at your office. Attend classes or conferences that will help you expand your skillset. This does not need to feel like a chore. Find opportunities to learn about new topics that interest you in your field or a related one. Don’t feel shy about asking your manager about this. Most companies give managers “staff enrichment” goals. Your suggestions will make it easier for your manager to meet those goals.

Your life outside of work. The final component to being able to leave a job is perhaps the least obvious. It is to make sure that you have a solid identity outside of your job. I’ve known people to stay in downright destructive work situations because so much of their self-worth and identity is tied up in their work that they cannot face the idea of being unemployed. They are paralyzed to the point that staying put is causing their health to suffer and undermining their family relationships. Don’t let this happen to you. Make work a part of your identity, but not all of it. Invest in hobbies and other interests so that the thought of being without a job does not equate to being worthless in your mind. Who knows? Your hobby may give you insight on a problem you face at work. Many creative ideas come from the application of knowledge from one area to a completely different field. But even if your hobby never brings you anything but joy and a sense of self-worth separate from your work, those are very valuable things.

This “always be ready to leave” approach to your career is very different from the one we absorb in our early doctoral training. It can feel a bit strange — as if I’m arguing that you shouldn’t commit too strongly to a job.

I am not. I do not take the decision to leave a position lightly. But my own experiences and my observations of people around me have convinced me that having the ability to leave at any time makes people more fearless in their work, and that in turn, makes them better at their jobs. And that is the best career insurance there is.

Join the Conversation


Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.