Photo from behind the wheel of a car - our neighbors lined up in front of our old house to send us on our way the day we moved

in Libraries, Life, Providence, Richmond

What it means to leave

In early 2016 I posted What it means to stay, a rumination on staying put in my job long-term, building community, and switching into marathon mode in my workplace. I continue to hear from folks that it resonates with you.

This post is a follow-up: supporting my wife as she exited a harmful work situation, moving nine states away, changing careers, and finding professional footing again after a long run in higher ed and academic libraries.

What happened after I wrote that post

I stayed six more years at my job. During that time:

  • I was promoted from line librarian to department head and did some great work that I was proud of.
  • I married a fellow academic at my institution. Cue the two-body problem.
  • COVID hit and, like many folks, I reassessed my career.
  • Meanwhile, my wife’s working conditions became untenable.
  • She went on the market and got a great job offer.
  • We moved nine states away.
  • I left my job and changed career fields twice in two years.

We made our move in 2022, and it has taken me almost two years to write this post. Writing it has been healing. It’s still not where I want it to be, but I need to just publish it so I can write about other things.

Giving myself permission to go

How did this happen? Things moved slowly ‘til they didn’t.

The COVID career reassessment

Our rapid shift to work-from-home during COVID made me realize not only that I could work from home, but that I loved it. Remote work gave me more separation between work and my personal life, not less. At the end of each day, I’d sign off work, close my laptop, and walk immediately into the kitchen to make dinner. During a time of unceasing chaos in the world, I had the immense privilege of this centering routine. It’s something I still cherish being able to do.

Go high, go deep, or get out

In the midst of intersecting global crises, a pandemic and an insurrection, I also increasingly struggled to feel that the work I was doing every day mattered. I didn’t want to climb the ladder any further, and I knew that if I wanted to leave my specialized field, it needed to happen soon.

In my post eight years ago, I wrote about a friend telling me I could “go high or go deep” in my career. Over time, I realized there was a third option: to just go.

Letting go of the idea of a career arc

I started to do research. I met with generous friends and friends-of-friends who had been working in the private sector for years. I learned the language that people used to describe their work, and how they framed problems they were trying to solve. It sounded interesting and not totally dissimilar from my experience.

I slowly began to detach myself from the idea that my career needed to go in a straight line. I gave myself permission to go, and to try something new.

The two-body problem

While I was exploring my exit from academia, my wife’s working conditions at our university continued to deteriorate, even and especially after she got tenure. Though my situation in the library was better, her experience affected me, too. It had real consequences for both of our health and well-being. I also felt disappointed and frustrated with the institution for overworking, ignoring, and ultimately turning its back on my wife.

By the time my wife got her new job offer, we’d both gotten our heads where they needed to be for us to move on. It was time to go.

Making the move

Things really fell into place once we decided to go, which made the transition a lot easier. Within a month, we sold a house, bought a house, and I got a fully remote job at a small consultancy (based partly on the connections I’d made at my library job). Moving is hard enough; we were lucky that it went as smoothly as it could have.

The hardest thing was leaving our people

The featured image for this post is a photo of our dear neighbors gathering early in the morning of our moving day to hug us and send us on our way.

Almost two years later, saying goodbye is still the part that physically aches to think about. Leaving our jobs was relatively easy; leaving the home we’d created and our web of love and support – friends, neighbors, and colleagues – hurt the most. My wife and I had collectively spent 21 years creating our community in Richmond. It was heartbreaking to go.

The second hardest thing was the identity crisis

Screenshot of tweet from Erin: "Memorializing this moment, afternoon, day 2 of a new job in the private sector after spending the first 15 years of my career in academia, staring at a blank document titled 'Professional bio - Erin' with the cursor blinking. Y'all..."

Skip forward to the move. My wife and I were navigating big changes together: new part of the country, new city, new home, new jobs. Along with all of these big changes came some seismic identity shifts for me as I stepped into a new workplace.

For years prior, I told myself I had a distinct identity separate from my career in libraries, and to some degree, I did. But my professional identity crisis after leaving higher ed was still intense and painful.

Finding legibility

Academic librarianship was such a tidy professional identity for me. I’d established myself in my field, was a respected leader at my institution, and was confident in my work. My wife was an academic, too. Many of our friends worked at the university where we worked. All of it fit so neatly together before. Now that I wasn’t in libraries or in higher ed, what was I?

Changing career fields, I struggled to find a new way to relate to my professional identity and tell my story in a way that was legible not only to others, but to me.

This took a long time and is still a work in progress. But it was a potent and necessary reminder that I needed to embrace that I am a person who exists outside of the work I do.

Releasing the expectations

Despite the professional identity crisis, I also felt a deep sense of relief when I was able to release the expectations I didn’t even know I was holding for myself.

I stopped worrying (or even thinking) about many of the things I had found extremely important when I was working in libraries. I felt guilty, but when I could viscerally sense the tension releasing in my body, the guilt turned to relief. I exhaled. I imagine this is what it’s like for many people when they retire.

New to the job, but not new to work

Starting a new job in an entirely new field after 13 years at the same employer was scary. I wasn’t entirely sure I had the experience to do the job well, and was worried that I was stuck in my ways. By the end of the first week, though, I saw obvious areas where I could plug in and realized I brought lots of skills along with me.

Transferable skills

Many folks who have left libraries and higher ed have talked about transferable skills. Some, in particular, that I carried with me into the private sector:

  • Talking with people and building relationships
  • Managing projects and stakeholders
  • Recruiting, hiring, retaining, rewarding, and managing people
  • Facilitating meetings and workshops, and presenting to groups of all sizes
  • Writing for different audiences, including communicating “professionally”
  • Mapping out, clarifying, and streamlining workflows
  • Strategic planning
  • Understanding how technologies connect and how the internet works
  • Putting theory into practice for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility
  • Instructional design, web design, writing for the web, working with legacy processes and systems, data analysis, research, and so much more.

Same shit, different context

The biggest transferable skill I brought with me, though, was perspective.

I spent the first part of my career learning how to navigate ambiguity, see the forest as well as the trees, build relationships, and create good work I was proud of. Entering new workspaces, I realized I’d learned how to read patterns, relationships, power structures, issues and assets in a much different way, and to identify what was going on at an organizational level. No matter where I went, I had the maturity and x-ray vision of someone who’d seen things. I also had a much stronger sense of where I wanted my boundaries to be, and I stuck to ’em.

Knowing myself

After well over a decade of working full time, I also felt at ease about who I was, what I did and didn’t bring, and where I needed to grow. I wasn’t afraid to say “I don’t know.” Though I was apprehensive about starting something new, I was less self-conscious than I was when I first entered the professional world. I very much owned my mid-career status, rather than feeling like a total newbie.

And because all my coworkers were new to me, not folks I had worked with since I was 24, they didn’t see me as a newbie, either.

Beginner’s brain

My new company’s culture was extremely welcoming for newcomers, and I felt supported to be completely honest about how this was a big transition and a learning curve for me.

Rather than seeing me just as someone who needed to be brought up to speed, my new coworkers saw my newness as a value-add. They asked what I thought as someone with fresh eyes on the business, and we ended up implementing several changes early on based on my ideas.

It also felt refreshing to be very new at something, to feel that uncertainty again for the first time in a while, and to remind myself that this was something I was capable of handling.

I also relished learning about how businesses work, which would help me later on when (much to my own surprise) I started my own business. I felt new synapses firing.

The second quarter of my career

Early on at my new job, a coworker explained her move to our company as “the way I wanted to spend the last quarter of my career.” My coworker had carefully chosen where she wanted to spend her last few years in the workforce. She wasn’t putting pressure on herself to follow a certain career progression.

Thinking of work-life as a series of strategic moves, rather than a graph going forever up, resonated with me. Thanks to my new colleague I had words for what was happening. I was starting the second quarter of my career.

A final note on leaving academia

Anyway, all I ever meant by “the institution cannot love you” was this: whether the institution makes you feel great or horrible, it isn’t about you. Institutions aren’t choosing NOT to love you. They are choosing to reproduce themselves.

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Many smart folks have written about leaving academia. Academic and cultural heritage institutions anywhere are going to do one thing for certain: self-perpetuate at all costs. “Institutions gonna institution” is a common refrain at our house.

The more I moved into leadership positions at my previous institution, the pricklier I felt about maxims like “the institution cannot love you”, because it felt personal. But it’s not personal. Academic and cultural heritage institutions thrive when employees believe these falsehoods:

  • This work is a vocation, a calling – not just a job.
  • You are your work. Your work is you.
  • You can’t be useful in any other field.
  • Overwork is a virtue. (And often, a requirement.)
  • If you do a good job, the reward is more work.
  • A vacancy is no excuse not to do the work.
  • If you don’t do it, no one will.
  • You can always do more with less.
  • You’ll need an outside offer if you dare to ask for a raise.
  • If you just follow the right administrative process, justice will be served.
  • The institution cares about you and will protect you.

My wife’s situation brought a lot of this into sharp focus for me. I realized that, especially as a middle manager, I had believed and perpetuated many of these myths for years. Leaving academia helped me see this all more clearly and learn what’s important for me.

My departure from academia made space for my wife to heal, too. Though she’s still in higher ed, her workplace is unionized, and she has far more protections than before. And because I’ve got a foot planted firmly outside of academia, we are both a little more more grounded, hopeful and happy.

This story is to be continued. Maybe there’ll be another update in 2032. Stay tuned.


For folks sticking around to fight the good fight in higher ed: the United Campus Workers Union continues to grow its power.

I’ve started, and continue to update, a guide to getting a job outside of academia, in part because so many folks have reached out for advice. Perhaps you’ll find it useful too.

Some related posts from former cultural heritage workers that have helped me a lot:

Thank you for reading.

  1. What a wonderful essay – and with a happy outcome! I love how you describe the “X-ray vision” that develops after working in a large, complex institution. It is a superpower.
    I’ve told colleagues for years – in and outside academia – that they might love their work (and I hope they do) but never to forget that the job will never love them back. It’s never personal – it’s just not how jobs are built. They are, as Dr. Cottom says, built only to replicate, never to feel. Keeping that in mind has been very clarifying – and I am confident that my work has gotten better for it.
    I’m very glad to read this post. Thank you for sharing it!

    • Thank you so much, Greg – I am glad to have stayed connected with you over the years! +1 to each of these things you’ve shared. That perspective is crucial.

  2. Came here through Alexis posting this on LinkedIn, great post. It’s heartbreaking that you two left your community but I’m glad you found a more sustainable place to land. I was going to just continue and wait out my toxic employment but then was laid off. Only through the union contract, has it pushed me into places I didn’t expect to go, I’m still not sure how I feel about that yet.

    • Uncertainty is totally the name of the game during/after a big change like this. Hoping you continue to find clarity!

  3. This is literally the best thing Ive read about career and work life in modern times. I resonated with soooooo much of this. So well written, so well explained. *chef’s kiss*

    Im in the middle of a move across country right now for my career and my new wifes career. Excited and horrified all at the same time. I knew it was hard for both of you, and it will be hard for us too – but it also feels necessary and a natural progression of being more confident in yourself and your abilities. I have to stop because I’ll probably just ramble too much.

    Best of luck to you and your partner, Erin! May you keep writing awesome shit like this – for yourself, and for all of us Institutioning.

    • Derrick – thank you for these kind words and congrats on your move! Joy and grief tangled up together, and hopefully some fun new adventures are ahead for y’all too. Godspeed!

  4. Lovely and so spot on! Congrats on the move (though we miss y’all!), both physical and career.

    I would echo that the institutional lies exist in extraacademic settings as well. Instead, these truths should arise:
    • We are not a family
    • Psychological and political abuse is not acceptable
    • You’re not entitled to anything you don’t work for, but you’re also not less valuable
    • You should be as loyal to the org as it is to you…no more and no less.

    See ya’s!

  5. Erin, I came across your essay this evening while perusing my LinkedIn account. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written introspection into your career and recent move.
    Working alongside you on the G team was truly a gift. You are a consummate professional and someone to emulate.
    Looking forward to working with you again one day, and reading your next chapter.

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