By Corianne Payton Scally

When the Academy Gets in the Way of Calling

I had the privilege of participating in a University-wide leadership development program during the year I was being considered for tenure. I had been recruited to apply, given my history of growing responsibility and leadership within the University and award-winning community engagement activities. At first, I wasn’t sure if I should apply for the program. I was growing uneasy with my career goal of gaining tenure at a research university, which I seemed very likely to achieve.

I had been told as a doctoral student that the most important thing is to get your first tenure-track job. It didn’t matter if it was the best fit, just that it was an okay one for the time being (which I have learned is rather outdated advice from a different era). I knew I was interested in research, wanted to teach in my areas of expertise, and desired to be engaged in real projects for surrounding communities. I was offered a position that met all of those criteria, and I took it.

As a woman in the academy, I had my own expectations for my career. I was often dismayed when I saw women quit their degree programs, or end up outside of academia. I felt very strongly that the best way to change academia was from the inside out, that we needed more women in roles of leadership and influence, and I was called to be one of them. Colleagues affirmed this calling when I was elected president of the faculty women’s group within my national academic association. It seemed as if my influence was growing in the way I had hoped and expected.

All of these expectations that I had for myself and for other female academics set the stage for intense disappointment when I faced the fact that I was increasingly unhappy in academia. I felt pulled in too many directions that I didn’t want to take. Doors of opportunity that at first seemed open were slammed shut. Bitter and disillusioned, I faced an identity crisis. After working so hard to achieve and excel, why wasn’t this life in academia what I expected? Isn’t this what God wanted me to do? He had given me this calling and these talents, after all.

When I started the faculty leadership program, I was finally ready to look past my superficial goal of tenure based on the trifecta of research, teaching, and service, and instead reflect on what I was really passionate about doing with the talents and desires God has given me. This was exactly the time I needed, and I was surprised by my painful conclusions. It turned out I had tremendous passion for my field that had been suppressed and suffocated by a long list of responsibilities. These passions — policy research, innovation, and impact — really hadn’t changed much since I decided to pursue a PhD. Rather than further these passions, however, my tenured job (and others I had pursued) was crowding them out. My calling hadn’t changed, rather, my academic position had become an obstacle.

It was painfully obvious to me that I needed a change. Teaching had lost its joy. Research and writing had ground to a halt. Service had become a burden. None of it was transforming my discipline and field in the ways I expected and wanted. And I was working too hard to the detriment of my family already.

So I did the unthinkable. I got tenure and resigned just a few weeks later, without another position lined up. To some, it may have seemed like a reactionary response to some temporary set-backs. In reality, it was a well-orchestrated journey crafted by an omniscient God — one with enough rejection to cause me to change course and adequate affirmation to propel me forward. Gracious family, friends, and colleagues helped cushion my landing outside the academy as I launched my own research consulting firm in pursuit of my passions.

Since leaving academia a year ago, I have talked with many women considering academic positions or already in them who are wondering if academia is right for them. Before embarking on my own journey, I would have had a hard time envisioning an alternate future for them. Now, it is clear to me that a PhD can lead wherever God wants it to.

About the Author

Corianne Payton Scally was a professor of urban planning and public policy at a public state university for ​seven​ years, where she received tenure. After running her own research consulting firm for the past year, she and her husband and two children are relocating to the Washington​,​ D.C.​,​ metropolitan area so she can pursue her passions​,​​​ which include​​ affordable housing and community development policy and implementation​, at a national research organization. 

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