A friend recently called for advice about making the move to academia. Many nurses and other professionals in government civil service and uniformed services have doctoral degrees in their chosen professions and of those, a significant number have worked in policy, research and development, and administration. If they entered public service right out of college they are relatively young when they reach the years of service necessary to retire. I was 48 so I had time for another 20-year career and I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do than teach.
Why Make the Move
A life of service is hard to leave. Any person that has dedicated their life and professional career to the service of the country is unlikely to be fully satisfied in corporate America or staying at home. When you chose government service you clearly do not do it for the money and that is a characteristic that is unlikely to change. You may like having money, but most likely it is not the key driver for making a decision. The retirement check gives you the freedom to follow the heart and the ability to take a salary less than what you were making in the government and still break even.
When I left active duty I applied for four jobs. Three jobs were in academia and one was with the state government. I almost immediately had three interviews and three job offers. I took the one that paid the least but was most likely to be an easier transition. As my husband told me, I was used to people “kissing my ass” and doing what I said without question and in academia neither would happen. That would turn out to be a very pleasant change. There is little that is more limiting to personal growth than blind loyalty or loyalty out of fear of position.
You may have given a lot, but a lot was given to you. If you are retiring you have given your entire adult life to service to the country. But, your country has been giving too. My Ph.D. was fully funded, every training course I took was paid for by the government, and every effort was made to help me succeed. I may have given, but I received in equal or greater measure. When the Ph.D. program in nursing began at the Uniformed Services University one of the hopes was that after completing service to the country those they educated would then teach as a way of giving back. Never forget the country you served also served you.
There is a difference between what is taught and what one needs to succeed. Senior officers and government official hire and train hundreds if not thousands of young people fresh out of college. They have seen what makes those young people successful and what leads to difficulties in their professional lives. It is true that what is taught in college is essential knowledge and if done well gives a young person the necessary skills to adapt, but in many cases, it is the skills of listening, respect, professional presentation, and teamwork that are missing. As an officer or a senior official, you know how to blend this information into impactful lessons in a way a person who spent their life in academia will not.
I am easily able to explain to students why it is important to always be early for work and to think before you speak. I have a dozen real-life stories of things that have happened. I also have stories of people that thought they were on the right path but didn’t recognize that they had strong talent that would take them further if they had the courage to chose a different path or make a career change. One of our Presidental Management Fellows who was a nurse turned out to be the best champion of the Combined Federal Campaign our office ever had. She was missing her calling in fundraising and went on to be very successful. Not every student in nursing wants to be a nurse. It is okay to point out other paths they may take after finishing their degree. It isn’t necessary to change majors. It is fine to take a nontraditional path.
Academia needs people with well-developed leadership skills. There are things universities do well, but teaching leadership is not one of them. From day one as an officer leadership is taught and emphasized. It is not about learning to administer, which is definitely emphasized, but about leading. Don’t misunderstand, there are some amazing Deans, Provosts, and Presidents of universities, but there are even more that have little formal leadership training. What makes a great researcher isn’t always what makes a great leader.
If you work for the federal government until retirement you will have been sent to courses on strategic planning, financial management, personnel management, and leadership. You have probably managed large numbers of people, large and small budgets, grants, pilot projects, policy development and implementation, and a plethora of special projects. You have in your toolbox things the average academic does not have and in addition, you have been tested under different leaders and multiple administrations with all the political appointees they bring with them who may are may not have any knowledge of the area they oversee. Most importantly you have grown a thick skin and learned how to work fast and under pressure.
I was privileged to work with an amazing President, Provost and Graduate Dean when I first came to academia. They hired me for my leadership skills and not my academic history. The department had been without a Chair for a couple of years and the one before me had left quickly. I had looked for the job that needed my skills and was also willing to let me teach. When those three job offers came in there was no doubt which one I wanted and which was the best fit. It was the small school where I could learn academia and help them to address several years without a department chair. It was a win-win.
It is a good idea to start your transition plan one to two years before you retire. Here are 10 must for your transition plan:
- A curriculum vitae is a must and it should look like one in academia. There are many things in government that are the same as academia, but academics will not understand government speak and if you don’t use academic terminology you will hurt yourself.
- If you are not publishing you need to start. I would highly recommend two to three peer-reviewed articles a year. It may seem intimidating, but it is easier than it sounds.
- Never turn down an invited presentation. All of the invited presentations you did now need to be on your CV. You are most likely going to have to search for them.
- Make sure your CV includes the number of people you supervised, budgets managed, and major accomplishments by position.
- You didn’t get to retirement without serving on many committees, task forces, and probably at the national level. You need them all on your CV.
- Start teaching by working as an adjunct instructor or lecturer. You do not need to be paid but you do need a letter of appointment. If you have ever taught a government course, precepted students, or developed training it needs to be on your CV.
- If you haven’t practiced clinically in a while you may want to renew that skill. Most places will want to know that you still understand the clinical setting even if they will not expect you to teach clinical courses. Volunteering is a good way to make sure you are current.
- Attend professional conferences where you are likely to run into academics. Use all of the skills you ever learned about networking. You need to start a new Rolodex.
- Start looking at university requirements for tenure and rank and make sure you are writing to those requirements.
- You need a good mentor for the transition and you need to reconnect with your dissertation advisor. Both can couch you on negotiating rank, salary, and start-up packages. If any university tells you that a retired Captain O-6 or senior executive service needs to start as an Assistant Professor you need to look elsewhere and this is especially true for women as it is more likely to happen to you than your male counterparts.
Teaching is a great opportunity to continue your life of service and it will remind you on a daily basis why you chose your profession all those years ago.