I'm a tenured professor in a humanities department at a second-tier research university in the United States. My Ph.D. is from a top-ten program in my discipline. I have an above-average number of publications for my age. I have about five years of undergraduate and graduate teaching experience post-Ph.D.

I have an opportunity to take a job as a writer/editor for a marketing company. I'm inclined to take it (for reasons I won't detail here) but am worried that if I don't end up liking my new job, it will be impossible to get back into academia after having left voluntarily.

I'm not expecting that I would get my current position back, or necessarily be rehired to a tenured position. I'm just wondering how hard it would be to go back on the job market and find a tenured or tenure-track position somewhere in maybe two or three years' time if I end up hating the new job.

I want to emphasize that I am in a humanities discipline. I gather that in the sciences, it is common for one to leave an academic position to go work in "industry," then later return to academia. I have never heard of anyone doing this in the humanities, however. Does it happen?

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    Do both jobs? Reduce hours at current job by some amount less than 100%?
    – TOOGAM
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 6:22
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    Taking a leave of absence seems to be the best option. You lose nothing, and in a year you should know whether you like your new job or not. If they like you enough where you are, they should be inclined to allow for a leave of absence, in fear that otherwise you might leave forever. How you describe the opportunity (one year unique opportunity, improved experience, etc.) will also play a role.
    – user
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 12:56
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    +1 simply for specifying 'humanities' and the country in the title.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 17:26
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    @user some colleges don't allow any sort of absence except for the rare medical emergency.
    – dalearn
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 19:32
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    FWIW my experience in academic science does not support the claim that it is common to leave and return to academia.
    – David Z
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 15:42

2 Answers 2


Speaking as humanistic social scientist at an R1 (but who has also taught at small liberal arts colleges), I would say it would be next to impossible.

There is an absolute surfeit of stellar recent PhDs in the humanities. Any position that opens up will get 200+ hungry applicants. Why hire at the associate or full level if you can get a stellar assistant at a quarter of the cost.

Furthermore, if a senior position did open up and a search committee were to look at your CV, I would think they might wonder whether you left academia because: 1) you were pushed out (sexual harassment? Title IX violation?); 2) were burnt out of teaching; or, 3) something else unmentionable. If you left because you hated academia, why are you trying to get back in? Academic hiring is risk adverse because of the stakes of tenure.

However, as an alternative, you might be a candidate for some peri-academic positions such as the director of an institute, dean of student affairs, etc.

tl;dr: Talk to your provost or dean or chair about taking an unpaid leave of absence that retains your tenured position.

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    Is a search committee really going to think that leaving academia is indicative of a sexual harassment claim or Title IX investigation? Wouldn't that require that a large proportion of people who leave academia do it for those specific purposes? Is there a problem with sexual harassment in the humanities that I'm not aware of?
    – David
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 4:23
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    Leaving a tenured position is unusual and requires good reason. The OP is then applying to get back into academia. Suspicions will be aroused. If you leave, you won't find it easy to get back in
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 4:50
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    What if the OP just wanted to try something different, struggled to find something else or what they did find wasn't as good, and now decided that really academia was what they wanted to do after all?
    – Pharap
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 12:28
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    That's why they should do this during their sabbatical or take a leave of absence.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 14:05
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    What the reason for leaving is doesn't matter - if they're going to invest in a tenured position, they'd prefer one that doesn't already have a history of leaving a tenured position!!
    – corsiKa
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 20:18

In what I've observed as a mathematics professor, it is common for professors to be able to take a year of unpaid leave. A typical scenario is when a professor gets an appealing job offer from a different university: often the professor will accept the position, take a year of unpaid leave from her current position, and then can decide later which position to keep.

My (limited, and in mathematics research departments only) observation is that permission to take unpaid leave is usually granted. (For one year; if you want to do this for consecutive years, then you have to make the case that it would benefit your university.) I would recommend finding out whether this option is available to you.

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    Yes, in my experience (also in math) someone may take a leave of absence to go elsewhere, and those of us still here selfishly hope he will dislike his new job and return to us... In fact, even if his intention was to resign, our chairman may try to convince him to take a leave of absence instead.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 12:48
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    It's worth noting that this is much less true at smaller institutions/in smaller departments, where filling the absence is a costlier proposition. (This exact request by a friend of mine was recently denied at our institution—not in math, but in a much higher-demand field than any of the humanities.)
    – 1006a
    Commented Aug 6, 2017 at 22:35
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    A sabbatical or a leave of absence is one thing, but it's also very difficult in mathematics to re-enter academia if you leave (and for pretty much the same reasons as mentioned here, plus the fact--- which is probably true in the humanities as well--- that there are very few things one can do in industry that an academic hiring committee would care about).
    – anomaly
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 16:40
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    I had at least one mathematics lecturer (a full professor) who'd done work "in industry". He'd worked at Bell Labs in the early 60's, I think they probably considered it relevant ;-) Commented Aug 8, 2017 at 14:30
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    @SteveJessop: There a very few things one can do in industry that an academic hiring committee would care about, provided one is under the age of 70 or doesn't have access to a time machine. (More seriously, there are a few places like Microsoft Research that might be applicable, but they're extraordinarily rare these days.)
    – anomaly
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 16:15

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