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"Imagine a life without footnotes. . . ." This is my flippant response when I am asked why I left academics. In fact, I am able to describe both of my career changes in terms of the extinction of the most loathsome aspect of that former career. When I stopped being a lawyer, "no more panty hose" proved to be the great liberation. My real reasons for leaving academia, however, were more complex than a single "no more. . ." can capture, just as they had been when I had decided, years earlier, to stop practicing law. As I faced my career decision, I felt ambivalent about the "no more" list. There would be no more moving, no more inflexible class schedules, and no more grading, certainly; but there would also be no more relaxed summers, no more liberal vacations, and no more working from home. The toughest "no more" to accept was no more doing what I had invested ten years of my life in, and thought of as my intellectual passion. Even so, when decision time came, I opted to take up a third career. I was only ten years into the academic project; I was still not ready to move on, but I did it anyway. What I could not know then, though, was how well my decision would turn out and how pleased I would be with my new career.

By the end of my decade in the academy, I had a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, a few years of full-time teaching under my belt, new research interests, and pretty good job prospects in a tough market. But, I had other life considerations to take into account. I was a suddenly separated single mom of two small children, with no family or co-parent around to help me raise the children. My own year-to-year trailing spouse contract in a small college town was not going to be renewed. For the first time, I felt the full weight of the responsibility to provide a stable and secure home for my children and to find a job that would allow me to be there for them when they needed me. I owned a house in my town, and I had several supportive friends there. I just wasn't eager to move even though I knew that I could not stay.

I tried not to panic or to feel too sorry for myself, and to focus instead on my job hunting checklist: cover letters, résumé, c.v., and networking; then came interviewing, more interviewing, and salary negotiations. By April, miraculously it seemed, I had two job offers and a big decision to make. I had been offered a tenure-track job 250 miles away in the religion department of an urban university with a commuter student population, and a higher paying job at an area not-for-profit, an hour's commute from my home. I weighed the options. The teaching job was a known quantity-teaching, researching, and living on a very tight budget. The unknowns about the academic job were the lifestyle questions: Where would I live? How long would I spend getting to work? What kind of education and support services might I find there? The second job offer was the exact opposite in terms of knowns and unknowns. I knew exactly where and how I would live, but I did not know what I was going to do from 9:00 to 5:00 each day. The not-for-profit job description stated that I would be in charge of "outreach programs" and "exhibits" that promoted understanding about the history and current significance of religious liberty. I was completely mystified by this language.

With simultaneous apprehension and relief, I took the leap into this unknown career and retained the familiarity of my living situation; I took the job at the not-for-profit. Three years later, I still work at the Council for America's First Freedom, in Richmond, Virginia, and I have now figured out how to create outreach programs and design exhibits. . . . Quite improbably, it seemed, the knowledge and the skills that I had gained though my graduate work were useful tools for me in these endeavors. Although I had studied neither American church history nor Constitutional law in great detail, my schooling had given me a pretty good introduction to religious liberty and religious diversity issues, and my research skills enabled me to fill in the gaps and to identify what else I needed to learn. I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Ph.D., even without a tenure-track teaching position, commands real respect outside of the academy (even though it also brands you as an idealist who works for love rather than for money).

Other academic skills, beyond the ability to do research, have carried over from one career to the next and have retained a value in my new professional life. Teaching and presenting papers at conferences gave me solid experience in public speaking, especially the question and answer part. Writing the dissertation taught me that even a large project is manageable if it has a central thesis (a.k.a. "mission"), an outline ( "next steps"), a regular pace ("project timeline"), and deadlines (some things never change). Just like dissertations, projects also have a specific audience to educate, entertain, and sometimes, alas, wake up. Most audiences, by the way, are far less exacting than a dissertation committee. Like a dissertation, my professional projects are limited by my resources, not just finances, but also by archival resources and time.

What has proved most rewarding about this new career is that it has enabled me to grow in ways that I had not foreseen, to unite and build on both of my earlier careers, and to be creative. I continue to study the subject matter, especially the area of religion in the public schools and religious diversity. I also now know how to advertise and administer a high school essay competition with 2500 entries (without grading a single one myself!), how to produce a DVD, how to write instructional materials, how to organize events at law schools around the country, and how to design and curate actual and virtual exhibits. I still write articles and travel, both domestically and internationally, for my job. I meet all kinds of interesting and notable people, from academic experts to dignitaries, and what's quite amazing is that sometimes they even want to know what I think. Best of all, I get to follow up on new ideas when I have them, and I am encouraged to be original. I've acquired new skills and responsibilities: supervising staff, writing a mission statement, communicating with donors, pleasing a boss and a board, and I'm still learning about those. I am putting my education and training to use as I explore my new, vastly expanded and transformed, professional landscape.

Isabelle Kinnard, Council for America's First Freedom

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Citation: Isabelle Kinnard, " A Life Without Footnotes," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2007]. Online:


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