By Ray A. Smith 

Burned out as an IBM sales manager in his native India, Gaurav Sabnis, then in his early 20s, began thinking about a career in academia, where the pace would be less grueling.

He planned on making the move after a few years. But that changed suddenly in 2005 when a post on his personal blog angered one of IBM's clients, leading Mr. Sabnis to quit. It wouldn't be the last unexpected twist in his professional life.

Now 40, he is a tenured professor specializing in social-media marketing at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, married to an American.

"It's maybe a sign of my luck or privilege, or both, that it just happened that I accidentally fell into this life," Mr. Sabnis said.

Mr. Sabnis landed the coveted position with IBM after getting his MBA from the Indian Institute of Management-Lucknow in 2004. His days at IBM started early, typically with a multicity conference call. To meet sales targets, he would spend hours phoning or visiting clients.

"If I was leaving at 6 p.m., people would be like, 'Oh you're taking a half day today,' " he said. On top of that came pressure to socialize after work with colleagues or clients. "So my day ended at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. And then my boss would still call about some other thing."

He felt he had to spend Saturdays working. The crazy hours took a toll on his romance with his then-girlfriend. "It basically ended that relationship," he said. It all made him think: "'I might end up becoming this super-amazing sales celebrity, but it should not come at the cost of my overall happiness."

He flashed back to a memory of his business-school marketing professor. "He had worked in the industry for many years and then switched [to teaching] in his 50s. Like clockwork, he and his wife would be going out for walks around the campus, and I always found that really sweet," he said.

He struck up a conversation with the professor, who gave him the pros and cons of working in academia, including the lower salary. He also told him it would be easier to get a prestigious teaching position in any country if he got a doctorate in the U.S.

Teaching didn't come out of nowhere. Mr. Sabnis recalled informally teaching and coaching since he was a kid, and three of his grandparents were in the teaching field.

His career shift accelerated suddenly in 2005 when he linked an article critical of an Indian business school to his blog. The school threatened legal action and approached his bosses at IBM, threatening to cancel its orders. Though IBM didn't bend, as Mr. Sabnis hadn't violated its code of conduct or broken any laws, he decided to leave to prevent further embarrassment to the company.

"If anything, that further underlined that I didn't want to do this anymore," he said. "Suddenly I had job offers lined up, and I'm like, 'No I'm going to do a Ph.D for five years at minimum wage.' "

Mr. Sabnis reached out to his graduate school's MBA alumni network, connecting with an alum who was pursuing her doctorate at the University of Southern California. "She pretty much walked me through the process," he said. He applied to several schools and decided on Penn State University.

He planned to return to teach in India or Singapore after earning his doctorate. But that changed when he fell in love with a woman who eventually became his wife, and with his adopted country.

Finishing school in 2011, he landed a position as visiting assistant professor of marketing at Fordham University's business school, joining Stevens Institute of Technology as a marketing professor the following year. He became a citizen in 2014 (acknowledging he "got the shortcut because my wife was already an American") and made tenure two years ago.

The people skills he gained in the job at IBM have come in handy. "Many times I'm teaching students with whom I have nothing in common," he said. "The sales experience definitely helped in that I'm able to establish some kind of a common thread."

He is happier now that his career gives him more time to enjoy life: "I was like, OK, this is exactly my pace.'"

Making the Move

Name: Gaurav Sabnis

Age: 40

Location: New York, NY

Education: Bachelors in electronics engineering, the College of Engineering Pune in India; MBA with majors in marketing and information systems, Indian Institute of Management-Lucknow; doctorate in marketing, Penn State University.

Former job: Sales manager in IBM's Mumbai office.

New job: Tenured associate professor of marketing at Stevens Institute of Technology

Aha moment: Seeing one of his business school professors taking long walks on campus with his wife sparked thoughts of a slower-paced career

Most important advice for an international career move: "Make sure you're a cultural fit in that country. "You don't have to be a football fan to make it but you should know enough about your new country to at least know who is in the current Super Bowl."

Write to Ray A. Smith at ray.smith@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 21, 2021 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

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