Last week, while trying to drum up ideas for a new post, I was scrolling through the archives of the old Leaving Academia site. This post, which discussed the feeling of failure that often accompanies the decision to leave, gave me some inspiration.
Now that I'm almost a year past my decision to leave, I haven't been caught up in the "what ifs" and the worries about whether I'm making the right decision. My job right now isn't ideal, but it's fine for the time being ... it pays the bills, I can tolerate the work, and I like my coworkers. It's fine. I'm no longer panicking about finding nothing but misery outside of academia ... because I'm fully out here now, and I'm not miserable.
What still pops up, though, are the occasional feelings of failure when I talk to former academic colleagues who question or second guess my decision to leave. I still occaisonally get questions about why I'm not going on the market again*, about how I could possibly be fulfilled in nonacademic work**, and about whether I will find a job that's "worthy" of my academic credentials***. And the feelings of failure still crop up (infrequently, but occasionally) when I run across a snarky comment on some random internet site from an academic type who snipes that grad school dropouts just "couldn't cut it" and are thus failures at the one thing that matters.
So let's break it down. Are you a failure for wanting to leave academia or drop out of grad school???? Does this mean that you just "couldn't cut it," and that if you'd stayed in academia you'd wind up in the perfect tenure-track job and be blissfully happy? Is the only thing standing between you and utter happiness your lack of dedication to an academic career? In other words, are you a failure?
In a word, no. No no no. Absolutely not. Not in any sense of the word.
First of all ... as myself and all of the other postacademic bloggers listed on the blogroll to the right have written many, many, many, many times ... the academic job market is broken. Very broken. There are more candidates for fewer jobs, and far more VAP and adjunct positions out there than tenure track jobs. Sure, it's possible that you could land a tenure-track job if you go on the market. Obviously, some people do.
But the odds are stacked against you these days. When you're one of 400 people applying for a single position, chances are good that you are not going to get it. When five years of terrible job markets mean that half of the assistant profs out there are looking to change jobs, the chances are good that lowly ABDs are not going to be hired over assistants.
But that doesn't mean that you're incompetent or stupid or that you did anything wrong. It's just numbers.
And if you do go on the market, but all of the offers that you get are for adjunct or VAP gigs that you don't want to take? That's okay. You don't have to take a job you don't want. And you shouldn't be ashamed for not wanting to take a job that would leave you in poverty, with no job security, or living somewhere where you'd be miserable. And if you don't want to take a temporary job, that is also completely and totally understandable. It does not mean that you're a failure. What it means is that the academic hiring process is failing its candidates.
Now, onto the bigger source of anguish and sense of failure over leaving ... the reaction you'll get from other academics, either in person or via things you'll read on the internet.
You absolutely WILL get pushback when you decide to leave. Your decision will be second guessed ("well, if you just take one more stab at the market..." or "things will get better once you're not working with that advisor anymore..."). You'll read comments from anonymous internet commenters who allege that people who quit were idiots who couldn't cut it. Some people just won't know what to say, and will stare blankly at you, unsure of how to talk to a nonacademic. And a few people will probably make snarky comments about how you just "weren't serious enough" or some such thing. Other people (parents? advisors?) will tell you that they're disappointed that you left. The specifics will vary based on the people you know and how you describe your decision to leave, but it'll happen.
And if you're like most people, those comments will make you feel like shit, at least momentarily. That academic guilt sets in, and it sets in quick and violently. (I recently talked to someone who quit halfway through her first semester, and she talked about how much of a failure she felt like for deciding the program wasn't for her. After half a semester! How messed up is that???)
But here are a few things about those academic folks who make you feel like a failure. (1) They are operating from within a closed system with a very strong culture that tells them that a t-t faculty job is the best job in the world and that all other jobs are boring, mindless, and soul sucking. (2) In addition, they've internalized the message that being miserable/depressed/overstressed is normal, and is a sign that you're successful. And (3) they likely haven't even considered that other work environments exist, or that there might be some people (like me!) who find the academic life unbearable and just want something a little more predictable and sane. And finally? (4) They may have absolutely no idea about what the current academic market looks like, since it may have been decades since they've looked for a job themselves.
Also, the academics who are implicitly calling you a failure for jumping ship for a nonacademic job? Most of them have probably never had a job outside academia. Or perhaps their last nonacademic job was that one summer during college when they worked as a cashier or as a mail clerk in a huge corporate office. It's fine if they disliked those jobs, but keep in mind: their ideas about what a nonacademic job is is at best limited and dated, and at worst based on absolutely no real-world experience.
Let me restate that. These academic folks who are telling you that all nonacademic jobs suck and how you're making a terrible decision have likely not been in a nonacademic job in years or even decades, if at all. And if they were, it was probably a somewhat entry-level, menial job that they held long ago. Their experiences are in no way indicative of what the nonacademic world looks like. So you have to learn to ignore their criticism. It'd be like you criticizing life as an astronaut working on the space station. You just don't know what it's really like, so you can't intelligently criticize someone who chooses to do such a thing.
So as we talked about last week, your academic colleagues are not wrong that some jobs are menial and boring and soul-sucking. But they are absolutely, positively wrong that all nonacademic jobs are like that. A nonacademic job does not mean you've "failed." It just means you want something different for your life than they do. Try to keep that in mind.
Also, remember that lesson that your mom taught you when you were a kid and the other kids teased you. People only tease/insult/belittle you when they're insecure with their own choices. Seeing someone leave (and reject the "you must work 24/7 in academia or you are a failure" mindset) makes them question their own choices. So they lash out and make you feel like a failure in order to make themselves feel better. Rather than confronting what you're saying (that academia has flaws and/or that the academic job market is not wonderful), they cut you down in order to reassure themselves that they're harder working and dedicated and that therefore, everything will work out for them.
They will get a tenure track job. They know that academic work is the most important work ever and everything else is pointless drudgery. They are not making a poor decision with their lives. Being depressed and crying all the time is normal, and a sign that you are working at the most important and meaningful job in the world. Anything else cannot be true, or it means that they have made poor decisions that they will regret. It must be that you're just a failure who couldn't cut it. See, there's no need to worry!!
It's not okay, but it's a logical extension of what they learn as an academic apprentice. Their ideas are right, and academia is holy, and anyone who questions them or does things another way should be met with derision or criticism.
It's part of the culture ... the culture, importantly, that you are trying to escape. So just let it roll off your back.
It's easier said than done. Believe me, I know. But you have to. Just ignore the haters. They're not thinking clearly, and they're certainly not qualified to judge your life and your decisions. You know what you're doing, and you know why you're doing it. Just be grateful that you aren't still operating under the myths and misconceptions of academia v. the real world anymore. Laugh at the deluded grad students if you must, and just move on with your happy and fulfilled life.
* Because I realize now that an academic job wouldn't make me happy.
** I'm fulfilled in nonacademic work simply because I grew to hate academic work so much that anything else seems good in comparison.
*** As long as I can pay my bills, can tolerate my job, and feel like I'm helping other people through my work, I'm fulfilled. I don't care what credentials a job needs or what title it has.
Ed. Note: If what you read here or elsewhere on this blog resonates with you, please check out our collaborative website, http://howtoleaveacademia.com. Or if you have a few dollars to spare, download our new e-book full of support and advice from fellow postacademics ("Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia).
You are not alone, and we are here to help!! - JC (1/5/14)