Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How My Life is Better Since I Left - Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, today is the one-year anniversary of the day that I officially decided that I was going to leave academia.

I knew the anniversary had to be coming up soon, so a few months ago I went back through my email archives to find the email that I remembered sending to a good friend of mine when School A called to tell me they'd hired someone else. I clearly remembered sending that friend an email just after I got the call, lamenting my pathetic future in academia ... and then realized a few hours later (with help from my partner) that I didn't have to stay in academia. So oddly enough, I can trace this decision back to one particular day and had a time-stamped record of when the decision was made. And that day was February 22, 2011.

So here I am, one year later. And I'm happier, less stressed, and tremendously glad that I made the decision to leave. I'm not entirely sure what the future holds for me - I know where I want to live, but am still struggling with exactly what I want to do and what kind of jobs I should be trying for now. But I'm applying for jobs and researching careers, and figuring things out. I'll get there.

Anyway, when I discovered the exact anniversary date a few months ago, I started jotting down a list of ways in which my life is better now that it was in grad school. I initially had the list broken down down into rough categories, but once I started putting these posts together I realized it made no sense to try to categorize them. There's no need to try to figure out exactly what categories each improvement to my life fits into. The simple truth is that my life is much better now. There's no reason to think it over in more detail.

So here you go. Reasons 1-5 in which my life is better post-academia, in no particular order. Reasons 6 and beyond will be posted in upcoming days. For now, enjoy!

1. I've been able to read for fun again. No longer am I chained to academic books or stuff I have to read for my dissertation or for a class I'm teaching.

Every grad student knows that reading "just for fun" drops off precipitously when you enter a graduate program. At first, you're stuck reading books for coursework (and probably enjoying them, since it's your chance to really dork it out with the big thinkers and ideas in your discipline). Eventually you'll finish your coursework, but you still can't read "just for fun" anymore. Now, you're reading for your comprehensive exams or for your dissertation. And even if you are up to date on your reading and work, you'll still have that nagging little voice in your mind that if you have time to read anything, you really should be reading books for work. And the end result will be that you will go months without reading anything that's not work-related.

Well, that's not me anymore. In the past year I've read probably 25+ books, just for fun. Some were fiction, and some were biographies, and some were (gasp!) books from my discipline that I've always wanted to read but couldn't, since they didn't relate directly back to my dissertation. But guess what? Now that I'm not working on a dissertation anymore, I'm free to return to what I loved about my discipline - the breadth of topics it covers. And when I get tired of that, I can grab a terrible mystery novel from the library, and the sky doesn't fall in.

I came to academia partially because I loved to read. But it wasn't until I left that I really got the chance to really enjoy reading again.

2. I have the freedom to live where I want. I'm no longer shackled to the academic job market, where my future geographic location will be more or less decided for me by the randomness of the job market. I've described before how even the decision to limit your academic job search (for example, saying you'll only apply to "jobs in major cities") can get altered significantly due to the limits of the market. You'll start out with strict rules about where you'll apply, but chances are that after a string of rejections and a non-ringing phone, you'll suddenly start thinking that that job located two hours outside of a midsize college town doesn't look that bad after all.

I'm done with that now. Instead of chasing 100 jobs around the country, I'm now picking a specific geographic area and trying to find work there. Several hundred new jobs in that area come out every single week, so there won't be any point at which I think "oh man. I haven't gotten any of these jobs, so I better start looking in rural Idaho instead."

And for now, until something better comes up? I'm free to stay here, where I'm reasonably happy and content for now. I don't have to beg my boss to let me live and work here for another year. I can just ... be here until it's time to move on. I'll never have to move around the country year-to-year if I don't want to.

And along those lines...

3. I will never be forced to be a full-time adjunct or VAP. Of course, I am *not* picking on people who take these positions. The academic job market often leaves them with little choice, and for people who genuinely want to stay in academia it can be a way to stay in the system while trying to find a better job. I'd never criticize someone for taking these jobs.

But by leaving, I know that if I ever take one of these positions, it will be because I want to (like the dustbiter is considering right now), but not because I have to (like so many people who find themselves unemployed in April or May after an unsuccessful job market season). That is incredibly liberating.

I know now that if I ever meander back toward an academic job of any sort, it won't be because I'm forced to. It will be because I want to.

4. My partner tells me that I'm calmer, nicer, and a better all-around partner now. He swears that he loved me even when I was still an academic (and yes, I believe him... :). But he says that it's easier to be around me now because I'm not stressed out and worried and guilty all the time. And I believe him, because frankly? It's a lot easier to *be* me now. I'm a lot less stressed and overwhelmed. Even inside my own head, it feels calmer.

Also, more tangibly ... being able to spend time with him after work or on the weekend rather than having to spend hours in front of the computer has been good for our relationship as well. Being able to relax together on the couch is a better usage of "couple time" than me dissertating with my headphones in while he watches a movie. I think that spending time together as a couple is critical for maintaining a good relationship, and finding time to spend together has been much easier since I left academia.

And most fundamentally...

5. The fear of leaving is gone. I left, and I'm okay. I work outside of academia in a job I don't hate, and I don't miss the academic work. A few people have second-guessed me, but no one has majorly shamed me for leaving. My life has not fallen apart, and in fact is better in a lot of ways. The "OMG what if..." part of leaving is over. I don't have to be scared about "what happens if I leave" anymore. I left a year ago, and the sky didn't fall in. I'm okay. In fact, I'm better off.


That's just the first five reasons I wanted to throw out here. There are quite a few more tangible ways in which my life is better now than it was in the past - from the substance of my work to my calmer schedule to my less angry and volatile personality. I've got a long list (that's hopefully not too repetitive), and I'll lay them out here over the next few days/weeks.

But for now, think about these five reasons and how it is possible to leave and be happier. I know I am!


  1. Can you post something about your supervisor? I hate mine. He a corrupt, nepotist son of a gun.

    1. Heh. Not dealing with my advisor is one of my reasons I'm glad I'm gone. I've hestitated in writing a longer post about him our of some bizarre sense of obligation or something, but perhaps I will now. I haven't heard from him in more than a year, so I guess I can officially stop feeling guilty about how I refer to him, huh?

  2. Hey JC,
    I wanted to thank you for your blog and for the community you've built with other post-academic bloggers looking for nonacademic work. I've been frenetically reading through your posts and the posts of others' you've linked to, which have somewhat melded in my mind because I relate to all of your experiences. I'm leaving a tenure-track position in psychology (forced out really) and looking for a nonacademic life.

    Can you share more about your current job and how you were able to find it? I'm seriously thinking about moving back to my PhD town (literally a town two hours outside of a metro area) because of it's low cost of living and proximity to friends and in-laws. There's not much opportunity there job-wise outside of the R1, so I'd appreciate any tips you have about jobs.

    1. Sure! Here is a link to an old post I wrote about how someone might go about finding a "next job:"

      In that post, I describe how I current job - cold calling the company I work at. It's not really the top strategy I'd recommend to people, but it worked for me! Of course, now, my situation is a little different - I worked in this industry before grad school, and when I was first looking for work I was simply looking for a part-time job while I was in grad school. That undoubtedly made it much more likely that this company would hire me - I had experience, and was only asking them to make a part-time commitment to me at first. It might not work for you, depending on your needs and your work history.

      But focusing (like I did right after leaving last year) on the "next job" instead of "my next career" might be what you want to do, since you're looking to relocate and it sounds like you're on a time crunch. Just get yourself moved and find *something* that will help you pay your bills, and then once you're settled you can start looking for a career job once you see how things look in your Ph.D. city as a non-grad-student.

      Don't worry if you don't land a perfect job right away. Most postacademic employers wouldn't be freaked out to see that you had a few months or a year at a not-ideal job while you were in the middle of a relocation and career change. And once you're living there and can start meeting people and networking, it'll be easier to convince people you can do their jobs. So if you're operating on a tight timeframe, I'd focus on finding something to pay the bills and then go from there with creating a new career.

      Also, if my experience is any indication ... you're probably going to have to do some emotional work once you leave and spend some time thinking about what comes next, so there's nothing wrong with just getting your bills paid while you figure things out.

      That's the beauty of the nonacademic world - no one expects any particular job to be the job you'll hold forever like a tenure-track faculty position. Find something that will get you through the foreseeable future, and then you can reevaluate and make changes as needed:

      I'd start by spending a week or so doing research on what kind of jobs are in the city you want to move to. Look on and in the local classifieds, and see what kind of jobs and companies are out there. Then start working on revising your resume, and see what might be a good fit.

      Good luck!

  3. JC,

    I have never been to grad school, but considered it. After I graduated as an undergrad with a psych degree, most of my professors were either disappointed or surprised that I didn't go onto grad school. However, I felt that I simply didn't have the drive. I felt like if I went to grad. school I would be doing it for my professors and because that was the "next logical step." I knew I wouldn't be doing it for me.

    Instead, I tried a couple random things for awhile and then decided to go back to a regular bachelor's program, but this time study acting. :)

    Well, in spite of being successful in the acting program I was in, halfway through I realized that lifestyle wasn't for me. Plus, it started becoming painfully obvious by then that college and academia in general is simply a "bubble." It is not "real life." I had always been excellent at doing what was necessary to be successful in this "bubble," but I didn't know the first thing about real life.

    Plus, about that time, I befriended someone who was pursuing his PhD and realized how incredibly miserable he was in his program! So, I quit. I got some random, simple job at a call center. I worked part-time and used my time off to explore "real life." I read career counseling type books. I took a second part-time job decorating pastries. It was fun! I enjoyed myself, but it did get old eventually.

    These days, I've fallen into a receptionist position which actually has quite a bit of variety to it which I like. Even though it's not the most impressive job in the world, it pays well enough and has good benefits. I like it! It's a good fit for now.

    I would like to say that 1) it takes a lot of courage and confidence to say "I'm done" with school and 2) I feel that the academic world (and I'm including high school, etc) does not do a good enough job with preparing students for the "real world."

    I love teachers and professors. They are usually some of the most intelligent and motivated people in the world! However, they are biased! There is no way around it. If they see a student succeeding they will be tempted to encourage him/her to go on to study their subject forever and wind up just like them. This, of course, in turn helps the teacher or professor justify their OWN efforts. This sort of scenario is only natural, but it is still a bias.

    No one in our educational system (higher education or otherwise) sits down with you and says, "OK, so we know you're a calculus whiz, but what really makes you HAPPY?"

    It is tragic, really. Once I realized that the system had failed me and that I hadn't failed the system, it was so much easier for me to let it all go.

    In my current receptionist position, I am able to pursue my own interests on the side. And, I can even look up random things to stimulate my brain during my down time/breaks at work. In fact, that is how I found your blog.

    I will admit that occasionally I will still feel the urge to pursue grad school. But, those moments usually only come (coincidentally) during moments of low confidence for whatever reason.

    One thing I still consider doing sometimes is becoming a career counselor. It's the one thing that I sometimes feel driven to do because I feel that there are so many people, like me, who have been failed by the academic system and who are still blindly searching for happiness. I think a lot of graduate students end up feeling like they have taken the career path they were "supposed" to take. So, when they end up unhappy in the end, it's very discouraging and doesn't add up with everything else that's been fed into our naive (because we are all pretty naive during that time) brains.

    So, thank you for the blog! Very refreshing! Your words speak to many more people than you may realize!

    1. Wow, thanks for reading and for the terrific comment! I may pull parts of it up into a main blog post at some point, if you don't mind.

      I'm so glad that you've found happiness in whatever position you have. Clearly, you are very smart and introspective ... and smart enough to realize that you don't have to be sitting on a university campus every single day in order to explore your interests and to engage your mind. Good for you!

      Thanks for reading ...