Friday, February 24, 2012

How My Life is Better Since I Left - Part 2

Here's Part 2 in my "Reasons I'm Glad I Left" series, in which I'm reflecting upon my one-year anniversary of leaving academia. I'm posting these as a celebration of sorts, as well as for encouragement for those of you who are thinking about leaving that it's not all scary and terrible out here in the real world, despite what your fellow academics may try to tell you.

Now of course, the world looks rosier from my vantage point as someone with a decent job than it would for someone who was unemployed or heavily under-employed. If you're just starting to think about leaving, these tangible rewards won't all present themselves immediately (although some of them will - like the elimination of academic guilt!). But if you're truly miserable, like I was, please don't let that fact deter you. It's hard to find a new job, but it's also hard to live a long life where you feel miserable and undervalued in your current job.

So here you are. Numbers 6 through 10 in the list of Ways My Life is Now Better, in random order.

6. I work with people I like. In the past year, I've grown to realize that I really, really enjoy my current coworkers (as well as my partner's coworkers) ... and I'm starting to suspect that one reason is because they aren't academics. They aren't all highly educated. They don't know the highfalutin academic theories that I've been talking about for the past eight years. Some of them haven't been to college, much less taught it. They like some TV shows I don't watch, and some of them don't share my politics, and a lot of them are more conventional than I am. They'd never fit in at an academic conference.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's very true that there are some academics who have a broader outlook on the world and a broad range of interests. But when I look back on it, it's undeniably true that there are a lot of odd folks with a singleminded focus on academic theories and research in academia. And it's pretty clear to me that there is a lot more diversity in terms of interests, outlook on life, and conversational topics on the average day outside of academia than within it.

And the truth is that I thrive in diverse environments. I like talking about a lot of different things. I like some "lowbrow" things as well as some "highbrow" things. I don't always want to talk academic theory or gossip about academia. I don't like having conversations with people who view it as normal and desirable to be holed up in an office all day long with no idea of what the outside world is interested in. And while those people exist to some extent in every industry, they seem to be overrepresented in academia.

And I admit that I was never very fond of most of my academic colleagues. I had a few friends and a few other people I was friendly with, but in general I found most social events in academia to be awkward and found comparatively few people I wanted to be friends with while I was in grad school.

I'm not suggesting that I hate everyone in academia, or that the only people who can function in the outside world are people with diverse interests and awesome social skills. Heavens, no. It's a diverse world out here, and there's room for everyone.

My coworkers now are funny and kind. They make me laugh, and they help me out when I'm having a bad day. They are good people. I have lost absolutely nothing by being around these people all day rather than academics. Nothing.

Is every job like this? Of course not. Some offices are toxic cesspools, and lots of offices have one or two awful people. But a lot aren't. Mine isn't. And I'm damned glad to have these people as coworkers.

7. No more dealing with plagiarism or snotty undergrads. I mentioned a few days ago that I do sort of miss the good moments in the classroom. I always did love teaching, and I'm still in touch with some of my former students. It's immensely rewarding when students get engaged with a lecture, or when they get in touch later on to tell you how much they enjoyed your class.

But let's face it. Teaching isn't all rainbows and butterfly kisses. In the four years I taught, I dealt with two serious instances of plagiarism and probably 10-15 minor ones. I had students who missed deadlines and then complained about their docked grades. I had one student threaten to sic their lawyer father on me for not giving them the grade they wanted - despite their papers being continuously 1-2 weeks late, 3-4 pages short, and incredibly poorly written (to the point where they were almost illegible).

Those are outlier cases, of course. But with teaching also comes the endless late-night emails grubbing for grades, the questions about things that are clearly explained in the syllabus, and the students who spend the entire class period texting or posting on Facebook.

Teaching is rewarding, and it's also frustrating. I think that someday I might try to teach a class here and there again. But for now, I'm happy that my daily work doesn't include having to appease or argue with apathetic, whiny college-aged kids.

8. Vacations are truly vacations. I don't need to expand on this one very much, do I? We haven't gone anywhere major in the last year, but we have gone on a few weekend roadtrips and have gone to visit family and friends several times.

And unlike when I was an academic, I didn't take even one tiny bit of work with me. And since my current boss and coworkers understand what vacation time means, no one contacted me and I felt absolutely no pressure to work and no guilt over what I "should" or "shouldn't be" getting done.

Vacation time is mine again. Real vacation time, with no work or guilt. Hallelujah!!

9. If I ever read an academic journal again, it'll just be because I want to. Never again will I be forced to read some horrible article written in antiquated language by some blowhard faculty member who keeps churning out slightly-altered versions of the same pointless idea over and over.

If I ever open an academic journal again, it'll just be because I'm curious about the topic under study, or maybe because I'm reading something that a friend of mine wrote.

But never again will I have to read an academic article, or take notes on it, or somehow integrate its findings into my own work just so that a particular reviewer will decide that my work is worth possibly accepting for publication. Any research I read (or do) from here on out is completely up to me. And if I never feel inclined to pick up another academic journal again? It will have absolutely no impact on my career. That feels awesome.

10. Less debt and more savings. As I've alluded to before, I was one of those non-privileged grad students who couldn't ask my parents for financial help other than the occasional small loan if I was really in trouble.

As a result, I was one of those grad students who could survive on my grad student stipend as long as absolutely nothing ever went wrong. But of course, since something always does, I pretty regularly found myself having to "supplement my income" by putting things on credit cards during my first few years of school. I didn't live extravagantly or anything ... but if I'd have to go out of town for a funeral or if my car needed new tires or if I needed groceries but had $8.00 in my checking account? I'd have to find a way to pay for it. And for me, that way became credit cards. By the time I picked up my part-time job, I already had a decent mound of credit card debt.

Since I wasn't making much money even with my part-time job and I pretty regularly had new expenses associated with grad school (conference travel, a new suit for interviews, membership fees for national organizations, etc), I could never get out of the debt hole and start saving money. Every time I'd start building up a savings account or start paying down a credit card, some conference registration fee would come due or my fellowship money would be late coming in, and I'd have to dip back into my emergency fund or my lines of credit.

In the past year, though, with just a small increase in salary and the loss of the academic nonsense that would pop up every year? I haven't added a single thing to my debt load (knock on wood), and have actually started paying it down. And on top of that, I actually have an emergency savings account for the first time in my life.

Giving myself even just a little bit of financial breathing room by cutting ties with academia and deciding that I deserved to make a decent salary for once has made my life so much better. Finally, I feel like an adult instead of an irresponsible kid.


That's it for today ... but I have some more to share, probably early next week. Have a great weekend, everyone!


  1. I think number 6 is really important. Academics tend to think that only other "intellectuals" are worth being around, and that's BS. And money, yes, although that's a huge taboo.

    1. Sometimes I think that the thing I resented most about academia was how we weren't supposed to talk about money.

      I mean, fine. No one wants to be tacky and brag about how much money they want/need/have. But the conspiracy of silence around how hard it is to make ends meet if you're not from a rich family is ridiculous.

      And as someone partnered with a nonacademic, I've long resented the implication that my partner and my nonacademic friends are some kind of drooling morons who can't string together an intelligent sentence or who can't stop watching Jerry Springer. Certainly, not every academic thought like that. But I'd heard enough offhand snide comments over the years about nonacademics to really start to p*ss me off. BS, indeed.

  2. Paying off those debts is a huge thing - it makes a massive difference for your mental health for one...

    1. Oh god yes. We still have a long way to go on getting everything paid off, but just seeing the overall balance go down and recognizing that we can actually make ends meet for once is a huge relief.

  3. I left about six years ago, after completing my PhD and spending about eight years in less-than-satisfying non tenure track academic jobs of various kinds. When I left, I was fairly well-paid, working as an academic administrator. Some would think that was a pretty good ending to the story, since I wasn't scraping by on adjunct positions, etc. So I left not because I didn't want to finish my degree, not because I was not making enough money, not because I was living in a bad place (on the contrary, I was living in Berkeley!), but because I finally admitted to myself after clinging on stubbornly for many years that academia was simply not for me. How freeing! I think on leaving, one's biggest fear is that one has no marketable skills. But this is not true. I was lucky to have a friend who had been a career counselor. She rewrote my CV and turned it into a resume. I became a freelance grantwriter and started painting again, something I had not done throughout my academic career. I think this is the most important thing for people to do when they decide to leave: get professional help from someone who can help you repackage your qualifications. When we are inside academia, we become blindered to all the possible things we could be doing with our brains and our skills and we come to firmly believe there is only one definition of success: the tenure track job, no matter where it takes you in the world. But outside the machine, the possibilities are truly limitless.

  4. I noticed that something was wrong between my PhD and me when all I could listen was crappy songs that reflected my mood back in those days. My fave was "Numb" by Linkin Park he he I wonder if now you listen to another kind of music. I'm sure that was a good enough reason for me leaving... I was tired of listening to that song everyday. I sure hope everybody has change 'that track' now for good old Nashville stuff, if you know what I mean he he. Thanks for this refreshing post.

  5. "But when I look back on it, it's undeniably true that there are a lot of odd folks with a singleminded focus on academic theories and research in academia. And it's pretty clear to me that there is a lot more diversity in terms of interests, outlook on life, and conversational topics on the average day outside of academia than within it."

    This really hits home for me. It could be because of where I am, but in my program (biology) everyone was a biology major and did field work, or some other research type job after undergrad or went straight into a bio grad program. It's so boring! There's no variety of experience, everyone is the same and it's boring! I find I have nothing to talk to them about, and I can't figure out what the problem is because I don't often have trouble talking to people. I'm quitting on monday and I'm so excited for it!