Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On My Anniversary of Leaving...

Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of the date on which I left academia.

Well ... more accurately, tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the day I learned that I was not going to be hired for the academic job I'd interviewed for that I actually wanted. (To recap: I had three campus interviews and only liked one school, which hired someone else. A second school offered me a one-year VAP gig, which I turned down). After going through the interview process, I was positive that School A was the only job I wanted. The other two schools were nice enough, but for a number of reasons they just didn't suit me. I didn't enjoy the people or the towns or even the students I met, and the pay for the latter two jobs was very low. By the time I returned home, I was actively hoping that School A would hire me and that Schools B and C would not hire me.

I got the bad news by phone from School A at around 5pm on February 22. I hung up the phone, and panicked for about an hour. I cried and yelled. It wasn't pretty ... but I was really upset. Because I now knew that I had two terrible choices looming ahead of me. Being rejected from School A meant that I'd either be forced to (1) take a job at Schools B or C that I didn't like, or (2) scramble for funding from Grad U for another year, taking another stress- and anxiety-filled stab at the market the following fall (all the while knowing that my chances of getting an interview at a second "School A" were miniscule). In short, I was either going to be a miserable faculty member or a stressed and anxious grad student, yet again. Needless to say, I didn't like either option.

But while I was panicking, either I or my partner (I can't even remember who) suggested that maybe - just maybe - I didn't have to do either thing. That I could take my degrees and my education and do something else with them.

Suddenly, it hit me. I could leave if I wanted to. I didn't have to take an academic job that I didn't want. And I didn't have to prostrate myself to my department by begging for funding again, just so I could go through the academic job market again and wind up with a job I didn't like. Academia didn't own me. I could do whatever I wanted ... and it was okay to not want to do academia anymore. Grad U didn't own me, and it was okay to look for a job that would make me happy ... regardless of what kind of job Grad U wanted me to take.

The academic interview process had shown me, loud and clear, that there were very few academic jobs I would truly enjoy. I'd lucked out by getting an interview at one school where I really would have liked working ... but at the same time, that experience showed me that unless I got a job at an absolutely ideal school, I would be very unhappy if I remained in academia. And quite realistically? A job at an "ideal school" was not going to come around a second time in two years.

I liked teaching and could tolerate research, but I just didn't love it enough to do it anywhere, for any money, with any colleagues and any students. So 364 days ago, I decided that I needed to cut my losses, quit spinning the roulette wheel of the academic job market in the hope that it'd magically land on the one number that would win me a fortune, and leave.

And with that, my panic on that February night changed into laughter and elation. I was liberated. I could leave. I'd gone all the way ... I'd seen what the market had to offer, and it wasn't for me. No one could ever tell me that "it would get better once I got a job," because I realized that I didn't want the jobs that were out there. It wouldn't get better for me unless I landed my perfect, ideal academic job (fat chance), or unless I left academia altogether and concentrated on what mattered to me (decent pay, living in a geographic area I could stand, having free time to spend with my partner and family, etc).

So I chose to leave.* And I was elated.

And I was also scared. I was pretty sure that this was what I wanted ... but at the same time I was a bit afraid that I'd regret leaving. That all of the people who'd been telling me that a life without academia was awful would turn out to be right. That a life where I wasn't teaching and doing research was boring and pointless and meaningless and miserable.

Well, it's been a year now ... and this hasn't been the case. I have no regrets about leaving. I do occasionally wish that I could have just been one of those people who are happy in academia - after all, how much easier would that have made my life??? I've also wished on more than one occasion that I'd made the decision to leave sooner. But ... wishing I was a different person or that I'd decided to leave sooner is not the same thing as regretting leaving. I do not regret leaving.

My personal life and work life and mental health are all a million times better now. I still have some uncertainty about what will come next and where I'm going from here ... but I think most people have that. And the difference with me - as compared to last year when I was uncertain about academia - is that the job I have now is guaranteed to be here** until I figure out what's next. Such guarantees do not exist when you're on a graduate stipend or working as an adjunct. Also, I know that this job-searching and career-changing process will be an ongoing event, not tied to a particular job season. And ultimately, I won't have the pressure to take "whatever job will have me." I'm back at the steering wheel of my life.

This process has not been without its stressors, of course. But I haven't regretted my actual decision to leave for one single second of the past 364 days. This was the best thing I could have done for my life, for my relationship, and for my emotional and financial well-being.

In the next few days, I'm going to detail a list of ways in which my life has been better in the past year than it was in my years in academia. I think this will not only be good for blog readers to see ... but it'll also be a nice exercise for me, emotionally. Because no matter how many times people second-guess my decision or about how frustrating a new job search can be, I am better off now. And I need to keep that in mind.

So I'll start tomorrow with a list of reasons why I'm better off now ... addressing my mental health and my work and personal life. And while I don't have my "forever job" or even my "next next job" yet, I hope that this list will give you some evidence that - regardless of what academic friends and mentors tell you - leaving academia will not render you miserable. In fact, it can be an unabashedly good thing, even if you don't transition immediately into that high-powered job with a six-figure salary.

First, though, just for the novelty of it ... here are a few things I genuinely miss about academia. Of course, there are a few things I miss. That's true of almost everything in life, I'd think. But as you can see ... they're not enough to even slightly motivate me to go back. These losses don't even slightly offset all of the things I've gained by leaving academia.

The things I (sort of) miss about academia:

Thing 1. I do miss having so much flexibility in my work schedule. The ability to just take off from the office at 1pm and go meet a friend for a long lunch or go run errands is basically gone for me. At my current job, I am allowed to duck out of the office when I need to - it's not like I'm chained to my desk or something. But if I leave, my pay gets docked or I'm forced to use some of my paid personal time off. That kind of stinks.

However ... the overall sanity that has come with having a normal work schedule with expected non-work hours has more than offset this. I may have to sit in my office until 5pm and I might not get to take a weeklong vacation whenever I feel like it ... but at least when I leave the office or am on vacation I'm not racked with guilt over the projects I have sitting on my desk or with how I really should be back in the office working.

So it's something I do miss ... but not really.

Thing 2. The discounted and free computer software I got from the university, and the free library access. I still have access to these things, but I'll lose them sometime this summer.

However ... I'm not dirt poor anymore, and I'm not going to be living in some rural location without a library. It's not like I'll never be able to use a computer or library again.

So it's not really a loss. (And even if it were ... how sad would it be if the "thing I missed most" from this job I was supposed to love was "the free crap I get?" Haha...)

Thing 3. Having the excuse to "travel" for work. As much as I hated academic conferences, my partner and I do love to travel, even to "uncool" places. I hated the conferences, but I always appreciated the chance to check out a new city.

However ... as I've said before, it's not like I was getting a free trip to these conferences ... and I had to work while my partner explored the cities. We can still travel to random places if we want (and bonus points: we have more money to afford such trips!!). And while we're there, I won't have to work.

So again, not really a loss.

Thing 4. Those moments in the classroom when students are really engaged and excited. Or when you get an email from a student telling you how much they enjoyed their class.

However ... those times in the classroom were few and far between. Far more common was the roomful of students who couldn't stop texting, or the raised hands only to ask "if this is gonna be on the test." And don't even get me started on the times I had to deal with plagiarism or students complaining about grades or other nightmares. I enjoyed teaching, but it wasn't perfect.

And sadly, there will always be adjunct jobs out there if I decide I want to give the classroom another shot. So again, I don't really consider it a loss.

So there you go. Four things I do miss about the academic life ... but none of which offsets the things I don't miss or that I can't still have in my life in some capacity. I'll write more about the things I don't miss - and the ways my life is better - in the next few days.

*Of course, this was a far easier decision for me, since I had an outside job I could fall into. People who don't have such a thing obviously have a far tougher time leaving. But this is one of those times when I will refer back to my advice to find a "next job." Even if it's just a part-time job, having something else can give you the financial and mental freedom to allow yourself to leave.
**Yes, I understand I could quit or be fired. This is unlikely to happen, though, so take my word that my current job will be here as long as I want it.


  1. "I do occasionally wish that I could have just been one of those people who are happy in academia"

    There aren't very many of them, are there? Pretty much just the ones who get the "good" jobs, their version of School A. Grad students, contingent faculty, and a lot of people with tenure-track situations at their versions of Schools B and C -- positions they dislike for any number of reasons -- are a generally depressed, stressed, and very unhappy lot.

    Looking forward to your list of how things have been better.

  2. "No one could ever tell me that "it would get better once I got a job," because I realized that I didn't want the jobs that were out there. It wouldn't get better for me unless I landed my perfect, ideal academic job (fat chance), or unless I left academia altogether and concentrated on what mattered to me (decent pay, living in a geographic area I could stand, having free time to spend with my partner and family, etc)."
    This is so true. I took a visiting position because that's all I could get last year, but I regret doing it, because although the other visitings at my institution are delighted to be here, I am miserable. I cry every day and have decided to leave at the end of the semester. I just feel bad because I feel like I'm "different", because I do not enjoy what those people find so much delight in, and it makes me think there's something wrong with me. Why are they so happy if it's so crappy? It must be me.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Hey ... thanks for reading.

      I'm sorry you're having such a rough time at your job. The important thing, I think, is that you realize that feeling like you have been feeling isn't normal or okay and so you're deciding to leave. It's great that you're putting yourself first and not continuing on in a job that makes you miserable.

      To your point about feeling different and feeling bad for not liking what everyone else likes, I completely understand. I still struggle with this sometimes ... this work seems to make everyone else so happy, so why didn't it make me happy?

      What's kept me thinking positive are two things. First ... this blog gets multiple hits per day from people running searches for things like "I hate my academic job" or "academia makes me miserable," or things like that. So there is no way - no way! - that you are that much of an outlier for not being happy. Maybe the people who are at your school really are happy. But I promise you that you are not the only person out of all of the faculty and VAP's out there who are miserable. Just keep that in mind. You're not the only one.

      And also ... I think most of us would agree that everyone in the world enjoys different things. Not everyone is cut out to be an electrical engineer, and not everyone likes horror movies. For some people, being an accountant might be the best job in the world. For other people, being an accountant would bore them to tears.

      We accept that about basically every job and hobby in the entire world ... but when it comes to academia, we think that "everyone" will love it equally? No. There's no way that's true.

      So you're right that it is *you,* in a way. But you're not right that it means there's something "wrong" with you. It just means that you're different from the people you work with. You want a different life. And it's okay!! It doesn't mean anything's wrong with you, no matter what they say or what you think.

      I hate that academia does this to all of us. There's no reason this should be any harder than a typical job change, and yet the academic culture turns it into so much more.

      Good luck with your leaving process. It's hard, but you're going to be fine.

    3. Thank you for your kind words. I know leaving is the right decision - I want to live in a place I like and chose, not where a job takes me for a year or two, I want a decent pay. But I also feel bad that "material" things are so important for me. Anyway, I'll keep reading you. Thanks :)

  3. JC,

    Your blog was a great help to me when I made my decision to leave grad school about a month ago, even though I was ABD. After a Christmas break where I got to relax and hang out with family and work on personal projects, I realized that my research, or rather the thought of it, sent my stomach into knots. A lot of what you said about why you're leaving really resonated with me.

    I actually have a job lined up after the end of the semester in May. I'm looking forward to it; it's got decent pay and benefits, and would put some of my non-academic skills to good use. But I've been nervous about leaving. This post really reassures me that I've made the right choice, because I was worried about Things #1 and #4. I look forward to the future posts on how life has improved since you left.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! I'm so glad that this blog could offer you some comfort and advice.

      Congrats on the new job!!! Getting that first job out of academia is a critical step. Speaking from experience, you will know very quickly whether you made the right decision. Either nonacademic work will feel "right" and like a huge relief, or it won't. You'll know quickly.

      Good luck!!

  4. JC, thank you for this blog entry which managed to set some things in perspective for me. I hate to be anonymous, if not for the fact that I do not want my identity to be disclosed to my director or colleagues even before my time is up in the contract.

    As a humanities PhD, I finished my PhD initially having a lot more interest than right now. Yes, I was one of those rosy-eyed graduate students(not so young though, since I entered in my late 20's), hoping for something good to come out of interest but realizing that the job market conflicts radically or even contradicts these hopes justifiably.

    Right now, I am halfway through a job which I do not like in academia, and while I must say that I have not made it clear about leaving yet, the director has hinted that the university is probably not renewing my contract if I do not "deliver" in the sense of maintaining numbers in my class and my tutorial sessions. Needless to say, this conflicts with my principles, and as much as I understand the more and more vaunted and ridiculous logic of 'buying and selling' that exists in academia, I feel immensely out-of-place.

    I have been planning a form of exit route over the last few months, while not contemplating immediate quitting for legal reasons here in another country other than Canada or the USA(I did graduate school in both countries), since the contract is 3 years and how any form of penalty could be implemented for prematurely leaving the contract could be as good a guess as anyone else's. But knowing that I have over 1 year or so to plan vocational training for a few months to a year at most, and having saved up a bit to stave off potential unemployment for a while makes me see it all in perspective. We are not bound to academia if it does not make us happy. We have to be happy.