The most recent post at Currer's place got me thinking a little bit about the emotional process that we postacademics go through when we decide to leave, and left me inspired to write a little bit about sadness.
Whether you're a Type 1 or Type 2 leaver, you'll most likely go through some distinct cycles of emotion when to leave. You can see these cycles reflected in the blogs of those of us who were/are blogging as we go through the process of leaving ... one week, we'll be elated about the fact that we can take a day off for a roadtrip or in awe of the normalcy of a nonacademic workplace. Just elated! Life is wonderful! There's no one pressuring you to work constantly!!! You are freeeeee!!!
Then on the next week, you'll find us fuming at academia ... either ranting at the unfairness of the whole system or complain about the rampant and pointless optimism of our advisors when there are no jobs to be had. And if we aren't ranting about academia, we're ranting about other people who tell us not to rant about academia. Really, anger is probably the biggest emotion that most of us feel ... and most definitely the one that hangs on the longest.
But something that you also need to prepare yourself for, if you leave, is the sadness.
Currer wrote about it this week, and others have written about sad spells in the past. I don't think I wrote about sadness very much on this blog ... probably because, like most people, I want to put the best face forward at all times. It can be hard to admit to having sad moments, especially when you know, deep down, that you're making the right decision and want to encourage other people to not be afraid to follow your lead.
But that doesn't mean that I didn't experience sadness and grief when I left. Believe me, I did.
When I first decided to leave, I alternated between elated laughter and sobbing about what a failure I was. I'd say that the first couple of weeks were basically a long manic/depressive phase, where I'd be rejoicing at the wonder of the world outside of my study at one moment, and crying about how disappointed my parents were going to be at the next moment.
Over the next few months, even though I had a well-paying job and was happier than I'd been in years, I'd still have times when I'd start crying and apologizing to my partner for being a failure and for "letting him down" by dropping out. It would come out of nowhere ... one moment I'd be elated, and then a few hours or days later I'd be having a little one-person pity party for myself and my shoddy life decisions. The sad phases were definitely more infrequent than they were in the first few weeks, but they still popped up.
As the months went on, the pity parties all but disappeared ... but I could still get choked up about my transition under certain conditions. Explain my decision to leave academia to a potential employer? Piece of cake. But get me near my closest friends with a couple of glasses of wine and a discussion about our life goals? And suddenly a few tears would leak out because I just couldn't believe that I wasn't going to be a professor anymore.
Now, don't worry ... these days I'm much better. The sadness, like the bitterness, fades over time. My transition out of academia is complete, and I have a job with a pretty title and a good salary. Today, I explain my decision to leave with confidence ("I didn't want to be a professor anymore, so I got this other job instead"). And it's been so long since I had any academic work on my to-do list that it's easy to forget it was ever such a huge part of my life.
But given what Currer wrote this week, I wanted to make it clear to anyone who's reading here that sadness is a normal part of leaving academia, regardless of if you're a Type 1 or Type 2 leaver. Don't be surprised if you find yourself moping around the house one day over the fact that you're leaving academia, even if you're genuinely happy to be gone most of the time. And don't be freaked out by your first (or fifth) crying bout, and don't take it as a sign that you made the wrong decision.
You're just fine. The sadness is just a part of the leaving process.
Now, you'd probably expect sadness from a Type 2 leaver, who really loves and misses their academic work. But if you're a Type 1 leaver, you might be surprised to find yourself feeling grief alongside with happiness and anger. After all ... you hated the work! Why would you be sad about it?
Well in my opinion, the grief over leaving academia is about more than missing the work.We Type 1 leavers are probably not sad about that. But there are still a couple of completely logical reasons why Type 1's will probably feel sad about leaving academia:
You're mourning the loss of identity as a grad student/professor. When you tell people that you're studying for your Ph.D. or that you're a professor, there is a certain level of prestige that goes along with it. If you don't yet have that title of "Doctor," you know you'll have it soon. You know that even if you're poor and your nonacademic friends don't really understand what you do and you're totally burnt out, people will still refer to you as their "smart friend who's getting her Ph.D." or as their "professor son." It's a title and a career path that has some prestige ... and when you leave that for the uncertainty of a "postacademic life," you leave that prestige behind. You no longer have a fancy job title ... and in fact, you may have no job title at all.
That can be a pretty depressing change in your identity, even if you're sure you're making the right move. So feeling sad about it is totally rational. Even if you hated the work, you're still losing a big chunk of your identity as an intellectual, as a prestigious person who teaches college. And it's okay to grieve for that, even if you'd rather die than walk into a classroom ever again.
As any social scientist will tell you, the loss of a big part of your identity is a traumatic and emotional process, even if you're happy to be making the change. It's okay to mourn that loss ... but then you have to move on.
Also, you start fearing that you're secretly a stupid failure. Whether or not you liked academic work, you've all absorbed the mantra that "academia is the most wonderful job ever, and anyone who leaves was too stupid to cut it."
So when you leave - even if you leave because you hate the work - you will have moments where that mantra creeps back into your head, and you will feel bad about yourself. Because if you left, you "must be stupid." After all, all of those smart professors say so. So you feel bad about yourself. And feeling like crap about yourself will usually make you sad. So you'll feel sad.
Now, this reaction may be consistent with the academic mindf*ck that we all get, but this is not an accurate read on your situation. If you've left, you're doing it for valid reasons ... and it's not because you're stupid. It's because you either hated the work or you can't get a job doing it. Those are both valid and rational reasons for leaving. In fact, I'd say that leaving in response to those situations is a sign that you are a very smart person.
And deep down, you know that. You've figured out that the myths about the supposed meritocracy within academia are crap. You've figured out there are no jobs, and that there's nothing that you, individually can do to land yourself a job. And along the way, you've probably also figured out that academia is just a job like any other ... and that just like any other job, some people will just figure out that they don't like the work anymore and will move on. And that that decision has nothing to do with their (your) intelligence.
But it'll take awhile to do totally retrain yourself away from the academic mindset, and in the meantime you'll probably have some sad moments where you'll suddenly decide you're a stupid failure for leaving.
We've all been there. Unfortunately, it takes awhile to shake off the academic mindset. Don't be surprised if you experience some sadness along the way. But don't worry ... this, too, shall pass.
So to sum up ... don't be surprised if you have bouts of sadness when you leave, even if you're a Type 1 leaver. It may feel weird, but any advice about grieving a loss will tell you that it's a normal phase in the process. And whether you're leaving because you hated academia or because there's no future in it, you're grieving a very real loss.
You're not just losing the concrete academic work that you either loved or hated. You're losing an identity that you've had for years or decades. You're losing a culture, and a prestigious job title, and a career path that you were convinced was going to lead to lifelong happiness. Whether you're leaving voluntarily or because of circumstances outside of your control, it's normal to feel some grief and sadness at such a tremendous loss of identity.
In fact, I'd say it's very similar to the emotions you'll cycle through when you go through a breakup of a five- or ten-year relationship. Even if the relationship wasn't all sunshine and roses and happiness, and even if you're happy in the long run that you left? You're still going to feel some sadness right after the initial breakup. It's just normal to grieve.
So let yourself grieve and be sad. Process your emotions and clear your head so that you can move on and figure out what comes next. But as long as it fades over time, don't worry too much about it. We've all been there.