Monday, July 16, 2012

Ask a Postacademic - Questions 4 and 5

I think it's time for a new postacademic Q&A session...

For today's post, I'll combine two questions into one post, because I don't think either one requires a lengthy, drawn-out explanation. If you have any other questions or ideas for things you'd like to see me discuss, feel free to leave them in comments. I always appreciate ideas for posts!

The first question for today asks about the dynamic between my graduate classmates and me. The commenter asks if I was the only one in my grad program who hated academia, and also asks:
Did you have a classmate that quit the program before you? How was the jealousy and competition between your classmates?
Well, first ... there were a few people who quit our grad program before finishing and sort of disappeared off into the wilderness into nonacademic jobs. Most people left right after completing their masters' degrees, but there are two people I can think of who got closer to graduation and then just sort of disappeared. And there are another 10 or so who got their Ph.D.s and then got nonacademic jobs.

As for whether these people "hated" academia, though? I can't say for sure. I certainly didn't talk about (or even realize) how much *I* had hated academia until I had left and allowed myself to confront my feelings about academia, once I was truly free of the culture.

Until I actually left, then, I still hadn't fully accepted that I hated academia. And since I couldn't identify my own feelings, I certainly didn't engage anyone else in discussions of how much academia sucked. That kind of thing - being critical of academia as a whole - is just not done, as we all know. So, at the time when those students were in my program, no. I definitely did not talk with them about whether they hated academia or about why they were leaving. They just ... left.

And since I haven't spoken to all of the people who left, I really can't say for sure if they, collectively, truly hated it or if they had other reasons for leaving. I'm sure that each person has their own complex set of reasons for leaving, and chalking it up to one reason or feeling (like "because they all hated academia") is probably a little too simple. I know that's true for me.

I will say that of the people I have talked to who left (in particular, ten or so alums of my department who I contacted after I decided to leave for support and advice), I found that we all shared a very critical view of academia. I'd usually wind up emailing back and forth or chatting with these people for up to an hour on the phone, with a decent segment of those conversations involving the pointlessness of academic research, the cattiness of faculty and grad students, and the utter misery and insanity of the academic job market. They'd all express relief that they left and didn't have to deal with it anymore, and would congratulate me on deciding to leave.

And without a single exception, every one of the 10 or so Grad U alums who I talked to said that they had never regretted the decision to leave academia, and that they were much happier in their outside jobs. Every. Single. One.

So while I can't say that any of us have said the words "I hate academia" to each other, I think it's safe to say that those of us who have left share a very, very critical perspective on academia. That probably borders on resentment, if not outright hate.

As for jealousy and competition between us when I was still in school ... I was very lucky in that regard. People in our department got along fairly well. We were all funded (at least for the first few years), and we all took the same classes at the same time. As a result, we were forced from the beginning to work together on class projects and in classroom discussions, while not having to compete for funding.

So in general, that structure inspired a camaraderie from the beginning that kind of hung on, even as we advanced in the program and split off into different groups along the lines of our academic and social interests. By the time we began competing with each other for fellowships and awards, I never noticed the competitions getting all that vicious or anyone being catty with each other behind the scenes. I'm not sure why that was the case, and certainly there were exceptions in terms of individual folks who hated each other.

But in general, we all got along reasonably well. My grad school classmates were definitely not a reason that I left. Some of them were aggravating, but that's true of any work environment. Most of them were alright ... and the ones who weren't were easy to avoid.

I will note, though, that I only had a few truly close friends in grad school ... and we could probably all be characterized as having been slightly "less serious" about academia than many of our colleagues. We'd work together on projects and read each other's papers and whatnot during the week, of course ... but would then go out for beers or to see a movie or whatever every single weekend and usually once or twice during the week.* There was no 24/7 workweek for any of us. From day one, I gravitated toward the people who balanced work with outside interests. Perhaps in hindsight, that is telling.

So while I say that I met great people in academia, I should also note that I avoided the people who were always working or who couldn't talk about anything other than theory or academic politics. Avoided them like the plague. And maybe they hated me and talked about me behind my back - I'd never know for sure. From my perspective, though, there wasn't much cattiness in my program.


This commenter also asks if anyone who's left my program has come back to academia. The answer to that question is no. However, I don't think that this means that coming back is impossible ... I'm fairly certain that I've read about people who have left academia and returned later a few times.

More importantly, in my opinion, is that of the people who have left, I don't know of a single person who has tried to reenter academia. So that should tell you a little something about how content they are with their lives outside of academia. Could they get back in if they wanted to? Maybe.

But do they want to? No.


The next question will be easy to answer. This commenter asks if my decision to leave has been rife with any uncertainty or second-guessing of whether I'm making the right decision.

My answer: yes. Yes yes yes. Absolutely, I have second-guessed myself and worried about what would happen next or if I was making the right decision. You can see a little bit of this in the archives of this blog, and also in comments I've left at the other postacademic bloggers' sites.

When you come through grad school and are told for years and years that a faculty position is the be-all and end-all of life, and that every other job is a boring waste of time where everyone is miserable, of course you will worry about whether you are making the right decision if you knowingly decide to leave.

But don't feel like this means that you are making the wrong decision. You've just spent nearly a decade of your life being told that your work is the only meaningful work in the world and that everything else is pointless drudgery. And now you're leaving??? Of course you're going to wonder - even just in the back of your mind - if all of those people were right. I've done it, and I've never seriously considered going back.

It's damned hard to break out of the academic mindset. But that certainly doesn't mean you shouldn't do it.

Also, let's take academia entirely out of it. Let's imagine that you're switching careers in another field or breaking up with a long-term partner or deciding to move across the country or to make a major financial purchase. Are you going to worry or second-guess yourself about any of those life decisions? Are you going to sit up late at night, thinking about all of the possible outcomes and of the pros and cons of the decision you're making? Of course you will.

99.9% of us will worry and second-guess ourselves anytime we make any giant life decision. And leaving academia definitely qualifies as a giant life decision. So it makes sense that you'd worry and have a little bit of uncertainty about whether you're doing the right thing. It's totally normal.

But just like that toxic partner you broke up with or that awful job you left or that big purchase that you agonized over making but are now so thankful that you made ... sometimes the tough decisions are the best decisions. And if you're seriously unhappy in grad school or see no future for yourself in academia that will allow you to live a normal adult life with a decent job and salary, then I honestly think that you are better off making the tough decision and moving on and making the best of it than you would be hanging on to academia, hoping that things will magically improve.

Because in academia these days - whether you're miserable with the work or tired of being an adjunct? I see absolutely no evidence that things in academia are going to improve. At least not in any of our lifetimes.


*I'd like to note, by the way, all of these "well-balanced" people I hung around with in grad school are still in academia. I'm the only one of us "slackers" who left. There were six fellow grad students I was very close to while I was in school. Five of them have tenure-track jobs and the sixth is on the job market this year. Amazingly, they didn't work 24/7 and managed to get decent jobs, albeit with 4 of the 5 working in geographic locations that I would never consider living in.


  1. Thanks for this post. As I was (re)reading it I thought again about how much I like your choice of Blog title - as I am now having a break before I start my new non-academic job (but in the same university where I studied for PhD) I'm already feeling the sense 'happiness' that I've been looking for post PhD and post-academia. I'm hoping this feeling will last - I have faith the decision is a positive one. I was also reminded, after having a quick peak here - - at some research that looked at why women (and also men) were leaving academia or had changes their minds about working in academia when doing PhD study. The study looked at chemistry students but the move out of academia, as we all know, is more attractive now for arts and humanities PhDs. It was a very good reminder to me about why I have come to this point where I've said, enough is enough, and started looking on another direction.

  2. Please keep posting your answers and observations about leaving academia. They are so helpful! Thank you very much!

  3. At least I'm not alone in leaving academia and I'm in a STEM. At least the Army wants my M.S. as an officer.

  4. This is such an encouraging post - thank you! I can't wait to leave academia.

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