Friday, November 9, 2012

On Feelings, "Success," and Postacademic Life

I wrote this piece a while back and never posted it. Since I'm in the middle of a pretty big case of writers' block right now, I thought I'd throw it out here for everyone to read. I think it's a little scattered (which is why I hadn't posted it yet), but in the absence of having anything else to post right now ... here you go! :)


I wanted to follow up on a few posts about postacademic life that have popped up in our little corner of the blogosphere in recent days.

As you know, I've been writing a lot lately about how my postacademic life is pretty great ... that I have plenty of free time, and I don't work in a giant corporate office with mind-numbing responsibilities and awful coworkers. And that's all true! I like my life now, and my job is alright, and I'm generally a lot happier than I was when I was in academia.

But the posts that others have written this week - particularly at Lauren's and Currer's places - have caused me to feel compelled to throw up a little caution flag on my blog. Not to walk back my positivity about my postacademic life, mind you - I really AM happy as a postacademic! But after reading these posts at Lauren and Currer's places, I feel like I need to take a minute to make it clear that every single second isn't all sunshine and rainbows for me either.

I'm still dealing with a little bit of (post)academic guilt, and a little bit of doubt about the decisions I've made since leaving. Even for someone like me who's landed in a pretty good place, becoming a postacademic is not easy. You can get to a good place mentally and occupationally after you leave, but it won't happen overnight and you will have a few ups and downs along the way.

And even after you do make that clean, complete break from academia and are feeling good about your life? You can still have occasional setbacks. The dream job that you took might turn out to kind of suck (like Currer's). You might miss some aspects of academic work (like some of the Type 2 leavers). Or, like me, you could wind up generally happy ... but still experience moments of worry and self-doubt every now and then.

But it doesn't mean you're doing it "wrong" - it just means you're going through a big life change and things might get a little messy. So let's talk for a minute about how that looks ... for me, anyway.

I've written about these up-and-down feelings a little bit before, but not in quite a few months. But given that Currer's post described me as a really successful postacademic (eek!) and sort of insinuated that everything is all good with me, I *did* want to mention that I do still have doubts/worries from time to time. Currer and I aren't on opposite ends of some postacademic spectrum. She seems to be having a harder time right now, but I have my moments as well.

So ... what are the things that still bother me? Well, a lot of it relates to my job. As you all know, I left academia and took a position at the consulting firm I'd been working at for the last few years on the side while I was a grad student. Upon leaving academia, my boss offered me a raise and promotion, which I took. And it's been pretty alright. My boss gets on my nerves sometimes and sometimes I wish I was doing something else ... but ultimately, it's just a job. And for right now, it's a perfectly fine job to pay the bills.

But sometimes I worry that I will regret having taken this job rather than looking harder for something "better" (from an academic perspective). Something that requires more education, or that's a closer fit to what I was doing in academia. Something that my friends and family can be impressed with. In other words, sometimes I worry that my job is somehow "beneath me" ... because, well, I was going to be a professor. "Managing a consulting office" doesn't have the same fancy ring to it. I'm glad I have a job and I'm proud to be earning an adult salary, but I don't get excited when I talk about what I do ... and sometimes I wish I did.

So while I never feel regret over the fact that I left grad school and don't work in academia anymore (honestly), I do sometimes feel a vague sense that there is something more that I should be doing - a job that's more meaningful, or a job in a cooler city, or a job that my former advisors and academic friends would be more impressed by than "manager at a consulting firm."

So while Currer wrote that she sometimes gets a little down when she reads posts from those of us who like our postacademic jobs? I admit - I sometimes get a little down when I read posts by the post-ac bloggers who have actual "career" jobs.

Because in my opinion and in my less upbeat moments, the other postacademics have done it "more right" than I have. They left, and sent out resumes, and interviewed for jobs, and took jobs vaguely related to academia that led to concrete career paths they were interested in.

And me? I just took the job that I'd been working part-time in grad school (in the same industry I've been in since I was 18), and made it a full-time job. Whoop-de-do. The job that was just helping me pay the bills while I was in grad school, and that I'd always said I'd never consider staying in long-term? Well, here I am, working it as a (for now) career.

So while I don't hate my job, I sometimes find it sort of, I don't know ... embarrassing. Disappointing. Wasn't I supposed to be doing something more profound with my life? When I left academia for Things That Were Better For Me in February of 2011, weren't those Things supposed to be more exciting than "the same part-time job I've had for the past five years?"


Now, I try not to let this stuff get me down or bother me too frequently, and it really doesn't. I realized a year or so ago that as long as I'm happy in my overall life (which I am), it doesn't seem to really matter what I'm doing for a paycheck. And that has been the case, most of the time.

But every now and then - and particularly when I hear about someone who's landed their dream job or is pursuing an exciting career change or something like that - I feel like a bit of a failure. Like I have no business keeping a postacademic blog that others look to for inspiration, when all I did upon leaving academia was to parachute into the part-time job I'd had for years. What kind of example am I setting for other people here? I'm not a postacademic success, I'm a postacademic coward, who was too scared to look outside of my immediate environment for a new job!

But then, after a few minutes goes by ... I realize that's not the case. Being happy is its own success, in my opinion. And getting out of academia into this "just for now" job has made me happy for now. So I'm doing just fine. And as time goes on, I'll reevaluate and make changes.

But if you read my blog and think that everything is peachy-keen 100% of the time for me, please understand ... the second guessing and the comparing yourself (unfavorably) to others does still happen to me, at least from time to time. It doesn't mean that I regret leaving ... but it's important to recognize that ups and downs will probably happen if you leave, so don't be surprised.

And to be honest? I blame the psychological mindfuck that academia gives us a little bit. If academia looked more like the "real world," we'd probably have a saner view of our work lives.

Work would just be "work," not "the most important thing in our lives." A job would just be "a job" that we could take or leave - not "the only job worth having, while the rest of the world toils away in the pathetic boredom of a nonacademic job." All of the people we worked alongside on a daily basis would be chasing a thousand different careers in a hundred different industries ... not competing against one another for a single set of jobs (and thus constantly comparing ourselves to each other and seeing where we come up short).

In other words, I feel like we'd all worry a little less about "whether the job we have is good enough and what it says about us" if we hadn't been put through the ringer of academia first. It creates unrealistic expectations about what an adult life and career should look like, and of how we compare ourselves to others. It makes it hard to see that we all have different life goals and different ambitions - even among academics! - and that one person's career success doesn't mean that we've failed because we're not moving as quickly as they are or in the same direction they're going.

(Also, I think that we'd care a lot less about how other people see our lives and jobs and careers if we hadn't been conditioned through years in academia to be constantly critiquing and competing with each other, over everything.)


So, Currer ... don't be too hard on yourself. As Lauren says, quitting isn't pretty.

And to my readers ... take heart. If you leave academia, it will likely be both incredibly awesome and incredibly hard. But even with that hard stuff, as Currer, Lauren and I have all said ... we still wouldn't go back. Because moving forward into postacademia is hard, but moving back to academia would be a nightmare.

At least out here, we have choices about where to go next, and some control over the process.


  1. The 2 Year Life of the MindNovember 9, 2012 at 8:38 PM

    Somebody posted a "because" list for why they're leaving academia (can't remember where I saw that but I copied it). I also started creating my own "because" list. It is helping me clarify why I am leaving and I KNOW that at some point after I leave, I will have to refer back to it when I say, "why did I leave"? I think those moments are inevitable for everyone. I'm already preparing for them.

    I refer to the wonderful article entitled, "That first crummy job". My goal is to go out there and get used to being in another world and learn the social mores and behavior of this new cultural. I'll pretend I'm a cultural anthropologist. Everyone has to take "that first job".

    I think in academia, we are all so brainwashed to think we are doing something SO NOBLE that NOTHING could compare. I think there are lots of mundane, ordinary jobs out there that need to be done. I also believe that our true opportunities for making a difference don't come from grand gestures and with great fanfare. They come quietly and often go unrecognized and yet have very important and positive outcomes that we may not yet know. Just like a marketing manager told me recently, you don't have to become an official "trainer" to train, guide, or direct. She said she trains, mentors, and counsels people as a manager every day. Ask anyone who reports to a manager what the value of a good manager is to them. I'll bet it makes a positive difference in their life. As a manager, I'll be YOU make a positive difference in your employee's lives. That's something worth doing, don't you think?

    And THIS BLOG.... Oh. My. God. I am so grateful for it that it's not even funny. This blog DOES make a difference. I feel like by reading articles and blogs since May, this team of internet "counselors" has helped me stop my addiction to graduate education (quit a third masters program in the summer because well....nobody NEEDS 2 masters degrees) and I have found myself referencing what many of the bloggers write. I also see these things in my own college environment and it helps assuage any guilt that may creep up.

    So, your job...and life... earth shattering? Doesn't sound like it. But as someone who has worked in some highly competitive, high profile type jobs with lots of competition (academia, the media) I can tell you that the "exciting life" is not that great. I can't wait to have a boring, stable life with a good salary. It's my LIFE that suffers the most. Sounds to me like your life is pretty good and I think that's worth everything.

    Keep on bloggin'.....

    P.S. I found this discussion on a website dedicated to wedding planning. Apparently an academic bride wants to know if other academic brides think it's OK for her to leave the university before the diss. It's freaking everywhere man...

  2. Awesome entry, JC -- thank you!

  3. I hope you keep writing because your blog is truly helpful to many people. I especially agree with this:
    "In other words, I feel like we'd all worry a little less about "whether the job we have is good enough and what it says about us" if we hadn't been put through the ringer of academia first."
    I think academics identify themselves too much with their job. They are their job. In fact, academia forces you to forget about any other talents you may have and to merge with it, so that there is nothing left for you. Like someone wrote, this larger than life job mentality makes it easy to exploit academics and deprive them of whatever pleasures in life they may have outside of work. Sad.

    1. "In fact, academia forces you to forget about any other talents you may have and to merge with it, so that there is nothing left for you."

      My god, have truer words ever been spoken? Anon 4:44, you have summed up so succinctly and accurately my biggest beef with the academic career. It gnaws at me every day, as I finish my dissertation and half-heartedly take a stab at the academic job market.

  4. Thanks, JC! I hope my post didn't make you feel like I was overly simplifying your life or being insensitive to the struggles you've had as a post-ac. You just seem to have done the transition so well! But it's a good reminder to hear how the transition is rough on us all. And thanks for the reminder not to be too hard on myself. It's difficult for me not to be!

  5. Oh gee..blush! I'm that girl on the wedding website another poster mentioned! I'm actually finishing the dissertation (in my field, finishing isn't really a problem, we have fantastic funding, I adore my advisor, and we all finish in 5 yrs), I'm just really clueless on what to do next. These blogs have really helped to keep me sane. Honestly, it was planning my wedding (which went great!) that kept my academic-depression from ballooning into a real depression, and deciding to go the non-ac route after graduation has made me so incredibly happy. I share all those same worries about feeling like my post-ac job should be amazing or at least related to my field. Thankfully, I think I decided to leave with enough time left in my program (about a year) that I have been able to prep for the job market better and the big thing has been learning to network, which HOPEFULLY will get me a semi-related position.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this entry. I also have my moments when I question why did I leave academia and worry about what my family and others will think of me. But it all comes down to happiness. Was I happy in academia? No, and there's no point in living a miserable life even if there's prestige attached to it.

    While I do differ from you in my aspirations - in that I want to fight for my "dream" career - I think it's important that you present a different view. The point is that all of us have different things we want from our jobs and careers, and that's fine. Most of my friends and family chose careers that they liked and paid the bills, but they don't feel particularly passionate about what they do. But they're happy, and they're happy with their choices. What more can we ask?

    No matter what each of us strives for, let it be so we reach our unique happiness - not what others say our happiness should be. And sure, not everyday will be peachy, but we shouldn't live in absolute misery.

  7. I discovered your blog yesterday and have read most of it. Thanks for writing on these topics. People really are clueless. I just wrote a blog post about an article in the Yale alumni magazine which details the suicide of a freaked out academic and yet seems to miss the role academia plays in the suicide. The guy was driven to the brink by a revise-and-resubmit (!) and the author, who I otherwise admire, still doesn't get it. There need to be more resources for people re-integrating into civilian life!

  8. Ha! I remember in undergrad, before I found Jesus, this girl said to me well at least my degree will say Animal Science and not Ag Education ( I switched due to unhappiness in the Animal Science). A degree doesn't make you who you are. And I used to be one of those people who wouldn't marry a man without a degree (I am married to one without a degree!) I am just thankful that God opened my eyes to this foolish "wisdom" and I just feel like if you are not doing the will of God, then it is a waste of time. You don't HAVE to have a degree to be successful!