Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Sadness

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.


  1. JC,

    I've decided to post anonymously for this one.

    Do you think you could do a post on how to make a relationship work through this career transition out of academia? You and Currer seem to have amazingly supportive partners. For the most part, I feel a lot of blame from my partner that academia didn't work out for me (I was not renewed after my third year review). It was my TT job that led us to this geographic location and according to my partner, my bad attitude (I'm a pessimistic realist who's always planning for the worst case scenario) that led to my nonrenewal. I know a lot of my feelings of not knowing what to do with my life needs no one but myself to work through, but still, I want to make decisions that affect our family together.

    1. Absolutely!! I have been beyond swamped at work this week and could barely squeeze out this week's two posts. But if you give me some time to think on it, I will post some thoughts next week.

      Thanks! And I'm sorry to hear about your nonrenewal. :(

    2. Hi anonymous - I am hardly a relationship expert so I can't really say much, but I do know that almost everyone I know who is in a relationship is in the kind of relationship that involves a lot of compromise, whether they have an academic career or no career. Financial trouble doesn't help, that's for sure. But it is a passing phase. You will find work. Sometimes it's just a matter of hanging in there.

  2. I know this wasn't expressly directed to me, but I'll give the topic some thought, too, since I was definitely "present" in this post and question.

  3. Currer, that would be awesome! I'm feeling quite frustrated today because I feel that I'm bearing the grunt of taking care of our toddler and getting a part time job so we can actually have an emergency fund for when my teaching ends.

    1. Sure! It's a great idea for a post. I'd be curious to hear what JC says too. I'm far from a relationship therapist, but I'll write a bit about life at the Bell household and you can see if any of it's helpful.

  4. I just posted mine. I look forward to reading JC's ideas, if she decides to run with this post topic.

  5. I so needed to hear this when I did. I definitely have moments where I really miss the academic life. But of course, I don't miss not being paid for the work I was doing, so that kind of reminds me of why things have to be the way they are...

  6. Q: My story. Part 1May 24, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    Hi JC,

    I am currently doing my first postdoc in earth sciences. Yes, I am a hard sciences PhD holder…but let me say it: I hate my job, I hate my career and I don’t give a damn about my research.

    Whew! I said it…what a feeling of relief and rebellion!

    Not being a native English speaker, I would like to apologize for the eventual grammar mistakes in the following lines. Please, be gentle with me.

    During the last five years I’ve been surfing the internet searching for articles or forums with questions and answers about leaving Academia. I have found some material written by people who were going through the self-questioning process in order to quitting their actual jobs, either academic or not. I was desperately trying to find myself in other people’s experiences. However, I never had the courage to write asking for advice.

    I studied engineering in my hometown. Several external factors, mainly opinions that easily influenced my weak character, pushed me to make this choice. I can say that the only personal motivation I had was that I liked chemistry in high school. Spending time in the laboratory playing around with chemical reactants gave me the exciting feeling of danger and the image of a person able to understand the mysteries of nature. Nonetheless, the short (thank God) internships in the industry gave me a strange feeling of uneasiness and anxiety. By the time I had finished my license degree, I was barely starting to realize that I might had made a mistake in choosing a technical career.

    Job searching was far from being a bowl of cherries. I took some short-term job offers with little to no enjoyment feelings at all, until I reached the bottom when I quitted a job position as junior engineer after spending the first three days in a mineral-beneficiation plant located in the middle of nowhere. My path was simply not being an engineer!

    What to do now? Perhaps I should move towards academic research? So, I did it and I did it far far away from home. After an intensive year applying for scholarships, with the corresponding energy/time/money investments, I finally got accepted by a professor of a Central European university to work with their research team in a subject totally unknown to me in a totally new scientific area. I hence received a grant to study there, my motivation rising up to 200%. There will be a new country to discover, a new life and new things to learn. Three months of intensive language course before starting the research project gave me a warm welcoming in the European world. I even turned out to be one of the best students of my class. I felt like a champion.

    Nevertheless, being in front of my new supervisors gave me again the same feeling of uneasiness and anxiety. I somehow tried to ignore it and started working hard in order to satisfy my own expectations and those of the people who cared for me. Unfortunately, this would gradually become into one of my worst mistakes.

    Two years of grant passed doing research, learning new analytical techniques, taking basic courses on earth sciences (to understand the new terminology) but at the same time struggling, more and more as the days were passing by, with the horrible fear of Mondays and forcing myself to wake up every day to go to the university. At some point, my supervisor offered me the possibility of being engaged by the University for two more years and to finish the research with a Doctoral thesis. The general consensus tends to overestimate the three letters “PhD” after one’s name. Once again, I let external advices to influence my decisions and ignoring my doubts and those strong anxiety symptoms I accepted the offer and signed my future condemnation to the uncertainty. The doors were definitively opening to the academic world.

  7. Q: My story. Part 2May 24, 2012 at 9:34 AM

    Anxiety briefly transformed into excitement when I travelled to exotic countries to participate in the famous scientific conferences. The travelling-experience however only transformed into a pleasure after finishing the energy-consuming stress of preparing the presentations, poster and talks. These experiences would eventually attack my emotional-equilibrium which ended up by collapsing. I started avoiding the boring meetings where science issues were discussed.

    After two years trying to adapt myself to my peers’ style of fun, I realized I did not share the same affinity with them. Yet, I made four good friends outside the main PhD core group. That was something good!

    I was at the beginning of the last year (the fourth) and I could not picture my own future after the coming dissertation process.

    Depression took upon me I could publish one paper with the last energy spark I had and I entered in a vicious circle of guilty feelings. I have finished the fourth year with no thesis and no more salary. I took a half-time job far from the university and thank God I could breathe freely there at least for some time. Unfortunately it was only temporary and not really well paid.

    During the fifth year I made up my mind, I wrote the resignation letter. Nonetheless, my brave attempt of resigning was refused by my supervisors. They used many tricky arguments to convince me that a PhD degree would open many doors rather than a simple master degree in translation, which I really wanted to do.
    I stop here just to explain that after some period of career change counseling, the results showed that I was an undiscovered artist with no scientific interests at all and with a contemplative mind rather than an analytical one. Languages and photography were my really interests and I was advised to pursue a career in translation. Unfortunately, as a foreigner, I had no choices to change the area of study. Either I finished my current formation or I went back home without any title

    Coming back to my supervisors…they also explained me that the kind of depression I was going through (and I really was depressed) were so common among PhD students as a result of working four or more years on the same topic (what a surprise!) but being so close to finish. They said that it was a kind of anxiety before giving birth to a baby thesis after a long process of elaboration. My lack of character and weakened personality could not to fight back these arguments and I put my defenses down. They won.

    It took me eight months to finish writing the thesis and I presented it two years ago. I received my Doctorate and…no doors were open. All my applications for the real-world jobs were refused or left with no answer. The main reasons were:
    • To be over qualified: Bullshit! As a science PhD I spent hours trying to read boring articles related to one single topic…yes, one single topic that maybe only five crazy scientists out there could really understand and no one, with a healthy state of mind, would care. I read theory but I did not get any training to do something applied. Any other practical skill or real-world knowledge that I could have slightly developed years ago was being left behind in my memory buried under tons of academic lecture, articles/papers written in the classical arid language.

    • A PhD holder asks for higher salaries: I only expected to be paid as a normal new starter employee.

    • A lack of real-work experience: That’s for sure. There were days where I spend hours totally by myself in a laboratory and I even started to call “Wilson” to the balance and talk to it. OK, I know, I am exaggerating a bit but anyway, what kind of social skills we develop when we spend time totally isolated, everyone working on their own topic.

  8. Q: My story. Part 3May 24, 2012 at 9:35 AM

    So, what was left open? Only the promise that a “postdoc job” would be real fun and an enjoyable experience. No more pressures existed for writing a thesis. Come on! Was I so stupid to believe it? Apparently….yes, I was. And here I am. I started a postdoc position in another university, in a new country.

    Let’s start all over again. I am now 36 years old, single, totally on my own. I don’t’ know anybody. I have no one to start a little circle of friends.

    I entered again in the same academic atmosphere (it is the same everywhere). Science posters hanged on the walls, offices with people behind their own computers working on their own topics completely isolated lost in books spread in messy desks. Knowledge is in the air, it is everywhere. All my “colleagues” only speak about congresses, deadlines for abstracts submission, conferences. They all are badly or funny dressed. English is the only language to communicate and no one here is a native English speaker. Funny accents and sometimes guessing is the only thing I can do to understand them. We only gather to go for lunch to the relatively cheap restaurants for students. Food tastes awful. I try to hang out with them but the last thing they are able to do is be really sociable. However, we go out from time to time for a beer, I can barely make jokes. I would like to get wasted…but all of them are so into their research that go early home to start working the next day at 8:00 am. I have troubles to wake up early, I don’t feel any motivation. I sometimes spend hours totally alone in a laboratory, learning the repetitive work and start talking again to the machines. My social skills are in danger.

    Outside the university, I fortunately get to know a few normal and interesting people, most of them foreigners. It is difficult to get to know the local people without speaking the language. I take language courses hoping to meet new people although all of my class mates are either older (really older) or younger (really younger) than me. Anyway, that helps to keep me young…too young to hang out now with people of my own age (if ever get to know someone of my generation. Most of them might be busy working in their real jobs or with their own families). At “work” all I see around me is only students…ACADEMIA.

    Finding your blog devoted entirely to LEAVING ACADEMIA, gave me the warm feeling of solidarity. I know that I am not the only one but I never felt able or ready to share my feelings. Now it’s my chance. Taking advantage that one of the machines is break down and my samples have to wait until next week; I sat down in front of the computer and started writing these lines. I apologize it was that long and boring (if anyone took the courage to go through all of it).

    I know my story would have been different if I had done a better career choice or if I had firmly made the career change when I was in front of my supervisors handing them my resignation letter. Now I regret being so weak.
    Academia is fine when one is made for it. Unless you want to teach one day and spent hours in isolation surrounded by students or by funny looking/bizarre colleagues, don’t go for a PhD.

    What should I do now? I don’t belong here, I really want to quit but I don’t know what other jobs are out there in which I could fit in. I don’t know what other skills I possess. I spent too much time reading science and ignoring how the world really works. I feel I am losing my self-confidence. This long exposure to no satisfaction has affected all my relationships. I can never make up my mind I am a very hesitant person and I cannot keep a regular rhythm of life.

    Any advice?

    1. Thanks so much for your comments - and no, I don't mind that they're long. It's just internet space - it doesn't count!! :)

      I am on my way out the door right now so I can't respond further, but I will come back later this weekend and leave a longer comment. In the meantime, if you want to email me at leavingacademia (at) gmail (dot) com then please do.

      Hang in there!! You'll figure something out!

  9. Hey Q

    I read your post and can really relate. I also did a sciency PhD then a postdoc and am now a lecturer and am also mid-thirties and am lonely etc... When I read your post and you said you had become a postdoc it was like reading a script from a tragic-comedy, but you are not alone. I actually managed to get out of academia after my PhD to teach English and I loved it. I got sucked back in though when my former supervisor offered me a postdoc, I took it for financial reasons but really I was scared to say 'no' to him (I have since learned that the 'powers' of academia and the supervisor are very strong). So I did that, was not too bad actually and the money ok but still did not feel so alive as I did when teaching English (such a relaxed and sociable job..). After the postdoc I didnt know what to do with myself and thought the only job I was qualified for was to be a after 4 years of doing that I feel the same as when I finished my PhD and so am thinking about going back to teach English and use that time to figure out what I will do next or continue to teach English if that is satisfying personally and financially long-term. I also did a personality test recently and found out I was more naturally inclined towards the arts rather than science...

    So my advice is for you to teach languages (study again part time?), or move sideways, there's loads of work for earth scientists these days in mining/mapping etc.. I wouldnt mind doing that actually but I'm more of a gemorphologist and so I never di the really hard science... Good luck !!