Deciding to leave academia when it was your dream profession

Walking Away 

There are many blog posts written by people who decided to leave academia.  With the tight academic job market and the broken and exploitative adjunct system, there are many people, like me, who leave higher education because of math: there are just not enough jobs for all the talented people.  At some point, we decide we can no longer afford – financially or psychologically –  to stay in a system that has no room for us.

Sure, many people with tenure track jobs assume you couldn’t hack it, that you wouldn’t suffer for your art.  That may be true, but suffering is overrated, and there are too many people working as professors who gave up everything for their career and they are miserable. (Not everyone is, of course, but too many professors are unhappy and feel trapped in the system).

For the past 5 years, I’ve worked as a freelancer, researcher, and now as an entrepreneur building Beyond the Professoriate.  I am no longer an historian. I no longer publish or teach.

In 2012, I walked away after 3 years of job searching because the writing was on the wall.  I spent several months depressed, drinking too much cheap red wine and watching Downton Abbey in the afternoon.  But I decided I would not be another adjunct working for low wages.  I decided to say “no” to my own exploitation. I was a great teacher, and I decided that I wasn’t going to offer my talents and skills to universities at a discount.

At the time, it was an enormous leap of faith.  Would I ever find something that would be as rewarding as teaching? Would I think thoughts? Have interesting conversations? Was I doomed to unemployment?

The answer (of course!) is that I love what I do now, way more than I did teaching and research. The truth is the only thing I had ever done was teach in higher education. I had no idea about all the amazing, varied, and fabulous ways to leverage my skills.  But hindsight is 20/20.

So, how do you know when enough is enough?  How do you decide to walk away from your dream job, when it is the only career you ever really wanted (and maybe all you’ve every tried)?

Here are some things to consider in making that decision. 

1.  The first step is to evaluate the likelihood that you will ever land a tenure track position.  What year are you in?  The weeding out process begins early on in the job market search. In the humanities and social sciences,  people are most viable ABD and year 1 on the job market.  In STEM, it’s usually after your first post-doc (so around year 3). A second prestigious post-doc can keep you viable until around year 5.  After that, there’s little movement from temporary academic positions onto the tenure line.

People who start out in decent jobs or win prestigious post-docs upon graduation tend to continue on to better positions.   In todays academic job market, less than 40% of humanities PhDs end up in tenure track jobs, and it is even more dismal for the sciences. So, once you’ve given the academic job market a fair shake, and if it didn’t work out, get out.  It’s not you; it’s math.

If you are an adjunct and you’ve been in temporary position for more than three years in humanities, and longer than 5 in STEM, it is time to consider your options.  You probably won’t get a tenure track job at this point. Is this fair?  Nope, but academia is not a meritocracy.

2.  Consider your financial situation.  How long can you afford to work for $20-30,000 a year?  Most people can’t for very long.  What are your financial obligations?  What are your financial goals?  Who relies on you to make a living?  Who else is contributing to the running of the household?

Personally, I earned a PhD to be financially independent, live in a nice house, drive a reliable car, drink decent whiskey, eat fresh organic food, and travel.  I did not get a PhD to worry about my finances, rent crappy apartments, drive a shitty car, and make $12.50 an hour.  (Do the math: $25,000/50 weeks/40 hours = $12.50/hr. )  And I have student loans, so I can’t afford to work for low wages anyway.

No, money does not buy happiness. But not having enough money isn’t the pathway to happiness either. In fact, more stress and anxiety and unhappiness comes from not having money.  Don’t underestimate the importance of making a decent income.

There are other things you can do that will allow you to live the life you want to live and make the money you need to afford a middle-class lifestyle.

3. People in academia don’t move. Yes, your PhD advisor did, but your PhD advisor is at an R1 school and is super fortunate. Your PhD advisor also lives in a pre-2009 economic-recession-world.  You don’t.  I’ve done the research on this.  In the research I did for the AHA and the Chronicle of Higher Ed, I’d just how little movement there was in academia.  Many PhDs are working at teaching-intensive schools and never amass the publishing records needed to move out of these positions to “better” schools.

Remember, if it is this hard to get your first job, why do you think you’ll get a “better” position?

If took a tenure track job and now you are miserable, quit and do something else with your life.  The idea that people move within academia is a lie perpetuated by a broken system.  But you can move, but it will require a new career. And that’s o.k.

4.  There are other things you can do and be.  At Beyond Prof, every month we interview PhDs who have left academia and have launched professional careers. We share their stories to inspire you, and provide you with tips and strategies to find your own career.  The world is full of PhDs who, like you who did not land the “dream” job, didn’t want to be a professor in the first place, were depressed and lost, but they found a way to move forward.

5.  Seek-out professional counselling and mental health services. Practice self-compassion and self-care. This is hard. It sucks. It is unfortunate. It’s not fair, and it is HARD. There is a time for being angry and frustrated. But don’t put that blame on yourself. Be the friend you need right now.

6. We are not the first generation to suffer enormous personal disappointment.  Many of us are children of baby boomers who were raised to believe in a system of meritocracy.  Our parents’ world is not our world.  In many ways, we have more in common with our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations.

When I decided to leave academia, I booked a trip home to Southern Alberta, to the Wood Family Farm, where my parents and my grandfather (who was 90 at the time) live.  On my grandfather’s wall is pictures of the sheep ranch where he lived as a toddler.

His parents, Harold and Ida, were immigrants who moved from Utah to Southern Alberta at the turn of the 20th century.  Harold was a butcher and then a sheep rancher.  He leased a section of land in Southern Alberta, about 1.5 hours from the Canada-US border and 1.5 hours from the Rocky Mountains.  There isn’t a tree to be seen on the land. There was nothing there when the family lived there in the 1920s, and there still isn’t anything there.

The family lived in a run-down shack by a creek, until one winter all of Harold’s sheep froze to death, and that was that.  Harold’s sheep ranching days were over.  Plus, Ida had always hated living in the middle of nowhere.  Her sons were growing up wild.  Her nearest neighbour was several miles away.  She wanted her children to have an education and to live in or near town.

When my grandfather was 5 years old, the family moved to a section of land near Taber, Alberta, where they built the basement and foundation of a small farm house.  Then they ran out of money, so they moved into the basement and for the next 20 years, through the depression and WW II, they raised their family of 8 in that basement.

Finally, in the late 1940s, Harold and Ida had enough money to finish their house and move upstairs. They were in their 60s.

I’m not sure what Harold and Ida’s dreams were.  I never met Harold and Ida died when I was 8.  But I can’t imagine that this was the life they dreamed for themselves.  Maybe it was.  They owned land, after all, which was  a step up from sheep ranching.  But their lives were marked with defeats, set-backs, and disappointments, all of them caused by political and socioeconomic situations well beyond their control.

As I stood there in my grandfather’s house, looking at the photograph of the sheep ranch, it puts my own disappointments into perspective.  And it helps me see my own achievement.

No, I didn’t get to be a history professor like I had imagined, but I had the luxury of having this dream.  I am the great grand daughter of a sheep rancher and farmer.  Through the benefit of a good public education system in Canada, I was able to earn a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a top 10 program in my field.

I am successful.

And so are you.

Now, go search for new adventures, for new opportunities, and continue to be your fabulous, successful self.

And don’t let anyone in academia or outside of it make you feel small, or like a failure, for leaving.

There are not enough professorships for all of the talented people.

The most radical thing you can do is leave a broken system and find new spaces and opportunities where you can put your talents to use, and make a livable wage.

Ida and Herald Wood's sheep ranch in Southern Alberta
Ida and Harold Wood’s sheep ranch in Southern Alberta