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 more people like me leaving higher education.  We leave because we can’t find a job.  We give up on our dream for a variety of reasons.  Some of us leave because we can not afford — financially or for personal reasons – to fight on for our academic careers.  We have student loan debt, children, or partners that limit our ability to take crappy, low paying, temporary jobs.

To those who fall into this category, I say – it is not you, the system is broken.  You did not fail.  The system is designed and stacked against you.  Hiring for tenure track jobs is random and landing one requires a lot of luck.  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 filling professorships who gave up everything to be there.  Do you really want to join their ranks?

But I am no longer employed as an academic historian. I no longer work on my dissertation to turn it into a book.  I’ve 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.  I will not be another adjunct. I say no to my own exploitation.  I will not give away my excellent teaching abilities to a school at a discount.  I am doing other things and finding success in other ways and, one day, I hope that this new path will provide me as much satisfaction as looking at a room full of undergraduate students.

How do you know when enough is enough?  How do you decide to walk away from your dream job, the only career you ever really wanted?

Here are some things to consider in making that decision. I have researched career paths of 3,200 history PhDs.  It is this information, combined with my own experience and the experience of my friends, that informs this post.

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.  People who start out in decent jobs or win prestigious post-docs upon graduation tend to continue on to better positions.   I see people all of the time in my research who held a multi year non-tenure track teaching position and did not end up in a tenure track job.  Some of these people continue to adjunct, while others have moved into administration.  But these multiyear postdoctoral positions are not necessarily a gateway to a tenure track job.  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.

If you are an adjunct and you’ve been in temporary positions, it is time to consider your options.  You probably won’t get a tenure track job at this point.   If you do, it will probably not pay well or be at a very respectable school.   Is this fair?  No.  But it is what it is.  If you’ve been in temporary positions for more than 3 years, it is time to walk away.

2.  Consider your financial situation.  Can you afford to adjunct or work for $30-40,000 a year?  Most people can’t and nobody can for very long.  People who earned PhDs expect to be middle class.  They have middle-class tastes and expenses.  You will never have the middle-class lifestyle you hoped to have on an adjunct salary, and you probably won’t have it with many starting professor salaries.  Starting salaries for professorships in the humanities are the 40s and low 50s.  Right now, there are pay freezes and wage rollbacks, not wage increases.  Many faculty salaries are not keeping pace with the rate of inflation.

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?  In my own situation, my partner is able to pay the bills, but I did not get a PhD to be dependent on my husband.  If that was going to be my lot in life, I would have stayed in Southern Alberta.  I got a PhD to make a living, be financially independent, live in a nice house, drive a reliable car, drink decent wine, eat fresh organic food, and travel.  I did not get a PhD to be dependent, worry about my finances, rent crappy apartments, drive shitty cars, and make $25 an hour.  (Do the math: $50,000/50 weeks/40 hours = $25/hr. )  And I have student loans, so I can’t afford to work for low wages anyway.  I’ll never get ahead.

There are other things I can do that will allow me to live the life I want to live and make the money I need to afford a middle-class lifestyle.  Yes, I love teaching.  But there is also something to be said for paying my bills, planning my future, being an equal financial partner within my relationship, and having economic stability.  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.

3. People 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-2008 economic recession world.  You don’t.  I’ve done the research on this.  When I track someone’s current career outcome, I generally can see their career path.  Most people are teaching at 3rd and 4th teir schools in parts of the country you’ve never heard.  That is where most of the jobs are, and most of the students.  And these people do not have the publishing record needed to land more advanced positions.  Moreover, people also end up with partners and children attached to the towns they are in, which makes relocating that much more difficult.  Some people advance through administration, and that is always an option. People also have trauma over the academic job market and do not want to go back for more psychological warfare. Who can blame them.

In my research, I see that most people’s first tenure track job is the job they are still in 5-10-15 years after graduation.  If it is this hard to get your first job, why do you think you’ll get a better one?   If your PhD advisor told you to take the job, even though it was not anything near the type of job you thought you’d get with your PhD, and now you are miserable, quit and do something else with your life.  If you are unhappy with your current tenure track job and you’ve been back on the job market, but you haven’t been successful, move on with your life.   The idea that people move is a lie perpetuated by the system.

4.  There are other things you can do and be.  There are hundreds of blogs written by people who made the transition.  There are other people out there like you who did not land the job, were depressed and devastated and sad and broken, but they picked themselves up and moved on.  Read these stories, then begin your new job search.  Talk to people who left the academy.   In following weeks, I will post blogs helping you begin your transition.

5.  Seek out professional counselling and mental health services.  It’s o.k. to be depressed.  You may even need counselling to help you deal with the death of your dream.  Mourn your loss, but don’t dwell here.

Hiring a career coach can also be an excellent idea.  There are thousands of people ever day who being the process of changing careers, and there are experts who can help you.  Yes, it will cost you some money, but it will be worth the investment.  Think of all you’ve invested thus far in your PhD; why not invest a little more to learn how to effectively use that degree?

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.

Last summer as I began my own transition, I went home to Southern Alberta.  On my grandfather’s wall is pictures of his parents, Ida and Harold Wood.  Looking at these photos helped me realize the truth that many generations, like ours, have their fates dramatically changed by circumstances beyond their control.

Harold and Ida were immigrants who moved from Utah to Southern Alberta at the turn of the 20th century.  He 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, my great grandmother Ida had always hated living in the middle of nowhere.  Her sons were growing up wild.  Her nearest neighbor was several miles away.  She lost one son to scarlet fever when he was sent away to finish high school.  She wanted her children to have an education and to live in or near town.  Ida and Harold moved the family to a section of land near Taber where they built the basement and foundation of their small farm house.   Then they ran out of money and the Great Depression hit.   For the next 20 years, they raised their family of 8 in the basement of a would-be farm house.  They even held a two-sitting wedding reception for one of their eldest children in the basement of that house.  Finally, after World War 2, Harold and Ida had enough money to finish their house.

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 this small success – owning a couple hundred acres – came with enormous sacrifice and their lives were marked with personal defeats, set-backs, and disappointments.   These people survived the Great Depression, sent 4 sons to war, lost a child,  all while living in a basement.   They probably didn’t waste time wondering what to do with their lives, if they were happy, or if this was their “dream” life.  They didn’t have that luxury.

In fact, feeling disappointed that our dreams did not work out is a luxury most people don’t have.  It is middle-class privilege to have a dream profession to begin with.  You are lucky that you get to dream, that you have options, and that you can make decisions.

I think of Ida and Harold.  These hardworking, honest, people, who accepted their circumstances and worked hard their whole lives, but suffered enormous personal disappointments.  When I look at the below photograph of the sheep ranch were Ida and Harold lived, 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 always imagined, but I had the luxury of having this dream.  I am the descendant of a sheep rancher and farmer.  Through the benefit of a good public education system in Canada, I was able to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a top 10 program in my field, and earn a PhD.  I will make my living with my mind, knowledge, and intellect.  I will live a middle-class lifestyle.  I have traveled. I live in a major US city.  I am already successful.

And so are you.

Accept the realities of your circumstances.  Accept the disappointment.  Accept that we are not the first generation to suffer great personal disappointment.  And know that what you have already achieved is an enormous success.

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

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