Getting out alive

No escape: decal of a struck-out person fleeingOne Friday in May of 2011, I locked up my shared office, went to the pub with some colleagues and students, and said goodbye to my job as a senior lecturer in psychology.

On the following Tuesday (it was a bank holiday weekend) I started a three-month stint as an intern at a then-mid-sized software company. They were pretty clear that there wouldn’t be more work at the end of it; all I had going for me was that they were paying me — a lot less than my academic job paid, but hey, it was money. (Let’s not even start on the ridiculous exploitation of young people by companies looking for free labour, or how unpaid internships exclude those who can’t afford to work for free.)

Anyway, so … lunacy, right?

Maybe. But maybe it saved my life.

I cannot possibly supply a complete list of the things that drove me out of higher education. Some of the factors, in no particular order, were:

* the way the system effectively punished people for caring about ( = preferentially putting time into) teaching, denying them a legitimate career route with equivalent promotion opportunities;

* relatedly, teaching and educational research being seen as second-class citizens to subject-specific academic research. I won lots of praise from colleagues and students for my interrogation of and challenges to typical lecture-theatre methods … and nothing else. Alanis Morissette was right: it really is like 10,000 slideshare views when all you need is a peer-reviewed journal paper.

* seeing colleagues struggle with depression and stress-related illnesses, without support or sympathy from senior management; the relentless, meaningless “do more with less” that rubbed everyone rawer, year on year

* not being allowed to reform teaching on a large scale, because timetables/curriculum/this is how we’ve always done it

* widespread bullying by an incompetent manager, to the absolute indifference of senior management

* prioritisation of commerce over crafting quality learning experiences; massified, McDonaldsized education

* ceaseless adding to the already-overloaded workload of academic staff with no thought for how much work they were already doing (see also: aggressive expansion of higher education; franchised degree programmes)

* resistance — in some cases hostility — to change and growth (personal and institutional)

* too much time, distance and obfuscation between what we did all day and how the organisation as a whole performed

* an itch I had that wasn’t being scratched: creating and building useful, beautiful things (there’s only so far even I can go with lecture slides)

* realising that there were plenty of people out there doing jobs who weren’t exhausted (because they weren’t working 55-hour weeks), weren’t demoralised, weren’t on the edge of a mental health precipice, and who could see, almost every day, a connection between what they had done and how their organisation was moving forward)

* the sad thought that maybe higher education was broken and that, despite having nearly boundless energy to do something about that, I couldn’t fix it on my own, or even alongside people who agreed with me

* weariness at being an ‘expert’ all the time. (Maybe being an expert sounds great to you. Maybe I just have imposter syndrome. But trust me: having undergraduates unquestioningly write down everything you say gets old.)

The drain of good people from higher education has become A Thing. Way back, I wrote about Mark Changizi’s decision to leave, and since then there have been several waves of “screw this, I’m out” from academic refuseniks who just didn’t want a piece of that anymore. I’ve written before about disruptivity and taking risks, and recently I talked about it in person too (slides from the talk here). There were some pretty low moments; I remember sitting in an all-day meeting that was absolutely a waste of everyone’s time, never more so when the person chairing the thing visibly gave up bothering with it, but kept us all there anyway. I remember thinking, “I have to get out of here, but I don’t know how.” At that point, had I needed to reapply for my own job, I might not even have been granted an interview. I was perishing, not publishing. Despite passionate advocacy for teaching quality, and throwing myself into researching better teaching methods, none of it was doing me a blind bit of good.

So I left.

It’s taken me three years to write about this, and even now I’m a little hesitant to talk about it, in case I accidentally explode, covering everyone around me in something unpleasantly bitter and acidic. That sounds pretty overdramatic, but teaching was, as the cliché goes, my vocation. I loved — LOVED— my students. I never understood the detachment and burnout you sometimes see in academia (where, fortunately, the consequences are rather less severe than in disciplines like nursing). Every single student had potential, even the ones who didn’t know why they were there — and you didn’t have to dig very deep to find a human being who was just trying to do well and figure out how they fitted into the world. They were all, individually, amazing people. I still want to write something for and about them. But this is not that post.

In the first year after I left, I fielded several calls and emails from other academics (mostly in the behavioural sciences) who wanted to get out too, but didn’t know how. This post is for you guys, and especially for D, who’s waited a long time for an answer, and probably gave up on me way back: let me help you remember all the things you’re capable of. You might never get all the dents out of your self-esteem after the years you’ve spent in academia, but I might be able to help you with it a little, if you’ll let me.

Let’s dispense with the easy stuff first. You (probably) have a PhD. I’ve alluded before to how people Out There are actually impressed by this. Lord knows nobody in academia gives a rat’s ass, and so neither do you, anymore. But think for a minute what that means. Firstly, you are an expert at something, however much you might not feel like one. This is huge. You have in-depth knowledge of something. Don’t gimme no backtalk about how that’s only useful in academia. That’s just the story you tell yourself because you’re unsure of what to do next, or because academia has left you with Stockholm Syndrome. You know stuff about stuff, and somewhere out there is an organisation with someone in it who wants you to do your thing, for them. As an example, I’ve taken what I knew about cognitive psychology and put it to work in software usability and user experience, and information architecture. I took a decade’s experience of running research with human participants and channeled it into learning how to research the ways that people interact with software. Somewhere out there is a practical application for the academic stuff you know how to do. It might even be a non-profit, if you’re uncomfortable at the thought of doing the corporate dance. (It wasn’t all theory, either — I got to have fun too, storyboarding and scripting educational material like this short animation, which I decided would be more entertaining for everyone if we did it entirely in rhyme.)

A second consequence of having done a PhD is that you are persistent as fuck. This is one of the best-kept secrets of academia: even the basic entry criterion requires immense tenacity. Whether or not you have a doctorate, continuing to put one foot in front of the other for year after year, sometimes in the face of harsh criticism and crushing disappointment, is a measure of what Taekwon-do calls indomitable spirit. Treasure that; it was hard won, and it will get you ’most anywhere. You can absolutely call on it to get out of your academic job if you’re unhappy there.

You (probably) aren’t fazed by addressing groups of people. Don’t get me wrong: for the first few years, the really big lectures (nearly 450 students at Peak Psychology — those were the Cracker years) were pretty scary. Some weeks I was literally only one chapter ahead of the class, because when you first start teaching after your PhD, like the hedgehog, you know one one big thing … but departmental teaching structure requires that, like the fox, you know many things. There’s a fine line between that existence and imposter syndrome. But eventually, you learn to be heard for 50 minutes or 100 minutes at a time. You learn to craft stories and handle questions and manage crowd control in a big room. Of course, it doesn’t stop there if you present your work at conferences, where the questions are a lot harder, sometimes even hostile.

And now think of all the times in so-called corporate jobs when people are called on to present information and take questions. You’ve been doing that for so long, it’s not even a thing anymore. You intuitively know how much information will fill an hour. You can plan and deliver a workshop without drama (unless the workshop is actually about drama). You might not love it, but it’s something you can do. If you are lucky, you will love doing it. Either way, someone out there is willing to pay you to do this.

You are adaptable and flexible in your thinking, because you aren’t afraid of complexity, ambiguity, or new information. The other day, my husband, also an academic by training, said “I’m really glad to have had an education and career that has involved always being on the edge of intellectual comfort. I think [that] makes it much easier to learn new things.” I couldn’t agree more. Academia is all about re-evaluating your position when new shit has come to light. Sure, this makes it harder for other people to get a straight answer, because your response is usually something like “Well … that depends. A, but on the other hand B, and in fact if we consider C …” It might be infuriating for others that you can’t give them something that’s pithily black and white, but living with this relativism represents a daily practice in flexible thinking, and in not reaching conclusions so entrenched that you can’t argue your way back out of them later as more information becomes available. You’ve become the kind of person who, if they really want to know something, reads or asks until they understand it. Maybe you’ll even get massively into the topic as you start to find out more. Do you know how many organisations out there are crying out for people who can do that, who are intellectually self-sufficient?

You can effectively argue a point, in writing and (probably) in person. Being able to read or listen to something someone else has written, and unpick and critique it, is immensely valuable. Our education system doesn’t really foster critical thinking skills as much as it might, but you have had plenty of practice defending your own work against this dispassionate taking-apart. If you’ve done much teaching (or marking of student work), then you’ve also had the experience of trying to explain to non-experts why an argument doesn’t stand up, or is subtly wrong. Out there, in Beyond Academialand, are many, many people, some of them quite senior, who need help with this — often because they want to get it right, but also sometimes because they don’t want to look like idiots. At least some of them are willing to pay you to do it.

You have immense resilience and can work as hard as anyone. It’s still sometimes a shock to me that in my post-academic life, I get to arrive at work around 9 and leave again around 5 or 6. I don’t take my work home with me, beyond idle mulling of the occasional knotty problem. I don’t work weekends. I don’t feel remotely guilty for not working evenings and weekends. Contrast that with the typical lives of academics, who pull long hours and spend so many evenings and weekends writing papers. Some of that is for love, but much of it is practicality — because who can get anything done during the week when there is teaching and admin to be done and people keep knocking on the door? There is no traffic-cop for academic workload; it just keeps piling up. If something else needs to be done, because the university or the subject governing body says so, then somehow it will just have to get done, and that means longer hours — or shoddier work. Like the triangle says, you can have it good and fast, or fast and cheap, or good and cheap, but you can’t have all three. As for resilience, it’s only anecdotal, but I have seen a lot of academics — and teachers generally — put off being ill until a time when it was less inconvenient (the holidays). Don’t tell me from resilience.

I’m not saying there aren’t jobs out there where your employer will cheerfully bleed you dry, or that there aren’t places with long-hours cultures that disadvantage anyone not young, single or rudely healthy. But either you’re used to those long hours anyway, or you’re highly motivated to work somewhere where they’re not expected. Your life can be better than this.

There will be some readjustment; this is unavoidable. The first interview I went to when I was trying to get out of academia was with a medium-sized, well-respected software company in Cambridge. I was fairly pleased with how I’d done until about halfway home, when I started to realise all the rookie errors I’d made. That trickle became a flood, until I thought I would die of embarrassment. It took me months to get over it, but they were right not to hire me, because I didn’t have enough experience: they couldn’t afford to spend time bringing me up to speed while they were trying to ship a product. As I gained more experience in software and digital, I had to learn the hard way to think in hours and days, not in semesters and years. To track time, and report back to people who needed to know what I’d been doing. I had to learn to work in a team again — to have conversations about work, with the people I worked with, every day. To own it when I messed up, instead of hoping nobody would notice (out here, they do notice. And that’s a good thing). To keep regular hours and be in the office every day. This might sound regimented compared to the largely unmonitored life of an academic, but it was surprisingly easy to adapt to. The same self-discipline that got me out of bed at 6am to give a 9am lecture (I had a one-hour commute, which, when it went wrong, went really wrong — and you can’t be late for 200 people) helped me adjust to keeping regular office hours.

Adjustment isn’t big or hairy enough to justify putting off leaving. Admittedly, going in somewhere as an intern was a relatively safe thing for me to do: the company’s expectations were fairly low, so it was an easy bar to clear, and they got someone with way more experience and knowledge than they were paying for. Everybody won.* I’m not saying I didn’t screw up a few times, but every single incident taught me something, and the enforced humility was good for me. And that’s the thing: a radical change of environment was good for me. Saying “I don’t know” and not being an expert — or having anybody treat me like one — was good for me. Those first few months, by the time I got to Friday I was totally exhausted, because I was having to learn so many new things. It was like being back in school again, and I mean that in the best ways. But without the feelings of inadequacy; occasionally I would enjoy surprising people with interesting and relevant things from my background in psychology. And one thing I never expected about the transition was how much more seriously people take you when you’re older, even if you don’t really know anything (as opposed to when you’re 18 or 21 and absolutely everyone except you knows that you know nothing). It’s an unfairness, but given how much our world capitulates to the cult of youth, especially if you work in software, it’s one I can live with. And anyway, 37, my age when I went off to be an intern, is hardly old. Point is: my life is better in almost every way.**

This has now come full-circle: my husband just quit academia. Despite a publication record considerably more handsome than mine ever was, he grew tired of the succession of temporary contracts and empty promises of a permanent, senior position. He doesn’t quite know yet what he’s going to do; I’m finally returning the favour he did me when he agreed to be the breadwinner while I figured out how I was going to make a living. We don’t have kids, and I acknowledge that it would have been a lot harder for either of us to do this alone. But I’m not convinced any of it’s insurmountable.

Look: my old colleagues are tired and bruised after a long battle to see if anyone was going to have redundancy forced on them (end result: no, but four voluntary redundancies. I think the oldest is in their mid-40s. These are not people taking a sweet handout before sloping off into retirement — they are getting the hell outta Dodge). Nobody trusts management anymore, and who can blame them? Academic staff have seen their jobs go from does-anyone-want-to-get-a-coffee to locking-myself-in-the-office-and-taking-my-antidepressants in a span of a few years. This is not what we signed up for.

So go, or at least think seriously about going. Think hard about all those hard-won skills that you take for granted every single day. Skills employers want. Skills that someone somewhere else will pay you to use. I use what I learned in psychology (the theoretical stuff and teaching-related skills) every single day. I still use empirical data to justify decisions — the decisions just have different, more practical, and usually more immediate consequences. And I really like that. I like visible progress. I mean, there is literally a weekly chart of how much closer our team is getting to where we want to be. It’s incredibly motivating.

And if you choose to stay (and I have the utmost respect for those who do), make sure it really is a choice. Don’t tell yourself you’re no good for anything else, because that’s just not true. Call me (my personal inbox is in perpetual meltdown, but I have plenty of time to take calls on my lovely walking commute). Call any of the people who have decided academia’s no longer worth the pain. We think you’re amazing, and we’d be happy to remind you of that anytime.

[Edit: I neglected to thank the many people who helped me make this transition. As well as being eternally grateful to my husband for his love and encouragement, I am forever indebted to the friends who let me stay with them while I was interning (and who refused to take any money from me), and to the many friends and former colleagues who wished me luck and success, and offered connections they thought might be helpful (and who, if they had any doubts about my plans, kept those to themselves). Thank you all :) ]

* except the young person somewhere who might have had the internship instead. I like to think that my time as a lecturer (and for a while as an assistant Taekwon-do instructor), investing time in young people, might begin to make up for some of that, but it still bothers me.

** I miss teaching, I miss my old colleagues, and I miss my students. But I knew I would, and I jumped anyway.

81 Comments

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81 responses to “Getting out alive

  1. Chris – excellent piece, written from the head as well as the heart. It’s also a rather tragic glimpse for others into how the world of academia has changed.

  2. Much of what you say about bullying and indifferent management, pointless meetings, irrelevant performance indicators, and unbearable pressures, applies equally to many non-academic organisations. These behaviours are particularly unwelcome in higher education, and sadly my own experience of academia (albeit miniscule compared to yours) leads me to think that they are widespread. It’s very sad, as that’s not what higher education is supposed to be about.

    • I experienced “bullying and indifferent management, pointless meetings, irrelevant performance indicators, and unbearable pressures” in government service (national, provincial, regional, local) and in private sector consulting engineering companies. My partner tells me about her day in healthcare and I hear the same things. I REALLY enjoy retirement. But these things also seem to happen in voluntary organizations too.

    • Corporate Education has killed the leather elbow patches and romantic indulgence of academia – now they are all running away from the hallowed halls to the shiny emptiness of sales.

  3. We’ve found people with PhDs make excellent Technical Authors because they have the ability to puzzle something out and explain it in a structured, clear way. They are also not afraid to ask. It takes confidence to say you don’t understand. The ability to analyse and explain is rarer than many people realise.

  4. As of next week, I am part time, because I can’t see unis being for the public good. Got to wonder why people are obsessed by REF, given the stats of papers being cited and read.

    Unis exist for other unis now, and it just seems that they can’t see it.

  5. Five years into my ‘post academic’ life, I concur! In fact, my memory of what drove me mad about my academic life is fading but what it trained me to do was immensely important. Your second point hits the nail on the head. I’m writing fiction now, and the wait to be published can be mind bending… but only as mind bending as those PhD years. Maybe I should pay them back for all the training when I become a millionaire!

  6. I’m jumping shift after year 1 of my PhD program (already did an M.A.), and it is blogs like yours that are helping me through this process. Even though I I’m far from receiving the ultimate almighty degree, I see the writing on the wall and I’ve realized that my reasons for enrolling in the PhD program were relatively poor ones. I am a good student, one of the best ones in my group. But I see that even though I have some interest for my areas of study, I stuck to this path because I didn’t believe I could do other things. It’s not good to build an entire career off of devaluing your self-worth and your abilities. It’s easy to say that, but it takes some time for that wisdom to really sink in. I don’t want my natural tendency toward low self-esteem that was further cultivated in grad school to follow me on the broader job market, because I know many struggles await me there and I don’t want to shy away from them.

    Thank you for emphasizing that we should focus on what we do have first, rather than our lack.

  7. Greg Urban

    Great post. Thanks for making it.
    You can’t change the world. But you can change yourself, and then the whole world changes.

  8. Yes to so much of this.

    And, if it helps, a view from the other side. I’ve never been an academic – when I graduated I took my shiny degree and ran, not walked, into industry. Ford, Lloyds, Motorola and off into other multi-nationals. It’s fun (sometimes)it pays (all the time) and there is a lot of it.

    What we need is people who can think. who can put their metaphorical foot on the ill-defined ball and come up with a thought that if it’s not original is at least coherent.

    Come to the dark side. We have cookies.

  9. I read this as if listening to a longtime friend talking about why she chose to divorce–not a rant, not an indictment in black and white, but “this is where I was, this is what I’ve tried, and this what I’ve chosen to do.”

    For a long time I thought about a doctorate related to the training/learning/performance world that’s been my career (in part because as you state such credentials can matter outside the university). The financial cost to me was daunting, and a respected colleague (lifelong academic, successful consultant, pragmatic author) asked how badly I wanted to jump through so many hoops.

    Not that badly.

    So, a welcome to your post, to your new-world-in-progress, and to your supportive Other as well.

  10. lang

    Great post. I left academia because I had to. I had a baby daughter (and wanted another baby), we live in an expensive city with few academic jobs (and I didn’t want to move), and although my husband made a decent income, after more than a decade of school, I needed some job security, health benefits and to make some real money. Perpetual postdocs (which require an unattractively nomadic lifestyle) and pathetically paid sessional teaching contracts were just not going to cut it. I was hesitant to leave, and a bit heartbroken (still am at times), but man, am I glad I did. I got a great job working for a large company as their communications expert. As you note, it turns out that years of learning how to present complex ideas in writing, orally and visually paid off. Also, I work with a whole group of PhDs that have left the ivory tower, and you’re absolutely right – their work ethic, tenacity, and ability to work through complicated situations really stands out. In general, they are far better at dealing with difficult people, at working with feedback, and at overcoming setbacks than my pure business-background colleagues. Also, they’re all so damn grateful to be working where they are, with regular hours, a good paycheque and their mental health intact, that they boost the office morale :)

  11. Everything you write is good, Chris, but I think this is the best thing yet – a spot-on summary of what’s wrong with HE and a terrific reminder of the skills we forget we have. I found it wonderfully affirming – even though I just decided NOT to leave HE just yet – and will encourage everyone at work to read it too. Cheers and best wishes from me – and good luck to other Chris in his new adventures!

  12. WJL

    This is an eloquent expression of just some (as you admit) of the things wrong in UK academia. It is an inspiring piece for those considering their future and I’ve personally taken great heart from it. Thanks so much for writing this.

    One thing I would correct you on, I wouldn’t say that four of your ex-colleagues haven’t been forced out (at least three have been through various means – some of which you highlight as your reasons for leaving and which have been magnified tenfold since you left). However, I think all of these people now realise that getting out of the place, if not the profession, is essential to their mental health and their future. There is more to life than this, for sure.

    But should we not be fighting to stop the destruction of our academic communities and our higher education system rather than leaving it to the mercy of these pernicious forces? What happens if we let the managers, the government and the private equity companies get away with it? The impact on society is enormous if standards of education, research and of academic staff drops. If the production and dissemination of knowledge is constrained and even dictated by market forces and neo-liberal ideology – through research council funding, open access publishing (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/97470efc-5681-11e2-aa70-00144feab49a.html#axzz2xumQPqo9) and so on, then the ramifications will be felt by everyone. Who will stand up for academic freedom if all the fantastic, committed, caring, exceptionally bright people with integrity (like you) leave?

    What a dilemma! :P

  13. Thank you for this. Couldn’t be more timely and apposite having spent yesterday and today reflecting on a number of words beginning ‘re-‘ e.g. Reduction, Restructuring, Redundancy!

  14. Thank you for sharing this. I feel a few steps behind you. Yes, 60 hour weeks are the norm. Expected to work weekends. I had two colleagues who didn’t reach retirement, and 3 that enjoyed just he first six months of it. I still have a feint glimmer that I can change things. I have a PhD, am a national teaching fellow and have all the accolades. But suspect to the contrary, it will just completely change me. Good luck Chris. XX

  15. Reblogged this on Mediacademia and commented:
    Until now I have resisted posting about the systemic problems in higher education that are making the field so difficult and unhappy these days. Here though is a post that sums it all up and is yet inspiring by a woman who left higher education to save her sanity.

  16. Really good blog post – thank you for writing it. I recognise some of what you say about higher education and agree that a lecturing job is pretty tough going. On a positive note I was really pleased to see how the skills you had gained in academic life were very useful outside.

    It will be interesting to see if there is more emphasis placed by institutions on teaching now that the sector is contracting and students have more choice about where to go – but things never seem to change quickly!

  17. I think this could go for any job depending on how long you have worked there. My mom has been a teacher for 23 years now and is ready to do something else. It isn’t because of the kids but how things are run. We have this blanket over our eyes the first few years thinking everything is fine and dandy but then you start realizing… wait… I don’t think that’s right. My poor mom though has nowhere to go. If she were to get another job it would be as if she started from square one and she can’t can’t afford that. I have this same thing happening with my job right now. Sometimes it might be better if we left the blanket as long as possible.

  18. Wow, I’m glad I read your post. I’ve never made it to a dream job in university academia, and have wondered what it would have been like. Thanks for an insider’s lowdown on it. Marshall McLuhan predicted the demise of centralized learning centers fifty or so years ago. The trend is towards becoming the independent generalist (and artist). The problems of top down structured authority are not much different in the corporate world either. While sitting in front of a computer screen years ago, I asked the question, “What the heck (hell?!) am I doing here?” Wish you well on your new journey.

  19. A great read..and you + hubby now out. But at least with your experience you have been put on the intellectual fringe challenges. Always a good thing in terms of life skills.

  20. Wow, as an undergraduate I had no idea about all that stuff going on. I wonder if my school is/was the same behind the scenes…but it sounds like your story is pretty universal. I’m glad you were able to get out and find something that gives you more enjoyment in your life than mental illnesses.

    And thanks for acknowledging the stupidity and unfairness of unpaid internships. I keep finding my dream internships…only to discover they’re unpaid. I don’t know how anyone who has to deal with loan payments, rent, not to mention insurance and other bills, can do those. I really wish I could.

  21. Fantastically written piece that leaves me only with a sense of doom and dread for my life ahead, but the truth is the truth, no matter how dreadful. I invite you to read my piece “education reform by an education student”, no where near as long but resonates along the same line. Thank you for the truth.

  22. May Sams

    As a former elementary school teacher, I know the teaching profession will always be pulling towards “mass produced” education. I’m just glad for teachers like you who actually care about their students. I’m sure you are missed.

  23. So much of this rang true to me. Even though I haven’t left academia, I recognize on a daily basis many of the negative factors you talk about. And I appreciate your speaking out about their destructive effects on individuals and on higher education as a whole. Thank you.

  24. Reblogged this on All About Work and commented:
    This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported the results of a study showing that, increasingly, university faculty members work long hours struggling to meet ever more intense demands on their time. This very insightful blog post describes the experiences of one person who decided to leave academic work, and how they feel about their decision now.

  25. Thank you for writing this. As a master’s student who’s just made the decision not to go after my longterm dream of going into academia, you made me think I may be making the right decision. I have no idea what to do next, but at least I can feel happier that my gut intuitions are shared by at least one other person.

  26. This is different from life outside academia how, exactly?

  27. AinhoaDi

    Not having the space to “create and build useful, beautiful things” would be more than enough enough as a reason for me to quit anything…! :)

  28. I loved your article. It is a different slant on PhD’s. I sometimes wonder if there is a mill producing them. The Peter Principle seems to have gone amok. I sometimes wonder what Plato would have said about the paper stating one is smart. I have made many in college who have the rank but not the common sense factor. On the Big Bang Theory they are mostly Doctors of something and yet seem to contribute nothing but endless research that concludes nada. Conjecture and the need to produce have given us so much silliness that many books are based on false hoods and not real truths.

  29. Thanks for your wit, insights and for the courage of doing the move and telling about it!

  30. It’s horrible irony that the biggest downside to academia’s lunacy is that it drives away its best teachers. It’s really a shame that your psych students lost such a great professor, but I don’t blame you in the slightest for walking away.

  31. I precept nurse practitioner students, and enjoy teaching them so much that I occasionally think about officially joining academia. Then, I come to my senses and remember that I don’t want to publish, don’t want to get a PhD, and don’t want to claw my way through work every day. Thanks for reminding me.

  32. …my husband wants to go IN to academia…he’s finishing up his masters now with intent to get his PhD and then begin teaching university-level. Is this a terrible choice?

  33. As a recent postgraduate student (in the UK) this was interesting for me to read as I often felt like a total thorn in the side of professors who didn’t care enough about their students to even answer questions or arrange a meeting. I assumed at the time that all they cared about was their own research, and now I can kind of see why that might’ve been the case. Although, I am very grateful to the one who did listen and empathized with my depression and, in the end, helped me to graduate. I’m so glad my higher education experience is over, much as it sounds you are. It sounds like you’ve been able to find great fulfillment in your new career path. Good luck to you in your future.

  34. michaelsomers

    Thank you for writing this. I want out of higher education for many of the reasons you mention. You remind me I have choices.

  35. This blew my mind. I cant begin to express how well your words translate. whether you work in academia or not

  36. Excellent post. After two years in comparative literature, I was staring at six more years of rapid aging. I jumped off my bicycle, turned in my campus bus pass, found a job as a lifestyle “journalist,” bought a car, and swore off noodle soup for the rest of my life (T.A. pay provided living space the size of my current den).

    About 12 years later, I entered a program that allowed directed studies and creativity. My study of literature as works of art (liberal arts grounding) has served me well in the professional world. I will not pick up Hegel or Kant again, but I still revel in good books.

    Teaching an occasional class is a pleasure—the students. It allows the opportunity to share the practical success (and struggles) most will face in their careers. Many are “nontraditional” students, and I learn from them.

    I may produce pedestrian words, but I will not die trying to apply an obscure theory to break down/analyze esoteric text. (More power to those who persist.)

    Who knows? Perhaps my novel in progress will land on a shelf. But I will not perish in the attempt.

    I no longer sleep only five hours a night (as opposed to drinking 12 cups of coffee per day to keep up with a sprawling reading list in three languages).

    Nonetheless, the French accept me as a competent tourist without fluency in Proust.

  37. patrickclarke1

    Reblogged this on patrickclarke1.

  38. Respect.
    I hear you completely and I’m glad you were able to write about it. There’s a broken piece in higher ed and I think we are all trying to figure it out at the moment.

  39. I hope you feel much happier now! :) Take care.

  40. This was an interesting article, and addresses a lot of my hesitation to go forward with my education. Although I only have my Bachelor’s degree now, I am scared that the more I continue through my education, the more “academia” will eat me up. I’m glad that there are people with specializations and a PhD that can still do things outside of research and paper writing. I look forward to learning more about your adventures outside the classroom setting!

  41. I couldn’t imagine speaking in front of hundreds of people!! Terrifying! Glad you escaped, though.

  42. Great article and thank you for sharing it, a text written from the heart and really interesting.

  43. I was thinking of becoming a lecturer, but this has made me rethink, thank you, an excellent page

    • Hi there, thanks for reading! I wanted to reply to you especially because there is a lot to like about lecturing — while I’m sure you wouldn’t change your mind based just on my experiences, I did want to put the other side too. There are still many things about being a lecturer that are great:

      – lots of autonomy, including more control than most jobs over when you are in the office;
      – the chance to really nerd out on your subject matter of choice (getting paid to learn!), and to communicate your love of it to others;
      – the potential for international travel if you are fortunate enough to be able to attend conferences overseas;
      – teaching, which is hugely rewarding;
      – lots of variety day to day in what you actually do (spreadsheets/field trips/teaching/research/conferences/course leadership/data analysis …)
      – a decent amount of leave;
      – clever, interesting colleagues

      There are probably lots of others; apologies if my post has been somewhat one-sided!

      • WJL

        Yes, but all the above is disappearing with changes to universities and the day-to-day job of academics.
        – Some of that autonomy has been eroded, and what is left only serves to increase the stress (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulcers_in_Executive_Monkeys) as the job becomes, indeed, not a 9-to-5 one, but an open-ended 24-7 guilt-fest, because whatever you do is not enough and you can barely keep your head above water most of the time.
        – The choice of what subject you research may be removed. If it is not what’s currently attracting funding, especially if it’s theoretical or longitudinal, and not published in high impact factor journals (which is a very narrow band of highly cited areas), then you won’t get a job or keep the one you have (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/letters/on-academic-issues-law-bows-to-managers/2012432.article). Much of this, of course, depends of the vicissitudes of the incumbent government’s agenda that drives that of funding bodies.
        – The rewarding small group teaching is being farmed out to low-paid staff or PhD students and teaching generally degraded and diminished. Increasingly we are seeing a divide between teaching and research contracts, and the former has less esteem and frequently lower pay.
        – Most staff I work with struggle to take annual leave. They just can’t find the time to have a break, and, besides, the work just piles up for when they return if they do (if you’re in the US, as I am guessing some readers/commenters are, you won’t have very much of this, anyway, as vacations are something of an anathema to those across the pond).
        – You barely get time in the relentless slog of each day to talk to your clever and interesting colleagues, even when they’re in the office next door (or even in the same office)!

        Vice Chancellors in the UK are discussing the desirability of 9 month academic contracts (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/uuk-review-to-look-at-nine-month-contracts/2012408.article) and engaged already in getting rid of many permanent staff by fair means or foul (see http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/dundee-job-cuts-plan-prompts-hundreds-to-sign-petition/2012615.article and http://www.lep.co.uk/news/education/uclan-lecturers-to-strike-over-plan-to-axe-jobs-1-6473660 for just the latest). They want a higher education system where all teaching except for some lecturing and supervision is done by staff on low paid, temporary term-time contracts, and the only staff on permanent contracts contributing considerable research funding, and publishing certain kinds of research in high impact factor journals.

        As a research academic, you will be only as good as your last grant (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/ucu-uncovers-high-price-of-failure-to-hit-ref-targets/2007864.article) with a queue of desperate and compliant people behind you, eager to take your position should you fall off the treadmill, become unfashionable, old, question decision making, or dare to have outside interests like a family. Indeed, it is the university managers’ direct goal to introduce competition among academics in cut-throat Wall Street style. These managers believe that academics are lazy and have had it far too good, too long. I am not sure the extent to which this applies in other countries, but it is certainly true in the UK, which is undergoing a period of huge transformation since the funding changes to higher education in 2011.

        Sorry to be negative, but this is the reality and something we have to actively fight against if we are to save our universities (and there’s no reason why we can’t fight this and win). In an excellent article (http://www.discoversociety.org/2014/02/15/viewpoint-the-assault-on-higher-education-and-democracy/), Priyamvada Gopal quotes from Frederick Douglass on this fight “The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
        Individuals must make a choice if they want to join this struggle (a difficult, frustrating path), or acquiesce to the market regime (some individuals may thrive in a dog-eat-dog environment, after all, though the production and dissemination of knowledge certainly won’t), or get the hell out of Dodge and opt for a life elsewhere that is (perhaps) less soul-destroying and more rewarding (even though the neo-liberal ideology prevails in every sphere, as several comments to the original post imply, Chris paints a happier picture of life on the outside for her, anyway).

        At the very least your blog post gives us hope that we can make a choice and reminds academics with dented self-esteem of the skills and knowledge they have that can empower that choice. The message is: if you are being dragged down by academia, you can get out alive! Hooray for that! :D

        • Mad, mad props for this and your previous, comprehensive comment. Really appreciate this thoughtful, reference-strewn discussion. As I’m sure you knew I would :) Sorry that I’m really pressed for time right now and not able to say more than this! But I do appreciate it.

  44. This mirrors my experience so far with the nonprofit sector. I work as a “volunteer” with a stipend under k-12 public education and I see the same daily from educators and those like me who hope to support the school system. We try to recruit more grants and resources to match hands-on activities with classroom curriculum but the office politics, sort of speak, gets in the way and often ultimately leads to turnover. It’s a shame.

  45. Many of the problems you cited are some of the reasons I quit college. The only prominent reason not mentioned is the relatively off-topic issue of debt, but that’s neither here nor there.

    I feel as if a lot of what goes on in higher education is convoluted for the sake of being more interesting. Rather than taking hold of ideas that should be the starting seeds for progressive thoughts, academia seems to want to hold onto the notion that the the sun revolves around it with a religious reverence.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is just a problem with higher education. As a few other commenters stated already, it exists in standardized education. It’s just particularly atrocious when it comes to education establishments whose main goal should be to advance knowledge.

  46. Thank you for writing this piece. I too left academia one year ago in March. I was teaching adjunct Freshman Comp with an MFA because it was all I could get in “my field.” Not going into all that’s wring with adjunct work from my perspective, but I quit with no job in hand and worked for people for free as a technical writer until I could get a paying gig. Once I did, I went from making $15,000 a year to $60,000 in one year. No looking back. I too miss my students and colleagues, but I’m finally financially healthy and more importantly, appreciated for my skills and what I do, everyday. priceless.

  47. Reblogged this on The Abstract Detail and commented:
    Reblogged this. Excellent perspective.

  48. Interesting things to think about as I ponder my life after grad school.

  49. Firstly – thought-provoking post!

    Secondly – I finally found someone who writes longer posts than I do, with no gratuitous swearing or inappropriate innuendo. AWESOME!

  50. Nathan Doneen

    After finishing my undergraduate, I was contemplating going into a doctorate program. It wasn’t that I wanted to be in academia per se, but in that environment of constant learning, where you are on the “edge of intellectual comfort.”

    This posts and others like it made me re-evaluate though. I’m not into dramatics and politics and your telling of this environment makes me satisfied with my choice to pursue my goals individually. I’m glad you were able to escape your misery. Thanks for sharing.

  51. Thank you for this post. I waited to start my advanced degree(s) until this year, and after teaching in a public high school for seven years and counting, I’m still not sure what I want to do once I finish a few extra degrees. The Truth about Academia is hard to come by, and I foolishly believed that what was in the brochure would be reflected in the actual life. Of course it isn’t. I hope all of us are as fortunate as you have been in leaving teaching, and I really think it’s wonderful that you had the opportunity to do so.

  52. Reblogged this on Conversations Over Tea and commented:
    Some points that all academics should keep in mind!

  53. So much of this resonates with me, I left HE lecturing last summer after fourteen years,for the reasons you describe. I miss my students and helping them learn how to learn, but not the – if it doesn’t make money, we won’t teach it attitude etc.
    I enjoyed your piece and will come back for more.

  54. Ami

    Thank you so much for this article! I am currently a student doing a science degree and trying to decide what kind of job I want to do, I am not sure that academia would suit me but I have no idea what other job options (other than teaching which I am not interested in) exist for science students! I wish universities would educate people better about what options there are and also what academia actually involves.

  55. This is a great message and I found it quite moving even though I know little about academia. Turns out what I thought I knew was probably wrong. And it chimes very well with what a couple of my friends in adult education are experiencing. A lot of the pointlessness and well-intentioned idiocy you describe also happens in organisations, and increases as the organisation gets bigger and more complex, so I think your choice to work in a small outfit is the wisest. You’re an inspiration every time I hear you speak or read what you write.

  56. Thanks for posting. How do you assess you new found vocation? Is it true that people who leave academia with similar complaints come back several years later? That academia is the ‘into-retirement-sort-of-vacation/career’. Once called, forever hooked. The length of your post tells this small bit, what do you think?

  57. cptnemo2013

    Great Post, Thanks for the honesty. Good luck on your future endeavors.

  58. I have only just caught up with this debate, and so much of what has been said is sad but rings true. My own experience is 30-odd years in UK universities, and I am planning retirement at the year’s end. My current university is very good to work for in many ways and I have a great bunch of colleagues. It is the external drive to commodify education and the application of an inappropriate competitive business model to research that have done the damage. Worn out and with relapsing depression, I will retire as soon as the pension allows. Most of what I will miss can be filed under ‘Education’, and most of what I will be glad to escape can be filed under ‘All the Other Crap’.

  59. Thank you for this post. I am a second year PhD student and though I enjoy research and teaching, I am also very anxious about my future. I keep reading articles about the difficulties in academia, just like the ones you outlined above. This article gives me hope and I will definitely refer back to it when I am finished with my PhD. Thanks again.

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