A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life

In the past few weeks I have had several conversations–electronic and face-to-face–with folks–friends and acquaintances–that have walked away from academic careers. Though I do not have numbers to back this up, it seems such departures have become increasingly common in the modern academy. The reasons have been varied: bad job markets (some things never change; in my first two years of job hunting, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, received precisely zero interview calls, and almost quit right then and there), a reluctance to live in particular locales or more generally, pursue an endlessly nomadic existence, income, and sometimes, frustration with work environments (i.e., the whole package: troubles with publishing, professional recognition and acceptance etc.)

In each case, my interlocutors have expressed considerable angst about their decision: sometimes they miss the teaching and their extended personal contact with their students, sometimes they wonder about their intellectual self-worth (Does this prove that I really was a poser all long, and if so, should I have gotten out earlier?), and sometimes they worry about their supposed lack of ‘backbone’ (Should have I stayed and ‘toughed it out’?). But in each case too, I sensed a contentment at a difficult decision finally made. This contentment has come about for different reasons: a better salary, a more rewarding work environment, and lowered levels of stress being among the most prominent.

Still, their cognitive dissonance about their decision is not insignificant. Change is difficult; deviation from a life path that required so much investment of energy, time and emotion even more so. Perhaps, for the budding academic, this dissonance is even more intense, because of the intense identification with the identity of the academic.  And worries about intellectual self-worth are endemic among academics; rare is the academic who is able to fully overcome insecurities in this domain (and indeed, it contributes to some of the worst aspects of posturing at fora such as conferences, seminars, meetings, job interviews etc).

But perhaps the most insidious component of the dissonance generated by the decision to leave academia is the worry that this decision shows a lack of resilience. How is one to console oneself that the decision made was the right one, that it did not mean a walking away from a long-held dream, one perhaps too hastily made, that in doing so, one did not betray oneself? Slogans like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ seem to militate against such a decision: the right thing to do is to hang in there, grimly determined. Because if you do ‘cop out,’ then not only do you find out that you didn’t have the bottle, you find out in fact, you didn’t really want it enough, and might as well not have wasted your time in taking so long to find out. So goes the gruesome indictment.

It isn’t a coincidence these worries are almost identical to those entertained by participants in an extended  burial of a long-standing romantic relationship. That shouldn’t be surprising; making the painful decision to leave the academic life, for some, might not just mean changing professions, it can mean a fundamental recasting of one’s self-conceptions. Nothing quite does that like the old-fashioned break-up.

5 thoughts on “A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life

  1. To me, It seems like the road to finding your occupational focus is just as difficult as the one that leaves it. They both tend to involve precarious decision-making.

  2. Abandoning the academy is a bit like leaving the ministry, especially for those individuals who first concluded that the modern university was fast becoming an enemy of the practices generated by the Enlightenment. They may retain their personal faith, their faith in reason, science, public discourse, but decided to abandon their calling (as teachers) for reasons specific to their clerical duties. Who, after all, but a neoliberal would gladly work at a university which had been reformed by neoliberals? What sense would it make for a committed intellectual to dedicate his or her life to the training of salary men and women? And, of course, why would a sensible person affirm a labor market which, by design, produces a labor aristocracy?

  3. I agree with you – I left academia more than 15 years ago, one of the main reasons being “reluctance to live in particular locales or more generally, pursue an endlessly nomadic existence”. The feelings you describe so aptly, I believe, are also due to the fact that – in contrast to a standard move to another job – you basically _leave_ something. This is sort of a negative decision. You are not (yet) drawn to something new.
    As for me, I have finally found out, that my destiny is to start a business of my own and that I am not comfortable with being part of any large organization or system – be it academia or a global corporation. But it took me some years to realize that, because academia was (not sure if this has changed) not igniting my entrepreneural spirits yet. Rather the opposite: Though you have been trained to become a very specialized expert for many years – more trained or more specialized than any other professional, “the system” still makes you feel you are still “a student”… who has to jump through more hoops, do more post-docs, write more papers, apply for more grants etc.

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