It was almost a year since I had first mentioned my qualms about academic life, so by now I just wanted to finish. I was tired of feeling guilty and angry and confused, of the awkwardness at the department, of being ignored by my professors. And so I tried to focus on submitting the dissertation and preparing the defense.
Then, a couple of weeks before D-day, I had a conversations with department members and heard their version of the last year. I think it was important for me to hear this and appreciate the people who voiced these opinions, but I will hate their timing forever. I heard theories about my decision. They ranged from “nervous breakdown” to “manipulative mastermind whose goal was to take advantage of the department and TNRU”. None of that was really surprising; academic departments are full of gossip and politics. Plus, in an environment where academia is the only right path, anyone who strays from it must be mentally challenged, unstable, or plain evil. I got over this pretty quickly. But hearing my advisers’ reactions to my decision got to me. They were blindsided. Our relationship began years before the job market and they always thought I “had it”. Not only were they disappointed that I was refusing to even try being an Assistant Professor; they thought I had handled my exit poorly. They were convinced I was making the wrong decision.
… fuck. Fuck a duck. My dissertation defense would take place in a room full of disappointed people who think I’m wrong. That’s not a very promising scenario. [I could have saved myself a lot of stress if I would’ve realized, once I had a defense date, that an unsuccessful defense is seen as a huge fail for the PhD candidate and the committee alike. They could not fail me. I didn’t know that, so I was very stressed out.]
What could I do? Could I meet with the committee beforehand to smooth things over? Apologize? Say something during the defense? Guilt, sadness, loneliness, doubt: all the feelings that had been a constant in my life since the first time I questioned the academic path came back and piled onto the stress of preparing a dissertation defense. I felt that I was doing something wrong, and I hated myself for it. Did I take advantage of TNRU? It’s not like I’m taking my fellowship and grants and buying a house in the Bahamas. Did I take advantage of the committee members? Professors could have invested in other projects and students. But I also worked hard on their experiments, their surveys, their articles, their TA chores. And, of course, again I wondered… am I making the wrong choice?
Then I manned up. I don’t know how but there was a catharsis. I decided to stop trying to change their opinion about me. I wouldn’t apologize for taking control of my professional life. I reasoned that in any conference presentation or peer-review process, science shouldn’t be influenced by attitudes toward the scientists. A dissertation defense shouldn’t be any different. OK, maybe that’s not how science really happens. But whatever. I needed something to break the cycle of wanting to leave but also wanting to please everyone. Regardless of my own feelings about academic life and the research industry, I went to class, TA’d, reviewed articles, and produced the best dissertation I could (it’s pretty crappy and I can’t even look at it. But I don’t doubt that I gave it my absolute best shot). I expected my committee to do the same: regardless of their disappointment, they should be able to judge my dissertation objectively.
And so it was. The defense was not as horrible as I thought it would be. Maybe I had prepared very well and obsessed over insignificant details. Maybe my committee didn’t bother to prepare hard questions. No blood was shed, but no champagne was popped either. After the defense I went for a long run, ate, and slept for 15 hours straight.
A few days later, my library books were returned, my office was packed. The paperwork was submitted. Signing the forms is what I imagine signing divorce papers might feel like: something’s technically over, but something still feels unfinished. I found myself thinking a lot about my advisers and what I heard they had said. I needed closure. I needed to say that I wish things wouldn’t have been so messy. I don’t know what I would change. I don’t think I’ll be a student again, ever. But I don’t regret going to graduate school either. I wanted my mentors to know I’m not throwing their teachings away. I won’t use them the way they would want me to, but I still see myself as a scholar. Just… one who dissents from the idea that academia is the only worthwhile intellectual pursuit on the planet.
Objectively, I sincerely think my graduate experience was pretty great. I had to tell them I knew this. TNRU is a fantastic institution. I never had to worry about funding (not on the lap of luxury, but I could always count on a stipend). The undergrads were really smart. For years, these professors’ doors were wide open to me and my questions. And I learned A LOT, about my academic field and about myself. If I couldn’t be happy in this great academic setting, it’s pretty unlikely that I’d be happy in a different institution or in a different role.
Over a series of 1 on 1 coffee meetings, some held on to the poker face, some were more expressive. A couple of times it felt like I was saying goodbye, other times I felt like we were turning the page and moving on in our professional relationship. In all cases, I felt that talking after I had already defended was the right call. Most importantly, I felt like my PhD was finally done.
It’s over. I’m done. I made it! So many times I felt that this day wouldn’t come. But it did. Now, I’m officially Dr. Dissenting Scholar. YES!!
During my way out of academe, I’ve heard very frequently that I need to be very sure that I want to do this, because “it will be difficult to come back” or “you will lose credibility as a serious researcher” or “you won’t be able to get an academic job anywhere”. These phrases need to be preceded by “We will make sure that…”
My voyage toward the free world continued here: my dissertation proposal included a part that would need extra funds to be executed. Once I had dropped the I’mLeavingAcademia bomb, the time came for me to buckle down on this part of the dissertation and find some funds. Yes, I know, it’s pretty late for me to try to get extra dissertation funding if I’m already on the job market. What can I say? I’ve had a lot of things on my plate and I kept putting this off… Anyway, when I sent the applications to my committee for their comments before sending them out, they quickly responded these grants were meant for people going into academia, so it didn’t really make sense for me to apply to them. One said it would be “embarrassing” to write a letter of recommendation now that I wasn’t going into academe. A more eloquent professor called it “awkward”.
If they were not planning on supporting the project and their expectations had changed, I really could have used this information before I spent a month on applications. Of course, the deeper concern was what other expectations had changed. I went to sleep wishing I was still expected to finish the dissertation sometime soon. I have to admit this was the toughest lap of the walk. I felt powerless and frustrated; I was painfully aware that my work of so many years could so easily be fettered by someone else’s disappointment.
Finally, there is the literal walk of shame: walking around the department a few weeks after my announcement. There are three types of encounters in this walk:
- The not-so-bad ones are people who want to be supportive, but had no idea I wasn’t in the academic job market anymore. “How did your interviews go?” “Congratulations on the offer!” “How is your job search?”. Great. It’s all good, I was so flattered to get these interviews, it was fun. It’s going great.
- The professors. Outside of my committee, only one of them has approached me. Ze was kind. Ze mentioned that even though the going gets tough, the profession has many pluses and can be very rewarding. Ze wished ze could have told me about these pluses sooner. Ze told me of another student who had started a post-academic search. The other professors just stare with judging eyes. I’d rather not have them staring at me without saying anything, but otherwise I don’t think I need to spend too much time explaining or justifying myself to them.
- The other job marketeers. I disliked encountering them the most, because I feel guilty but angry at the same time. We all took the same classes, we’re all on the same schedule, we have similar LORs, and they actually want an academic job. I feel guilty because I flew to interviews and some of them did not. I got the offers and they did not. They feel I treated these golden opportunities with disdain by walking away. This brings me to the angry feeling: Screw all of you. Do you have any idea how much pressure I was under? I wish you could get a clue about how hard it was to make this decision. I wish you could feel the unhappiness I felt these years. You all have your committee. You have each other as shoulders to cry on. The department supports you. I was alone. I am alone.
Worry not, reader. Several weeks after these events, I believe I’m out of the woods. The walking and shaming seems to be over.
So yes, it’s true. Walking the walk is not the same as talking the talk. I read the blog posts (see blogroll on the right-hand sidebar), I did my time at the shrink’s, I discussed with my SO, and I talked to my committee. The common topic was: this is going to be rough.
Well, now I have lived through the roughness. Basically, everyone inside the ivory tower -TNRU campus was mad at me. But rather than pushing me off the tower, they decided to make me walk down its main staircase. Wearing a giant dunce cap, of course.
For the warm-up lap, I was instructed to write to all academic jobs I applied to to withdraw my application. Yes, even the universities that hadn’t expressed any interest in me. Of course you should write to places that interviewed you, as a professional courtesy. But other places? I think it was just so I had to write that I was leaving a bunch of times.
Next up, the e-mail was to say I was withdrawing “for personal reasons”. Like I am sick. Leaving aside the part where this suggests post-academia is a disease, I consider my reasons to be completely professional: I want a different work environment that involves more team work, tangible results, more short-term professional development, and a 12-month salary. Saying I leave for personal reasons is a lie, but then again I had told so many lies during the season…
As I expected, the third lap involved cancelling my participation at conferences. You know, because of my illness. “It’s just not useful for you anymore.” This led to a smooth transition into the next lap: if I am not presenting at conferences and I won’t have a tenure clock, it really doesn’t make sense for me to continue being on those co-authored projects. I thought the professional thing to do was to finish what I had started and honor all my existing commitments. Furthermore, I wasn’t worried about the tenure clock when I started these projects. I got involved because I think they are interesting and challenging questions that will yield useful results inside and outside of academe. These lines sound very cheesy, but whatever. It’s true. The real bummer is I will never get the hours I invested back. Hell, I might not even get a “thanks”.
Enough shame for tonight.
There is a widespread belief in academia that people who leave graduate school are dropouts who couldn’t hack it in the program. I take issue with this belief. I don’t like the choice of words. There are high-school dropouts and college dropouts; kids who leave school before completing the essential programs to become productive members of society. This is why there is a negative stigma around the term “dropout”. Graduate school is not such a program. I would even say that many graduate programs actually make people less productive members of society. I have this idea of a time when PhDs were all called “Doctors” everywhere, and they were polymaths: informed, knowledgeable in many subjects, very smart. PhDs today are about the opposite: they are about specializing, about narrowing down your focus to a single thing. I could talk about my subfield comfortably, but when I hear talks from other fields I feel completely lost! How did I get here? How is it that after so many years of studying I actually feel like I know less?
Anyway, people who change their minds about getting a PhD are not dropouts. They are courageous people who have a clear idea of what they want in life, and no, they don’t lose IQ when they exit the ivory tower, and no, the postacademic cooties are not contagious, and finally no, you don’t lose academic purity by remaining friends with them. In a previous post I mentioned the encouragement I received from my professors and my family. What nobody mentioned was that if you are smart enough for grad school, you are smart enough for a whole bunch of other things too. In addition to that, the first weeks of graduate school are daunting. There is a lot of work, but there is also a lot of talk about how lucky you are to be in this program. TNRU is such a prestigious department, the professors are so well recognized in their fields, and everybody is so smart (while everybody outside of campus is banal and obtuse). Academia is the winner’s circle, everybody outside of it is a loser [ by the way, isn’t it funny how in academia the post-acs are the losers, but in the post-ac world it’s “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach”? ]. I didn’t want to be the loser. I knew academe isn’t for me a few months into the program, but I felt like I needed to prove to myself that it isn’t for me because I don’t like it, not because I can’t do it. So I stayed.
I remember an instance where a person who left my program was talked about with disdain. “Ze is quitting. Ze can’t take it anymore.”, someone said, “this workload isn’t for everyone.” These comments made me so angry, because clearly none of the people understood how difficult it is to decide to leave. When one ponders leaving the program, one is obviously dealing with a lot of internal struggles. We grad students are also not the “quitting” type of people, so we probably have thought this for a while and we’ve been miserable for a while. If one takes one’s eyes off the problem sets/papers/dissertation, one realizes there’s a lot to hate about academe.
The academic/work/vocation dimension is only one side of the problem. There is the issue of graduate life itself. At least for me, this dimension weighed a lot. When we choose the PhD route, we change our lives and sometimes the lives of the people we love (significant others, children…):
- You relocate, many times to a different country.
- You make a vow of poverty. Even if you have funding from your department, check your funding letter: we are funded for 9 months, even though you are expected to be a graduate student for 12. Many get loans, rely on their families, or decide to spend their life savings on graduate studies. We take on-campus jobs, get teaching gigs, get research assistant gigs. And even then, I have yet to find a graduate student who can say “I live comfortably. I think I only want a raise; I don’t actually need it.”
- You get sunk costs that grow each day you stay in grad school: Instead of starting your retirement savings, you will not save a dime. You will postpone the beginning of your career and professional experience by at least four years. Instead of buying a home, you get a room-mate. Instead of having children, you have “revise and resubmit”.
- You get out of touch with your friends. If you are foreign, you will miss many of your family and friends’ milestones because you don’t have the time or the money to be there for them.
… and then you get a hunch this isn’t what you expected, or what you want to do for the rest of your life. More directly: I sacrificed/let go of so much to get here (TNRU), and now I think I want to walk away. wow. WOW. I couldn’t leave empty-handed. Not after everything I put my family and my significant other through.
From the point of view of “true academics” you only need to be smart to stay in graduate school. For me it was really cowardice that kept me in. I was afraid of discovering the source of my unhappiness wasn’t academia but something else, something inherently wrong with me. I was afraid there won’t be a place for me outside of academe. I was afraid of disappointing people. I couldn’t deal with all this, I didn’t know how. I know how to study/write a paper/learn, so I did that and kept doing it until there was nothing left but a dissertation and the job market, and I realized I would have to deal with this or else I would start the cycle all over again.
I wish I could have talked to that person who left the program. I would’ve told hir how brave I think ze is for daring to make the jump before it was too late, like me.
…and their reactions were mixed. Before I describe them in detail, though, I want to reflect on why “telling people” is such a big deal for me. Before this summer, I had only mentioned it once, during First Year. Another First Year asked: “Have you thought about where you want to teach?” I answered “Well, I’m not really sure that I want to be a professor yet.” Another First Year’s response was: “Oh. Then you should start looking at other departments[verbatim ends here] , because TNRU doesn’t train non-academics.” We had a ton of work, so I decided to focus on getting things done: learn things, survive each semester, meet requirements, go home.
The question of where you want to teach can only be asked at the beginning of a PhD, because we all quickly realize that it isn’t about where we want to teach, but rather where a few lucky members of our cohorts will get a chance to teach. We celebrate the older grads’ new jobs in state schools in remote towns, small liberal arts colleges, and post docs nobody had heard of. We become convinced that salaries, locations, and the quality of students don’t matter, because we only care about pursuing our intellectual curiosities and making a mark in the world with our research. We rise above these petty, materialistic concerns: as we come closer to obtaining a PhD, we realize that academia is so much more than a career, it is an honorable calling.
So of course, for a few seconds (ok, months), I felt like the shallowest academic ever because I cannot imagine living in a small college town, and because I believe that our job as scientists is to use our cutting edge tools and apply the scientific method to answer questions of the social sciences. It is a technical, methodical exercise; divine inspiration and artistry are not involved.
I decided to “come out” to my closest friends in the program because I wanted their support and shoulders to cry on when I told my committee. One of them shared their own qualms about academe and we’ve talked more about our searches. One of them told me I was making a mistake, and throwing away everything I had worked for in the past five years. A third person listened to my story and told me they understood where I was coming from, but once I got an academic offer I would probably change my mind. Finally, one butthead scared the shit out of me by telling me my adviser is not a good person and would react very negatively to this news, so I should tell them in “a public space”.
I am glad they were sincere. True friends should always tell you what they are thinking, not what you want to hear. It is OK to have differences of opinion, and I attribute this one to the fact that we just don’t share the same dream.
… and they said “no” because:
- It is impossible to get an academic job if you have a post-ac job, but non-ac jobs are always there.
- Being a prof is completely different from being a graduate student.
- Everyone feels unprepared and nervous at the beginning of job market season (August and September).
- S/He’s been in the industry and hated it.
- I will not be intellectually challenged by my job.
- I will have more leverage for non-ac jobs if I look for them in a few years, as an assistant professor at Fancy Important University instead of just a graduate student, like I am now.
- Not wanting to live in Paris, KY, Rome, GA, or London, OH is not a good reason to walk away from the profession.
- Being a tenured or tenure-track professor does not mean settling down: there are summers, sabbaticals and job market seasons.
- I have nothing to lose by going on the job market and looking at other jobs as well.
- I should think more about this.
They are my advisers. My teachers. I owe them some listening. I don’t think they saw this coming, and their job is to find me an academic position. By leaving academe, I am not letting them do their job properly. In this sense, I understand why they would talk me out of leaving: it is their job. Nevertheless, I have to admit I did not expect “no”. In the dozens of times I had played these meetings out in my head, I imagined all kinds of responses: maybe tears, questions about what I wanted to do, maybe some remarks about their disappointment, even a withdrawal from the committee. Instead, it appears I am still in the running.
Here is what I think:
- I understand there is no turning back. It is true that I may never be an Associate Professor or an endowed Professor if I leave now. At the same time, I believe: a) This will happen whenever I get a post-academic job: now or in 10 years. Unless I come back with a Nobel Prize, I will be spoiled goods. b) Not having a Professor position does not preclude occasional research or teaching projects. Maybe one day I will publish something related to my job, or give a talk or a seminar.
- Will I: organize my year in semesters? Write articles? Be in classrooms several hours each week? Feel like I am always working? Yes? Sounds just like grad school to me.
- This is true. Everyone is freaking out because we all know there are a lot more candidates than jobs. Though we are in Top Notch Research University (TNRU), only 60% of last year’s candidates were placed (because adjuncting, post-docs, visiting professorships should not count as placement). In these circumstances, looking for outside options seems perfectly rational to me.
- “Then I’m sure you know what it is like to be on the wrong career path.” (S/he ignored this response).
- This is a risk I will need to take. Five years ago, I chose to be academically challenged, and what a challenge it has been! But it took so much from me (more on that in a later post). Maybe I’ll be challenged in other ways. Maybe I won’t feel intellectually challenged 100% of the time, but I will feel fulfilled.
- Isn’t TNRU prestigious? Something just doesn’t click to me about this argument. I would surmise that my leverage would be maximized if I had job offers from academic employers to show to non-academics. Today: “Hello, I am fantastic. I am so great that World-Famous University wants me to go be awesome on their campus, but I think I’ could be happier with you, if I had a good salary”. Two years from now: “Hello, I am fantastic. I’ve been awesome at World-Famous University for two years, where I did the same thing I had done for the previous five years. WFU has already found my replacement: a very promising ABD from TNRU…”
- Yes it is.
- This is conditional on finding an institution that will take you in in your target location. Plus, how many times can you go on the academic job market before tenure?
- I lose time for my dissertation. I will lose your support when I take the non-academic job.
- I have thought about this for a long, long time. I have been sure of this for a long, long time too.