Five Steps for Leaving Academia

So you’re leaving the academy. Maybe you’ve decided it’s not for you, maybe the academy has decided you’re not for it. Either way, you’re about to venture into the wide world of… er… something… Welcome. It’s kinda murky out there isn’t it? Here are a few steps to start you off.

Step 1 — Recognize that you aren’t alone.

First things first, there are a lot of us and you’re not alone. We don’t (yet) have a secret handshake, but we’re everywhere. If you drop a few hints you might be surprised to find we’re next to you at the grocery store, a friend of a friend or a random stranger at a party. We get it and…

You are not alone.

In the beginning when you feel isolated, it can help to read “quit lit,” in which people who have left, who want to leave, or who have been forced out discuss what happened. There are a few main threads:

  • They might talk about the current challenges in higher education with rising tuition and the expectation that students take on more and more debt.
  • Or that college is becoming the new high school and students feel entitled to A’s without much interest in actually learning.
  • Or that women and minority faculty often end up doing disproportionate amounts of emotional labor which can lead to burnout and disillusionment.
  • Or how tough the academic job market is, how many baby boomers are waiting a few years to retire, leaving the few available positions ludicrously competitive.
  • Or the geographically remote locations of many of these schools and how challenging it can be to live in small towns.
  • Or how unfair the system of contingent labor is for visiting professors and adjuncts.

There’s a lot. Reading through it, you might start to understand that the system was set up to keep some people in positions of power and others sidelined indefinitely. Notice what influenced you and understand that you might have tried to fit into a system that does not care about you. It can be helpful to notice which pieces make you angry. What do you want to hide away from most and what makes you feel the most shame?

Step 2 — Do your human homework

Once you get that it’s not just you, it’s time to do your human homework — a term I adopted from my mom. She used to say that when you’re hurt, you’ve got to do something to work through it. (She was a psychologist so feel free to insert your child-of-a-psychologist jokes here.) Because let’s face it, leaving academia hurts, even if we choose to do it, even if it’s the right thing to do. We’re human — change sucks.

So what is human homework? It’s an activity wherein you deal with your shit. This could include going to therapy and talking it out with someone (but even my psychologist mother knew that wasn’t the only way). Maybe painting frees you up to express your emotions. Or maybe you’ve got a good friend or mentor who will let you talk through what’s going on with you. Some people write or journal to give themselves clarity on their mental state. Some folks turn up the music and dance around in their socks or pound on a drum to get the frustrations out. Whatever works.

Here’s what human homework is not: things that help you avoid your pain. Human homework isn’t about covering over emotions — it’s about addressing and dealing with them. This is not drinking a couple of bottles of wine or getting high or Netflix and chill. It’s not going to the movies or having a few friends over to play board games or grilling out on the back patio. It’s not devouring that latest George R. R. Martin tome or blasting through the newest video game. No judgement on any of these activities — they’re fun — but they aren’t doing your human homework.

We ALL need help with this kind of thing — even if you decide therapy or drumming or journaling isn’t right for you. You can do this by walking through questions a philosopher poses or wrestling with ideas from a 15th century poet or using drawing prompts to work through what the hurt would look like if it were a texture.
But please do SOMETHING. We need you.

Step 3 — Recognize that you do have skills and they are needed

You have skills. I know, I know. You’re going to tell me that you are an expert on a SUPER specialized area and there are only five people who actually care about what you studied. You worked for YEARS to know the details of the economic structure of Zimbabwean markets/the habits of Ukrainian field mice/an exegesis of the ecstatic poetry of an obscure 5th century monk. I hear you. Yes, you probably have obscure expertise.

But honestly, you really DO have skills.

I completely believe your skills are needed in this world (yes YOURS). Here’s the thing though, your marketable skills are no longer your deep knowledge about the Zimbabwean economy/Ukrainian field mice/ecstatic poetry. Your skills are much more general and you’re going to have to make the case for why they’re useful.

“But, but, but,” you say, “I got an award for the best paper from the Journal for Eastern European Rodents Society!” Let me assure you that yes that award will still continue to exist outside academia, but (and I say this with love) no one cares.

Sorry, but it’s true. You’ve got to learn how to tell someone why your skills and your background make you able to do something they need. Perhaps in this moment you’re saying to yourself, that sounds an awful lot like marketing and I HATE the idea of marketing myself. Yep, I hear ya. Me too. But it’s what you’ve got to do (You actually don’t have to sell your soul or be extra skeezy to market yourself — but that’s an argument for another time).

How do I know you’ve already got skills? Because, to use overused corporate jargon, there’s already a “low hanging fruit” skill set for any academic who has taught college level courses: you can translate for us normal human beings what an article or concept in your field is about. You can explain why different economic systems around the world are relevant, you can talk about why biologists need to go into the field to study mammals, you can talk about the things that a 5th century monk says that relate to our present day.

In other words, you can teach us why ideas and information matters.

We need that! Please do that!

Step 4 — Make money

Elizabeth Gilbert has a post on her Facebook page where she talks about the difference between a hobby, a job, a career, and a vocation. Please go read it — I’ll still be here when you get back.

Have you read it? OK good.

So you just left a career as an academic. Perhaps you even felt your work in academia was a part of your vocation. When you left academia, maybe you figured out a way to head directly into another career or do other things that fit easily into your vocation (if that’s true for you, that’s awesome. Go for it!). But for many of us, we need to mourn the end of a career we thought was our vocation while at the same time we’re faced with the pressure of making money to support ourselves. That’s what your human homework is about.

My advice is to simply find yourself a job — not a career and not a vocation. Don’t put pressure on yourself to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life. Just spend some time figuring out how to pay your bills and let the career/vocation have a bit of breathing room. Maybe the next job is going to be your career, maybe not. Regardless, it’s best to have enough money coming in to make ends meet while you’re figuring out what the next thing is.

Step 5 — Enjoy your life!

This last step is one of the things I didn’t do a lot of when I was a grad student or an assistant professor. When I was filled with anxiety and stressing about most parts of my life. I had a hard time enjoying myself. I’ve found as a recovering academic that it’s a lot easier not having to force my round peg self into a square peg hole. Academia is a great fit for some people, and there are parts of the job I really loved and miss, but it feels good to enjoy my life now.

So go forth and ENJOY yourself now that you have a life that does not revolve around classes and publications! Read a book for pleasure! Talk to a friend or pick up a hobby that makes your life more fulfilling! Enjoy your life!

Photo: Oleg — “Exit

Beth M. Duckles is a writer, researcher and ethnographer based in Portland, Oregon. Find her at www.beth.duckles.com.