Recovering Academics: You’re In Terrible Peril!

The Recovering Academic’s journey is sort of like the hero’s journey, if the hero’s journey were a big fat boring downer: the “call to action” is when the job market doesn’t work out for the squillionth year in a row; the Abyss is the months (sometimes years) of purposeless wandering in the darkness, which is metaphorical, unless you live in St. Louis today, in which case it’s literal because today looks like Noah is going to come true (good thing this apartment has enough square cubits, and we don’t really talk to anyone else anyway–if the End of Days happened on a weekend, it would be at least Tuesday before I noticed).

Anyway. All’s I’m saying is that if you decide (or it’s decided for you) to leave academia, you unwittingly become the hero of the world’s least interesting epic, and as such there are Scyllas and Charybdises you will probably encounter along the way. Now that I have had about a year to heal and get my shit together, I thought I would share three of these dangers with those who are just tumbling out of the system now, and whose wounds may be fresh and gaping.

(AND ALSO I just spelled both Scylla and Charybdis right on the first try! Still got it.)

  1. Speaking of “still got it:” BEWARE of the constant need to prove to everyone how smart you still are even though you are not a professor (anymore)! Double-beware this if you are female or a person of color and it is automatically assumed that you are not smart. Triple-beware this if you make your failure in the academy public in any way and/or are honest about it. There will be some people who don’t think you are smart. BUT. There will be far fewer of these people than you think. I spent way too long obsessing over the accusations of FULLPROFs and other nasty Internetters, poring through message boards just to see written out the actualization of my worst fear: I am not smart. As my youth has left me and I have little to recommend me for the vast majority of the patriarchy, I’ve clung instead to acceptance with smart people and/or “superiority” over dummies (a problematic concept in and of itself!). I’ve been a rather persistent barnacle on the S.S. Intellect–but what I didn’t realize the whole time is that I am actually captain of the S.S. My Own Intellect, and we all are. Trust me, my friends. Even if you get triple-tenured all the way to Endowed Full Chair of Pedantry and Never Being In Your Office, there are going to be people who think you’re a dumbshit. Even if you drop out of school in the eighth grade, there will be people who do realize you’re smart. My ex-boyfriend-and now regular-friend Jacob (who plays Tim on Justified–check the season finale if you haven’t yet!) never went to college, and he’s hands-down smarter than 3/4 of the tenure-track PhDs I know.  And so I’ll leave this warning with advice I recently got from him before I did that debate last week (which was my first video-media appearance; good thing I can’t lose that goddamned pregnancy weight no matter what I do). He said: Don’t obsess over being funny and smart because your words will come out tortured and awkward. Just be direct and clear, and your wit and intelligence will manifest themselves naturally. Some of the most useful advice I’ve ever gotten–and from a high-school graduate!
  2. Speaking of friends: BEWARE that some of your “friends” will disappear, and try your level best not to take it personally. When you are finally able to leave academia, you might quickly realize that it can be quite cult-like in its structure and behavior. Have you ever told a Scientologist, or a devotee of the Upright Citizens Brigade, or a Landmark/WINGs member, or someone in AA, that he’s in a cult? How’d that go? Listen: People in cults do not view themselves as cultified. They do not view themselves as brainwashed or that their identities have been subsumed. They simply see themselves as valuing something that you do not happen to value (anymore). And, I hate to tell you this (and I’ve learned it the hard way)–it’s their choice to devote their lives to a structural identity that may or may not hurt them more than it helps them. It’s highly self-centered of you (by which I mean “me”) to think that their single friendship with you, an outsider who no longer appreciates or understands what they do, is more important than the structural relationship to which they have devoted their lives. Also–and here’s something it took a long time to learn, and I wouldn’t know without (irony!) the principles of AA (I have some close friends who are Friends of Bill W): Sometimes cults help people more than they hurt. Some of the dearest people in my life are (wait for it): UCB, Landmark, WINGs, AA…and, yes, academics. Those structures have saved as many lives as they’ve ruined. For some people, the Life of the Mind is simply going to be more worthwhile than keeping a friendship with you and your “negativity” or whatever cult-speak they’ll use to describe you. Wish those people well, and stay in kind but detached touch.
  3. And finally, speaking of staying in touch BEWARE the triggers that can jettison your recovery, especially on social media. If you’ve got Facebook friends posting humblebrags about their new TT jobs or life on the TT, just unfollow those motherfuckers for awhile. The second it’s not in your face anymore, you will be able to stop thinking about it so much, and eventually you will realize that the relative “success” of your homies has literally fuck-all to do with your relative “failure.” (And also: like I joked to Karen Kelsky yesterday on Twittarz, if a TT job in the middle of fuck-all nowhere, teaching 4/4, being the entire Your Discipline Department, dealing with colleagues that are somehow both toxic and smarmy, living far, far away from everyone who still wants to talk to you, and maybe not even getting tenure at all in the end is “success,” well then other people can have it!) If there is a particular disciplinary conference that you will be not attending for the first time since grad school, go through your social media and meticulously hide or unfollow everyone who will be there, if you think it will be psychically difficult to see all of their sycophantic posts about it. Same goes for all of the bitching about school starting in the fall, and finals anytime there are finals, if you are not going to be teaching anymore but wish you were. Just insulate yourself from it. Re-follow all of your Republican relatives, and entertain yourself with the knowledge that the old ones rely more on Barack Obama’s Muslim Socialist God-Hating than anyone else you know (for seerz: I have a relative whose only source of income is Social Security, who lives in Section-8 housing and whose numerous health issues are covered by Medicare, and s/he “hates” President Obama “because he’s a Socialist.” Although in fairness, I’m pretty sure that at his/her church, “Socialist” means “Black.”) You may, alas, only learn about your triggers the hard way, but as soon as you know them, take it upon yourself to insulate yourself.

All right, that’s my initial list, but now I’d like to open it up for discussion (and I’ve relaxed the commenting rules again so that I don’t moderate all comments anymore, FOR NOW). If you’re a seasoned recovering academic, what were some of your biggest pitfalls in your first year, and how did you deal with them? If you’re just coming off now, what are you most upset/worried/distraught about?

65 thoughts on “Recovering Academics: You’re In Terrible Peril!

  1. I’m in the midst of possibly setting fire to any/all academic career aspirations. My FULLPROF advisors, one of whom is super famous in my secondary field, told me Thursday my diss is terrible and makes no sense and has to be rewritten down to going back through all my transcripts and recoding everything and reanalyzing all the data. I was supposed to defend in May/June. I flipped out, and then realized I need to remove that person from my committee. That person is, I’m realizing, a bully, so I am scared that s/he will do their best to keep any other scholar worth working with from working with me and place a scarlet letter on my name. All I want is to finish my PhD. I’m most afraid that I won’t be allowed to do that.

    1. Eep, that sounds terrifying. I would recommend being as publicly nice and sycophantic to Dr. Bully as possible, whilst still removing him from your committee because someone else is simply a better “fit,” see?

      1. Yes, I am hoping I can find someone else, quickly and quietly, because Dr. Bully has not given me one fucking shred of direction and feedback in the last 2 yrs, and suddenly now wants to turn this into Dr. Bully’s dissertation and not MY dissertation. I have presented these analyses at two conferences, BIG ones, and not one other scholar has said my work is bad/needs work/is confusing. However, I plan to be as ass-kissy and ego-stroking as possible in the meantime.

    2. I had a similar experience, and after removing Big Name Bully I successfully defended my diss. It took me an extra year, though, and I now see that I could have done the firing and defending even faster.
      Good luck to you. Walk away from Dr. Crazy.

      1. THANK YOU, the firing will happen this week or next. Super nervous. I’m hoping Dr. Bully will just see it as less work for them to do.

  2. Having dropped out of my PhD program about 7 years ago, I guess I’m the seasoned former academic. Your warnings are all spot-on. Another pitfall for me was career inertia. After I left academia I stayed in a deadend job mainly because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t worth anything better. My bofo finally convinced me to start applying to real jobs and I actually got one, but that was 5 years after I dropped out. Had I started pursuing a new career right away I probably would be in a much better place financially right now. Thanks for the post, these are important warnings for someone who’s just had a painful divorce from academia!

    1. I think, though, that you did what was best for you at the time, to keep you safe. It’s not just that you didn’t feel worthy of something better–it’s that you needed something boring enough to be safe. There is merit in that, and it’s helpful not to beat yourself up about any past decisions (although if only I could take that advice!).

      1. That’s a good point, and I’m definitely still prone to beating myself up for entering that particular PhD program at all, which is something I need to stop doing.

  3. Great stuff, as always, Rebecca. So, I am facing the likely prospect of dropping out next year, if one of two potential postdoc offers doesn’t materialize in the next month or so. Ironically, I’ve had more “successes” (read: crushing near-misses) on the market this year than ever before, and lots of good research successes, too. But I also worked way, way harder than any human being should (like many of you, to the point of real physical consequences), gave up the major sources of pleasure and comfort in my life, and squeezed just about every remaining drop of vitality left in me into sending out around 40-50 applications, frantic research and publishing, interview emotional roller coasters, and teaching 8 classes a year at the god-forsaken Midwestern hellhole where I am currently VAP. Many readers here will know some version of this story all too well, I am sure.

    Not doing this ever again is one major reason for me to leave. The other is getting to move back in with my partner in the major east coast city where I’m from, and generally resuming the things that make me feel good about life. On the other hand, there’s a lot that petrifies me about this prospect as well. In order of terror:

    1. Having essentially no marketable skills, I have no clue of how I’ll make a living.
    2. I’m really afraid of having to take an alienating, meaningless job that I hate, and living as some kind of shadow of myself in perpetual frustration and regret.
    3. In such a job and position, I’m fearful that my wounded vanity would fester and continue to swell rather than gently subside to normal levels, and I’ll become a truly insufferable, bitter, miserable know-it-all that has to continually, pathetically demonstrate how smart he is to everyone around him. Maybe this is the male privilege version of what Rebecca mentions, i.e., much worse.

    There are others, but those are the big three. Since at least (2) and (3) stem from not entirely attractive qualities in my personality, I can imagine how this might not elicit a lot of sympathy, but can anybody else relate? Ideas or insight?

    1. Hi IRZ, I can relate to your fears. I left my postdoc 6 months ago after being depressed to the point of hospitalization. It got ugly. Thankfully I found a job close to home (east coast city) and am now doing science writing for a consulting company. The work is not terribly exciting, but it is a good income, and gives me a chance to get back on my feet, and spend time around friends and family. I see it as a stepping stone, and am figuring out what next. When you make your exit from academia, do not expect to land a “dream job” right away. You might have to take a “lowly” job for awhile, but have confidence that you can work your way up. Academia has a rigid structure (grad student -> postdoc -> asst prof -> tenure) but in the real world, people change jobs and change fields more frequently. There are lots of opportunities. Also, #1 (fear of no transferable skills) is not true. PhDs think that they only have skills related to their niche topic, but in fact, research, writing, teaching, communications are all skills that you can use in many different contexts. Talking to a career counselor about how you can market those skills effectively in a post-ac environment might help. Good luck!

      1. Ditto ditto ditto! We have oodles of marketable skills–you just need to figure out how to translate (literally–from academese into HR speak) the skills you have into language that makes sense to the people who are hiring. It’s a slog, but it’s easily enough done. I highly recommend _So What Are You Going to Do With That?_ as a starting place.

    2. I can relate to all three of those things. You’re wrong about #1. Talk to some friends with non-academic jobs and/or a career adviser; you will eventually learn how to translate the very useful skills you gained while in academia into a good resume. Find the field you want to transition into and then do some related gratis work or self-initiated projects to beef it up a bit. Re: #2, You might end up in a job that isn’t fulfilling, but you have to start somewhere and every job in your field is a stepping stone to something closer to what you want. I’ve also resigned myself to the fact that some people get to do what they want for a living, while some people have to cram in their true love in the times they’re not on the job, at least for a time. It’s a harsh realization, but it’s better than working fast food where low pay and wage theft abound. Re #3, as a vain person myself, I have to say that even if everything were great with me, I’d still be dealing with my vanity issues, not letting it take over my personality. I credit my family and friends for keeping me grounded during this whole soul-crushing mess (that is, leaving academia and then entering the non-academic workforce), hopefully you have a similar support system. Best of wishes as you start this next chapter.

  4. I said this on twitter, but wanted to post it again here. The prestige economy eats us all. It makes us all look up at the ranks above us, longing to be there, while looking down at others and judging ourselves better. Those at the top assume the meritocracy is real. Your work savaging prestige, at least as I read it, is so useful – not just to those who are outside academia, or hanging on by their fingernails, but to those of us inside trying not to get chewed up.

    I was reminded of this over the weekend while attending the snootiest of conferences with structures that emphasize the divisions among us rather than building solidarity across labor classes.

    1. Ah, snooty conferences. I’ll “miss” them. Thank you so much for saying this; I totally agree. Another thing I’ve learned in the past year that just because you get a TT job or Tenure DOES NOT MEAN your life then gets awesome.

  5. I’m glad I lived to tell the tale but I went through all this shit you describe and it was really hard and lonely. But every bit of pain was worth it, for what I learned about myself and how higher education fucks us all, especially those who’ve been oppressed since the get go. #humilityisagift

  6. I exited academia 30 years ago; that’s a scary thought in itself. I don’t remember pain so much as relief. Although my grad school was very proud that they had a near 100% employment record for English PhDs, what scared me was the quality of the jobs my colleagues were getting. It’s a story we all know about now: fixed term, non-TT appointments teaching 4 or 5 courses a semester. It looked to me like a long, slow ticket to a successful career as a cab driver. I also realized that I wasn’t that great a teacher: I was pretty good at teaching excellent, highly-motivated students, but even at a very-top-of-the-line university, those were fairly rare. I sort of sucked at teaching writing to students who really wanted to be elsewhere. So I applied to a couple of jobs at equivalently top-drawer schools, and when I didn’t get them, checked out. And yes–it was a long time ago, but I remember feeling relief rather than distress.

    One thing made my exit much easier. Two years before finishing, I realized that, if I continued teaching freshman writing, I was going to run out of money long before I ran out of dissertation. So I thought about what else I could do. I was in Silicon Valley in one of the startup booms; thought I could probably get a job working on documentation for one of the startups; had a roommate who knew founders at some of those startups; so I asked for intros. Got the intros, got a part-time job that made more money in less time than teaching writing to uninterested students. After getting my PhD, it was fairly easy to move from that job to another, and another.

    Think about exit paths before you need them. And think creatively. You’re not in a PhD program (or a postdoc) because you’re dumb. If you’re in the sciences, you’ve probably done a fair bit of programming, and know more math than any reasonable person. There is a real shortage of people who understand data analysis right now, and most of the people taking those jobs are science PhDs who have made the same decision facing you now. If you’re in English, it’s tougher, but there are plenty of companies that need people who know how to communicate. Many of those companies don’t understand that need, but the need is there. Experiment, be willing to take a low salary for a few years (which, believe me, will still be more than you make as Visiting Adjunct Assistant Bootwiper), and be willing to fail a few times.

    There are occasional regrets. It’s strange to walk into a university bookstore and see books written by your grad school friends on the shelves. You’ll get over it. One ex-academic friend said “yes, more people read your writing now than would ever have read masterpiece on English Romanticism.” True.

    There is life after academia. I still love hanging out in libraries and reading old books. But you don’t need a TT job to do that.

  7. There is a lot of brainwashing in academia that only the “smart” people become tenure track faculty. Any other job is considered a failure. Never mind the inconvenient fact that there are plenty of “smart” college dropouts in fields such as computers and the arts that go onto to have very successful careers.

  8. I just started to comment here because I want to say thanks to Rebecca Schuman, for sharing, and to send good wishes to everyone that is struggling.

    But, as I clicked the comment box to start typing, I realized I am logged into 1 (of 4!!) anonymous accounts I have set up because, as a pre-job market ABD, it’s not safe for me to post anything that isn’t peer-reviewed on the internet.

    Fear, check.

      1. This is just one anecdote, but posting things online isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I recently got a TT position, and during my campus visit the faculty actually referenced some comments I’d left under my real name a couple months prior on a blog in my field. It was the perfect way to kick off a discussion about how I saw this particular aspect of the field developing. So it’s a risk (and notice I’m posting pseudonymously on this particular comment) but can pay off as a way to present some ideas in a less formal setting.

    1. Me too. Even tho I am most likely getting the eff out of academia after my dissertation is defended and degree conferred.

    2. Another voice in the chorus saying that you’re not alone! I use my real name on Twitter, but that means I can’t use it to express or discuss Negative Thoughts and Feelings at this point in my non-career, even and especially while actively searching for non-academic jobs. (I do retweet non-personal stuff about labor organizing whenever I see it though – that’s where I draw the line of “if caring about workers’ rights is unacceptable, I don’t want to work for you.”)

  9. I just wanted to say something about friends from academia. Don’t assume you must drop everyone you know from academia or that they look down on you. If you can’t deal with your friends who are still in the field because of what you’re working through then you have to do what’s healthy for you and let those relationships go. I’ve stayed in academia and been happy with it but I don’t assume that anyone who’s made a different choice – whatever the source of that choice is (completely free or somewhat forced) – made a mistake in leaving or have somehow failed. It’s a brutal market and there are a lot of interesting things to do with your life – so people make choices that take them down different roads. Some of the friends I made in grad school are still in academia, some are not, most are still my friends. We met because of a common interest in the field but we’ve stayed friends because of deeper things. I am not in a cult and I do not assume friends I met in grad school who are not in academic jobs have failed. Mutual respect goes a long way towards maintaining a friendship. I write this and do so anonymously because of a friend who felt she needed to no longer be close friends once she left the field we met in. If that’s helped her than I’m glad and that’s enough, but I do miss her and I’ve never judged her choice to leave the field. I wish I had been given more of a chance to show her that – maybe I will be in the future we’re still in touch just not close – rather than have her make that assumption.

    1. I think you might be reading something different into my #2 than I intended. I said that sometimes, if you leave, people who have chosen to stay will choose to leave you, and not to take it personally when they do. I lost many “friends” in the past year, but it turns out they were never my friends to begin with. Many more are still my friends, but we are not in constant touch because it is still very painful for me to hear about the market on their behalf. It is entirely possible that your friend needs to cut you loose because you trigger trauma for her. That’s not your fault–but I hope you will respect her choice. It is entirely possible that when she has had time to heal she will be able to hang out with you again.

      1. I know it is her choice and I do respect it. I don’t know fully what’s behind it – maybe I’m just boring – but she needs to do what works for her. Selfishly I miss her and worry that perceptions of what I might think (but don’t!) drive this. I probably am misreading what you’ve written, in part because I do read many things that make me feel like folks who leave academia believe that everyone on the other side is judging them. I react to that perception, probably reading it where it isn’t intended. There are plenty of jerks and I’m not saying that this judging doesn’t happen but I also think they people who do that are jerks. My somewhat (or very) rambling point is that if you decide to leave, do what you need to for your own mental well-being, but if you can it may be worth giving folks a chance to stay part of your life and don’t start with the assumption that they are judging your choice to leave.

      2. With everyone it’s different. With me I never ditched anyone; I am still in touch with everyone to the extent that I can be (I get really busy and overwhelmed sometimes), as long as THEY didn’t disappear from me. But a few people–one in particular, who I thought was a true friend, and who lives here in St. Louis which makes things way worse, because we used to hang in person–up and ditched me and that shit HURT.

  10. Right after I left academia for private school teaching I attended the dreaded “conference I go to every year” because I had assembled a panel and was doing my first presentation on my new project. (Full disclosure: it was the 2011 GSA in Louisville. We very well may have crossed paths without knowing it!) I was worried that it was going to be a wretched experience, constantly having to explain my status to those inspecting my name tag. It ended up being a cleansing goodbye to the profession. The good people patted me on the back for my career change, and some of the folks I knew from grad school were either making or about to make similar changes as well. I avoided the bad people because I was free of having to kiss their asses ever again. My panel and paper went really well, and I also moderated a bit of a grab-bag panel and managed to bring it all together. It was a good validation that while I had left the profession, I did not do it because I just couldn’t hack it. I did it because I wanted to, nay needed to. That experience helped keep the nagging pangs of self-doubt mostly at bay, but they still creep up and attack me, three years after getting out.

  11. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I’ve tried, but it’s just not happening. I don’t mean to sound whiny, but both of my parents are academics. On the surface, both of them supported my decision to leave. But I still get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and say, “You are a fucking FAILURE.”

    1. :*( I am so sorry. You don’t sound whiny, you sound like you’re in real pain. Hugs. It’s not about “getting over it” so much as it is incorporating that “failure” into your regular life until it is on par with other, smaller failures (I failed my first driver’s test, for example). You will be OK. One of the reasons I posted this was to prove that it can and does get better–and unlike academic platitudes about “next year will be better,” with this it’s true, because all you have to do for it to get better is sit out the passage of time.

    2. I am totally with you, polarbearfan (well, maybe I say that 4-5 mornings a week – progress?). I still have no idea how to go about wrenching this persona and sense of worth that we have cultivated for so many years from my core identity. Discussions like this make think there is indeed some path to the mundane, quotidian sense of failure Rebecca is talking about, but I still don’t know how I’ll get from here to there yet either.

      1. My advice, FWIW: do your level best to wait it out, and live your life, and check back in with yourself in a year’s time and see if you still feel this bad.

    3. What helped me was to actually accept the truth of this. Don’t fight against it: in the academic world, you are a failure because you didn’t go the TT route. It helps to speak the truth of the academy and articulate its values.

      But, and this is where it gets better, the truth of your failure is only ‘true’ within the cult that is academia. OUTSIDE of academia, you are free to recreate and reinvent yourself however you want. And this world is bigger, and better, and more interesting than the tiny little world you’ve inhabited for so long.

      I used to imagine a large tent stretched over all the buildings that made up my university. As long as I was inside that tent, I was subject to its truths. But all I had to do was take one little step outside that bubble, and none of academia’s values applied to me anymore. It was and still is exhilarating!

      1. What K said. Yeah, the freedom to reinvent yourself … it’s awesome. I have a ‘full time temp’ job. I’m doing the networking thing and no one outside academia could give a sh– whether I’m tt or not. I talk about what I am doing in academia with pride and then explain (in positive, enthusiastic terms) why I am looking for a change. People could not react better – normal people see doctorate+having taught college+speaking at national/international conferences as a sign that you are very smart, a great communicator, and work your butt off, very valuable traits in an employee.

  12. Thank you so much to everyone who responded to my (slightly melodramatic) comment with wise words and sympathy. Along with the good advice, it sure helps not to feel so alone. Solidarity and good wishes to all!

    1. I don’t think you’re melodramatic. The break is truly painful. I’m in a transition space between academia and the “real” world. You’re not alone. None of us is alone. We just have to find each other to offer support.

  13. I left academics almost ten years ago. IRZ is right that the “academic” persona becomes part of your identity, and shedding it is a painful process. Some things still hurt – like when an old grad school friend who is now a tenured professor thought I could get one of her undergrads a job like mine (“because he’s good at German and he can learn the other stuff.”) I am a translator and editor for a major management consultancy. While it’s true that my PhD makes me technically overqualified for my job, I also had years of professional editing experience and a publication track record when I was hired. I very tersely explained that someone right out of college would not be qualified for a position like mine. Of course, my friend was insensitive – but I was also very quick to feel slighted because part of me is still comparing where we each ended up.
    But the longer I’m out in the “real” world, the more I realize that my occasional unhappiness stems from this internalized standard rather than anything about my life now. I am married to a wonderful, creative, cultured partner. I live in Berlin. I own a home. I have enough money to pay my bills without worrying – and go out to dinner, take vacations, and live like a working adult instead of a perpetually struggling student. I work with interesting colleagues from varied backgrounds and I have an amazing group of friends. I translate books on the side, so I get to see my name in print (on books that people will actually read). None (or at least few) of these things would have been possible if I were trapped in some lonely backwater, desperately trying to make ends meet by doubling and tripling up on adjunct positions.
    I spent my years in grad school navigating through the death throes of a toxic, draining 12-year relationship. (Why I was in it is a long story for another day….) I knew I was miserable, but I couldn’t just walk away – being part of this couple had been key to my identity for so long, and I had invested so much time. Leaving was so painful, but as soon as I finally did it, life began to get better. Hugs to all you recovering academics. Your lives are getting better right now!

    1. Wiesel, your friend needs to make him/herself feel better by putting you down. Period. Also, as I’ve told myself: if I really want to, I can write x or y academic article or run a darn blog with my ideas and research. Oftentimes we long for the “romance” of academia (just as we did while in it…but it was just that, a “romance,” that was elusive and cryptic and patently not there). Bottom line: you can do the writing/research on some level if you want to. But what do we ultimately say: “nah, I’d rather pick up x book, go to the movies, chill out.” The point is: we can’t let the fictional romance of the academy get to us. If we want to research/write, let’s do it. If not, let’s let it go. And don’t forget: even if you’re in the academy, your writing/research/persona/intellect is put down. Prestige and foggy status notions can kiss my ass.

      As for your colleague:answer back in an equally pedantic passive aggressive way: tell him/her …”you should learn and do research about alternative employment options for your own sake, I mean, after all, you might get tired of being an administrator and doing secretarial work your department; also, talk to the university career center…I don’t have ideas for you.” Even cattier, but true, is “You should learn about employment trends in the interest of your future children!” Now that’s being a classy, passive aggressive winner! Trump ’em at their own bullshit status game.

      1. @Wiesel: I’m actually a very nice person and the “niceness” actually was not helpful in “trying to make it” in academia. I’ve learned that once you snarl once or twice at certain types they get their shit together and behave decently–at least to your face. It is, bottom line, about making oneself respected. I can handle A LOT–and have mollified some academics with niceness but others do need a smack on their wrist. I’m in my 40s and I wish I would have learned this lesson a long time ago.

  14. I had similar experiences to Werner Herzog’s Bear–I pulled an invitation to speak at my major disciplinary group’s national conference about a week after I had decided to get out. This group had snubbed me every. single. year. at both the regional and national level. (The proposal they eventually accepted was one of the hastiest I have ever submitted and left out the most interesting bits of my research.) Maybe it was because they’d snubbed me so often, maybe it was because I just wasn’t quite ready to jump out of the tower with both feet, but I accepted the invite. Seven months later I was being introduced as a recent graduate of Big State U and current substitute teacher. I’d included that in my bio because it was true, but also to thumb my nose at those painful presenter bios that list heaps of schools where the presenter has only ever taught one course. (Never mind the balancing act of deciding how many schools to list.)

    I caught surprisingly little flack from my colleagues about it. My advisor seemed disappointed I wasn’t staying in, but my grad school cohort knew what I was going through. People were legitimately sympathetic and encouraging rather than “sympathetic” while looking down their noses. Being off the market myself has made it easier to be happy for their successes. I’m not competing with them any more and don’t have to wrestle with the jealousy/guilt/disappointment of seeing a friend get a job I applied for. I can also be happy because I am not spending piles of time and money throwing myself on the daggers of the market.

    That doesn’t make everything easier—I’m still a dude in his mid-30s trying to start a new career with an idiosyncratic set of qualifications and very little local network. When things are bad (like a broken washing machine or the state rejecting my application to get my kids health insurance because we’re a smidge over the income boundary), I can’t help comparing myself to where I thought I’d be when I entered my PhD program, or worse, where I might be as a smart, privileged individual who’d gone straight to work after his first college graduation.

    It has gotten better, though. A year after deciding to leave, I’ve mostly made the transition from “failed academic” to “guy with a PhD looking for the right job.” The more you can do to separate your skills and knowledge from your identity, the easier the transition becomes. To the extent I can offer any general advice for post-acs or soon-to-be postacs, it’s that: avoid situations that tie your identity to having or not having your TT dream job, whether those situations are conferences, job boards, or dinner parties with snooty peers. Don’t drag the cage with you after you’ve unlocked its door.

  15. This is a great post, Rebecca! I especially appreciate the point about triggers. I currently find myself recovering in hostile territory. I’ve got a full-time, renewable, non-TT job with a huge teaching and service load. I’m treated fairly well by the standards of the non-TT world. (well = I earn enough to pay my bills partly thanks to the low cost of living in a small college town, I have health insurance and retirement benefits, I have a real office, and most of the TT-folks treat me well and at some level appreciate that I’m doing tons of crap that they don’t want to do.) It is clear to me that I will never have tenure and that this job is something of a dead end – it will never be better than it is now and it could easily get worse as the state legislature continues to hunt for “fat” on the bones of the state’s higher ed system. I’m sticking with a job that is tolerable for now and looking around for a good exit. Though not having much luck, the first two fields that I researched more than superficially turned out to have supply and demand problems that are just as bad as academia.

    One thing that I’ve found useful is to establish points of personal truth that I can call up when I encounter things that trigger feelings of envy, loss and regret. One of my points of personal truth is that I hate academic conferences; presenting stresses me out, the feedback from question and answer sessions is rarely very helpful, many of the talks are bad and/or boring, they are expensive, and you never get to see much of the place you are visiting for the conference. I found myself feeling envy a while back when a friend on Facebook was jetting off to a conference in Seattle. I found myself wishing for just a bit that I was going to that conference. But I pulled out my point of personal truth – it was an academic conference, I would have probably hated it. What I would really enjoy is a vacation in Seattle, but a conference in Seattle is definitely not a vacation in Seattle. My Facbook friend probably didn’t get to see much of the city and he/she (in a visiting position) probably paid for a not-much-fun trip out of his/her own pocket. That’s really nothing to envy.

  16. Just wanted to say again how much I appreciate people sharing their stories here, and Rebecca once again for writing another piece that prompts these discussions. I happened to come across this article today, about how our culture irrationally values “grit” and determination, even in circumstances when these qualities are stupid and destructive rather than advantageous. Somehow, it resonated:

  17. Replying to: “With everyone it’s different. With me I never ditched anyone; I am still in touch with everyone to the extent that I can be (I get really busy and overwhelmed sometimes), as long as THEY didn’t disappear from me. But a few people–one in particular, who I thought was a true friend, and who lives here in St. Louis which makes things way worse, because we used to hang in person–up and ditched me and that shit HURT.”

    While obviously I don’t know for certain, it is possible that this person ditched not because s/he looks down on you but because it hurts too much to see you out and free of academia. Maybe that person saw your example and it makes him/her question choices made?

    1. A polite, nice relationship and even friendship can be had but–oh boy–don’t you dare attempt to have a conversation about the discipline/ideas because you will be shut down immediately. If you are not in the academy, you are not allowed to have an opinion in the field. But, truthfully, if one is in the academy, you are shut down too (not the right college, rank, usual papal status crap). Academia is really like the Papacy. There’s a hierarchy, and the higher up, the doctrine of infallibility is assumed and you are expected to abide by it.

  18. Everyone has already said this is great. But, I will too: This is great!

    I was not so deep into academia as you, yourself, or many of the commenters here. I escaped after 3 years of a PhD program. Still, a lot of this is familiar to me. I certainly lost “friends” when I left the university and earned the contempt of previously indifferent former colleagues.

    For me, the biggest thing to guard against is the knee-jerk impulse to defend my former field, the Humanities, and Academia in general to people who aren’t listening and don’t care. Academia might be a rotting cesspool, but it is my rotting cesspool, and I still have a tendency to take ignorant criticism somewhat personally. At the same time, in order to be employable in the private sector, I had to learn ways to explain and defend the 3 year gap in my resume using tech-y corporate buzzwords and by inventing farcical skills supposedly developed in grad school like “active analysis” and “communication skills.” I do think that the Humanities are worth studying and sometimes need justification, but not to every smarmy banker sneering at them who is not going to care what I have to say, however soundly reasoned.

    To a lesser extent, I also have to be careful, for the sake of those academic friends that remain to me, not to gloat about my relative freedom, steady paycheck, house, car, ability to stay in one place for years at a time, etc. My income is solidly middle class, but that’s far and away above the adjuncts and VAPs on my friendslist. I ran into a professor in my former department in the grocery store, once (the people you meet in Clintonville Giant Eagle…). She was very nice and asked how I was doing. She was surprised that I have a real job, not waiting tables or substitute teaching. As she left she told me “not to feel bad that I didn’t make it” and that the job market was terrible and I probably wouldn’t have been able to get a job anyway. I’m pretty sure that was supposed to be nice. For everyone’s sake, it’s a good thing my parents raised me to smile politely and say “thank you.”

    1. You know what? Sometimes people deserve to be put into place or “illuminated” with a stark comment that blows off the bullshit covering them. I’ve started doing it–politely, and it works. The professor you ran into has a delusional stick up her ass and is a passive aggressive idiot. Just saying.

  19. Thanks for this post, Rebecca! I have heard some of this advice before but needed your candor to smack me in the face. I have one year left visiting in my current job and I’ll spend the year working every possible connection I can forge locally to find my next non-academic job. One thing I would encourage others to do is own their job path–I choose this path so I feel good about it but I know others have come to their academic divorce after many attempts to find employment. Either way, I have connected with our career development office and am planning to find ways to recast my academic skills into real-world language so others can understand what I do. Good career counseling is really important–I’ll be blogging about my career exploration this year, too. So appreciative of the supportive comments here. Makes you feel like you’re not alone (or crazy)!

  20. THANK YOU for posts like this. My husband, IMHO an exceptional teacher and contributor to his field, is facing the prospect of leaving academia. He swings between despair, fear, shame… not to mention feeling betrayed and abandoned by friends and former colleagues. I ask him why he wants to be part of such a toxic system but academia is all he knows. Still I continue to support and be patient as we figure out next steps. Your blog should be required reading for any spouse/SO/partner whose beloved academics are struggling in this current environment.

  21. I’m retiring in June from a low level faculty development position that at least is getting me a tiny pension. You can read about me and my dismal career here:

    Happy to join your ranks. Unfortunately, my husband is now a full professor from his second motherfucking tenure track job, but we don’t talk about his petty problems or about which one of us is smarter.

    My nemesis on the train to the grave will be SallieMae, but I can’t possibly live long enough to pay her off, so I will get the last laugh in Hades.

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