Leaving Academia When It Wasn’t a Choice: 4 Thoughts on How to Cope

Okay, this one’s personal.

How does one cope with leaving academia when it wasn’t a choice? How do you give up your dreams?

Giving up your dreams is starting to feel like a rite of passage for the Millennial generation. Growing up, we’re told to follow our passions, to work hard and dream big.

But at what cost?

Here’s a question hardly anyone ever asks: what do dreams cost? How far can you chase your dreams before the costs outweigh the benefits?

And once you quit, how do you cope? What do you do next?

This article presents 4 thoughts on leaving academia when it was your dream job. We’ll discuss how to cope, how to change your way of thinking about life and careers, and why you shouldn’t be afraid to give up your academic dreams.

1. Academia is Not a Meritocracy

You probably already know this, but it bears repeating:

Academia is not a meritocracy.

Again!

Academia is not a meritocracy.

Say it 10 times before bed every night. Record it and make it your alarm clock sound. Tattoo it on your eyelids. Whatever it takes, embed this fact in your memory.

Meritocracy is one of the most insidious lies of the academic cult.

With so many highly accomplished grad students and PhDs vying for so few tenure-track positions, those who succeed naturally feel a little special. Tenured faculty members have a vested interest in propagating the image of academic meritocracy.

But academia cannot be a true meritocracy for (at least) four reasons:

  1. The role of prestige: Fancy Ivy-League degrees catch employers’ eyes. This holds true of a lot of industries, academia included.
  2. Micro-specializations: Academics are trained to carve out a tiny research niche and spend their entire professional lives there. Odds are, only five people in the entire world share your sub-sub-specialization and can truly assess the merit of your work. During your job search, what are the odds that one of those people will be on the hiring committee?
  3. Idiosyncratic hiring: Each department or program looks for an ultra-specific set of features when filling a position. If they want a specialist in premodern French literature from 1500–1550 with a side interest in Arabic literature, that’s who gets hired.
  4. Not enough merit to go around: Tenure-track job openings routinely get 200 or more applications. For one job. No system in which so much merit goes unrewarded deserves the title of meritocracy.

There are more reasons, but you get the idea. In such a vast, chaotic, and dysfunctional system, individual merit is little more than a rounding error.

So please, don’t take leaving academia personally. Not obtaining an academic job does not speak negatively about you. It doesn’t say anything about you.

Academia is not a meritocracy.

2. Academia is Not Special

By “not special” we mean that an academic career doesn’t offer anything that can’t readily be found in other jobs.

The second insidious lie of the academic cult is that academic work offers a kind of intellectual engagement and stimulation that cannot be attained elsewhere.

It’s the age-old ‘ivory tower’ mythos: academia is a place sequestered from the rest of society, where scholars can pursue a life of the mind unhindered by the banal concerns of ordinary life.

This way of thinking is why many of us went to graduate school. It’s even built into our language. Colleges and universities are literally called institutions of ‘higher education.’ They confer ‘advanced degrees.’

The humanities are sometimes called ‘liberal arts’—arts worthy of a free person, one who doesn’t dirty their hands with common, ordinary labor.

Well, hopefully your own higher education has equipped you to see through this façade and recognize the ivory tower mythos for what it is. 

To illustrate our point, here are some key activities of an academic job:

  • Research
  • Writing
  • Publishing
  • Teaching
  • Discussing
  • Lecturing

Do you really think only tenured professors get to do those things?

Tons of jobs beyond higher ed involve research and writing. Journalism, project management, and technical writing positions all come to mind.

And, of course, there are plenty of ways to leverage transferable teaching skills beyond the academy after leaving academia.

Plenty of roles in the public or private sector will push your mind and skills to their limits. To think that only academia offers sufficient challenge or intellectual stimulation is both incorrect and a bit pretentious.

3. Think About Careers Differently

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s a classic question every child gets asked at some point. It’s repeated so often that it has devolved into a cliché, thereby avoiding serious scrutiny.

However, it’s important to recognize that this question rests on two underlying premises:

  1. You can choose what career you pursue as an adult.
  2. Your choice will be primarily based on what you want to do.

What if we all had it wrong? What if the operative question is not “what do you want to do?” but rather “what needs to be done?”

Does this make sense? We’re suggesting that you learn to think about careers in terms of what you can do and what needs doing.

A career shouldn’t be a ‘dream job.’ After all, dreams are about self-gratification and wish-fulfillment.

No, a career is a chance to make an impact on the world. It’s a chance to serve something bigger than yourself.

The world is not your oyster. It’s not an oyster at all. Seriousy, what a stupid expression, who came up with that?

Apologies if all this sounds a bit abstract. Everyone’s post-ac path is different. But we firmly believe that every PhD can build a meaningful career in the private sector.

Whether that means giving back to your community, contributing to a business you believe in, supporting your family, or anything else, there is a lot of good work that needs to be done.

If you want to read more about the ‘do what you love’ lie, check out this eye-opening book.

4. Enjoy Every Sandwich

This quote is courtesy of the late, great Warren Zevon. It was his take on how to appreciate life after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

Shortly after Zevon died in 2002, David Letterman reflected on his advice: “it was so simple, and so reassuring, and so obvious, and I felt so good, that he didn’t really know any more than you’re supposed to know.”

So that’s our advice too.

As you’re leaving academia, think hard about what really matters in life. Friends and family matter. Basic financial security and stability matters. Giving back to your community in some small way matters.

But your PhD research? Sorry, but unless you were on the verge of curing cancer or something, your research doesn’t matter.

Practice self care and build support networks. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional counselling and mental health services.

Ask for help. There’s no better time to reconnect with friends and family than right after leaving a cult. 

Appreciate what makes you happy. Savor the simple pleasures. Enjoy every sandwich.

Conclusion

As we emphasize over and over again at Beyond Prof, many PhDs have found great benefits in leaving academia behind. These benefits almost always outweigh whatever dreams they walked away from in the process.

Returning to our opening question of what dreams cost, the answer is real life. The whole point of dreams is that they’re not real. The more time you spend chasing dreams, the less time you spend living life.

Sometimes, giving up your dreams is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Why?

Because some things are more important than dreams.

For more de-culting advice, check out Maren’s post on walking away from academia when it was your dream job.

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