Why I am Leaving Academia


Not long after I handed in my PhD thesis, one of my aunts asked me the dreaded question: “What now?”. I remember floating the idea that I might leave academia and being met with incredulity: “After all this? But… you’ve done all this…”. I understood where she was coming from. For years, my family and friends had watched me grind away at a thesis that almost no one would read. Surely, they thought, once the PhD was done, the hardest would be behind me and I would finally get to experience the glitz and glamour of being a university lecturer. As anyone who has worked in research already knows, they were seriously mistaken. 

Today, almost a year after I officially became Dr. Herring, I resigned from my postdoc at Ghent University. There are several reasons that motivated this decision but the main one is that I no longer enjoy the work enough to justify how demanding it is.

I already felt this way during my PhD. As a grad student, I could not take a weekend off without experiencing disproportionate feelings of guilt. I told myself I should be working on my thesis, on my publications, on public engagement and talks. I worried I should be winning prizes and securing funding instead of relaxing. I needed to reassure myself that I was doing everything in my power to make my CV as competitive as possible. I was always exhausted and I only managed to keep going thanks to a cocktail of stress-induced adrenaline and literal cocktails. Sometimes, I would look up from my pile of library books and hear myself wonder through a yawn: “why am I doing this again?”. 

Of course, it wasn't all bad. I made friends for life, I travelled, and I learned important skills. I had the rare luxury of spending a very long time focusing all my energy on a handful of obscure questions which I happen to find interesting. 

I still thought about leaving on multiple occasions. I daydreamed about a living situation stable enough to accommodate a dog and my own furniture. But I never let these fantasies turn into fully formed plans. It was not an easy conversation to have with myself. In academia, the lines between personal and professional identity are easily blurred. If I wasn’t a historian of 20th-century biology and philosophy, then I didn’t know who I was. I knew that losing my identity as a researcher would also mean losing a whole community. I was afraid that if I left, I would disappoint those who had mentored and supported me throughout my studies. I couldn’t help feeling I owed something to academia as a whole, something I had not yet had time to give back. 

As I neared the end of my PhD, I worried about my future.  It is hard to explain to those who are not in academia just how bad things are for those who are starting out. Say the words “job market” within earshot of a junior researcher and watch fatalistic dread cloud their face. I was relatively lucky because I secured a research job straight out of my PhD. But despite being somewhat cushy, my position was still fixed-term. To hope to one day obtain an elusive permanent contract, I had to accept that my current job would most likely be the first in a series of short-term contracts in various distant locations. To succeed in academia, I would have to make a number of sacrifices. The simple truth is that I am no longer willing to make these sacrifices.

A great deal of enthusiasm is needed to survive early career academia with its endless applications, rejections and precarity. Sadly, this enthusiasm is too often exploited. For instance, academics are not paid to publish their research in journals. To guarantee the quality of the research being published in these journals, they review the findings of other researchers, also for free. But journal publishers tend to charge thousands in yearly subscription fees to university libraries. Increasingly, higher education staff suffer casualisation and unreasonable workloads, and the pandemic (or rather, the ways in which governments and university high-ups are dealing with the pandemic) is making things worse.  

I do not mean to discourage anyone who is currently working in academia or who might be considering it as a profession. The enthusiasm and persistence of researchers is admirable and important. Their work should be celebrated and their enthusiasm should be nourished rather than exploited. I am proud of my friends who have managed to make things work despite all these obstacles.

For my part, I have come to terms with the fact that academia is not for me.

This post is not a sad one. When I handed in my resignation, I mostly felt relief. I also felt a surge of energy and creativity. I am excited about what lies ahead. I am going to keep on writing. I have landed a book deal with Basic Books to write about Henri Bergson for a general audience. I have other plans which I will tell you about in due course. I also hope that after this book there will be others, and maybe a Netflix series (tell me who should play Bergson in the comments). 

I have given this all a great deal of thought. It took me over a year to feel comfortable with my decision. I have come to realise that I don’t owe academia anything and that I am still somebody without it. I have understood that my priorities have changed since I started my PhD, almost six years ago. Outside of academia, my life is better aligned with these priorities. I am living in France sharing a house with my two closest friends and an excellent dog. My partner lives only a short walk away from me. I have bought my own bed and my own wardrobe. I will not let my work define me anymore. I am going to take every weekend off from now on.




 

 

Comments

  1. Very interesting and insightful account of life as a young and new academic.
    The introspection is inspiring and somewhat uplifting even for someone well past the "sell-by date" for this kind of life-changing and courageous decision.

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  2. It's a courageous decision you have made and one that I'm sure you will always be grateful for having done.... intuition will always lead you along the path that serves you best.

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  3. I last had a job 36 years ago, and leaving the salaried world to be my own boss was the best thing I ever did. Coincidentally, I was influenced by a French movie, in which someone who runs his own business simply takes off work to enjoy one fine afternoon, because he can. Was it Claire's Knee? I should say that taking off an afternoon (or every weekend) has proved less common that I expected. The work calls. But because it is your own work, it calls more sweetly. Good luck to you. and great pleasure.

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    1. I love this reply. It's comments like these that give a lot of us start-ups hope. Thanks for sharing :-)

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  4. That's a brave decision; I don't think you will regret it; I made a similar decision, in a very different world, many decades ago, and I have not regretted it for one minute, though I did enjoy six great years teaching at the University of Messina in Sicily, English and English Literature, without having finished my PhD (It was to have been on the French novels of Samuel Beckett). Since then I have had a much richer and more adventurous life than I would have had, had I remained in academia. So, seize life with both hands, write, invent, create, enjoy!

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  5. I have managed to extend 3 postdoc positions into 20 years of continuous employment in academic research, producing some 80 publications in the process, all on soft money. Am I proud of this? Well, yes, and no. I will always be seen as 'the failed postdoc' by some, but then again, I know well that I would be unsuited to group leadership, and I have not had the burden of that task. After a while one comes to ignore the precariousness of the lifestyle (although I do not have a family to support). In some ways I consider myself lucky - I am doing what I enjoy. If I can scratch a living for another 5-10 years, and I see no real reason why not, retirement beckons. It is not the life I predicted (or wanted) at 25, but there it is. I also realise I'm incredibly lucky in being able to follow this path, although many others would not agree with me (and rightly so!)

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  6. Thanks very much for sharing. I left academia five years ago on a leave of absence. I got back just before the pandemic and I have been struggling since. Reading you was very inspiring. Also, as a Benjamin scholar with a particular interest in photography and film, I have been very much in touch with Bergson. Hope this book makes you happy. I'll make sure that I get a copy.

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  7. I am so happy to read about your decision! Too right on journal publishers being a pariac (did i spell that right...!) industry. I am so happy that you have created your own freedom, Dr.! Thank you for this inspiring beginning.

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  8. Props, Emily! Best of luck with all the things that come next for you. I'd be happy to work together on Bergson-related stuff too, if ever the chances arise. Take care!

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  9. Thanks for this - from a fellow Bergsonist and exhausted young researcher on the cusp of abandoning the academic ‘dream’.

    How about Daniel Radcliffe as young Bergson and Ralph Fiennes as Bergson the elder.

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  10. I feel for you, I have been through similar experience. It’s a depressing transition/phase. Good luck! Things will work out with time

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  11. Congratulations. Academia is being transformed and is probably going to die in the form we are used to.

    You might be interested in Dr. Mathew Stewart's approach to his subject, philosophy. He ended up financially independent and writing books on 18th Century philosophy. No teaching, no employment, he passed by the net of academic complicated corporate tangles which has come along. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/06/the-management-myth/304883/

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  12. Great post, Emily! I really enjoyed reading it and I love that you're living with your 2 closest friends and an excellent dog. That is the stuff of a good life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts around this decision.

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  13. lovely, impactful way to end- just as bergson himself would’ve done (i’ve noticed he’s good at endings??)

    also if you find a good actor for bergson lemme know because i maybe sorta have this idea for a film—

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  14. Hi Emily,

    We were both at Linda Hall Library at the same time a few years back and I was wondering what you were up to. While I am sad you are "leaving" I think you made the correct decision as things in academe have been broken systemically for at least 20 or maybe 30 years. Why people are even still training graduate students gives me a headache but that is a story for another day. I very much look forward to your book and think you will help Bergson find a wider audience outside of ivy covered seminar rooms. I wish you all the best luck and happiness in your future endeavors.

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  15. A lot of this is ringing true for me. I don't want to move timezones *again*, and I want a job. I'm on my third postdoc and I'm trying to disentangle myself from my title. Thank you for writing this. Life outside the Ivory Tower is still a scary idea to me, though. Academia is like an abusive relationship and I can't walk away.

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  16. Best wishes to you. You deserve better.

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  17. Thank you for the article, it'll help me to keep a level head and remember my priorities when going into my PhD.

    Ed Harris?? I also hope the series has qualitative episode lengths!!

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  18. Well, this is amazing....You know what
    I am in academia and this post is really encouraging for me.
    I do spend quite much time on work but I never make myself get hijacked by the competitive and laborious working days. Like I really love listening music, reading good books, and bird watching and I never miss that, no matter what....
    Anyway, so best wishes for your next adventures, I hope that we will see something novel and amazing because of this decision.

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  19. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Presumably academia is always going to be with you anyway in the continuous present, if Bergson is right about time, so all you are losing is having to deal with the hassle of it day to day.

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  20. I got a massive burn-out during the last year of my PhD. The whole experience left its marks, so that even when my supervisor was still willing and eager to support me so that I could finish it, my heart was no longer into it. After a pause of 5 years, last year I finally decided to officially end my PhD trajectory - I'm not a Dr. and never will be. But in the meantime, I got a permanent position teaching at a university of applied sciences, while I still see some my old friends and acquaintances from my PhD period hopping around from post-doc to post-doc and struggling to constantly apply for funding. I'm very proud of you that you decided to leave academia and instead focus on living a far more balanced and meaningful life. Academia can be a seductive, but very cruel mistress.

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  21. Thanks for writing this so cogently. I too got my phd in a topic that I continue to love. It took my mother being diagnosed with a rare metastatic cancer to make my decision to walk away from academia possible. As a grad student I had accepted every sacrifice. I put off, just as you did, things that make one's daily life joyful: a dog, my own furniture, a place where I could garden, family, a committed relationship, etc. I was told by mentors, directly or indirectly, that if I was to be successful I had to carry nothing, be ready to move across the country for temporary positions, do whatever it took. The year when I finished my dissertation, as I readied myself for my third year on the market, was the year, everyone told me, that things would certainly go my way. It was "my time." My mentors seemed confident of this. I was buoyed, but also increasingly conscious of other things that had been gnawing at me, quietly, for years. What if academia meant another 10 years of living out of a suitcase? What if it meant no dog, no family life, no time for getting my hands in the dirt? Did I really want a job in suburban Maryland, when my heart yearns for the American west?
    Within a week of submitting my dissertation, my mom got her diagnosis, and everything, in one nightmarish instant, snapped into clarity: I moved home. I have not regretted one second of my time since then, present here for the things that matter. Even had I somehow found a good job that year, I cannot imagine the strain of trying to find my footing as a new professor while also flying home regularly to be present for surgeries and doctor's appointments. Instead, I am here for those things but also for walks and for errands, for home repairs and for trips to the beach.
    Still, I am fairly sure that I will never entirely escape a sense of "what might have been." I feel my ghost alternate out there, preparing syllabi, stressing about publication, drunk on the chase for a good argument built from archival sources, celebrating the heady triumph of a finished article, with a community of fellow scholars. I do miss those things. I think I always will.

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  22. Every day as I dread going back to this thesis that I have been working on for years, I am faced with the question: what next? I know it is not academia. It has become: let me just get this Phd and move on...To where? I am not yet so sure.

    So reading this just shows me, I am normal. Thank you so much for sharing this...

    Rooting for you. May every good thing come your way.

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  23. Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like you made a good move.

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  24. Thank you, this was incredible. I related quite a bit to everything you said and feel a lot of relief in my decision to not pursue a PhD anymore, after two years of applying. I had already come to the decision, I think, but reading this felt like a sign. Thanks so much for sharing your courageous decision and experience.

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  25. I'm really glad I'm not the only one out there feeling the same. I live in Belgium too, and I'm concerned about the practical aspects of it ... Would you care to let me know how it impacts someone's life when they're not quite done with their PhD ?

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  26. Definitivamente, los que "optamos por salir del circulo" siempre tendremos un aura mucho más compleja, interesante y sexy que la de los que se quedaron dentro y siguieron las reglas hasta obtener su premio...o no, quizá tendremos sólo, lo que no es poco, historias más precarias y humanas que llevar en el zurrón, y con las que aburrir a hijos y nietos... XD

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  27. Thank you for this honnest and powerful piece. I am myself slowly shifting away from academia. The guilt, the precarious life style and the constant expectations made it too hard for me I guess. But reading your words helps me to carry on with my decision. Good luck and enjoy the French countryside!

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  28. Thank you for this honest and interesting read. I am an ECR who is wrestling with whether to stay in academia and a lot of what you have written really reflects how I am feeling. Thank you for putting all of that into words.

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  29. Hello Emily,
    Excellent article. In my country, Colombia, it is also difficult to get a full time job in the academy. You have to overcome a lot of filters, and please a lot of people. I wanted to ask you if I can translate it to spanish and upload it to my personal blog on literature and culture. This is the link: https://blogfebe.com/

    I would like to pay you, but the blog still hasn't made me as millionaire as Jeff Bezos. Until that happens, I can help share your experience :)

    P.D.: About the Bergson's issue, maybe Mark Rylance, but if it's with a short budget, Jairo Camargo.

    Greetings!

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  30. Thank youuuuu for writing this post! I'm finishing my PhD at the moment and having a lot of these thoughts.

    I have a small child and I just don't want to work all the time, even though I love many aspects of what I do. I wouldn't want to work all the time even if I didn't have a small child. My dad died aged 55. It was a gigantic loss but taught me the very important lesson that life's too short to work all the time, even if it is work that you love and is highly prestigious and you've put mountains of effort into being in a position to do so. And the degree of exploitation upon which the publishing industry rests is frankly unfathomable. I think if academics had more time they would revolt. Given the how lucrative it is for the publishers, the fact that academics uphold that whole system gratis is truly wild when you think about it.

    It's a difficult place to leave but I feel I might end up making a similar decision. It's so valuable to hear other similar experiences and decision making processes and rationale. And the bravery to go it alone which is something I dream of!

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    Well, if you're interested to join Illuminati, then you should email illuminatiempire084@gmail.com and Call/Message or Whatsapp +1 202 750 0111

    ReplyDelete

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