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.