What happens when academics quit? Good things, it turns out

Leaving academia can be a wrench, but it can also open up new opportunities to enjoy your discipline, says Greta Perel

March 16, 2018
Exit sign

Apparently, dreams that die are depressing things.

They fester, wilt or explode. As a dream finally crumbles and blows away in the wind, you’re left to trudge towards the inevitable day when you die alone, killed by your own broken heart.

But when the dream that dies is of an academic career, does it really end so badly? Sure, the canon of “quit lit” – the wrenching, achingly emotional essays of those who leave academia – can give a person the impression that it really is as awful as it seems.

And believe me, it is awful. It’s awful to go through an exit from academia – but why is the focus always on just the tears, depression and pain? That’s like talking about the birth of a baby by rehashing only untold hours of unspeakable labour. Even all that pain can pale in comparison to the baby who shows up at the end.

So what does happen when an academic dream dies? And can it ever be a good thing? Surprisingly, yes – for three reasons.

Your relationship to your research can change for the better

Academics are passionate – they fall in love with dead authors, body parts, cultures, social movements, bad behaviours, germs and heavenly bodies. But leaving academia means that your love will for ever remain unrequited, right?

Well…not exactly. True, your next career probably won’t pay you to study 19th-century Bohemian poetry. But leaving also liberates your passion – you get to love what you love in a way that just isn’t sustainable in the ivory tower.

You can have a delicious pile of books on your bedside table that demands nothing but slow, savoured enjoyment (my personal favourite).

Start a science-centric book club? Sure! You can create a podcast or blog that draws in like-minded lovers – whether it’s successful or not, who cares as long as you enjoy it? You can give talks at your local library. Inevitably, you’ll find your audience there much more enthusiastic than your average peer review.

If you really want, give a popular press book a shot. All have a lot to offer over the arduous publishing process of the academic “conversation” (if it can be called that at all). Create real-time conversations about your research, and find out how wonderful it feels to share your love.

You discover that you’re much more capable than you were led to believe

Those who leave academia, myself included, usually find that it’s pretty miserable in those first few weeks and months after an exit. If I’m not going to do what I’ve been doing for years, the thinking goes, what am I going to do? The ensuing panic will crumple you into a mass of jelly that feeds exclusively on nerve pills and wine.

Gradually, however, the shock wears off. You rediscover your spine and connect with new people, who bring new opportunities with them. People ask about your education, and you start to talk about what you’ve done. Then they say something like, “Hmm…it sounds like you’d be pretty good at ____. Ever thought about it?”

You start saying “yes”. You put that good old nose to the grindstone and try some things out. Some you like, some you hate, and some you love – but no matter what, you suddenly realise that you are doing a lot more than what you did in academia. In fact, you’re doing things that you never imagined you could do. And yet, here you are, getting paid for it and everything!

You have room for new dreams

Academia is a slow place – change is glacial, time is measured in semesters, and “conversations” happen in quarterly journal issues. To exist in this world means clinging to goals, dreams and projects for incredible lengths of time. Often, it means forgoing your other passions, hobbies and yearnings.

Leaving, though, means that you get to experience one of the biggest, bravest questions of all: “If you were to start over, what would you do?”

Usually, what you discover is that as you let go of academia, you invite new dreams to come into your life. It’s not unlike what happens when you purge a house. Sure, it’s work to empty a room crowded with furniture and years of clutter – we grudgingly, tearfully let go of what was. But when it’s done, you open the windows and take in a lungful of fresh air. The space echoes with sound.

You’ve created a new room – one that will inevitably change, but you’re the one who gets to decide what that change will be.

So here’s to dead dreams of academia – and, more importantly, the new ones that come along.

Greta Perel graduated as an unemployed PhD from the University of Kansas in 2012 and now owns a consulting practice within the marketing and advertising industry. She also works to support alt-ac transitions at www.realworldphd.com.

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