Great escapes

Breaking out of the academy may seem daunting, but scholars' skills transfer to many other jobs. Matthew Reisz talks to four who made it to the other side. But then there is the final move out of the world of work - plan well, recommend Caroline Lodge and Eileen Carnell

August 12, 2010

Life seems unlikely to get any easier in higher education over the next few years: contracting job markets, stagnant salaries and increased workloads are all more than distinct possibilities. Some academics may be forced out of higher education altogether; others may become increasingly disillusioned with a changing sector.

The question, of course, is how one responds to this. One can grin and bear it, and probably become ever more bitter, or one can actively plot one's escape. Here we tell the stories of a number of academics who have left the academy and built new lives for themselves. All have essentially happy endings and reveal how many academics possess transferable skills they can fall back on, should the need arise.

Much of it comes down to a question of self-definition. As long as one pigeonholes oneself as "an expert on eels' parasites" or something equally limiting, it may be hard to think how to excite a potential employer or recreate oneself as something quite different. Yet a slight shift of the kaleidoscope can often open a range of fresh possibilities.

But while this feature celebrates the positive achievements of academics who have remade themselves, it also raises questions about the frustrations that seem to be pushing some of the talent out. Where this involves people who are talented writers, as in a couple of case studies below, there seems to be something particularly dysfunctional about it, with the universities losing their champions of "impact", the very people who could take their work out to a broader public and enthuse potential students and paymasters.

Linguistics to linguini

Liz Hallum is a linguist who had an established career at the University of Reading. She was a research assistant on a number of projects, lectured in linguistics and cognitive science, and had created a master's course on the evolution of language - "all of which", she says, "I really loved".

Everything was on track, since "it had been proposed that I should become a course convener for an MA in cognitive linguistics and I was really excited to be moving on to an area where I felt I could contribute a lot. It was a golden opportunity."

But it was at just this moment that her plans ran aground, with the whole department closed down by the fallout from the research assessment exercise. Since family reasons made her want to stay in Reading, Hallum had been effectively pushed out of higher education.

At first, she decided to take a sideways step and move into further education as the director of a language programme for immigrants and asylum seekers at Thames Valley University. Although she loved the students, she discovered that she "really disliked the monitoring systems in place for recording attendance, work done, details of work to do. There was more writing about work than actually doing it."

Partly as relief from "inputting attendance data into an Excel spreadsheet all day", she recalls, she "started a catering business as a passion/hobby, because I felt my day job was unfulfilling and I liked the colours, flavours, sensual stimulation of working in the kitchen with a medium that really speaks to people's souls: food!"

She may have been pushed unwillingly out of the academy, but now it was the pull of an alternative life that began to cast its spell. After two years at Thames Valley, in the words of Monty Python, it was time for something completely different.

So how did she make this happen? Well, responds Hallum, "I met a guy! I fell in love with a chef who has a hotel in Devon, and when we decided that we wanted to share our lives together, the discussion of where to live and what to do really only lasted about two minutes. I was thrilled to leave a job that was not for me any more and get a kind of 'dream come true' - the chance to work in a restaurant as sous-chef. I think it really is a privilege to have had the chance 'at a certain age' to walk into a job that feels like it is what you really want to do."

Looking back on such a major life change, Hallum paints a fondly mixed picture of what she has left behind: "Linguists are great. Language teachers are great. You will never meet a better group of people than in the staff room of such a department. I guess they like to communicate!

"While cheffing is artistic, scientific, hard, fun and gives a great sense of achievement, I miss talking about syntax with other people, whether students or colleagues, who are fired up about language."

On the other hand, she was "really glad to see the back of 'theory fascism' - where people who adhere to one theoretical school abhor the followers of other schools. Do we need that in the academy? While mental jousting is sort of fun, it is also sad when you see clever people limited by an almost religious fervour about a theory."

Hallum remains adamant that academics who enjoy their work, or indeed those who have become disillusioned with their work, can find fulfilment in very different arenas, because "some things are remarkably similar: interaction with people, creativity, complex problem-solving. All the things that academics might love about their fields are fundamental parts of the job in many diverse fields, so it is likely that you could feel a similar buzz from other jobs. I certainly do."

A new (tongue and) groove

Jeremy Norton was also forced by factors beyond his control to go back to first principles when his academic career hit the buffers.

After graduating with a degree in zoology from Royal Holloway, University of London in 1999, he decided to continue with a PhD at Royal Holloway and the Natural History Museum. Unlike the many doctoral students who are required by their supervisors to add one small piece to the jigsaw of a much bigger project, he was lucky enough to be able to carry out basic research in a field he was passionate about, namely parasites in fish, particularly eels. Most of the work was out in the field, supported by molecular analysis in the laboratory.

Having completed his PhD, Norton was eager to pursue a scientific career. He took the first step on the ladder when a grant from the Leverhulme Trust allowed him to continue his research at Royal Holloway, along with a small teaching requirement, for a further two years. He remained fascinated by the work and was able to keep administrative duties and other distractions to a minimum. Although he came comparatively late - aged 25 - to higher education, he feels that "studying was the best thing I ever did. I have no regrets about the education or the research work that came out of it."

Nonetheless, in 2004 his grant came to an end and it was time to look for a lectureship or a postdoctoral research position. While taking on more of the care of his two small children, he was still committed to forging a life as a scientist and he actively sought ways of making it happen. Although unpaid, he kept analysing his data and writing it up, and pursued all the openings that came his way. Along with four published articles, he had material for three or four more that he hoped to complete.

Yet there were few jobs available and Norton did not relish the idea of embarking on a completely different research project in a coastal university far away from the family home in London. He remembers setting out for an interview in Cornwall and realising that he did not really want the job - which, unsurprisingly, he duly failed to be offered. Time went by and he saw the day looming when he would have been out of work for two years - at that point, he would have been an unemployed scientist for longer than he had been an employed one.

"I decided I had to head that off", he recalls, "and make a decision. I was thinking about owning a bookshop and then I found an unexpected mentor."

The family had plans to build a conservatory at the back of the house and they employed someone who was nearing the end of his career. He said he could do the job only if Norton was willing to take on some of the heavy work. He was delighted to do so, began to develop his skills and was told he had a natural aptitude and should consider making a career of it.

"I'd always been interested in that sort of work," he recalls, "but I thought I'd left it too late to do it seriously. To have a real craftsman tell me I had what it takes to succeed was a real confidence boost and gave me just the push I needed."

He decided to cut his losses, leave eels behind and reinvent himself as a joiner and cabinet-maker. He has recently moved his business, Norton Woodwork, into its own workshop with an assistant.

Apart from the fact that both phases of Norton's professional life have been fairly solitary, there may seem to be little overlap between the challenges and pleasures of building beautiful furniture and tramping through streams in all weathers. But Norton does see a link, in the sense that he has applied to his new job the kind of systematic approach to knowledge acquisition that academics bring to their literature reviews.

"Unlike many craftsmen," he says, "I have spent an awful lot of time reading books about making things from wood, doing my homework, watching videos about furniture late at night after the rest of the family are asleep. All that has been a very important part of the learning process."

There remain aspects of academic life that Norton still misses: "The intellectual freedom to follow an idea, to think obsessively about something and look for a way to add to knowledge in a field." Cabinet-making has brought with it "more uncertainty about earnings and the occasional tiresome client".

Yet he also has the right temperament to embrace the equally genuine upsides of his new career, such as being able to see the results of his work more quickly and, even when a commission forces him to work to a design he is not keen on, the sheer pleasure of making it.

On the move

For a more general picture, we can turn to Michael Clarke, assistant director of the Careers Group at the University of London.

In essence, of course, none of this is new, he says. "People have always found themselves unhappy in a chosen career path and have done something about it," he notes, "in higher education no less than other areas of work."

For individuals, changing careers can be highly stressful. But from the more detached perspective of an expert on career guidance, the labour market can look like a series of revolving doors.

"I know a couple of people who have left other careers and chosen to go into the academy," says Clarke. "I've worked with a variety of people who have begun a research career and have left to work in the private sector - that's been common for a very long time. I've met one or two more who have decided to move from clinical to academic medicine." But there is also another group, the people who "complain about life in the academy a great deal. I wouldn't say it's a trend, though (more of a seasonal one), and it varies from sector to sector."

In some cases, as Clarke suggests, a vague sense of dissatisfaction and bouts of whingeing can be cured by the advent of spring or the summer break. But whenever academics are serious about changing careers or are forced to do so, they would do well to turn the spotlight on themselves. "As with any student or established professional we'd see as consultants, academics need to look very hard at what it is they enjoy doing (or value doing - not necessarily the same thing), what motivates them and so on. This needs to be balanced against what they actually want to achieve," Clarke notes.

Although life changes can be very positive, Clarke warns that "academics really do need to think very carefully about whether they are swapping one set of problems for another".

For example, fluency as a writer, he adds, is not a panacea on its own. "While a very successful writer avoids much of the stress and difficulty that an academic writer is faced with, an averagely successful one probably faces many of the same challenges. Very few writers actually make a living out of writing, and an academic who loves writing but hates teaching may well find their bread and butter comes from creative-writing classes and acting as a tour guide on specialist holidays rather than book royalties. They'll need the same media and social-management skills that a recent article in Times Higher Education highlighted as being increasingly necessary in higher education - only more so."

The reference to writing brings us to another scenario. What can people do if they still want the very things that attracted them to an academic career in the first place, but that universities do not seem to be providing? One option is to try to come to terms with this, to accept that their ideals were always unrealistic fantasies, and to adapt to what is actually available. The alternative is to try to "live the dream", even if it means shutting the gates of the university behind them. We now turn to two women who did just that.

Free to write

Lizzie Collingham felt she was forced "to leave academia to become an academic". After completing a PhD at the University of Cambridge, with her doctoral thesis "criticised for reading like a book" (something she regarded as a compliment), she spent a year at the University of Warwick before returning to Cambridge as a research Fellow at Jesus College, followed by a brief research fellowship at the University of Canberra.

Although she had always wanted to be a writer, producing the kind of "popular but rigorous" books she imagined were common in the academy, Collingham soon realised she had signed up for a teaching job (with the prospect of lots of administration as her career progressed). This had many downsides.

"I found many of the students very depressing," she says, "so shy that classes were more like therapy sessions. And there was something ridiculous about survey courses covering the whole of human history, where I often knew nothing beforehand about some of the topics."

Yet the real problem was that she was "trying to do a good job, working very hard for very little money, taking about seven hours to prepare each of the 10 hours of teaching I was doing each week - and yet no one cared if you were doing it well or badly!"

Feeling she was "exploiting herself", Collingham decided to take control of her life, change track and become a professional writer. She is now the author of Imperial Bodies: The Physical Experience of the Raj, c.1800-1947 (2001), based on her PhD; Curry: A Biography (2005); and a forthcoming book on food during the Second World War. She still hopes academics will read and respect her books, and is delighted that Imperial Bodies has been adapted for courses in the US, while also appealing to a wider readership.

Although she tried living in the South of France, Collingham moved back to Cambridge for the libraries. She remains broadly glad she left the academy but she still misses college, colleagues and lunches. She would also like to attend seminars, but fears she would "feel like an imposter clinging on to a life I've left behind".

As a result, rather paradoxically, she now devotes her time to exactly the things she once imagined that academics did: "sitting in a library, having thoughts and writing them down". She also finds that her status has changed. Although no one was impressed at parties when she told them she was an academic, "there is a notion, which I don't quite understand, that writers are glamorous. You get picked up as a status symbol. People enjoy knowing a writer."

A prize choice

Frances Wilson, who used to work as a lecturer in English at the University of Reading, has a similar story to tell and was delighted to get an opportunity to talk about "the green fields beyond the stuffy groves".

Since she comes from a family of academics, she admits that she brought to the job an image of "Cambridge dons of the 1930s, a fantasy of a very different kind of life". There were still elements of that atmosphere when she joined the academy 15 years ago, but since then she has witnessed "the complete destruction of what it used to be". Wilson left when she realised that the life she had hoped to find within the academy could only be found outside.

It was not the students or the teaching, both of which Wilson enjoyed (although she feels that academics' efforts in these areas tend to be ignored and undervalued). She is still in touch with some of her former students, still teaches biography at the Faber Academy and, starting in the autumn, will lead an MA course at King's College London. The real problem for Wilson, however, was that "academia had become airless for me".

"The life of the mind is not in the academy. I seldom had an interesting conversation with colleagues, hated the lack of fellowship and the sense that you were only valued for being good in committees. I didn't go into academic life to be an administrator.

"There was lots of moaning about students and teaching hours, but no one ever discussed their research," she says. "There was even a feeling of animosity towards research - if people had time to do it, they weren't pulling their weight as colleagues. Some were jealous of any profile I had outside the university."

This is a reference to her books - Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers (1999) and The Courtesan's Revenge: The Life of Harriette Wilson, the Woman Who Blackmailed the King (2003) - which were critically acclaimed and sold well. They were also published by Faber and Faber, one of the most prestigious literary publishers in the world. But they did not fit the criteria of the RAE and Wilson felt that they got no more respect than if they had been self-published and stored unread in a friend's garage.

"I left Reading", Wilson explains now, "because I wanted to write more interesting books in more challenging ways. The RAE was the death knell for creativity."

Her most recent tome is The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008). Things came to a head when she was refused unpaid leave of absence to finish it, realised she had been unhappy for years and told her bosses she was quitting at the end of term. Since this was completely unplanned and she had a large mortgage, limited journalistic assignments and no book contract, it inevitably led to a pressurised lifestyle and some frantic scrambling around for work.

Nonetheless, Wilson's new life has turned out well. She would never have been able to take on her current project, a book about the Titanic, while employed in an English department, because "you have to write within terrifically narrow limits and in a very dreary style". And she would never have had time to sit on the judging panel for this year's Man Booker Prize.

There was also a certain irony in the fate of her book about Dorothy Wordsworth. Although it arose out of a course Wilson was teaching on women Romantics, she deliberately decided to write it in a non-academic style, without footnotes and in a distinctively personal tone of voice. She was therefore surprised, as well as delighted, when it was a co-winner of the British Academy's 2009 Rose Mary Crawshay Prize for English literature.

There is surely something worrying in the fact that the British academy managed to squeeze out a writer who went on to win an award from the British Academy.


Some academics fear that retiring will be like "walking off a cliff" or "entering a void" as they leave a career that defines their identity. They fear losing status, an active purposeful life, contributing to the greater good, social contacts, travel, the structure of working life and financial security. Others regard retiring as timely and plan a purposeful transition to the next stage of life. Many feel ambivalent about it.

Our work with people approaching retirement emphasises the contribution of reflection and preparation to a more positive view of retirement. The book we edited, Retiring Lives, features such reflections from academics - professors, readers and lecturers at the Institute of Education, University of London - and we draw on these reflections here. We also run workshops for retiring university staff, act as workplace coaches and have been members of a support group for retiring women for five years.

Some academics make their preparations and then they are ready for the transition. Some welcome the relief from the pressures of the academy - writing without enough time or support, poor management, the constraints of academic culture and engaging with financial cuts. For some, the desire or need to pursue other interests becomes compelling and they leave outright, for example to cope with ill health, to travel or to look after aged relatives.

It is not surprising that decisions about retiring can be difficult. For many university employees, so much of how they experience their identity is bound up in work. For that reason, and recognising the satisfaction that comes from work, some choose to go gradually.

For example, one of the academics profiled in our book, Ashley Kent, was ready to go. Another, Marianne Coleman, says that her job was worthwhile, interesting and crucial to her identity, so it seemed perverse to give it up; for her, the best route into retirement was going part-time. Alex Moore was keen to find the right balance of continuing some research as well as writing a novel, free from the burdens of bureaucracy. It can take several years to work out the right amount of activity, such as examining, supervising or preparing keynotes.

Many university staff want to continue to contribute to society and make their expertise and wisdom available to others, including as a resource to their own university. Only one academic featured in Retiring Lives made a clean break.

The academics in our book may be more fortunate than those who retire in the future, as they have had a degree of choice. In the years to come, while there may be more flexibility, it is likely that the pensionable age will rise and pension benefits will fall.

Although many people look forward to a more restful time, others embrace new occupations and some do both. The fantasies that sustain people throughout their working lives may now become realities, such as Moore's novel. However, stepping into the dream life may not be as easy as they imagined.

Alison Kirton is fulfilling a long-held ambition by living in France. But it was not an easy journey and she had a "frightening and lonely" first year. Initially, a new life can be difficult whatever people decide to do, however welcome.

As some retirees develop new identities, other opportunities are sought. Skills developed in university work are applied to new projects and challenges: writing, teaching English or becoming mentors, for example. Some academics choose to use their wisdom and experience in political ways and continue to make a contribution to society at the local, regional or national level. Many work as volunteers at home or overseas.

Being school governors or working on advisory committees also fulfils an important role and maintains contact with educational issues, as Diana Leonard finds. Eileen Carnell works as a Samaritan volunteer and Kirton is becoming involved in politics in her new community. Anne Gold and Caroline Lodge find meaning and purpose in grandparenting. There is often an underlying desire to do things well, to be involved in worthwhile causes and to remain active.

The retirees who contributed to the book write about the quality of their lives being improved by travel, poetry, art, painting, ballet, singing and other creative activities. Jennifer Evans values most highly the skills that "bring us closer to most of humanity - growing and preparing food, looking after children, nurturing our families and living well in our communities".

Social dimension

When employed, many people rely on work to make an important contribution to their social life. Missing work friends was top of the list of fears for older people approaching retirement in a survey for the Department for Work and Pensions in 2008.

We believe that a healthy social life requires three communities or networks to which you are strongly connected. Leaving work can mean the loss of one of these communities. Academics who enjoyed the social life of the workplace made plans to continue these connections or to develop substitutes for the companionship they had found at their institution.

It is often a slow process to build new friendships, something frequently achieved through shared interests. Carnell continues meeting with workplace friends and is surprised by the strength of her new social contacts through volunteering. One colleague plans to visit every person on his Christmas card list by the end of his second year of retirement. Others have found new communities through photography, music, sewing, acquiring dogs, a reading group and walking.

Family and friends often develop expectations about what someone else's retirement will mean for them, which may produce tensions. Perhaps they assume that the retiree will become more available for household tasks, joint activities and errands: the "could you just ..." syndrome - "could you just phone the internet company, fetch the dry cleaning, post my parcels" and so on.

Within the closest relationships, retirement can mean mutual support for some new experiences, such as loss of status. But partners may feel out of step if one retires before the other, or frustrated if more time is spent together than is comfortable. Partners may become jealous of the retiree's free time or feel excluded from new parts of their life. Some have found sharing space tricky and resolved this by building garden rooms or extending the kitchen. Our contributors found that it is wise to engage in frequent and open discussions, to keep some time for oneself and to negotiate joint activities.

Fitness and finances

Health and wellbeing are closely connected, and while good health may not be in our control, many of the writers found that they enjoyed spending some of the time that became available to them in re-engaging with physical activity or taking up new ones: Pilates, visiting the gym, walking holidays or tennis, for example.

Wellbeing depends in part on connecting with the lives of others through shared activities, volunteering, culture, physical activities, adventures or holidays. In our retiring group we often refer to a recipe for a good day: some exercise, a good laugh and achieving something.

Anxiety and ignorance about pensions is widespread among the over-fifties, including academics. Those who took the time to get information from pension websites and advice from financial advisers well in advance of any decision about a retirement date were able to put their finances in order. As one retiree was reminded: "This is your rainy day."

Our group celebrates the advantages of the many financial reductions available to the over-sixties: travel passes, health benefits such as free prescriptions and eye tests, and free cultural activities. We are aware that we are particularly fortunate to receive these and future retirees may have to wait longer for such benefits, or be denied them altogether.

University staff are provided with a great deal of support at induction, but are frequently neglected when they approach retirement. Any time from one's fifties onwards, talking with other people, reflecting, researching and taking action can help smooth the transition from a life defined by academic work to a rich retirement, full of opportunities and possibilities.

Pre-retirement courses, seminars and workshops, coaching and mentoring, support groups, specific advice and even reflection through writing are all valued by the contributors to our book. These activities enable exploration, monitoring, inspiration, access to alternative views, strategies and networks, and can create the basis of a supportive network for further transitions.

Our group of eight retiring women has been meeting for more than five years. We have gained support, enthusiasm, friendship, opportunities for reflection and confidence from our regular meetings. Many people have asked to join us. We recommend that they set up their own groups. Our group will continue to support us through our next transitions and on towards old age.

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