Academics need to get better at knowing when to move on

High levels of personal optimism block decisions to depart a dysfunctional workplace or halt a failing project, say Alexander Clark and Bailey Sousa

November 24, 2021
Cable cars run past the 'Quantum Cloud' sculpture to illustrate Academics need to get better at knowing when to move on
Source: Getty

New things are so very alluring to academics. From starting new projects and collaborations to trying out new teaching methods and research approaches, academics’ energy and spirits are invariably raised by beginnings. What, though, of endings – those situations when you have to give something up in order to get on?

Endings are now in vogue: the pandemic has led up to 40 per cent of workers in some countries to join the so-called Great Resignation, planning to change jobs over the next six months. This is in some ways rather surprising. As clinical psychologist Henry Cloud set out in his 2011 book Necessary Endings, humans do anything but face the need for endings. Typically, we reason that some day, somehow, situations, roles, people or prospects will get better.

Endings for academics can come in many different forms: departing a dysfunctional workplace or a job that’s dragging you down; halting a failing project; walking away from a difficult collaboration; withdrawing from a PhD programme; leaving academia altogether. But we are particularly bad at making such decisions on account of our high levels of personal optimism. Faith in the future otherwise serves our coping well, but when beguiling hope trumps acceptance of brute realities, it leads to bad decisions – or, more likely, to no decisions – and damages our careers, health and happiness. We do anything but the ending.

The considerable personal and practical efforts academics make to establish and grow their careers create further jeopardies because after such investments, humans are hard-wired cognitively to stay the course. Loss aversion bias leads us to favour holding on to what we have in our current position over acquiring possibly greater gains following a change.

This is compounded by the endowment effect, which leads us to overestimate the value of our current position and downplay the potential gains of an ending. In a harsh, excessively critical sector centred on reputation, it is unsurprising that countless academics who are grievously unhappy where they are nevertheless remain too wary to move.

Ending things well as an academic inevitably involves personal discomfort because it involves high levels of uncertainty. Many of us find this difficult to live through, let alone lean into. What might I be giving up personally and professionally? What if it all goes wrong? Procrastination and avoidance become irresistible. What harm is there in putting off changes until next year?

Yet Cloud reassures us that life is all about seasons. Endings should have as much place in our personal and professional trajectories as beginnings. And he emphasises the importance of accepting that people or situations aren’t, after all, going to suddenly change or improve.

How can you know when an ending is needed? The pros and cons of your current and future situations are important, but emotions hold vital clues that are usually more telling than supposed facts. Have a sinking feeling on Monday morning, when once you had effortless energy? Live every weekday for the weekend? Coasting or feeling just plain lost? All are common signs of the need to end. To that list we might add fearing more what will happen when the pandemic is over than when you were in the thick of it, on your own at home.

So take time to reflect and check in with your emotions. Cloud reminds us that good endings require impeccable clarity of personal values – and alignment of these values with decisive action. Set a solid foundation: maintain good health habits to foster perspicacity and strength of resolve. Execute the practicalities. Set a specific timeline for your decision whether to end something. Begin with the end in mind. Plan the specific steps that the ending will entail. Recognise the accomplishment of your ending and celebrate it.

As Longfellow said, “great is the art of the beginning, but greater is the art of the ending”. The nature of academia and the high emotional and personal stakes invested in it make it particularly hard for academics to master that art. But they can and should work at it.

Being more evidence-based in career decisions can help. For example, awareness of how cognitive biases bend your own judgements can help you better compare your current known situation to a less certain but potentially more positive alternative. A career coach or counsellor can provide a sounding board to guard against overly optimistic thinking about your current state and can also help you assess more objectively what you really need to feel better, find fulfilment and make your highest contribution.

As with all arts, though, there are no hard and fast rules about how endings should be done. They are just like any other aspects of an academic career: they should ultimately be done in your own way – irrespective of what you expect others to think.

Alexander M. Clark is dean of the Faculty of Health Disciplines at Athabasca University, Canada. Bailey J. Sousa is the secretariat lead for the Minister’s Advisory Council on Higher Education and Skills, in the government of Alberta. She is on secondment from the University of Alberta.

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Reader's comments (1)

I cannot relate to this article at all, either from a personal or a broader perspective. One of the main problems in moving is finance - I spent most of my career permanently overdrawn and struggling to make ends meet. This is not conducive to thinking about much more than survival. However, I moved jobs several times without hesitation to better my situation. Moreover, I have not seen many colleagues stay put when they should go. Perhaps my situation is not typical but there seem to be plenty of ambitious academics who move without hesitation.