Leaving academia is a long, emotional process but I’m glad I did it

The sense of purpose and connection that a busy academic life confers is not easily replaced. You may cry, says Helen Lees

August 3, 2022
Person rubbing out on a black board, image ripped in half to illustrate Leaving is a long, emotional affair, but I’m glad I quit academia
Source: istock montage

When I quit academia four years ago, I thought I was just leaving a job. I had concluded, as increasing numbers of UK academics are doing, that universities were no longer places where I could flourish. The workloads and levels of surveillance were too much. I had to get out.

I knew I would need to find a new way of making money. I knew I would have to make new friends and connections. But no one told me that leaving academia would involve a long existential journey, involving painful, layer-by-layer emotional divestment from my former identity.

This is year four and, by now, it’s going well. I moved to Tuscany, where I experience joy and laughter, while pursuing my scholarly interests as before. Former academic colleagues tell me in astonishing quantities that they want to quit, too. They are actively planning for this, and I have noticed the proliferation of “outside academia” Facebook groups, social media hashtags and other sources of advice. Covid has clearly allowed many people to rethink what matters and how they can best attend to it.

But they all, like I did, seemingly think leaving will be a breeze. Sadly, my latest book project reveals that I am far from the only one who felt the ache of separation once the euphoria over freedom from unending emails wore off.

I have been asking colleagues outside universities to share their feelings of being without academia. And it turns out that transitioning from being an academic to being an independent scholar with other interests, work and activities is almost universally challenging. Emotions such as grief and status anxiety arise unexpectedly. Stress levels can soar. You may cry. You may start checking your Gmail inbox every 10 minutes to see what “action” there is. There will be no emails.

Personally, I felt lost, even unhinged. The sense of purpose and connection that a busy academic life confers is not easily replaced. Even now, I still find it challenging to look out the window and breathe deeply and slowly. The sweet gifting to oneself of doing nothing is not a simple undertaking. But I’m getting there. I am no longer in a relationship with the achievement police. Outside the panopticon that I both loathed and, it turns out, adored, I am free to be me.

But not all detox cases achieve my level of relative success – which involved a therapist’s help for the first two years. Some people need ongoing professional help. One person I interviewed did a PhD at a prestigious university in a marginalised academic discipline with few departments and even fewer posts. More than 10 years after writing up, she fantasises about professors dying because, for her, they have her place. Her life, she feels, is “not what it could have been”, and she now sees a therapist to help with her persistent depression.

Another independent scholar works in a job centre but still sometimes moves in academic circles. However, she regards many professional researchers as closed-minded know-alls despite their minor face-to-face exposure to the problems they study. It annoys her.

A third interviewee recently resigned from his prestigious tenure-track post and is only just starting to build another life, moving towards self-sufficiency and a different pace. His relief at stepping off the academic treadmill is palpable, but I can also tell that his sense of identity still has a foot in his old department. Removing it won’t be easy. Someone whose job is to help PhD graduates find successful work beyond academia tells me that all their clients deal with grief in some form.

When I felt excluded, lost to my big ambitions of academic fame and (ahem) fortune, I did a bit of haptic sewing, weaving or gardening. I actively engaged in enjoyable forms of work and living. The key has been shifting my centre to the “real world”. New things have become more precious to attend to than academic dialogue.

How I interact is loosening up, too, becoming less formal and academically stylised and more relaxed and friendly: less know-it-all and more curious and wondering. These days, I listen to people’s souls as well as to their ideas.

I stay in touch with many former colleagues, and I’m occasionally asked to write a chapter or give a talk. I do so with pleasure for friends, but there’s no longer any pay supporting such interaction, so it’s a new calculation.

I notice that some of my former research and original contribution is being appropriated by others – and by no means my betters. Initially, I was annoyed that being outside academia meant that I was being allowed to slip into obscurity like this, but now I don’t really care.

The mean games, microaggressions and grudges of academia’s ultra-competitive milieu are no longer me or my world. I’m finally able to have a warm, generous heart. I feel for those who do not or cannot feel this way. May we all flourish!

Helen E. Lees is author of Playing the University Game – The Art of University-Based Self-Education, to be published by Bloomsbury in August. She is working on a follow-up, provisionally titled Not Playing the University Game: Living Well and Flourishing as an Academic Outside Universities. She is a visiting research fellow at York St John University.


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Reader's comments (8)

Not all academics can leave academia. It is very difficult to continue to be an independent scholar if your research involves basic science and need for laboratory facilities. The solution is not to flee and allow the disintegration of academic rigour to continue but to tackle it head on and reclaim academic institutions for academics. This will mean standing up to the mediocrity that has crept in over the years.
It sounds a little like leaving the Armed Forces, but also like changing professions at the same time.
Phew - what tosh! Let me know when academics are so desperate to escape the alleged ‘panopticon’ horrors of modern wickedly neoliberal academic life by taking up truly exhausting and underpaid jobs as airport baggage handlers or in Amazon distribution sheds, or are retraining as much-needed nurses or HGV drivers - then I might be able to summon up some sympathy for the donnish proles!
Not to mention the baying online mobs of militants, on hair-trigger alert for anything that could start a career-ending heretic hunt.................
Its mawkishness aside, the article is right that university life has deteriorated over the past twenty years, and not just for professors, but students, as well. And the article points to a main source of the deterioration: administrative oversight and control. Universities are now much more rule-bound than they were, from what professors must include in their syllabi to the safe-and-respectful campus policies that restrict freedom of expression and encourage people to file complaints. Administrative bloat is bad enough, but when it consists of offices and officers overseeing equity, diversity and inclusion, it's oppressive. It won't get better, either. As the professors who enjoy academic anarchy and academic freedom, and who enjoy study for the sake of study, leave or retire, they're replaced by professors who clamour for even more rules and structures and who teach for the sake of shaping students into the correct attitudes and values.
'Moving to Tuscany' does not sound too hard - except you will consistently bump into professors from LSE [in particular] and other universities visiting their holiday villas. The best resistance to academic neoliberalism is to keep in the system but ignore its metrics and the management. This is what I have done. Be a good citizen, prioritise students and casual employees, write what you like, and ignore 'grant capture' if you don't need those.
That's what I've done also, essentially, as a survival technique.
Brilliant. Inspires me to find myself again. I got sucked into something disgusting in wanting to be an academic. And yes I believe getting out of that cult body, heart, mind, soul won't be a piece of cake. A brave article indeed.