Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Please help. How do I know the difference between when it’s time to walk away from the academy and when I should fight harder to stay.
- The Disenchanted
When I made the decision to leave academia, I was quite lucky because it was during the time that I was grieving my mother’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm. I say that I was lucky because my mom's death made my discomfort around my work much much easier for me to see. I was in so much pain from losing the person who knew me best in the world that the fact that my job was also making me miserable was simple. Almost too easy.
My mother’s death could not be changed, but my job could. So I tried a lot of things to see if I could make my job better and when none of it worked, I left.
Others who have had similar moments spark their end from academia but it certainly doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic. Perhaps they noticed a breakdown in their mental health, or a slow deterioration in the things they used to love doing. Maybe they found themselves unable to pay their bills for the third consecutive month in a row or noticed their hair falling out from stress, or that their rage at students’ tardy papers was getting out of hand. And some folks have really wonderful things happen like the birth of a child or falling in love with someone who lives in another state, or being offered a dream job.
Whatever sparks the question you’re asking is less important than the fact that you’re the only one who can actually answer the question.
As you’ll see from all the wise responses from Athenas that follow, each of us recognizes that moment and wants you to keep asking yourself these questions. Because we know that being honest with ourselves has led us to where we are. My advice as you’re reading these responses is to let the questions get under your skin. These questions are worth living into.
Beth Duckles, @bduckles, Founder of the Athenas Post Academic Community
So much has been written about the academy, how it is an unhealthy environment for students and faculty alike. I want to first acknowledge the difficulty of your position. As academics, we are often taught a narrow definition of what ‘success’ looks like. We are taught to be defined by our achievements and accomplishments, and are constantly pushing ourselves to meet some definition of “good enough”. Your work, your achievements and your value is not defined by where they happen. I think for many academics (recovering and current) regardless of how fulfilling our work may be, if it doesn’t come with the title of professor and tenure it doesn’t have the same shine. I say this because many of us put up with things we just should not in the pursuit of this specific definition of success. The systemic failures of the academy are not ours to absorb as individuals. No amount of hard work, or hours worked can overcome toxic work environments, abuses of power, or financial precarity. You know when you are doing your best work, and when you are phoning it in. There is a difference between a work environment that is challenging and one that is degrading. If you are truly not showing up for yourself and others in your work, then that is your answer, but I would be willing to be that anyone introspective enough to ask this question is putting in the work.
As to how to know when it is time to leave, I would ask you to think about both what you are walking away from, and what you are fighting for. Is it possible to do the work you want to outside of the academy? It is possible that the academic environment you are in isn’t the right fit for you? What are you sacrificing by staying, and what you would miss by leaving? Can you afford to leave? What will it cost you to stay? A litany of questions, but necessary ones to help you figure out which choice makes the most sense for you. Your question also sets up a dichotomy that may not exist in reality. Leaving the academy now, doesn’t mean you will never be able to return. Nor does staying mean you have to commit your life. I would also wager that whatever has brought you to this point is not a momentary feeling or an impulsive notion. There just may not be anything in the academy properly captivates you Disenchanted, and that is 100% valid and acceptable. There is no “correct” choice, there is what makes sense for you right now (financially, intellectually, personally, professionally, etc) which is to say it does not have to be logical, but if you’ve gotten to this point it is a choice you have to make with intention and not just fall into. And the choice you make now may be different from a choice you make 5 years from now. Ask yourself difficult questions and demand complete honesty.
Alexis Cooke @DrAlexisCooke
I think this needs a little unpacking (what a terribly academic thing to say!). This is a highly personal decision and it’s difficult to give advice without knowing more about your context. However, there are a few general things to think about that I think can help:
-What are your reasons for wanting to stay? I would urge you to think deeply about what it is that makes you want to fight and stay and try to differentiate between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, “good” and “bad” reasons. Do you want to stay because you’ve been doing this for so long and it would be a waste to throw it all away? (“bad” reason) Do you want to stay because you’re worried about your career prospects and what people might think? (extrinsic motivation) Do you want to stay because you truly, deeply love your work, writing, teaching, and research? (intrinsic motivation and a “good” reason) I think it is good to list your reasons for wanting to fight and stay and think solely about the motivation underlying them. I say this because fighting that is inspired by extrinsic motivation will burn you out, whereas fighting powered by intrinsic motivation means that you will probably last much longer (and still it is OK to walk away even then! It just means that the time when you do might be a little more ahead in the future).
-If you establish that you want to stay because of extrinsic motivation and “bad” reasons, I advise you to start looking into leaving, if you can afford to do so given your circumstances. Life is simply too short to burn out doing something that does not intrinsically motivate you! Even if you do land The Job, you will burn out eventually. But if you establish that you are deeply, intrinsically motivated to stay, I think it’s time to look at some other aspects: Have you already had several job interviews and do you have a number of publications that means that you may be relatively close to getting a permanent job? Are you willing to move to where the jobs are and do your circumstances permit you to do so? Can you put up with all the bullshit that exists in academia for the rest of your career? Do you like teaching? Can you perhaps set a limit on the time that you keep on fighting?
-Again, because I don’t know your personal circumstances, I can’t really advise on more than general things. Perhaps it’s an idea to talk to a career coach (Check out some links on the Resources page)
Good reader, allow me to ask a question of you: what is compelling you to stay? I ask for two reasons; one, to remind you that you are in control. You have the power to make this choice. Second, because in order to truly answer your own question, and it’s a question only you can answer, it will be useful to assess exactly why you are where you are, in a career that is making you ask this question in the first place.So--what are the factors in your decision?
Is this an issue with tenure (or lack thereof)? If you are an adjunct, struggling to find a tenure-track job and working for much less than you deserve both financially and emotionally, I would have a hard time suggesting you remain under any circumstances. There are so many, many deserving people who hold out, year after year, for that elusive tenure-track prize. Having walked away from the ultimate “prize”—full professor at a Research 1 university--I’m here to tell you that winning it won’t necessarily make you happy. If you are a lecturer with a decent salary and healthcare but feel unstable because you aren’t tenured, you may want to re-evaluate; you should keep in mind, however, that outside of academe with the exception of some school systems, no one really has tenure. Career stability is often elusive. That doesn’t make your situation fair, given the traditional structure of the academy; but do remember that when you leave, it might still not be for a “lifetime” position.
Is this a departmental/university problem? Are you asked to take on too much for little to no compensation? Are there battles in your department? Departmental politics can make us miserable. A hostile environment, for whatever reason, can absolutely affect our mental and physical health. If you are untenured, this situation can feel especially overwhelming. We know that it’s incredibly difficult to land other positions, and it becomes even harder after tenure. If you are overwhelmed by unpaid service responsibilities, can you pull back a bit and still fulfill your obligations? Can you live with the internal strife, no matter its cause, by disengaging completely when you are away from campus? If the answers are no, perhaps a change may do you good.
Maybe you are struggling with a life choice. Does your partner/family live far away? Are you dealing with salary compression that will never resolve itself? Are you making personal sacrifices to stay in your field? Only you can decide what is worth it. Allow me to indulge in sharing my personal story; when I was a young junior faculty member, I scrapped and published my way to a research-1 institution. I liked my department and my students. Ultimately, however, as part of a dual academic couple, I commuted eight hours a week and lived apart from my family to maintain my “prestigious job.” When did I decide it wasn’t worth it? When I felt like I could no longer be a good mom, a good scholar, and a good teacher. The commuting life made me miserable, and I felt like a liminal figure in two spaces, never fully present in either community. I walked away and haven’t looked back. And I don’t regret my decision for a minute.
I want to support you in your willingness to ask the question. By asking, you are on your way to recognizing a few key elements that will help you make your decision either way. First, universities are institutions. Institutions do not love us back. Professors, like clergy and a few other notable professions, are “lifestyle jobs.” We live and breathe our work. We care deeply about our students. We are recognized at our conferences by the work that we do. But here’s the rub. You can leave. There will be a line of people waiting to take your place. That’s OK, if what you do fulfills you. If it does not, reconsider what’s making your stay. Second, academe is a very small universe, one that often over exaggerates its own importance. I promise you that in the year since I left, very few people have asked or cared about the books I wrote, the position I held, or the work I did. Often we get so caught up in the academy that we wind up miserable and thinking there’s no other way to live. And it’s time we all do a reality check.. Sometimes, that can give us the clarity to know whether we are wanting to leave for the right reasons.
Also, I want to honor the financial value of your position. Please do a personal financial review. I was extremely privileged to be married to a business professor who could support my decision to walk away. I make money now, and in fact, more than I thought I would, both as a yoga teacher and a consultant on projects that I earned as a result of my work in the academy. But if you are leaving a stable financial situation, make sure you have a plan ready to implement immediately upon your departure.
Finally, remember your job is just a job. It is not who you are. We can get caught up in the identities built over long years studying in graduate school, pursuing our research, and thinking there was only one way to be successful. But our success is defined by so much more than our titles. And ultimately, your success is in your ability to find contentment and fulfillment in your life. It’s not in what we do. It’s in how we live. Remember--you DO have the power to walk away. Many of us have done so and lived to tell the tale. Claim your power; own your final decision, and know that whether you decide to stick it out or walk away, you did it on your own terms.
Megan Shockley, Yoga for all People
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