Posts Tagged ‘grad school’


11 things you need to know about leaving academia

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

I’ve been working on the Leaving Academia project, on and off, for three years now. And there are 11 things that I absolutely know are true about leaving academia. They are:

1. You can do it. You can leave academia and survive. You can leave academia and THRIVE, in fact.

2. It is incredibly scary. Figuring out what to do in your post-academic life can feel like one giant question mark pressing down on you with a weight similar to that of writing a dissertation; with enough time, though, and enough self-reflection, you will figure out what you want to do.

3. Your whole life won’t come tumbling down into shambles if you leave academia.

4. You have tons of options for your post-academic career (even though it may not feel that way), many of which have nothing to do with your area of study, but have everything to do with your core skills (e.g. project management, policy analysis, consulting, organizing).

5. You are not crazy if you want to have a satisfying job in a city you actually like and to have your partner and family living with you and to live near your friends.

6. You might not switch immediately into your dream job right away but you will get to your dream job a hell of a lot more quickly if you bail from academia now rather than never (in fact, in my case, I didn’t want to jump into a challenging dream job; first, I wanted to just take an intellectual break with an easy job that had solid pay and fab benefits). It might take a few years for you to select the organization that you really care about and climb your way into the job of your dreams. However, just because you might start out closer to the bottom than you would like isn’t reason enough to stay in a career stream that might not ever offer you any satisfaction at all.

7. If academia WAS your dream job but you’re tired of living in the adjuncting/contract teaching trenches, there are other options for you to use your passion for teaching/learning, your communications skills, your love of reading and your skills at writing and researching. Remember, people — this is the knowledge and information economy we are living in. A.B.D.’s and Ph.D.’s hold enormous currency in this era.

8. One really big secret: most people outside higher ed don’t give a shit if you leave academia, so don’t bother feeling guilt about leaving. Sure, some people like your grad supervisor or your faculty chair might be disappointed. But are you really going to make yourself responsible for their feelings, while totally denying yours? Come on. Leave that parent-child dynamic back in your family of origin where it belongs.

9. One other really big secret: a lot of people will actually be jealous of you if you leave academia. Sure, their jealousy might come out in the guise of contempt and guilt-making (oooh, if only I could name names and point fingers, here!). But just like the boy who is cruel to the girl he has a crush on, those unhappy people who try to rain on your bold career change have their own problems to sort out. Don’t make their problem your problem.

10. I also want to challenge the idea that once you leave academia, you can never go back. I have heard of a handful of examples of people returning to academia, either decades later as they channel their post-academic professional successes into academic work or as they return simply as adjunct/contract faculty. The sands of academia are shifting and my hunch is that the re-formulation of universities into job farms and knowledge-provision centers, and with the increase of private money (oops, I mean “partnerships”) into universities, that the door does not slam shut as firmly as it used to.

11. The other really, really big secret: You deserve better than the life you may be having and the treatment you may be getting in your grad school career. Grad school and adjunct teaching can suck out your soul; being on the tenure track can be fraught with fear as you wonder if this is what you really want to do, and if you want to do it in the city you’ve ended up in. You don’t have to put up with it any more. You have all the skills and resources you need to plan out a realistic, do-able career change. Just look at some of the people who have done just that: Buffy Sainte-Marie (Ph.D. Fine Art, University of Masschusetts), Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales (A.B.D. Finance, University of Alabama), Bust magazine founder Debbie Stoller (Ph.D. English, Yale), and the hottest one of all: the incredible Miuccia Prada has a Ph.D. in political science. Miuccia Prada! If that doesn’t serve as inspiration for becoming satisfied and successful in life beyond academe, I don’t know what does.

Is there anything I’ve missed? What would you like to add to this list?


Why You Should Quit Grad School During The Recession​

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in Reflection

Yesterday I asked, “Should you quit grad school during the recession?” My answer was roughly, “Well, why not?” Related to this is the larger question–which a few people have asked me to post about lately–about timing. If you’re going to quit academia, when should you do it?

To me, the answer is, “Whenever it’s best for you.” How’s that for precision? But seriously, the answer is going to be completely up to you. The major considerations are many: financial (what will you do for an income if you leave at this stage?), career (what field will you switch to?), family (do you need to support family members? Are you all living together?), geographic (will you need/want to move when you quit?), and so forth.

But deciding on the timing of your departure also has to do with the delicate matter of cutting your losses. Calculating losses, though, is an imprecise science because there are so many unknown factors. For example, if you quit after, say, completing your comprehensive exams, are you cutting your losses by sparing yourself years of the gruelling dissertation-writing process (which can be totalled up in dollars, tears, therapists’ bills, damaged relationships, etc.)? Or are you incurring a new loss by not finishing a project you’ve started (an emotional toll) and having to work to explain what you did during those years on a résumé (a potential financial toll)?

Well, the answer is both, isn’t it? When you leave academia–regardless of when you do–you carry around a balance sheet of losses and gains. Gains: a deep relief, a feeling of freedom, a sense that you’ve narrowly escaped something that temporarily had control of your soul. Losses: debt, regret, the struggle to find a new career and life path.

Sometimes, the dividends blur and the gains start to look like losses; the feeling of freedom, for example, can quickly turn into a terrifying landscape of possibility with no clear direction of where to turn. Sometimes the losses look like gains: struggling to find a new life and career path reminds you of how many wonderful interests you have and all of the fun ways you can pursue them.

This is where the matter of the timing of your departure comes in. The dividends of leaving are going to be felt more and less sharply depending on when you jump ship. The longer you stay in your Ph.D. program, your debt load goes up, but so do your credentials. But do those credentials even mean anything to you if you’re depressed, disillusioned and miserable?

If You’re Going To Quit Academia, When Should You Do It?

For those of you who are thinking of leaving mid-degree, and are tortured by the thought that you’ve wasted your time and money: here’s a timely link to a post Seth Godin wrote earlier this week. I think it’s brilliant, and although he’s not even thinking about grad students when he’s writing this post, it applies perfectly. The post is called “Ignore Sunk Costs.” Among other golden advice, Seth says:

When making a choice between two options, only consider what’s going to happen in the future, not which investments you’ve made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future.

Here’s a breakdown of the balance sheet referring to different stages of leaving. I’d love to hear more thoughts on your analysis of the gains and losses in the comments section. If you…

1. Leave after the M.A. You’ve got yourself a valuable degree with great income-earning potential. But maybe you feel skeptical about your academic prospects, you don’t think you’d enjoy teaching and although you enjoy your research, you don’t feel crazy about doing 5-10 more years of it. So you quit.

Gains: High. You may have some student loans, but this recent report from StatsCan shows there is a 33% wage gap between someone with a B.A. and someone with a Master’s, but someone with a doctorate only earns 8% more than someone with a Master’s.

Costs: Low. Unlike a Ph.D., a master’s makes you feel good about your capabilities.

2. Leave after the first year of your Ph.D. You’ve had a taste of the program, the university, your colleagues and your potential supervisors. Maybe it’s not a good fit, and when you look at the faculty, you’re turned off by the constant search for external funding, the “publish or perish” mentality, and the lack of value placed on family time (like, uh, making one at all). So you quit.

Gains: Medium-high. You’re sparing yourself the time and emotional aggravation and expense of staying in grad school. You can be honest on a resume about what you did with your year.

Costs: Low. Some debt, maybe, and maybe a little bit of “What if…?”

3. Leave around the comps process (before, during or after). When I speak with former academics, this time of intense stress (comprehensive exams are now also called qualifying exams at some schools) can really bring one’s feelings about academia to the forefront. Maybe it’s taking you years to finish your comps, you’re riddled with insecurity, you feel like a total fraud, and you’re on the precipice of clinical depression. So you quit.

Gains: medium-high. Getting out before you lose any more of your precious time, precious money, precious brain cells and spend any more on prescription drugs is really smart. Living in a world where you don’t have to prove yourself through comps fuckin’ rulz.

Costs: medium. Suffering through the comps and STILL leaving without parchment in hand is gonna sting. You will have to explain to employers what it means to be ABD with respect to your transferable skills, which is kinda annoying.

4. Leave during the dissertation stage. Whether you’re struggling to get your proposal done, churn out that first chapter, or finally kick the final chapter to the curb, the dissertation process is a long, emotionally intense, wearing process that can tear down the mental health of the most balanced grad student. Maybe you loathe your topic. Maybe you’re burnt out. Maybe you’re making yourself miserable trying to keep up with the demands to teach, publish, present papers and produce a brilliant 300 page document all at the same time. Maybe you just don’t have it in you anymore. So you quit.

Gains: high. Though departments notoriously do not keep track of their attrition rates, I’ve read research (which I will cite for you in a follow-up post) indicating 50% of social science and humanities doctorates drop out of their programs before finishing. That means you’re in pretty good company among people who decided that life was too short to wait for a satisfying career, to move out of poverty, to save their mental health, or to just figure out that the academic life was not meant for them.

Costs: high. The niggly feelings of “what if?…” or “if only…” might linger for a long, long time. Feeling like a failure–or being worried that other people will see you as a failure–may be very intense. Your possible debt load may amplify feelings of anger, resentment, shame and bitterness. Feeling lost and unsure of how to orient your life is a strong possibility. Struggling with the concept of waste–a waste of your time, money, energy and potential–may stay with you.

5. You leave once you’ve finished the Ph.D. You’re done! Yahoo! But you got what you came for and you are outta there.

Gains: high. Freedom, sweet freedom. Sweet, quaking-at-the-knees, dripping-with-relief freedom.

Costs: medium-high. Severely compromised mental health, a significant debt, relationships that needed some nurturing after long periods of neglect. There is some belief (which I believe is a myth) that having a Ph.D. makes you unemployable.

(NB: Perhaps I’m biased here (since this was the path I chose and I’ve had three years to gain distance from the experience) by seeing the costs as “medium-high” and not “high.” To me, though, the gains far outstripped the costs, in terms of the feeling of freedom, the wild array of life choices I knew I could make, the ability to do the teaching and research and writing that I wanted that wasn’t limited by the classroom, and yes, the satisfaction of having the degree in hand.)

6. Once you’ve done contract/adjunt teaching, done your post-doc or gotten a tenure-track position. It might seem weird to lump these three types of academics into one category, but I’ll explain why below. Even if it’s news to some grad students, people do actually leave secure, tenured positions (Rebecca Stienitz is one of them–here’s her story–and so is Kenny Mostern of “On Being Postacademic” fame–which you can read here. NB: I’ll be interviewing Dr. Mostern and Dr. Stienitz for the podcast series in the next few weeks).

Gains: high. Once you’ve got your Ph.D., you can go anywhere and do anything with confidence. Contract faculty have a lot to gain by landing in a job that actually pays a living wage, and they, along with tenure-track faculty, gain by being able to move to the city of their choice, actually have free time, start a family, make more money, etc.

Costs: low-to-medium. I haven’t been there, and so far I haven’t done any interviews (yet) with people who’ve made this jump. So I am only speculating here. But making a career change at this point just makes a lot of sense to me in the same way that any other career change makes sense. I know someone who used to be an award-winning, professional Irish dancer and is now an IT guy at an art college. I know someone who used to be a professional chef and is now a naturopath. I know someone who used to make giga-bucks at Goldman Sachs and is now a freelance writer living in the English countryside with her young children. I admire people who make crazy career leaps because although there are potential costs (like failing), the gains (like actually being happy and/or satisfied) seem to be so much greater.

What do you think? If you’re going to quit academia, when is the best time to do it? What other factors are there that contribute to your decision? (You can also read a post-doc’s far more brief take on the matter here at Damn Dinosaurs).


Academic Leavers

Written by Blog Editor. Posted in General

First, I’d like to second Recent PhD’s advice that potential academic leavers choose a specific point at which you are going to quit – or at least a point at which you will begin sending out resumes with the understanding that you will leave academia outright as soon as you are offered an outside job – even if it’s the middle of a semester. If you don’t do this, it will be far too easy to just continue postponing the decision over and over again until you’re just lingering in grad school or as an adjunct, afraid to actually cut the cord. And while I don’t think it’s ever too late to leave academia, you certainly don’t want to keep postponing the decision endlessly. So as I’ve hinted at before, I think recent PhD’s advice to sit down and make a decision about a concrete point at which you will officially be done with academia is critical for anyone considering quitting.

This advice works for grad students and full faculty as well as adjuncts, by the way. Come up with your own end point, not the ones academia assigns to us. If you’re utterly miserable and sure you want to do something else, there’s no sense in hanging around until you get tenure or until you finish the dissertation. If you’re leaving, the academic milestones shouldn’t matter for you anymore. Make a plan for leaving based on your own personal goals and preferences, and stick to it.

Recent PhD rightly emphasizes that people transitioning outside of academia need to market themselves as career changers, not as students looking for a first job after graduation. This is tremendously important. I’d like to double down on this point in particular:

“…you spent 10 years as an educator (a teacher, NOT a student – yes, you were in graduate school, but that was a matter of professional development.) … [you are] looking for new ways to use the talents you’ve aquired through your experience in the education industry.”

This is such a critical point, which I think a lot of potential academic leavers (especially those coming straight out of grad school) miss entirely. They think “what kind of job can I possibly get? I’ve been a student for X years. I’ve got no experience and any employer is going to laugh me out of the park for being a ‘student’ for this long.”

Screw that. Even if academia tries at every turn to emphasize how you’re “just” a student? You know better. After you finish coursework, you aren’t a student in any way that a nonacademic person would view it. You are working in education for a salary … even if that salary is just a graduate student stipend or adjunct per-class salary.

Do you feel weird about this? Don’t. It’s only within the system of academia that you’re still considered a “student in training.” To the outside world, designing and teaching a semester-long college course on your own is clearly work experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing it with a Ph.D. or a permanent contract or not. You were *working* as a teacher.

Similarly, in what world is that research project you designed and completed independently, won grant funding for, and got published in a professional journal a “school project” … while the same project completed by a faculty member is “work?” Bullcrap. Designing and carrying out a research project to publication is doing *work* in research, regardless of how many letters follow the author’s name.

It doesn’t matter how academia views you – the hierarchies that exist in academia are invisible to most of the outside world. To the outside world, you’ve been working as a college instructor and as a researcher. You’ve been earning a salary (no matter how small) while providing important services to the university and gaining professional development. This is work experience. Don’t bury it under “educational background” on your resume, and don’t hesitate in presenting yourself as a “career changer” in cover letters. That’s what you are.

Don’t get caught up in how academia views you. The outside world will view you differently.