It occurred to me that it might be useful to try to write out some of the reasons why I have decided to leave academia. I say “try” because this is a hard question for me to answer. In my conversations with people, I give different pieces of the answer depending on the role they play in my life. I haven’t yet tried to put it all together.
The answer that seems easiest to explain and for others to digest is about location. I’ve mentioned my LDR here before. My partner, henceforth known as The Flying Buttress*, and I were thrilled last year when he got a two year gig only 500 miles from me in an awesome location with easy airport access. We thought it would be a good way to try out long distance for the first year. Our plan was to give our careers priority for a few years and see what panned out and then try to work our way toward each other. This last year has in fact been illuminating. Long distance is not as bad as I imagined and it turns out that we’re pretty good at it. But it’s also made me sure that 500 miles is far enough, and that I really want my life to be with him. So I’m leaving for more geographical flexibility (and there undoubtedly will be a future post concerning my feminist anxiety about making a career change for a dude, which is of course an oversimplification of the situation).
But geography is not nearly the only consideration. The Flying Buttress is an academic in a field similar to mine, and is doing pretty damn well so far. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I would do if he got a job, and I landed a partner hire (very easy to do, I know). To make it really juicy and tempting I’ve imagined this happening in a location that I love and a department with amazing scholars who are also fun to hang with. This scenario addresses so many problems. But I still wouldn’t do it.
This is where things get harder to explain. A few years ago, I started thinking about dying. It wasn’t voluntary. For a few months, death was permeating my life. Predictably, this made me acutely aware of my own mortality. I started imagining the final hours, weeks, whatever, of my life and thinking about what I would be grateful for, and what I would regret. Given that scenario, I knew that I wanted to centralize relationships, feel like my work meant something, and find balance. Academia is not ultimately compatible with what I discovered is most important to me.
Relationships have already been covered, though I mean more than just my partner there, but moving on for now. And I think I might put “meaning” aside because I just wrote some stuff out, but it’s really its own post. For now: I think academic work has enormous value, even if does have a limited audience. I just don’t think that it is the best way for me to contribute something to the world. Same with teaching. Teaching is important, I’ve loved my students, but it wears me out. This introvert does a pretty good job of playing an extrovert for two hours in front of a class, but it takes all the energy I have. I can’t imagine teaching multiple classes in a day. I would have nothing left for the rest of my life. Also, grading is the absolute worst. But who doesn’t hate grading. (Seriously, there must be a better way to give students feedback and encouragement. We’re all smart and stuff. Let’s figure that one out.)
Okay, so that brings me to balance. I am not going to even begin to pretend that I’m all work all the time. I’ve had periods of that, but not long ones. I spent about six years trying really hard to work all the time. I never took time off. Instead, it took me. It would happen in the form of procrastination, or burnout. It happened frequently and it was rarely restorative. I was saved from this cycle by a fellowship year and learned the value of consciously taking time off. Being able to schedule that time and take it guilt free meant that it helped me be more productive when I went back to work, well rested this time. And I did things like dishes, and laundry – even folding it and putting it away! – that made my life feel more manageable. Once that fellowship was over though, I found it so hard to maintain a sustainable schedule. And when I did maintain it, it meant I was neglecting something. Probably something big. Probably, I imagined, something that meant the difference between me getting the perfect TT job and being sent to adjunct hell. I was suddenly so done with being in a profession in which there is no such thing as “enough.”
That “enough” realization is what pushed me over the edge. Academia combined with my own existing anxieties and insecurities, which are not insignificant and have gotten much worse over the last eight years, are a poisonous combination. I am too good at beating myself for a job that encourages endless hours of work with so few tangible results and that gives too few rewards to all the people I see doing amazing, important, innovative work. I’m glad I see so many people sticking around to do it. I’m glad that they seem to make it work. And I’m working on being okay with the fact that I won’t.
All of this, though, is only partial. Sometimes I think that it just comes down to this: when I let myself think – I mean really seriously think – about not being an academic, I felt better, freer, happier, lighter. It felt right in my gut. And I couldn’t ignore that once I really let myself feel it.
*a geeky reference to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which Xander tells his distraught fiancé that he is “a flying buttress of support.”** Nothing more aptly describes how fully my partner has supported me through this.
** I couldn’t make this reference without also noting that Pillars of the Earth was my favorite books when I was fifteen and I was pretty obsessed with flying buttresses. And I wonder how I wound up in graduate school. . .