Friday, November 18, 2011

Nearly eighteen months after leaving academia, I'm still sorting out my feelings about it.  That will sound odd to you, maybe, because didn't I spend years trying to leave?  And wasn't leaving the breakout from nearly a decade of allowing inertia and other people to run my life?  And isn't everything so much better now?

Yes, absolutely, to all of them.  I don't wish I hadn't done it.  But academia is not like a regular job; it's like a relationship.  An abusive, miserable relationship in my case, but still a relationship.  And if you end a decade-long relationship, even if for very good reasons, you're going to experience some fallout.  I know that leaving was the right decision because I didn't experience any of the fallout right away; I was relieved and happy.  Really, I was thrilled.  It was like I'd gotten my life back - except more so, because actually I had gotten my life, period, for the very first time.

But I have flashes.  I talk to friends who are professors and grad students and postdocs.  Many of them are miserable, but still, they talk about their work, their grants, their conferences, and it feels bittersweet.  That life was home for me for so many years, and it's gone.  I helped a friend compose a letter to a professor I know well, asking for a postdoc, and the professor was interested, and the friend got excited, and I felt jealous that I don't have a promising scientific career ahead of me.  And just tonight, I was Facebook surfing and saw a not-really-a-friend's new photos of the dog he and his girlfriend just got, and I was a little bit jealous of the clearly-now-permanent girlfriend because I had a flirtation with the guy that I was more interested in than he was, and then I was a lot more jealous, of the guy, because I saw that he has recently become an assistant professor at a fairly prestigious school.

It's unclear whether I left academia or whether it left me.  There are at least two stories.  The first is that I wanted to get out for years but never had the guts, that my faculty applications were halfhearted and I turned down two semipermanent between-faculty-and-postdoc gigs because I wasn't willing to do what it took to get a permanent position, that everyone I worked with and for thought I would be a great professor one day but I couldn't be bothered.  The second story is that I sweated blood for nine years as a grad student and then a postdoc, that I gave up relationships and hobbies, that I thought about my work day and night, and it wasn't enough.  I applied for every faculty position in any department that resembled my field, even if the school was in Idaho.  I went to interviews where I was treated like dirt and nobody had the courtesy to email me and say they weren't going to hire me.

Usually the truth is between the two sides of the story, but in this case both sides were true.  I was a very good scientist, and I worked very hard, and it wasn't enough to succeed.  Perhaps if I'd been more persistent and less prideful, willing to take another temporary position, I'd have wormed my way into something.  Perhaps if I'd been smarter, if I'd made different choices about advisors, if I'd picked hotter research topics.  Maybe if government funding didn't keep getting cut, or if I could blend in with other scientists by being male.  Whatever it was, it was something I couldn't, or wouldn't do.  Looking at other people's interesting research and prestigious faculty positions and exciting conferences and being jealous is like looking at your ex-boyfriend with his new girlfriend and feeling that way: completely natural, but not a feeling that should necessarily be acted on.  My relationship with academia was messed up, and it needed to end.  Would it have been nice if the relationship could have been healthy and happy and successful? Sure.  But it wasn't, and whether that was because of our fundamental incompatibilities or particular mistakes, the relationship has been ruined.

I'm better off without it.  I haven't found a replacement, exactly.  I like my current job but don't love it the way some people love scientific research or even the way I sometimes loved scientific research.  But I'm a much better and happier person now.  My life has opened up in ways I never would have thought possible even two years ago.  I feel younger and freer; my days match better with how I imagine myself.  And best of all, I feel a sense of agency.  If I don't like something - my work, my apartment, my city, my hobbies, my friends - I have the ability to improve it.  It's easy to scoff at that, say that everyone controls their lives, but for years I didn't.  I ceded control of everything to the dysfunctional relationship that was my career, and I didn't understand that it was not going to voluntarily return my agency to me.

I'm still a work in progress, of course.  I haven't found my One True Career, and I don't know if I ever will.  I'm prone to occasional bitterness, as tonight, about the way my past career ended.  I feel jaded, used up, and a way behind.  Other people much younger than me have progressed much further in my current line of work.  But I don't think I came away from it empty-handed, and when I do find my True Career Love, I'll be a better worker because of what I learned from my first, horrible, marriage to academia.


  1. I can relate to a lot of what you wrote here - not to the same degree, but generally speaking.

  2. Very interesting. My husband is an academic and I so relate to what you write (sometimes I feel like there are 3 people in our marriage: me, him and Miss Academia).

    I'm glad that you seem to have found something else to do that you enjoy, and that dysfunctionality has been replaced by agency.

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