When you decided to go to graduate school, you probably thought that, at the end of it, you’d be a professor. Even if you thought you might do something else with that degree, the assumptions within academia are that you finish the degree and become a professor.
Only it didn’t work out that way.
Maybe you found out that academia wasn’t what you thought it was.
Maybe you discovered that you and academia weren’t the match made in heaven your undergraduate professors said you were based on how smart and insightful you are. (You’re still smart and insightful, even if the rest of academia isn’t your cup of tea.)
Maybe the market changed under you from bad-but-people-got-jobs to oh-holy-hell.
Maybe you ended up not fitting your department. Maybe you ran into problems with your adviser.
Maybe you finished the degree and got a job and looked around and said, wait a minute, I don’t want to be here.
For whatever reason, you’ve gone from “I’m gonna be a professor!” to some version of “something is not right and I might want outta here.”
Here’s what usually comes next
Once you admit that something is not right, then the self-flagellation starts, and it usually starts with I should have known.
I should have known that there wouldn’t be any jobs. I should have known I was a bad fit. I should have known that adviser wasn’t going to work for me.
Usually, it goes even farther.
I should have known I wouldn’t be able to do this. I should have known I would fail.
What you’re really saying is, I should have been able to predict this precise future.
Of course, you can’t predict the future. (If you can, please leave academia and head straight for the stock market. Seriously.) None of us can.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how prepared you are, how much you’ve planned — life happens. And you have absolutely no control over it.
You have no control over the expectations and mental illnesses of the people around you. You have no control over the global economy or the reduction in state spending on higher ed. You have no control over the overall culture of academia or its job requirements.
Yes, there are variables you can plan for, just like you plan for a certain amount of traffic at certain times of day. But even then, there could be a crazy accident or a big construction project or both, and suddenly even your reasonable plan is shot to hell.
What’s really going on
It’s acceptable in our culture to beat ourselves up. It’s acceptable to claim responsibility and blame.
You know what’s not so acceptable? Acknowledging disappointment and sadness. We’d rather find someone to blame.
But it’s totally legitimate for you to be sad and disappointed and frustrated, even if it’s your choice and not circumstances making the choice for you. You had a vision, and that’s not how it worked out, and that’s disappointing and sad.
You are entitled to feel disappointed and sad and however else you feel. It sucks that this vision you had didn’t work out in reality, and it is totally okay to just be sad about that — without assigning blame to anyone, including yourself.
Beating yourself up won’t help you get to the other side. It’ll just make you that more tentative and anxious the next time you have a vision, and it’ll prevent you from believing you can do awesome things.
Feeling your real feelings, on the other hand, is like a lovely summer rainstorm that leaves the air feeling crisp and clean. Feeling your feelings allows your feelings to do the work they’re there to do — which in the case of sadness and disappointment is to let go.
So please. Admit that you’re sad. Admit that you’re disappointed. Cry for a week solid if you need to. I promise that, once fully felt, the hard pointy feelings will go away, and you’ll feel better.
And that self you were, back when you embarked on this vision — feeling your real feelings of sadness and disappointment honors that self, and that vision.
Leaving is hard. Leaving is sad. It’s okay for it to be that way. It still doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice for you.