One of the best, shiniest, and most destructive assumptions we use against ourselves is this one: I should have known.
We say it when something goes wrong. We say it when things don’t turn out the way we thought they would. We say it when things don’t turn out the way we hoped they would. We say it when someone else’s dire predictions come true. We say it when we’re angry, when we’re disappointed, when we’re hurt.
Notice that we rarely say it when something goes right. “This relationship is wonderful – I should have known!” “I won the lottery. I should have known!”
Even when we do say it when things go well, we say it in relief and a little bit of laughing at ourselves for our stressing out. But we don’t blame ourselves for not knowing things were going to work out.
No, it’s exclusively a way to beat ourselves up by assigning ourselves the blame for things not working out, no matter what things we’re talking about.
It’s a lie
At base, it assumes that we can, actually, control things, and that in this particular instance we screwed up – instead of acknowledging the reality that the world is complex and variable and dynamic and shit happens that we couldn’t possibly predict or control.
Somehow, it’s easier to believe that we’re screw-ups than it is to believe that there are things we don’t get to be in charge of.
But sweeties. There are things we don’t get to be in charge of. Lots of things.
You aren’t in charge of the economy and how it affects higher education. You aren’t in charge of whether universities post jobs or how they fill them. You aren’t in charge of the way graduate school shapes you and your hopes. (Ideology, man. It happens.) You aren’t in charge of who else is out there, applying for jobs. You aren’t in charge of how many people are getting PhDs. You aren’t in charge of your advisors and their idiosyncracies. You aren’t in charge of how available jobs map on to your very legitimate geographic limitations.
The more we can distinguish between what we are in charge of (how many applications we send out, whether we send them out, other opportunities we pursue, how much time we spend on it, what kind of help and feedback we get, how much we work on our emotional gunk, how much time we spend exploring our options) and what we aren’t in charge of, the happier we’ll be.
I once heard a great quotation, and of course I can’t remember now who said it. (The Dalai Lama? Thich Nhat Hahn?) “If you can’t do anything, don’t worry. If you can do something, don’t worry.”
In other words, do the parts that are yours to do. Let go of everything else. It’s not easy, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to control the universe which, you know, is pretty much guaranteed to fail.
Our culture does a piss-poor job of dealing with grief and mourning. A friend of mine who lost a late-stage pregnancy reports that people actually turned around and ran away from her in the halls in the weeks afterwards. No joke.
If we’re that bad at dealing with actual death, just think for a minute about how bad we are at loss that is less tangible.
You will grieve
Even if you got to the stage of things where you were so disgusted by everything that you were glad to close the book on that chapter of your life, you will grieve. If you got a tenure-track job and decided you didn’t like, it you will grieve. If you didn’t get a job when you really wanted one, you will grieve.
No matter how you get to the point of leaving, you will grieve. Even if you want to go.
Because leaving isn’t just leaving. Leaving means letting go of the whole future narrative of your life that you’d been aiming at. It means facing a future you don’t know the contours of. It means giving up the dreams you had about what this career path would be for you.
Even if you had no emotional hangups about it at all (okay, probably not possible), you would still grieve. Sadness and grieving do the work of letting go. They’re HOW we let go.
It takes time
I’m sorry to tell you this, but grief is a process. Forget that whole Kubler-Ross thing (it’s accurate for sudden and shocking change; not so much for grief) — grief is more like sitting on the shore, letting the waves lap around you. Sometimes, at high tide, they submerge you entirely. Other times, at low tide, they’re just licking at your toes. But they go away, they come back, and while there’s a general rhythm, you can’t exactly predict it.
It takes time. You’ve probably spent a decade in academia. That entire time, you had a vision of who you would be, the career you would have, the life you would live. When you leave, you lose all of that.
I’ve talked to so many clients who think they should be over it already, when “already” can be measured in weeks or months.
Oh sweetie. You should not be over it already
This is big, and profound, and significant. It will take longer than a headcold to get over. It will almost certainly take longer than you’d like it to.
But if you can really feel the sadness and the grief — the bodily sensations, the crying, not the narrative about it — the worst of it will pass relatively quickly.
Weirdly, you’ll actually get over it much more quickly by explicitly giving yourself time and space to grieve. It can feel like it will pull you under and never let you go, that if you start actually grieving you’ll never stop.
But you will stop. The grief will run its course. And it will take so much less of you with it if you can open to it.
So go ahead. Grieve. You deserve to acknowledge what you’ve lost. It matters that you lost it.
It sucks, and I’m so sorry.
Have you ever had the experience of dreading something, assuming it’s going to take hours and hours and be really painful, only to sit down and finish it lickety-split?
Most of the time, it’s because the stuff you have to do is simple and quick, but the emotional baggage between here and getting it done is huge.
It’s why “just write three pages a day” works when you aren’t emotionally tangled up in a project, but fails miserably when you are. It’s why making choices that feel important take forever, even when we know logically that there aren’t huge differences between the two and we’ll likely be fine either way.
Leaving is like that
The stuff of leaving — telling people, looking at what else you can do, writing job materials, applying for jobs — isn’t all that complicated, when it comes down to it. Sure, there are things you’re unfamiliar with, and things you’ve got to figure out, but the logistics are fairly straightforward, even if the proliferation of details is kind of overwhelming.
What’s hard is worrying that your adviser will be disappointed in you and trying to figure out some way to ensure she won’t be disappointed. What’s hard is being afraid you don’t have any marketable skills and beating yourself up for not doing something more practical when you had the chance. What’s hard is regretting that you spent eight years doing this thing you now don’t like and being angry that you have to start over.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t logistical questions
Even though logistics are relatively uncomplicated (hey, anything is less complicated than digging around in our psyches to untangle old patterns), that doesn’t mean they’re obvious. When we don’t know something, we don’t know it, and we’ve got to learn it. That goes double for changing contexts.
When you’re leaving academia, the way the non-academic job search works is far from obvious. How to leave without burning all your bridges is far from obvious. How to translate your academic experience into something a non-academic employer wants is far from obvious.
So it’s not that you shouldn’t spend some time figuring out the logistics. The problem comes when we spend all our time on the logistics, dithering and wondering and getting frustrated, not realizing that it’s going to go a lot better if we address the emotional underpinnings of all that spinning in place.
Anytime a logistical, practical problem is complicated (rather than complex), stop and take a breath. Ask yourself what you’re afraid will happen as a result of solving this. What could happen if you choose one way? What could happen if you choose another way? What reservations or worries are you having about the whole endeavor?
It’s easy to think that addressing the emotional part of things will make it all take longer, and there’s no time! And you have to figure it out right now!
Ironically, when you take time to actually engage the emotional piece, the practical piece often gets done in no time at all — meaning it actually took less time overall than when you tried to ignore the emotional end and force your way through the practicalities. Life is funny that way.
This is the underlying theory of the course I’m teaching next month on the non-academic job search. Yes, we’re going to talk about the logistics, and we’re going to problem solve and brainstorm and apply principles to actual situations. But we’re also going to pay attention to the fears, the anxieties, and the what ifs, because that’s where the power is.
If you’re leaving or considering leaving and you’d like some support figuring out the job search, check it out.
And the next time you notice yourself stuck on something that seems straightforward, ask yourself why. It’s so much more efficient, not to mention effective.
A client asked me a question last night I had never thought to answer on here: Is my life better now, after having left?
You have no idea
My life is better in about a thousand different ways. My time is much more my own. I read more now than I did when I was still an English professor. I can follow my interests wherever they lead me. I have more interesting conversations. I have friends who do lots of different things. All the parts of me that I denied in academia because they weren’t cool or weren’t intellectual enough have gotten reintegrated.
In a weird way, all the things I wanted from academia are things I have now — I’m just not paid for all of them. Not being paid for them means there’s a lot more freedom around them, and right now, that’s working for me.
That isn’t to say the journey to get here was all sunshine and roses or that I was happy as soon as I left. I left in 2005, and not only was there not yet an internet community around leaving, I didn’t personally know anyone who had decided to leave. Transition always sucks, and I didn’t know anything about transition then, so I spent a fair bit of time worrying that maybe I’d done the wrong thing. All of my friends were academics, and so I didn’t really have anyone to process with except my wife, who was going through her own big transitions.
From where I’m sitting now, I wouldn’t trade that crappy time for anything. I have never regretted leaving, even when I was worried that I should be regretting leaving and what did it mean about me that I didn’t? (It meant that I really shouldn’t be an academic.) Having done a lot of work, I no longer feel shame or grief or guilt or any other negative emotion for leaving.
I loved my experience in graduate school. Being a professor was not for me. Pretty much everything about my life got better (eventually) when I was able to accept those things and more forward.
Will it be better for you?
That isn’t to say that leaving is right for everyone and no one should stay. Only you can know that.
That’s not to say your journey will look like mine. Yours will look like yours, and while the overall patterns will probably be the same, the specifics will be yours alone.
It is to say that it’s possible to leave, to craft a great life for yourself, and to be happy.
And the first step towards being happy — wherever that will be — is to tell the truth about your own experience.
There’s a particular place a lot of leaving academics get tripped up: the idea of qualifications.
In academia, the goal is to become the absolute expert on a narrow slice of something. You’re the cutting edge of this research. Best-case scenario: You’re the acknowledged, world-renowned expert and everyone comes to you to understand it.
Most of the time, the question outside of academia isn’t “are you the absolute most expert, most skilled person at X?” It’s “do you have the skills and experience to do what we need done?
There’s a crucial difference there
We can always learn more. We can always experience more. That’s the whole basis of academia.
But there’s also the concept of good enough. You don’t have to have written grants and won money from every funding body in the world in order to be qualified to write grants for a non-profit. You don’t have to know everything there is to know about project management in order to coordinate volunteers. You don’t have to have a working knowledge of everything a company has ever produced in order to write their manuals effectively.
You only need to know enough. You only need to have enough experience to demonstrate your skills. That’s it.
Focus on the goal
Instead of comparing yourself to the mythical expert, look at what this position is trying to accomplish.
Can you translate complicated issues into clear and compelling reasons why your organization should be funded? Do you understand how grant proposals work? Have you written at least one? Congratulations! You’re qualified to write grants.
Can you put together a plan to meet a goal and coordinate all the moving parts to achieve it? That’s project management.
Can you translate tech-speak into something the user understands — and that answers their questions? You can write manuals.
You may not want to do any of these things, but the point still stands. All you have to do is be able to meet the goal they’ve set out — and convince them you have the requisite skills, experience, and knowledge to meet the goal.
That, of course, is the crux of the job application, but you can’t get there if you discount every opportunity because you don’t think you’re qualified.
Figure out the skills underneath your experience
Academia obscures a lot of the skills and experience we actually have, because it discounts it as service or writes it as something anyone can do. (Trust me — not everyone can write. The awful writing skills that have made you want to cry? They don’t get better.)
One way to unobscure them (reveal them?) is to map out everything you’ve done and ask yourself what skills and experience are already in there. You’re qualified for much more than you think you are — trust me.
After walking dozens of people through master resumes, I can only laugh at how many conversations I’ve had that began, “Well, you said you aren’t qualified for X, but actually you have Z, Q, and W.” And then they start laughing, too. It’s a nice thing, being able to help people see how awesome they are.
There’s an old movie called Gaslight. In it, the husband attempts to convince his wife and the people around them that she’s crazy by changing small things in her environment and then telling her she’s imagining them.
Gaslighting has become a colloquialism for any situation in which someone is attempting to manipulate someone else’s sense of what is really happening.
The more I work with people who are unhappy in academia, the more I’m convinced that academic culture gaslights us as a matter of course.
A few examples
Jo Van Every and I cover some of this in our free Myths and Mismatches e-course, but there are a lot of stories academia tells itself that aren’t necessarily reflected in reality.
It’s about the Life of the Mind — but you’ll spend most of your time wrangling undergraduates and fighting with colleagues over very small things.
It provides an unparalleled opportunity for work / life balance — so long as “balance” means “you work at all hours and most holidays,” even if you can take your car in for an oil change at 2pm on a Thursday.
It’s a meritocracy — but who you know matters and thousands of qualified, passionate, excellent scholars can’t find work.
I’m overworked and miserable — but this is the best possible job in the whole world.
There are so many places where the story is different from the reality and calling out the reality is tantamount to saying the Emperor is showing his backside.
This isn’t deliberate
I’m not arguing that academia is deliberatly trying to make people insane. That would be going too far. But like every other relational system, it regulates itself by ensuring that everyone plays their role. Part of that includes people who are committed to academia defending it and justifying it to those of you who are unhappy or for whom the job just hasn’t materialized.
Sometimes we can see the gap between the story and the reality and, without discounting the reality, live inside the contradiction.
But when we’re in conflict with the system for whatever reason, we tend to doubt our own experience of reality.
I’m miserable, but maybe I’m just paying my dues and it will get better. There don’t seem to be any jobs, but maybe that’s just me being defeatist and I need to keep applying. I don’t think I like the work of being a professor, but what if this really is the best job in the world and everything else will suck even more?
When we hit that space of doubting our lived experience, it can feel impossible to get out of. We’re so trained to rely on experts — and we so rarely feel like an expert ourselves — that we can believe the stories are true.
This, right here, is one of the hardest parts about leaving: legitimizing your own experience and judgment and seeing the stories for what they are.
No one knows better than you do
No one knows your values better than you do. No one knows your limits better than you do. No one knows your preferences and desires better than you do. No one knows your satisfactions better than you do. No one knows your bottom line needs better than you do.
No one knows what you should do better than you do. And no one knows what you are and have been experiencing better than you do. It’s just not possible.
If you’re feeling really muddled and unsure, try articulating your experience without judgment. This happened and then this happened and then this happened. Write it down. Seeing it written down can give you enough distance to believe it, in a sense. And that makes it easier to see the stories as stories that may or may not explain your experience.
It’s not often one of the myths of academia becomes suddenly visible, but it happened this week with the publication of a Forbes article describing the least stressful jobs of 2013. Professor was #1 — the least stressful job.
And then Twitter exploded
All of the usual stories were trotted out: Professors are off between May and September and a month over the winter holidays. They don’t spend much time in the classroom. Sure, tenure-track people have some pressure to publish, but there aren’t really any deadlines and the environment is so cozy and civilized.
I’m not even kidding about that last part.
I’d have more sympathy for the writer, who was reporting on a careercast.com list rather than creating one herself, if she had done any actual research, but she admitted after her comments section exploded that she hadn’t.
You can imagine the responses she got. Professors detailing the insane hours they work, especially during those times “off.” Adjuncts upset that all university teaching jobs get lumped together as if they’re the same. Tenure-track people pointing out that there’s one big hefty deadline and it’s a do-or-die sort of thing.
Low stress, my ass.
Good stress and bad stress
Pretty much every job is going to have stress. Stress is, in fact, just a function of human life. But there’s productive stress and destructive stress, and the difference is important.
Productive stress is motivating. It gets us going and dealing with it feels like an accomplishment.
Destructive stress is, well, destructive. It demotivates us, it exhausts us, it wears us down, it takes away the will to do much of anything. Burnout is the natural endpoint of unchecked stress. Destructive stress lived through doesn’t feel like an accomplishment. If anything, destructive stress can make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.
Whether a given person experiences something as productive stress or destructive stress depends on a lot of things: the situation itself, other responsibilities, interest in and desire for the situation, general personality type.
Some people are going to find the schedule, tasks, and environment of academia motivating. By and large, assuming other parts of their lives don’t explode and there’s a reasonable amount of work-life balance, these people will enjoy being in academia.
Other people are going to find that the schedule, tasks, and environment gradually wear them down and make them miserable.
What does it feel like to you?
At any given moment, we can be overwhelmed by even the best situation, because shit happens, and if a family divorce, a mental health crisis, and overscheduling all hit at the same time, well, it will be an uncomfortable few months.
If in general, the situation feeds you, in general, it motivates you, then rock on. You’ve got a good thing going.
But if it doesn’t, if it’s always a slog, then it’s not the situation for you, no matter how many “least stressful” lists it tops, and no matter how good it looks on (completely inaccurate) paper.
Many years ago now, as I was leaving academia, I had the Worst Yard Sale in the Whole World.
No, really. It was.
First, it poured down rain the entire day. We had to have it in the garage instead of on the driveway/in the yard, and you couldn’t really see us unless you knew to look for us. We attempted to fix this by putting signs at the end of the driveway, but the only thing we accomplished was ruining our easel.
Second, we made $2. Gross. Net, it was much less, since we had paid to run an ad in the paper. (Back when running ads in the paper was the best way to get people to a yard sale.) Net, we lost money.
And we still had to schlep all that stuff somewhere. I’m sure you won’t be surprised when I tell you it hung out in the garage for quite a while.
Last summer, by contrast, we had a really smashing yard sale. People came by all day, we got rid of tons of stuff, and we made enough money to buy ourselves a new couch. By the end of that day, everything we had wanted to sell was either sold or donated to Goodwill. We even took down the signs we’d put up around the neighborhood advertising it.
So what was the difference?
No yard sale is easy. It takes a lot of time and energy to sort through stuff, decide what to get rid of, price everything, get it all set up, sit through the whole thing (usually in the heat of summer), and break it all down.
But the big difference between The Worst Yard Sale in the Whole World and the most recent one was this: The first one was all about teeth-gritted determination, while the second was all about persistence.
In the first one, everything went wrong. We ran out of time. We didn’t get to look at the whole house. We didn’t get to see if what we had warranted a yard sale or a trip to the donation center. We paid a late fee for the ad. It fucking rained the whole time. It wasn’t just that it was hard and took energy. It wasn’t even that we were unfortunate with the weather. At every step of the way, we had to stubbornly push ourselves to go on, even when everything in us was telling us to just let it go, already.
I can’t say everything went right in the second one. It triggered a fatigue episode for me, and we overpaid to have something delivered, and the inside of the house was a shambles for probably a month. But while it required a hell of a lot of persistence, it never had that same quality of pushing. We always wanted to have it, even when we were laying on the floor, despairing of going through another closet full of who-knows-what. There was no teeth-gritting.
This is not about yard sales
I’ve talked to a lot of academics who long-ago reached the teeth-gritting stage of things. They’re bound and determined to finish, not because they actually want the degree anymore, but because they’ve come this far, dammit, and they’re going all the way.
They think about all the time they’ve already put in; they don’t think about what forcing themselves to the end costs them in time, money, and energy, not to mention mental health.
Graduate school in particular and academia in general require bucketfuls of persistence. By definitely, they’re all about long-term projects, and long-term projects are marathons, not sprints. The whole path of academia is slow and ponderous, and you’ve got to have some stick-to-it-iveness to get to the other side.
But if you’re having to push yourself, everyday, not just on the days you’ve got a head cold, then ask yourself what you’re pushing yourself for. If you’re having to grit your teeth and talk yourself out of quitting, ask yourself why. If you can never say anymore that you honestly want this, you just can’t bear to quit, ask yourself what you do want.
Go after that. It’s going to feel really different.
If you went to college and graduate school somewhere other than where you grew up, and if you’ve decided to leave academia, you’ve got at least two big things to figure out. First, what kind of work do you want to do and how do you get into it? Two, where do you want to live?
It’s easy to default to a hometown or a home region, and that might be exactly the right place for you. But you might also want to go somewhere else. Like with careers, it’s hard to solve the problem without knowing what your options really are.
A few years ago, I ran across a site that’s both useful and super fun: FindYourSpot.com. It asks you a series of questions, including things like whether you do outdoor sports and what they are, whether you care about the school system, and how important the ballet is, and it spits out 20 locations for you to look at.
My sweetie and I do this periodically, just to see what comes up. There’s always the same city in Louisiana and the same city on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Lately, the top results have all been in Oregon, which has been a big clue for us. There are invariably places we hadn’t really heard of, or wouldn’t have picked out on the map, but which, when we dig in, are pretty interesting.
I have no stake in that site, of course, but if you’re spending time dreaming about what your life could look like if you leave, spend some time dreaming about place.
It’s no secret that I disagree with the general academic credo that geography matters less than getting a job in your field. For many of us, location is at least important to our long-term happiness as the job itself.
I know a fair few people who landed an academic job in a location they didn’t prefer, and, in the end, the lack of resonance with the place undermined any goodness they were finding in the job. Then they were faced with either going on the job market again, with a more limited geographic range, or leaving academia. It just postponed the dilemma.
As in all things, people vary. I also have friends who landed academic jobs in Idaho, Montana, New Hampshire, Texas, Illinois, Missouri, Georgia, Alaska, and Arizona who have grown to love landscapes and cultures they were not previously part of. It’s not that you can’t possibly make a good life somewhere you might not have otherwise chosen to live.
But if you turn out to be unable or unwilling to put down roots somewhere, that doesn’t mean that you’re a failure, or that you’re insufficiently committed, or that you really just do need to suck it up.
Your Place or Not Your Place
For all kinds of complicated reasons, we resonate with some places and not with others. It’s not that any place is bad; it’s that some places are Our Places and some places are Not Our Places. Even if a place has everything you think you want, it can still be Not Your Place.
The metaphor I always use is dating. You’ve probably had the experience of meeting someone who, on paper, seemed like a perfect fit for you — and you had no desire to ever see them again. Maybe there was nothing wrong, per se, but there was no spark, no connection.
I’m a Navy brat. We moved less than some — only about every three years — but every move was over a significant body of water. While we (nearly) always lived on coasts (did you know the main supply base for the Navy is in the middle of Pennsylvania? Neither did I), Scotland is not Puerto Rico is not Virginia is not Hawaii. After I left home for college, I started in Illinois, went to Pennsylvania, then West Virginia, and then DC.
In other words, I know from moving geographies and local cultures. One of the skills I got from that upbringing was the ability to root myself and make a home anywhere.
I can move and make a really good life anywhere. And there are still places that are My Places and places that are Not My Places.
DC is a liberal, vibrant city with lots of culture and a good public transportation system. It is Not My Place. I have friends for whom it is definitely Their Place. It’s not whether DC is good or bad — it’s whether I have a connection to the place, whether we resonate together.
There’s a study that agrees!
A recent study looked at residents of Boston and San Francisco, cities that on paper have a lot of similarities but which are very different. It found that residents of those cities had different definitions of success and happiness. If you’re a person who experiences success the way Bostonians do, you won’t be super comfortable in San Francisco and vice versa.
Place matters, and not only because of the landscape. Place matters because every place grows and attracts a certain kind of person, for whatever reason. If those people feel like Your People, the place will work for you. If they don’t, the place probably won’t. If the place feels actively antithetical to Your People, run. You will be miserable.
It’s not as simple as coasts v. “flyover states” (how I hate that term). It’s not city v. country, or blue state v. red. It’s this particular culture in this particular landscape with these particular people.
You can certainly surprise yourself by discovering a Your Place that you didn’t expect, or not resonating with a place you were convinced would work. I have a friend who dreamed of moving to Taos, who moved to Taos and hated it. Life can be surprising.
Your choices are legitimate
If you choose geography based on a job, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on the needs of your family, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on the kind of life you want to live, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on weather and climate, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on people you like, that’s legitimate.
If you choose geography based on a whim, that’s legitimate.
Geography matters. Of course it matters. And you’re the only one who can decide how it figures in to your decision-making, and whether a given place is a reasonable choice.