Escape Story: From Russian scholar to admissions guide

Jessica Peyton told me her story over email, and I asked if she’d be willing to share it on the blog for people who are considering leaving. I’m so glad she agreed! I love being able to share a success story. If you’d like to share your story on the blog, please let me know!

Why did you go to graduate school in the first place?

I knew early on that my biggest strength was writing. I was not a math person. In high school I had THAT teacher – the one who changes the way you see a subject. In this case, Mr. E. was the teacher who made me love History. I wanted to become a History teacher. My parents weren’t completely thrilled with this career prospect, and suggested business or law.

I did my undergrad at Notre Dame, where I majored in History. In order to fulfill a language requirement, I enrolled in Russian 101, figuring I’d learn how to say, hi, bye, my name is Jessica and where is the bathroom, before calling it good. What happened, however, was that the tiny class bonded, becoming a group of friends who took the same Russian language and literature course. I ended up making Russian my second major.

I won a fellowship to Harvard to do my MA in Russian, East European, and Central Asian studies. I started to realize how many opportunities Russian offered a young female scholar; it is a traditionally male-dominated field and I had some off-beat interests that yet to be really explored by other Russianists.

I constantly felt inadequate at Harvard, suffered from insomnia and chronic stomach pain, and had nightmares about papers and exams. However, as disillusioned as I was with grad school, my parents encouraged me to just apply to PhD programs, per my original plan. I was and am grateful that they ended up supporting my intended career in academia.

I got in to my first choice program at Arizona State University, which I chose largely because it was a teaching university. I wanted a program that would encourage and support me as instructor.

I loved ASU – my advisor was fantastic, equal parts maternal and friend, my classmates were also friends, and the program connected me with grants, speaking opportunities, and internships.

There was only problem – my favorite part of the program was being a T.A. – working with students, and specifically helping develop their writing skills. I wasn’t really interested in becoming a professor anymore, and I had failed to develop the same passion for living and working in Russia that I saw in my colleagues.

Why did you want to leave?

Even before starting the PhD program, I knew I would struggle with being a Russianist specifically, because I did not enjoy living or working there, and the learning the language was an ongoing struggle that I was less and less interested in continuing. History remained a passion, however, and I found myself envious of classmates who weren’t boxed into a regional focus, as I had committed to. But even then, I remember getting into a debate with a very conservative professor about what was “real” history.

“What’s wrong with wanting to a write a book for both an academic audience and something someone like my father, an incredibly intelligent person outside of academia, could read and enjoy?”

She said I had to choose. And if I wanted to be a Russian scholar, I better go with writing the dense academic stuff.

It was so many things. But mostly, it was that knot of anxiety balling in my gut every time I pictured getting my PhD and then…and then what? Having to go live in Russia for six months? Living apart from my husband as I hop from postdoc to postdoc, praying for a tenure-track position that would somehow magically align with where the Army sent him every three years?

And above all, realizing that scholars have to put their research and publishing first. I really just wanted to work with students.

What was hard about leaving? What got in your way?

I was worried about disappointing my parents, letting down my advisor, and making my husband feel somehow responsible for my decision to leave.

I wasn’t sure about leaving the career track I’d been on for 5 years. What would 5 years of being so poor I qualified for food stamps count for? What about all those books I bought? The two research trips to Russia?

And, when it came down to it, I ALWAYS finish what I start. I felt semi-obligated to finish the PhD just because I started it.

How did you get past, through, or around those things?

My husband saw me really spiral into a depression over the last year I was in the program, and encouraged me to call my advisor.

My advisor, the most ethical teacher and generous person, said, “I know you can finish if you wanted to. But what’s the point if you don’t want to? I just want you to be healthy and happy, and it doesn’t seem like the program is doing either for you. Don’t worry about me, and stop worrying about what your parents will think.”

I made the decision without talking about it with my parents. I know their feelings were hurt, but it was something that I didn’t want to be talked out of. The only way I could decide by myself, for myself, was to let them know after the fact.

How did it feel after you left?

It was hideous disappointing my parents, but otherwise I felt So. Happy. I didn’t realize how much the program and my future career prospects had been weighing me down. I felt lighter, excited for the first time in years about the future. I felt free, really. Like I could start prioritizing a career that would make me happy and building a family with my husband.

What are you doing now, and how did you get there?

My wonderful husband said I shouldn’t feel rushed to find work, but rather, suggested I take some time off to figure out where I wanted to go next. I filled out applications to be an academic counselor at various local universities, thinking to myself, “But someday, I want to own my own business where I show students how to look for and apply to college, grad school, and funding opportunities.” After about a week I decided not to wait for some day, and get it up and running.

I launched Aim High Writing at the beginning of this year, am a member of the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA), and help students and parents navigate the college applications process. I place special emphasis on writing a competitive essay, so that students enter college prepared to write at the university-level.

Whether working with clients one-on-one or running seminars, I absolutely love my job now. I see two sides to what I’m doing. There’s the teaching aspect, as well as the policy-making aspect, which I doing in conjunction with educational organizations and nonprofits. This split allows me to continue doing a little academic research and writing, while making a more immediate connection with those students I want to assist.

What advice would you give someone considering leaving?

Two things. First, you are the only person who can give yourself permission to leave. Accordingly, you are the only person withholding permission for you to leave. I’m guessing most people reading this entered into their programs with every intention of finishing. I sure did. But when my career objectives and life circumstances changed, I realized that I no longer wanted to be a scholar of Russian History. At first I thought, ok, well I can just get my PhD. But without that long-term goal to keep me motivated, any further work on the PhD felt like a waste of time and money, as well as a drain on my happiness and energy.

So, second, I recommend you ask yourself if the degree is still worth it. You can decide to leave academia but still need or want a PhD. But if the PhD was an means to an end that you’re no longer interested in, don’t feel bad about walking away.

It isn’t giving up. It’s letting go so that you can move forward with things that make you feel happy, motivated, purposeful, and productive. Decide what that is for yourself.

Review: Coming to My Senses

Alyssa Harad got her PhD in English from the University of Texas at Austin, but it didn’t work out exactly as planned. As she writes in Coming to My Senses (affiliate link):

[T]here wasn’t much demand for English PhDs when I began my studies, and there was even less eight years later, when I emerged, degree in hand. The most sensible of my fellow students dropped out after a few years. Those of us more adept at denial or faith kept going, hoping we’d be the exception.

I told myself I was keeping my options open, and I always had a side project or two going. But I stayed too long. I grew deeply attached to my work and to teaching, and poured my heart into both. This turned out to be a mistake — a serious, passionate, complicated mistake, like marrying the wrong person or moving to the wrong country. It took me several years to fully extricate myself. And during that time I wandered around like an exiled divorcee — stunned, brokenhearted, a stranger to the world and to myself.

As it turns out, she wasn’t the exception. She eventually took a full-time non-profit job, which she eventually quit to try her hand at freelance writing. She wrote test questions, book reviews, website copy, and whatever else she could find.

It was then, during her period of exile, that she stumbled across a blog talking about perfume, and she was soon hooked — reading perfume blogs, ordering samples, learning to smell what the reviewers described, learning to tell the difference between top, middle, and bottom notes, learning the history of perfume. It changed everything, and by the end of the book she’s guest-posting for popular perfume blogs, flying to New York for an annual perfume tour, and, well, writing this book.

In other words, perfume brought her out of exile.

I recommend reading this if you’ve left or are thinking about leaving

Harad’s book is a thoughtful, well-written, and lush description of the pain of leaving one world and the strangeness of entering another, and it was even more powerful for me because she was leaving academia and entering a world academia generally disdains.

I remember a lecture in which the speaker was talking about bodies, and paused to pinch her forearm and say, “I don’t mean these bodies.” Perfume is the antithesis of academia in many ways — frivolous, feminine, decidedly embodied. This contrast between academia and Harad’s new world makes visible the specific challenges of leaving academia, challenges it’s all too easy to think are ours alone, our own shameful failures we need to hide or forget as soon as possible. But our journeys, while always unique, have more in common than we often acknowledge.

This is why I read memoirs about leaving academia, it’s why I read blogs, and it’s why I write here. We aren’t failures. Leaving is hard. Changing worlds changes us, and that’s the hardest thing of all.

Three key takeaways

While I doubt most of you are likely to become obsessed with perfume, there are three main things I want to highlight from Harad’s journey.

First, until she stumbled upon perfume blogs, Harad had no idea that was going to be something she loved enough to end up writing about it. She had no idea perfume would become a focus of her time and a way into a new life. You can’t necessarily tell from where you are right now what twists and turns your life will take. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something out there for you.

Second, you’ve got to follow the spark, whatever it is. For her it was perfume. For me, right now, it’s sailing the Pacific. For you it could be flamenco dancing, or child development, or the cuisine of Brazil, or the proofs for the infinity of prime numbers. Whether or not it becomes a Thing you can Make a Living At (and I highly doubt I will ever sail across the Pacific, much less make a living doing it), it will enrich your life and point you in new directions. That’s both helpful and fun, and it’s a hell of a lot more effective than trying to consciously and linearly figure out What You Are Supposed To Be Doing.

Finally, whatever it is, and wherever you go, you’re likely to get bombarded with internal fears, anxieties, and rules that come directly out of your academic experience. Whatever it is isn’t intellectual enough, it’s girly, it’s weird, it’s useless, it’s fluffy. All those fears / anxieties / rules mean is that you’re doing something different, and your old patterns aren’t sure what to make of it. They don’t mean this new thing actually is wrong or anti-intellectual or useless or whatever. So long as it’s meaningful and enjoyable for you, that’s good enough.

Want to read Coming to My Senses? Click here to buy the book from Amazon. Do you have other favorite leaving-academia memoirs? I’d love to know what they are!

Post-Academic Profile: Ann Daly

Thousands of people have successfully made the transition from academia — whether as graduate students, postdocs, adjuncts, tenure-line faculty, or tenured faculty — to lives and careers outside the ivory tower.

What do you do after tenure?

It’s not often you hear stories about people transitioning out of academia after they’ve already received tenure. It’s easy to attribute that to job security, to the satisfaction of hitting the pinnacle of a career, and to simple career success.

The reality is that tenure can act like a pair of golden handcuffs. You’ve got job security – why risk doing something else? You’ve already sunk the better part of decades into this career – how could you possibly start over? What will your colleagues think? What else could you possibly do?

The flip side of job security

Last week, Inside Higher Ed profiled Ann Daly, a former tenured women’s studies professor from the University of Texas turned women’s coach. Why did she leave?

I was dissatisfied and bored for a long, long time before I made my escape. My reasons were several. First, academia wasn’t a good fit for me. I’m a high-autonomy person, and my university had become increasingly bureaucratic and committee-obsessed over the years. Second, my foundational intellectual questions about women and culture were leading me outside into the “real world.” Third, I got bored in such a static environment. Seventeen years is a long time to be teaching the same thing in the same classroom and discussing the same problems in the same faculty meeting room. Fourth, I wanted to develop new capacities. The supreme irony is that my core desire, to constantly learn and grow, was thwarted within the very cultural institution that is supposed to advance learning.

In short, the reality of professoring, in her experience, didn’t live up to the reasons she had gone into academia. So she took that passion for women, that interest in learning, and turned it in a new direction.

Could her experience have been yours?

When a job market like this one hits, when no one is getting full-time jobs because there are almost none to be had, it’s easy to blame ourselves – we didn’t prepare enough, we didn’t do enough, we didn’t know enough. And it’s equally easy to hold up the job we didn’t get as the perfect career fantasy: If I had gotten that job, I would be totally content in all ways.

But consider, for just a minute, the possibility that you might have had an experience like Daly’s. Consider the possibility that you would have found being a faculty member ill-fitting – the endless committee meetings, trapped for decades with the same colleagues, teaching the same classes over and over again.

Now consider the possibility that you can take all of your passion for your subject, all of your curiosity, and all of your skills at learning something and turn it into a completely different career, one that might actually fit your personality better.

It really is possible

Academia, however lovely it is for those for whom it is right, is not the right place for all of us. It’s not even the best place for all of us. And that’s okay.

There’s a big wide world out there, and even though that, in and of itself, can be kind of scary, it means that there are more possibilities than you can dream of right now. There’s something out there for you, even if you don’t know what it is yet.

If nothing else, Daly’s experience tells us this: Even when the thread of your calling and your passion is constant, it might very well lead you into more than one career. We humans thrive on learning and challenge, and following our passions into new learnings and new challenges can take us outside of the boxes society likes to keep people in. And that’s okay.

Our job, the only one that matters, is to keep showing up, to keep noticing what draws us, and to keep thinking about how to arrange that to pay the rent. Because more often than you’d suspect, your passion really can support you.

Famous post-academics

Thousands of people have successfully made the transition from academia — whether as graduate students, postdocs, adjuncts, tenure-line faculty, or tenured faculty — to lives and careers outside the ivory tower.

Because we all need models

I thought it might be fun to call to mind all of the famous people who were once academics. Now, this isn’t to say that we can all become famous if we leave academia, but hey, it’s nice to see some success stories, you know?

David Duchovny started a PhD in English at Yale, but dropped out to act.

On-air personality Rachel Maddow has a DPhil in Politics from Oxford University.

Colm Tóibín, the award-winning Irish novelist and critic, left a master’s program for a career in journalism.

Robert Siegal, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” left a masters program in journalism after one year.

Marie Brennan, a published fantasy novelist, left a graduate program in folklore and anthropology at Indiana University to write full time.

Debbie Stoller, founder of Bust Magazine and the Bitch N Stitch books, earned a PhD in Psychology from Yale. (h/t  to Leaving Academia)

Miucca Prada, head of the Prada fashion house, has a PhD in political science. (h/t  to Leaving Academia)

Brian May, guitarist from Queen, has a PhD in astronomy for research on zodiacal dust clouds?

Bill Cosby has a Doctorate in Education from the University of Massachusetts.

Robert Vaughn, the Man from U.N.C.L.E., has a PhD in Communications from the University of Southern California.

Greg Graffin, lead singer and songwriter for the band bad religion, has a PhD in Zoology from Cornell.

Bryan Holland, singer for the band The Offspring, left a PhD program in microbiology at USC.

Monty Python’s Graham Chapman earned an MD, but didn’t practice for long.

Founding Velvet Underground member Sterling Morrison earned a PhD in Medieval Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.

Milo Aukerman, lead singer of early punk band The Descendents, earned a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren has a masters in chemical engineering.

Kevin Grevioux, who co-starred in Underworld with super-brainy Kate Beckinsale, was doing a master’s program in genetic engineering when he decided he’d rather act.

Actor James Franco has been accepted in Yale’s PhD program in English — arguably he’s doing the whole PhD / fame thing the other way around.

Elif Batuman parlayed a PhD in Comparative Lit from Stanford into the best-selling The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.

Food writer Molly Wizenberg, otherwise known as Orangette, dropped out of a PhD program in anthropology.

Michael Ignatieff, former Harvard professor of history and current opposition party leader in Canada.

And I didn’t even dip very far into the scores and scores of CEOs and politicians with PhDs! Know of any others? I’d love to hear about them!

A few comments about comments

I’d love leads on any other post-academics who’ve been successful out there in the wide world. If you know of any, drop me a line!

The whole question of being unhappy in academia — no matter what stage you’re in — can feel fraught. If you’d like to comment but are feeling shy about “being out there,” feel free to make up a persona or comment anonymously. You can also email me directly.

First-time commenters are always moderated (because you wouldn’t believe the spam I get), so if your comment doesn’t show up immediately, hang tight! Chances are, I’m not right on my email.

And most of all, let’s all practice compassion for ourselves and others in this difficult time and space.

Post-Academic Profile: John Fox

Thousands of people have successfully made the transition from academia — whether as graduate students, postdocs, adjuncts, tenure-line faculty, or tenured faculty — to lives and careers outside the ivory tower.

A Renaissance Man

A few weeks ago, the Chronicle published an interview with John Fox, former anthropology PhD turned writer, explorer, and educator. (If you’re a subscriber, you can read the whole thing here.)

The interview was so interesting — and the interview subject so compelling! — that I’d like to call out here some of the key takeaways for those of you still in the how-do-I-get-out-trenches.

There will not be a Master Plan.

When the interviewer asks him what ties together all of his disparate jobs, he said,

I’ve always loved the quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that “the voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.” My career since grad school has followed a zigzag course, to say the least. Much as I’d like to pretend it’s been the unfolding of some great master plan, the truth is, it’s come about through a combination of pursuing interests, seizing opportunities, and being pragmatic about making a living.

In other words, even if you start with a Grand Master Plan, it’s probably not going to last. But always taking the next right step — defined as whatever is the most interesting, compelling, exciting opportunity in front of you (which is not necessarily the most lucrative or prestigious), will get you somewhere fascinating and joyful.

Leveraging … anthropology?

You’d think, actually, that Fox would have had a harder time than most academics turning an academic career into a non-academic career. After all, his field was ancient Maya — not something you find everyday jobs in.

But he points out that we tend to undersell ourselves, especially in academia:

The other big lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t define your capabilities too narrowly—to be successful, you need to have an expansive view of yourself and what you have to offer. Ironically, I found academe as a career track to be very narrowing and limiting in that regard. These days, I’m quite comfortable wearing many career hats and learning about and dabbling in other fields. Again, I apply myself as an anthropologist, always the participant observer, always curious about “the other.” Comes in handy.

Even if you aren’t an anthropologist, all of those “soft” skills that helped you succeed in graduate school are things employers outside of academia are desperate for. If you don’t think writing is a significant skill, well, you probably haven’t spent much time reading what passes for communication in a lot of companies.

John Fox does not have superpowers

Okay, he probably does — the same way we all do. We all have unique and particular conglomerations of passions, skills, talents, and curiosities, and that intersection is where your escape hatch is probably located.

It can be easy to dismiss other people’s success outside of academia — they had something special going for them, you’re more ordinary, yadda yadda. But that’s just an excuse. John Fox was just another unhappy academia, and he turned that into a rich and rewarding life. And so can you.

A few comments about comments

I’d love leads on any other post-academics who’ve been successful out there in the wide world. If you know of any, drop me a line!

The whole question of being unhappy in academia — no matter what stage you’re in — can feel fraught. If you’d like to comment but are feeling shy about “being out there,” feel free to make up a persona or comment anonymously. You can also email me directly.

First-time commenters are always moderated (because you wouldn’t believe the spam I get), so if your comment doesn’t show up immediately, hang tight! Chances are, I’m not right on my email.

And most of all, let’s all practice compassion for ourselves and others in this difficult time and space.