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Leaving Academia: My Prehistory

I started a version of this essay a couple of months ago, but I was embarrassed: to admit the ways that academia was or is like a drug to me felt too embarrassing. I didn’t want to admit it. So I never finished writing then about the prehistory of my decision to leave academia (a decision that I haven’t made final yet—I’m still on a leave of absence from my tenured professor position). But the story doesn’t make sense to me without the prehistory, so when people ask how I’m doing or inquire about an update, I feel stuck, because I have to tell the prehistory first.

In  spring 2018, on a trip to New Orleans, I took a substance that altered my perceptions, and I realized two things: (1) I was very cut off from my emotions, and (2) I cared too much about my professional reputation—I had been promoted to full professor the previous summer, and I was coming to suspect that I would never achieve enough to be satisfied professionally.

In the draft of this essay that I wrote before, I wrote about reconnecting with my emotions by beginning a meditation practice, and then I waved a verbal magic wand and wrote that the combination of feeling my feelings and  meditation loosened the hold that others’ opinions had on me . . . but it seems that that was leaving out a lot.

It’s embarrassing to admit how much my emotional experience of being in academia can be summed up as wanting more of everything—more respect, more recognition, more opportunities, more achievements, more, more, more—a desire that was literally in-satiable. I wished that the sorting hat had placed me somewhere with more intellectual excitement, somewhere I could work with PhD students to help them improve as writers, somewhere where I would receive more invitations to do this or that thing. But the sorting hat placed me where it did, and by the time I had become a full professor, it was clear what was available, the good and the bad, at the place I was. I wished that people would invite me to do this or that thing, but I could also perceive from talking with friends at more prestigious Research I universities that the cost of being higher up in the field is in fact a constant barrage of invitations to do this or that thing . . . and each of those things takes a heap of time, and cumulatively, looked at from the outside, and probably from the inside, appears fucking exhausting.

I was dissatisfied not to be in The Room Where It Happens, but  I could also see those people in the room dancing as hard as they could to stay relevant and to say yes to every invitation, because if you say no, people will stop asking.

That night 2 years ago, I realized not only how much of my identity was wrapped up in being a successful academic, but also how the definition of “successful academic” depended almost entirely on how other people thought about me.

I resolved to change, and meditation and trying to cultivate self-awareness did help me begin to change, but I began to question whether it was possible for me to become the person I’d like to continue becoming while staying in academia. It seemed crazy to think about leaving academia in order to have mental space to change as a human being, because academia provides so much freedom over one’s schedule. Couldn’t I be one of those professors who mentally checks out of their paid job to follow their bliss and continues pulling a paycheck and keeping those sweet, sweet, sweet summers off?

It felt like I couldn’t. I like to be all in; if I’m not all in, I’m not likely to stay in at all—this makes me, to be precise, a quitter, but I want to be all in. I believe in this.

What I learned from leaving academia is that I wasn’t the reason why I cared so much about what other people think about my professional merit—that was academia, not me. I traded out the Vocation of academia for a new career, not a job, and I do think about medical writing in career-focused ways—my goals for training, for expertise, for things I want to learn how to do and to do better—but it doesn’t have anything like the hold over my mind and my sense of self that academia had. All I had to do to care less about what people thought about me professionally was to leave academia—it didn’t require therapy or more meditation or any special effort: just leaving the world where the logic of the place dictates that you are your position in the academic pecking order, the world that holds you in line with the knowledge that your place in the pecking order can change, for the better or for the worse.

Two movie moments have emblematized these thoughts for me and this process. Some people can be in academia without being of it, and I salute them. For me, though, what has resonated with me most strongly is the closing scene of War Games: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

Another image, for the moments when it seems crazy to give up prestige and so much freedom and autonomy to take a job where I have to show up in the office 5 days a week, 12 months a year (which sounds like simply, er, *LIFE* to the non-academics reading this), is the scene at the end of James Cameron’s Titanic, when Rose gives a tiny laugh and drops the diamond necklace into the ocean:


What? How can you do that? How can you throw a diamond necklace away? It’s absurd. It calls into question the value of a diamond necklace!

From the first day of graduate school, when they sat us down and told us that half of us would never get tenure-track jobs, through the years after that, when I learned that women, and mothers in particular, would drop out of the academic pipeline at disproportionate rates at every step on the way to full professor, the very scarcity of good academic jobs made them into diamond necklaces: rare, precious, and beautiful. I worked so hard, specifically as a feminist project, not to fall out of the pipeline, not to get stuck at the associate professor level—always wanting more, both for myself and because women are underrepresented more and more the higher up you get in academia. To drop that necklace, to watch it swirl and spiral through the water as it sinks down, down, down—what an odd thing to do. And yet how freeing.

6 Replies to “Leaving Academia: My Prehistory”

  1. I’m always glad to read more from you, and I am glad that the turn away from academe seems to be agreeing with you. I still struggle with my own, even in a good job that actually helps people; I hope to find something of what you describe.


  2. Rachel, I loved reading this. While I’m still in academia, being in a 9 to 5 position at a community college has been a better fit for me. Daily meditation has helped me as well. I’ve finally reached a point where I’m content-helping students, mentoring faculty, solving problems. No tenure, but I am content and feel safe!


    1. Steve, it’s wonderful to read this update from you — I’m so happy that you found a place to work that *feels* better — I do believe it’s not just the inside (e.g., the meditation) but also the outside (the actual workplace).


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