I spent a few years learning about papyrology during my doctorate. For those of you who don’t know, papyrus is sort of like an ancient paper that’s mostly found in Egypt. In 2016 I went to a big conference on papyrology in Barcelona. All of the celebrity papyrologists were there, but I was especially excited to see Dorothy Thompson. I stumbled over my words as I shook her hand.
Do you know who she is?
Have you ever had this experience? Do you see academic celebrities at conferences that nobody else would ever care about?
As I’ve decided to leave academia, I’ve thought about what this alternative celebrity culture signifies. And–hear me out here–I think it partly explains why leaving creates such an identity crisis.
To be an academic is to belong to a small and global community that believes, no that knows, the thing you do is vitally important. Whether you’re mixing chemical compounds, creating new life forms, mapping cities, or in my case, studying diasporas and religion (and occasionally papyrology), your thing is the most important thing. You are surrounded by people who believe that it’s the most important thing, and for whom the advance of knowledge in your field is meaningful. You get paid to do said important thing.
Structures of meaning collapse when you leave academia
The bubble that you live in is a structure of meaning. When you learn about a field and place yourself within it, it’s not only that you’re training for a job. You’re inserting yourself and your life’s calling into a value system that gives you meaning, purpose, and identity.
Do you want to know what ACTUALLY makes it hardest to leave academia? It’s not that you have to look for a different job.
The ACTUAL hardest part of leaving academia is that the entire structure of meaning you live in comes crashing down. With that crash you don’t only lose the world you love, but your place in that world too.
YOU LOSE YOUR IDENTITY--or a a big part of it anyways.
You lose your life’s purpose.
You lose your importance.
You lose your community.
That’s why it’s so hard.
Leaving academia means rediscovering your purpose. And it’s crazy hard.
That’s why it pisses me off when professors who’ve never had to work outside of the academy talk about what great transferrable skills a PhD will give you and how easy it will be to transition.
Because they have never had to face what you have to face. They don’t know how hard it is.
Oh sure, there are challenges with being a professor. But they’ve never had to watch their structure of meaning die.
Last year I was about to start a company. I had momentum and the idea. I was super excited. But do you know what I did instead? I chickened out and started looking at precarious academic work. I started thinking about post-docs that were, frankly, a waste of my time and energy.
Because the old Chris was slipping away. He was dying–and I didn’t think he’d ever be resurrected. And that made me go through some dark places and times when I wanted to grasp at the last straws of that old world.
I did this even though I had a steady income. Even though I liked what I was doing. And even though I had the dream of starting a company and a lot of amazing people supporting me.
How to rebuild
I don’t think the best response to a collapsing structure of meaning is to desperately try to hold on to it. I don’t think that putting yourself into precarious work is the answer. Nor is letting the academy exploit you in some other way.
This is the same reason people stay in toxic relationships.
Imagine telling someone in a toxic relationship, “Yes it’s terrible. But who would you be without him?” Or, “You’ve put so much time into this relationship. Giving up on it would be a waste.”
This would be wrong.
The reality is, if you leave academia, you need to build a new structure. You need to find meaning and purpose in a new place.
Maybe you get to work alongside your old discipline in an industry job that’s connected and lets you do some of the same things. In this case, you can sort of keep the structure and just reconfigure your place in it.
I didn’t have this option. I was a humanities graduate. There was no adjacent high-paying path as there is for a lot of STEM graduates. I had to COMPLETELY let the structure fall apart and start to build a new one.
Bit by bit.
It’s now a year after I decided to leave academia, and I’m still rebuilding.
You rebuild by getting around new people who speak a different language of meaning. You rebuild by learning to adapt to new realities and translating your skills to them.
You rebuild by remembering who you really are, not who you are in academia. You remember the things you love to do and the things you stand for.
Until one day, you’ll forget about the professor rock star. You’ll realize that you don’t want to be him or her–you have new role models.
But even stranger is that you begin to forget your old self, and you’re okay with it.
Because you love the new one more.
Read the related post: Why I Don’t Regret Leaving Academia