There was a piece of advice that I heard again and again during my young life, long before I ever thought about doing a PhD and certainly long before I thought about leaving academia.
“Get a good job with a pension.”
If there was academic advice mixed in with it, it was “study something that will give you a good job with a pension.”
Ever the idealist, I shrugged those voices off and went out in pursuit of a higher calling. I was determined that life wouldn’t be just about working for the weekend. I didn’t want to be miserable my whole life just in time to have a few well-paid years of doing nothing before I die.
That vision had worked—sort of—for another generation.
But my 18-year-old self refused to accept it.
I was going to be a rock star. I did an English and History undergrad to, as my mom put it in her wisdom, “have something to fall back on.”
The PhD fit well into my vision of a different life. I started working remotely, traveling, researching anything that popped into my mind to research.
It was heaven in terms of lifestyle.
But when the academic job market didn’t deliver, I was left with no purpose. I threw a decade into an education that wouldn’t give me what I wanted. I didn’t know who I was, but I figured I was better than whatever academia thought I was worth—ie. making $20k a year as a sessional lecturer. Even if it meant leaving academia.
My purpose was endless intellectual freedom and making an impact on human knowledge. My purpose was not to be underemployed. My purpose was not to be poor my whole life. My purpose was not to be exploited.
Leaving academia brings the darkness
When I was recruited to my PhD program, academia held out a shiny red apple called purpose to get me in the door. And I found out that it wasn’t what it appeared to be.
The purpose I was seeking couldn’t be found here.
My degree wouldn’t give me the life I wanted.
But leaving academia was painful. The darkness came, as it often does for people without purpose.
I sat staring out the window. I broke down in tears sometimes.
With each glimmer of hope that came with an academic job application came the crashing reality of rejection.
The darkness fell some more. I realized that there was no place for me here. I didn’t fit.
Maybe it was my research. Maybe it was my publication record. Maybe it was that my cover letters weren’t good enough. Had the hiring committee noticed that I misused a semi-colon in that one job application?
I stressed some more.
And the darkness descended a little more.
So many PhD students are in the middle of losing their purpose. Some lose it while stuck in an endless rut of teaching to pay tuition for a thesis they never have time to work on. Some lose it when shitty superiors berate them, ignore them, or are just generally shitty.
The young idealist who came into the degree with hopes of big things turns into a cynical pessimist who’s quite probably struggling with mental health challenges.
And some of these will realize that leaving academia is the only choice they have left.
Rebuilding your purpose
There’s something strange about Millennials, and dare I say, Gen Z, that older generations just don’t seem to grasp. We want something to live for. And we don’t accept that that “something” is a good job with a pension.
I don’t know you, but let me make a guess about you. You’re driven by purpose. You’re chasing the dream of a higher calling.
That’s why you chose to study.
But for many people, the academy lets them down—and wickedly so. I don’t know if there’s any modern organization that promises more purpose and delivers less. I don’t know if there’s any similar job that promises satisfaction and delivers exploitation and indentured labor.
You don’t deserve this
If you believe in some higher purpose, call it God or the Universe or whatever, I’m pretty sure that your higher purpose was never to waste your life and energy living in abject poverty. Your purpose was not to be sexually or emotionally harassed at the hands of a pathetic and broken little superior who’s never dealt with their own shit.
If you’ve been chasing a purpose and realize that you’ve been looking for it in the wrong place, it’s time to restart. Question everything you’ve been taught. The academy hasn’t delivered what it promised. Leaving academia might be the best thing that ever happened to you.
And if you don’t feel like you know what your purpose is right now, that’s okay. A lot of people don’t. But why not take a stab at trying to regain it?
Don’t start with a whole-life’s purpose—maybe that’s too big to handle right now.
Start with a little mini-purpose for a month or a year.
“This year I will find something I love doing that’s not in academia”
“This year my purpose is to help alleviate human suffering.”
“This year my purpose is to figure out what I’m worth.”
Decide, for now, that you’ll have a purpose and commit to naming it.
This might mean recognizing that the purpose you’ve been chasing for 3, 5 or maybe even 10 years used to be good, but now it’s exploiting you. It’s not right anymore.
And—one more thing—give yourself permission to try some things. Take different jobs. Meet new people. Travel. Go on a quest to rediscover who you are and what brings your life meaning.
Because you’ve lost it somewhere along the way.
And because finding your purpose is worth it.
Read the follow-up post: Why I Don’t Regret Leaving Academia.