5 Stages of Recovering from Academia

Hi.  My name is Lauren and I am a Recovering Academic.  It has been 2 years and 6 months since I was in graduate studies and I have a good full-time job in my field.  Yet, there are times, usually when insomnia hits or the weather is crappy or a question gnaws at my curiosity, when I breakdown and start researching again.  Sometimes, I get friends to pull PDFs from academic article subscription services for me.  Other times, I get lost in 140 character debates with academics on Twitter.  I try to stop, try to convince myself that the research, write, publish cycle is behind me because I got out.  I got lucky and landed a job in my field that lets me engage a bit with the topics I love.  But it was not easy to adapt to the world outside the ivory tower.  Sometimes I think of time spent living below the poverty line just to get a few more letters behind my name and feel ashamed.  For months there was a constant fear I had spent too long in the university and did not have the necessary experience to get the job I wanted.  There are bouts of anger as I hear about another brilliant, skilled person who didn’t get a job because they have too much education.  It is not all bad though.  I am coming to accept that I am a Recovering Academic and looking for a way to pursue the research I love on my own terms.

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Leaving academia is hard.  There are few places that allow you to work whatever hours appeal to you and worry primarily about a topic you selected then devote years to studying that topic.  This makes academia is a very sheltered and privileged place and adapting to the world outside the ivory tower takes some getting used to.

I left a doctoral program in the spring of 2012 and since then have watched many friends complete degrees or leave.  Each of our experiences is unique but there are certain feelings we have all struggled with as well as the realization we need to talk about what happens with you leave academia.  We are starting to address the exploitation of sessional, contract, and adjunct instructors but few are talking about the graduates who leave the ivory tower entirely.   In an effort to explain what happens when you leave academia, I propose The 5 Stages of Recovering from Academia.

5 Stages of Recovering from Academia

1. Fear

So you decided to leave academia for the greener fields outside the ivory tower but you have no idea what to do with yourself.  Inside the ivory tower you are an expert in your field.  Outside the ivory tower you are another over-educated person applying for whatever jobs match with your experience.  More than everything, you can no longer hide on a university campus.  You have to go out and interact with people who are not as obsessed with a single topic as you are.  You will have to convince people you have skills that go beyond writing and researching and navigating a library.  Your worth will no longer be gauged by how well you lecture or how frequently you publish and present.  Your worth is determined by following directions, completely tasks quickly, and working with others towards a common goal.   Your name will probably not go on the work you do and someone above you will likely get the credit for it.

All of these things and more feed the fear that comes with leaving academia.

2. Anger

You have multiple university degrees, a list of peer-reviewed publications, and ample hours in and out of the lecture hall.  You can edit like a pro, organize conferences in other countries with nothing more than an internet connection, speak fluent academia (maybe even a few additional living and dead languages), and Foucault and his like stopped intimidating you years ago.  But you are still working contract to contract or temping or in retail/service because hiring committees in the Real World are afraid of three little letters – PhD.

This is the anger stage and it will probably involve many nights out drinking and ranging against how unfair the world is.  The anger can motivator the Recovering Academic and push them to show the world outside the ivory tower the value of a PhD.  The anger can also eat you from the inside out so find an outlet for it.  Physical activity is a great outlet — running, contact sports, aggressive solo dance parties…

3. Depression

At some point the when the fear and anger have passed the depression will hit.

For those in the hunt for a job the depression comes from application exhaustion.  Months of crafting beautiful cover letters and CVs, hours searching for job postings, countless hand-shaking events in the name of networking, interview after interview, and still nothing more than short-term contracts.  If all this starts to get to you it is okay and nothing to be ashamed of.  If you find it is interfering with your daily life get help.  You wouldn’t ignore a broken bone so don’t ignore your mental health.

For those who find employment the depression often from realizing how much you worked without adequate compensation.  Think about it, most jobs will ask you to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.  There might be times when you work later or go in on the weekend to meet a deadline but the hours will never match the 18 hours a day, 6 days a week put in by the average doctoral student. A busy week at work is unlikely to match the weeks in academia when you had 50 papers to make, article revisions due, a book review to submit, two classes to teach, and a conference presentation to finish and present in another city.  Plus most jobs will compensate you when you have to work overtime or are going beyond the minimum requirements.  This type of depression can also quickly turn into anger or joy.  When it turns to joy you are getting close to Stage 4.

4. Acceptance

Leaving academia does not mean leaving behind the part of you that thirsts to acquire and share knowledge.  Accepting that your time in academia does not define you but is part of you regardless of what you end up doing can take a long time.  The odd things is, once you are out you will meet all sorts of people who left academia but remain interested in their areas of expertise.  Often you wont know immediately these people are also Recovering Academics because their past time inside the ivory tower no longer defines them.

Once you have accepted you are a Recovering Academic you will find many subtle things change.  For instance, when people ask what you do the response will no longer include “I have a PhD in [insert obscure topic here]”.  You will simply say “I work in museums and it is awesome!” or something similar that keeps conversation going instead of killing it.  Another subtle change is research will no longer dictate where you go on vacation.  In fact, vacations will actually become relaxing because you wont be trying to squeeze in research and work between activities with friends and loved ones.  You will actually relax because the only reason you are away from home is for a vacation not justify going away because you have research to do.  This is not to say you wont go to places that pique your intellectual interest, because you will, but when you do it will all be for pleasure.

 5. Doing it on your own terms

This is exactly what it sounds like, getting to the point where you can pursue academic activities on your own terms.  No department or supervisor deadlines and expectations.  No fear of “publish or parish”.  No competing with friends for an ever shrinking pot of funding.  When you want to work on new research you can set aside the time to work on it as the time becomes available.  If a conference comes up you would like to attend, you don’t have to ask for travel funding, you can just go.  If you are lucky enough to work in an industry related to your field of expertise, you might even get your employer to pay for you to go to the interesting conference as part of your professional development!  Doing it on your own terms will probably mean an article takes longer to write but you also don’t have to put other things on hold to write it because you set the deadlines.  If you never want to go through peer review again you can always share your passion through a blog or connect with others in your field on Twitter (if your field is into that sort of thing like the Canadian environmental historians are).

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About Lauren Wheeler

Just a reformed history phd student working as a public historian and staying connected with the environmental history world from remote Edmonton. Requires coffee, music, laughter, and regular escapes to less Edmonton-like places.
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