Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Decision to Walk Away from Academia

Guest post by Benjamin Harrison

A few years ago, with a three-year contract about to expire and a family to support, I found myself on the verge of leaving academia. While I might have been able to cobble together some sort of teaching position to tide me over another year, that is a game for someone who is young and single, not married and supporting a family. In short, if I hadn’t found a tenure-track job that year, I would have been out of academia, and the prospect was too awful to contemplate for any length of time.

I conducted desultory explorations of other careers, including academic administration, secondary school teaching, and strategic consulting. But mostly I went to see a therapist and indulged a short-lived (but profitable!) addiction to on-line poker. Happily, I landed a tenure-track job, moved, and found actual people with whom I could profitably play cards. If the secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits, that would have been the time, right?

Well, life goes on, even when it’s going well. Here I am, once again about to leave academia and…I’m fine with it. What happened? How did I get to this place? I’m planning a few posts on this subject, mostly because the route was neither straight nor obvious, but it’s one that many PhDs have to take.

Although it was by no means the most important factor, I can now say, “I succeeded and decided to move on.” I grabbed the gold ring of a tenure-track job, finished my book, wrote two articles of which I am quite proud, locked up tenure, and won a couple of spiffy grants. I could stay in academia if I wanted to. As stupid as it might seem, leaving voluntarily is fundamentally different than leaving because I have to. Obviously, I’m very lucky to have a tenure-track job to abandon, but I think the larger lesson applies to everyone who is on the fence. If you’re contemplating a move out of academia, or face the horrid prospect of having that move forced upon you, find a way to make the decision yours. If it helps, remember that academia makes some pretty unreasonable demands on its acolytes, and it’s often not worth the price. Go, and don’t look back.

An important step in making the journey out of academia voluntary is to figure out what is keeping you in. It isn’t the high pay, or jet-setting lifestyle, so what is it? For me, a big part of it was that my research wasn’t done. I had a half-revised book, and a second project I loved. I didn’t know it at the time, but figuring out how to leave my research on my own terms was tremendously important. The first step was to wrap up the book; so if that’s your ultimate goal, get cracking. You might find that once you have closure on that project, you can move on. In my case, however, it was the second project that drew me in. I had a story to tell, and hated the idea of never doing so.

The answer, I’m afraid, makes me something of a caricature: I’ve begun work on a historical novel. To my surprise, I have found that writing in this genre satisfies many of the same psychological and intellectual needs that scholarly writing does. Call it methadone if you like. Whether I’m writing a scholarly monograph or a novel, my goal is to understand the past, and communicate that understanding in a way my reader will find meaningful. The difference is that when Ben Harrison, historian, runs out of evidence, he runs out of argument. When Ben Harrison, novelist, runs out of evidence, he makes it up. Obviously this particular route is not for everyone, but if you love the academy because you love writing, don’t stop! For my purposes fiction allows me to continue to think and write about the past in a way I enjoy. And right now, that seems like a pretty good way to go.


WorstProfEver said...

Great post. Obviously, I'll agree thatleaving voluntarily is the way to go -- I've known several people who've been more or less forced out, and that just leaves you feeling disempowered. And great advice to figure out exactly what you want. As for the historical novel, what prof doesn't, have one in the back of their head? And why not live the dream?

Eliza Woolf said...

I agree, why not live the dream and see where it leads? No need to poo-poo all of our goals/fantasies just because academe didn't turn out exactly as we had hoped.

There is a certain balance to strike, I think, between trying to be pragmatic and "adult" when making a career transition post-PhD and tapping deeply into latent passions and interests. Life-long dreams don't simply end for those who choose to walk away from the ivory tower.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy your posts, BH. You seem confident about leaving a TT job and making the transition out of academia, which gives me hope. I'm also stuck in what feels like a dead end job in the middle of nowhere/sucksville and, after years trying to get out and failing, I'm finally gettin' ready to bolt . . . who knows where. Thanks for the inspiration.

*And to Eliza, I'm enjoying the blog and columns. Thanks.

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