let the train run: on quitting and regret

Are you a post-ac waiting to happen?

I have to admit, I don’t envy anyone standing on that precipice. The decision to abandon academe remains the most difficult of my life–one marked by distress over the years spent, grief for the future lost, and resentment for the few who succeeded.

So many questions: had I wasted ten years of my life? Had I tried hard enough? Would another year make a difference? If I left, how would I reinvent myself? What would happen to my scholarship? My intellect? Me?

All of those questions haunted me, but only one question terrified me:

What if I changed my mind?

At any time, if I choose, I can add or drop students from my tutor schedule, give up vegetarianism, repaint my house, divorce my husband. I can even pursue the business marketing career for which I trained twenty-five years ago.

But I cannot return to the ivory tower.

Quitting academe was like jumping off a fast train. I fretted that as it careened into the distance without me, I would realize my mistake. With my research molding and my connections dissolving, I would wonder, “can a person catch a fast train on foot?”

If the idea of banishment from your life’s work has you paralyzed somewhere deep in the library stacks, I can offer you this one bit of comfort:

I have never felt like chasing after that train.

Not once.

And I am not someone who has settled easily into a new career.

My decision to quit came at a time when my kids needed me more than I’d anticipated. To better contend with the challenges of ADHD, dyslexia and specialized diets, I decided to work as a tutor. It paid well and it allowed me to be more available at home.

After years of sacrificing family for work, I didn’t mind turning the table for a time. I knew that I wouldn’t tutor forever. I knew my children would grow, and I would want more.

Now, with the kids clamoring up to the edge of the nest, it’s time to reinvent myself again.

Of course I get occasional pangs for the academic life I could have led. But those are different from the deep and unsettling regret I feared.

The thing about “changing my mind” that I never considered during all those agonizing months of indecision: I can’t sit around wishing I’d kept something I never had. In other words, going back would mean returning to a job search, not a job.

I have no delusions that more time on the market would have brought success. I quit in 2006, a time when my rejection letters claimed I’d competed with 400 other applicants for the job in question. From what I hear, things only declined after that.

By the time I left the market, I had grown weary of the futile sacrifice of family and self. I could no longer see the logic of working for pennies. I had begun to reject the idea I should feel small despite my many accomplishments.

Since escaping those dilemmas, I have never second guessed myself. After all, who ever looked under the sharp edge of a boot heel and asked, “How can I squeeze myself back under that thing?”

So, if you have found yourself in a similar place, I can tell you, don’t be afraid to get out from under, make the leap, and let the train run.

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