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.

8 thoughts on “let the train run: on quitting and regret

  1. chris

    Ah, how glad I am to have found you, and this post! I landed here after a friend suggested reading a post by Rebecca Schuman on leaving academia, and both of you have articulated my fears so well. I’m not, however, quite in your position; I’m still ABD, trying to juggle a dissertation and a baby, knowing that for many reasons a TT job is just not in the cards for me. I’m struggling right now with the decision to finish or just leave and not look back. It’s been difficult, since, as you know, academic training excels at snaking its way around your sense of self, until you are inseparable from your academic accomplishments. Or at least that’s the way I feel.
    It’s great hearing from someone who left and never desired to jump on that train again.

    1. yes, I know exactly how you feel! I’m glad my experience was helpful. I remember that the silence around leaving was deafening back when I did it–I think it’s great that social media can offer support for an otherwise lonely process. Best of luck in making this hard choice.

  2. Ah, and here I am. Standing on that precipice. My PhD is in STEM field which would seem to make my prospects “better” than if it were in the much-criticized Humanities (boy am I tired of seeing Humanities-bashing…). For me, it’s not about the availability of jobs as much as it is about the changes in higher ed that I cannot agree with. My background is in industry and I earned my PhD in my early-mid 40s. I am viewed as somewhat of an outsider in both places. [None of these things, including the male chauvinism and gender discrimination, have ever bothered me. In fact, such things make me chuckle. Idiots.] As this is a second career, I’m thankfully wiser and more experienced and have given my faculty role at a two-year college more than a fair shake.

    The reality is that what I want and what I trained for (TT faculty at an R2) will not happen. Period.

    I’m dealing with the death of a dream, a very romantic dream that seemed possible up until the last of my 3.5 years spent speeding toward my PhD. The job market went splat and there I was. Disoriented and unprepared. But certainly not without options.

    I’m in the acceptance phase which will no doubt give way to the action phase. I’m one hell of a prof and my students love and respect me. However, the empowerment I was hoping to find, as a result of promises made during my hiring, have dissipated and the work was that to be mine was given to a “favorite son” who is annoyingly unqualified. In short, there is NO career path for me here.

    That notwithstanding, I went to great lengths of ensure that I always had options. I told the search committee that one of the cool things about my life was that I had options. Trouble was, I almost forgot those options and let the undertow of too much [busy/stupid] work, zero support, and no promise of a meaningful future destroy me on a personal level. [pfew! Glad I recognized that before it was too late.]

    I have done a lot of very cool things for my institution and I know progress has been hard fought for and won. That said, it’s go time. I have at least 30-40 more years to terrorize people [/laughing] and I can’t do that if my hands are cut off. I’m grateful for the groundswell of other academics who have paved the trail before me. I’m really sorry that anyone understands what we’re experiencing but I’m glad the experiences have been shared. It helps.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s especially interesting to hear from someone outside the humanities as I know disillusionment with higher ed certainly extends beyond the arts. I’m glad you’ve got options. I’d say you’re at the hardest part of it right now: committing to the change. Once you’re out it will be easier. Best of luck with your decision and the next phase of your career!

  3. drdomestica

    Your site is therapy for me. I left academia in 2015 after two unsuccessful years on the TT job market and after several humiliating experiences as an adjunct. I am still deprogramming, looking for steady work, and trying to figure out how to appease friends and family (e.g., “Don’t give up!” “You can keep searching for faculty jobs, can’t you? Something will come up!”). It’s good to know that I’m not alone in this. Thank you.

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