What Will You Gain When You Lose? – Langer #2

You know the Special K cereal commercials with the tag line, “What will you gain when you lose?”  I actually can’t stand those commercials or any advertising that try to glamorize dieting, market thin-centrism, and sell women on some kind of highly processed food-commodity as the key to weight loss, let alone happiness, success, or, in the Special K campaign–‘sass.’

However, it is true that in many cases in life, when you lose something, you do gain something else.  And that’s why the Special K line instantly popped into my head as I read Jessica Langer’s latest post on leaving academia.  Sure you’re losing the academia career [cue for violins], but, what are you gaining?  Make a list and tape it next to your computer, next to your bed, next to your toilet, wherever you need a reminder. Leaving academia can mean gaining a whole world of opportunity to do new things, and to free yourself from the cramped, narrow judgments that circumscribe the academic mind.

By Jessica Langer

For many of us, the most difficult thing about leaving academia isn’t finding work outside of it. It isn’t the practical concerns. It’s the emotional and psychological pull, the geas that’s put by the institutional cult of academia on each and every one of us as we enter graduate school and keeps its claws in our souls no matter what we do.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. But maybe not.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who has found success and happiness outside of academia, so know that it’s possible. But academia is like a drug gang in more ways than one: every time we try to leave, it pulls us back in, whether materially or psychologically.

In short: leaving academia isn’t just changing career paths. It’s leaving a way of life and a way of looking at the world; because of this, it requires a real, active shift in the way you envision yourself, your relationship to your work, and your relationship to the wider world around you.

Here’s how I’ve made my own transition as psychologically healthy as possible:

  1. Really, truly believing that I am not a failure for leaving academia.

How I did this: I read all I could about the value of failure. I spent a day or two (ok, maybe a week or two. Or a month. Or a little longer than a month) really inhabiting the idea of being a failure, mourning it, and letting the feelings exist so that I could work through them, like one might climb one’s way out of a ditch.

I enumerated every success in my life, even the really small ones, to build up a little bulwark against the academic cult’s insistence that to leave is to fail.

And I had to start understanding academia as just one value system among many possible value systems, and not even necessarily the best one. It’s common for academia to inculcate its subjects into believing that it is the bearer of the only possible value system for smart people, in a way that quite literally replicates the more cultish of religions. It takes time, energy and insight to get rid of this. But you must if you want to free yourself from the paralyzing fear that leaving equals failure – and that failure is always bad or wrong – that academia so often engenders.

  1. Making a really long list of the positive aspects of my post-ac path.

In my post-academic life, I don’t get to make a living primarily from academic work. But I do get to live in Toronto, my hometown and favourite city. I get to live 2 blocks from my parents (this is not for everyone, but it works for me.) I get to raise my children here. I get to live in a city where I can afford a nice house and a nice lifestyle.

Also? I don’t have to read any journal article I don’t want to read. I don’t have to deal with academic departmental politics. I don’t have to worry that if I piss off the wrong professor, I won’t get an article accepted to Journal X. I don’t have to spend seven years terrified that I won’t get tenure and will have to uproot my entire family.

How I did this: I made an actual, physical list of pros. No cons, just pros: this isn’t a decision-making process, this is a commitment. I wrote it out, put it up next to my computer, and read it over and over.

(There’s a story here: when I went through my first really big breakup as a teenager, I made a list of people I could call anytime if I needed to talk, and taped it to my lamp next to my bed. I only actually called anyone from it a few times, but just the knowledge that it was there was an enormous help, psychologically. Just knowing the list is there – having it written out and contemplatable at any time – is going to be helpful to you, most likely.)

  1. Stay active in your academic field, if you want to… but only on your own terms.

Some people kind of shut themselves out of the academic community when they go alt- or post-ac to avoid the pain of seeing others on the path they used to tread. But I find that the mind is good at imagining the darkest and most hurtful possible realities when it’s cut off from information. Instead, understand that it will be painful, but follow those others’ trajectories… but make sure to follow every part of them. It’s easy to look at new TT folks and imagine that they all work in sunny offices with endless bookshelves and deep institutional pockets. Don’t romanticize; also pay attention to their tweets about how they’ll have to pay out of pocket for this year’s conference, to the field scuttlebutt about the departments that are viper pits. And remember that even a TT job isn’t a guarantee that you won’t be poor.

How I did it: It was a journey for me, and it continues to be, to be honest. I still publish, when it suits me and when I feel like it, and now I’m publishing in two broad, sometimes interrelated fields: consumer culture theory (marketing, in which I work and research now) and literature and film/media (in which I did my PhD). The freedom, now, is that I get to write and publish whatever the heck I want and it has no bearing whatsoever on whether I get to keep my job.

Similarly, I teach what I want, when I want, and I take the semester off if I want. I had a baby this fall, and instead of negotiating maternity leave and worrying about my tenure clock, I just… decided not to teach that semester, and did most client meetings by Skype for that few months. There’s a lot to be said about the unfair situation of adjuncts, and I’ve said a fair bit of it myself, and I don’t disagree that a lot of adjuncts are treated badly and paid abominably. But the flip side of occasional adjuncting as one element of a post-ac career is that it can be flexible on both sides. You aren’t tied down to one job, one city, for an entire career. You aren’t terrified during your T-T years of being uprooted eventually. You just… teach, and enjoy it, and then go home and do something else.

What’s the upshot here? Yes, you’re losing something when you leave academia. It’s a loss, and you can mourn it as a loss. But you’re also gaining something. You have the opportunity now to create your own future, in a way that almost no academic in the entire world does.

And finally: it’s important to understand that it’s OK and normal to always be a little sad or wistful about the academic path, because the loss of a dream is still a loss. But that sadness and wistfulness isn’t a signifier that they should have done anything different. It’s the logical consequence of the road not taken. No matter what, you’d have that wistfulness. So feel it, breathe through it, let it ride along with you for a while… and then let it go, as you launch yourself into that bright future of yours.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


What Will You Gain When You Lose? – Langer #2 — 2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post! It really helped to validate the experience I’m going through right now. I couldn’t agree more: the hardest part about leaving (for me) IS the emotional and psychological tug-of-war! I’m still “in,” and every time I have made serious efforts to start looking into other career options and/or moving to the location where I want to be – SOMETHING happens to make me question my decision.

    I especially appreciated the suggestion to make a list of all the “pros” of choosing a non-academic path: “No cons, just pros: this isn’t a decision-making process, this is a commitment…” Right. I’m past the decision-making stage. I need to stop second-guessing myself, fully COMMIT, and stand by my decision. Remind myself why I made my decision, and realize it’s not my heart, but the voice of “academia” telling me not to go down that road…Thank you!!

  2. Great post! When I was “in transition,” I did something similar to your Pro list: I kept a Victory Log, where I recorded every single tiny good thing that happened along the way–first client, website launch, taking my business from part-time to full-time. As the months went on, it was neat to see how the victories got bigger and bigger. But I still look back on the small early victories with the pride of a restaurant owner who frames her first dollar bill and hangs it on the wall. That first dollar seems somehow like the most valuable one of all. 🙂

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