Leaving Academia: The Trauma of Identity Loss – A #Postac Guest Post

by Lisa Munro, PhD

Dr. Lisa Munro

Lisa’s Bio:  I graduated from the University of Arizona in 2015 with a PhD in Latin American history. I’ve got a long list of non-academic jobs, including being a Peace Corps volunteer (Guatemala, 2004-2006), a veterinary technician, a medical receptionist in a bilingual hospital office, a teacher, a study abroad assistant, and most recently, a crime victim advocate. I’ve lived in Guatemala and Mexico and am currently figuring out how to engineer my life so I can return there. I co-host the biweekly #withaphd chat on Twitter, where academics of all stripes can network and share with each other about life outside of academia. I’m passionate about writing about Latin America, history, archaeology, science and pseudoscience, neoliberalism, critical thinking, the writing process, adoption and child welfare, trauma, memoir, and my post-PhD life.

Blog link: http://www.lisamunro.net/blog-1/

Twitter link: http://www.twitter.com/llmunro

This is the first of three post-ac posts by Lisa

People often ask me what I “do” in life now with my PhD in history. I work in crime victim advocacy. I show up on crime scenes to help people who have been victimized. I work with crime victims of all kinds: domestic violence, sexual assault, attempted homicide, bank robberies, armed robbery, assault, stabbings, and kidnapping, just to name a few. I also work with people who have been through traumatic situations that aren’t crimes: survivors of suicide, natural and unexpected death, traffic accidents, and house fires.

After the initial physical violence of the incident, people then suffer a series of traumatic emotional losses: loss of loved ones, loss of a sense of security, loss of control, loss of identity. On scene, I help people make sense of what’s happened to them. I tell them I’m sorry for what happened to them. I tell them about that what happened them is not their fault. I tell them that they did nothing to deserve the awful thing that just happened to them. I validate people’s feelings about their experiences: shame, guilt, rage, grief. I encourage them to start making little decisions about their next steps to help them feel like they’re in control again after experiencing an out of control situation.

I’ve been surprised by how my current job has helped me understand my emotional process after my failure on the job market and subsequent decision to leave academia. Please note: I am in NO WAY suggesting that being the actual victim of a violent crime is equivalent or even comparable to the process of leaving academia. These are very different experiences for many reasons. What I am suggesting is that both involve working through the process of coming to terms with the traumatic loss of identity. Both experiences leave people to remake new lives and identities very different than the ones they thought they had. For crime victims, they have to figure out who they now are after being victimized and how to live through and with the violence and trauma of the crime. For people leaving academia, they have to now figure out who they are without the personal and professional identity that defined them. Regardless of the cause, the underlying emotional process of recovering from the traumatic loss of identity is the same.

I finished my PhD in history in 2015. I’d worked hard in a good graduate program whose graduates often got good jobs. I assumed that I had done all the right things to get a tenure-track academic job or at least a post-doc in a nice place. I’d written a decent dissertation, published in good journals, and faithfully attended my annual meeting. I had good letters of recommendation. Despite my efforts, I got absolutely no traction on the job market. One year, I was shortlisted for two interviews, neither of which went anywhere. The next year, I received no interviews at all, but instead received a slew of rejection emails from search committees who were decent enough to send them. Mostly, search committees ghosted me, leaving me to figure out the rejection on my own. To this date, I have never received an on-campus interview.

I didn’t so much break up with academia all at once as gradually just gave up in defeat. I applied for fewer and fewer jobs, reasoning that I only wanted to spend time and effort on jobs where I actually had a chance. (Plot spoiler: historians of Central America are not a hot commodity.) I stopped checking the job wiki daily and scouring the h-net website. I started applying to non-academic jobs because I was running out of money. Quitting the academic job market made logical sense and I still think it was the right decision for me. However, I was unprepared for the magnitude of feelings of  loss and the realization that I’d now have to redefine myself in new ways. Leaving academia felt like being forced to leave someone I still loved. I felt powerless, betrayed and victimized by a system much bigger and more powerful than I. (Again, don’t get me wrong—feeling victimized by academia is very different than being an actual crime victim.)

I applied for a position in victim advocacy because I’d served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. During my service there, I worked with very poor indigenous people who had suffered decades of nearly unimaginable levels of state-sponsored political violence and corresponding trauma. My Peace Corps experience informed my PhD research: I’d wanted to understand the assumptions that informed the violence and how people healed from their experiences. Helping people understand and process their own traumas seemed like a logical and organic extension of my intellectual interests and professional experience.

My victim advocacy work transformed the way I thought about my perceived failure to get an academic job and my overwhelming feelings of loss. I understood my failures intellectually I knew how neoliberalism has crushed the academy and how corporate models of profitability fail students and bloat administrations. I know how the job market reinforces structural inequalities. However, I struggled with the emotional fallout of leaving academia in ways in didn’t expect. Emotional knowing is different than intellectual knowing. The heart and head understand things in different ways and they don’t always agree. Emotions aren’t intellectual ideas; they’re instinctual, wild, without language, and sometimes frightening in their intensity. People process trauma on a emotional level that has little to do with intellectual understandings of it. Traumatic loss often brings with it feelings of shame, guilt, anger, sadness, betrayal, rage, and anxiety.

Leaving academia will change who you are. Leaving changes your relationship with academia, your relationship with your colleagues, and your relationship with your research. Walking away from something that we love, especially unwillingly, causes loss. I never thought I’d fail on the job market and have to walk away. I had no idea what to do or who I was after my only plan didn’t materialize the way I thought it would. Abandoning hopes for a job, way of life, work I cared about, colleagues, and what felt like my very identity also made me feel alone and isolated. Well meaning friends and family may not understand our experiences, reasoning that we can just “get another job.” People might as well tell us to suddenly shape-shift into barely recognizable people we are not. Identity loss changes who we are on a fundamental level. Who are we now without these old identities that used to define us as people? We’re suddenly not sure. Out of what could we even possibly remake ourselves?

Here are some ideas for processing traumatic identity loss:

  • Meditate.
  • Expressive writing, like journaling.
  • Share your story with safe people who will honor and respect it.
  • Seek out community for emotional support, validation, and empathy.
  • Cultivate emotional resilience.
  • Practice self-care, even when (especially when) it feels like work.
  • Feel feelings rather than intellectually analyzing them. Emotional pain will not actually kill you; it just feels like it will. Just acknowledge the feelings and let them be. You don’t have to DO anything about them. Be self-aware of self-medicating and numbing behaviors, like drinking, emotional eating, or other self-destructive avoidance strategies.
  • Talk to a trusted therapist. If you’re feeling so overwhelmed by feelings that you’re not coping or thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, please reach out to mental health resources in your community or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Healing after traumatic loss of identity isn’t something that we ever “get over.” We start healing when we start being able to tell our stories about ourselves in new ways that empower us. I’m dealing with my losses one day at a time, mostly by letting go of who I thought I was and working on building who I want to be.

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Leaving Academia: The Trauma of Identity Loss – A #Postac Guest Post — 7 Comments

  1. So much time, money, and energy invested into one’s project and the desire to share our knowledge vis-à-vis the coveted TT job, the connection you make between identity and our desires resonates with me much more than Big Ben on a calm day.

    Thank you so much for your post and very excellent advice. I am in a similar position, one complicated by a nice case of depression brought about, in part, by the thought that I must not be good enough. Well, WHO is good enough to compete with 400 people for one job?! Ok, one person! 😉 But of those other 399 people, many, if not most, are equally or at least very similarly qualified.

  2. Thank you for this post. I’m contemplating leaving academia soon, after 21 years in it, having already been taken through a huge loss of professional identity at the hands of an unscrupulous boss (and having continued to work around it for 10 years). I really resonate with what you’re saying here and the post is timely for me. It’s nice to know, somehow, that I’m not crazy or alone in the feeling of having grieved through this, and also it’s very helpful to read your thoughts as I’m getting ready to step out of the academic queue.

  3. I agree: the transition outside Academia is tough. Some might fell grief and get into depression, some others might finally fell free. To get the transition smoother, the only thing we can do is sharing the experience and trying to use a little bit of humor. This is what we are trying to do at MethodExperimental https://methodexperimental.blog/

    If you like follow, if you fell like contribute!

  4. Not having a sense of self-worth and identity based around an academic appointment is a good idea even if you don’t plan on leaving academia. Developing thicker skin and being tough to begin with generally helps too so you’re not thrown off balance anytime something changes. The lack of toughness tends to be a major trait I see in people who struggle with shifting conditions. It is the fault of our educational system where we produce people who never have been forced to cope with a problem by means other than filing a grievance and acting offended.

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