#Dispatches – When Did You Know It Was Time to Quit? Part I: Sick of Being Poor, The Body Keeps the Score

In our Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

This week, the question is: Those who decided to leave the academy–when did you know it was time to leave, and why?

We got 26 responses! We will share them in two posts. Today is Part II: Sick of Being Poor, The Body Keeps the Score

Next week is Part II: Overwork, Quality of Life, and Abuse

We continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: we ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. Some of them go to …. interesting places. We only lightly edit them, and I think it’s worth contemplating what people feel is important to share about their identities.


Part 1: Sick of Being Poor

So, look. It goes without saying that the main catalyst for leaving the academy is the eXpLoItAtIoN and the poverty. Needless to say, many respondents told stories that revolved around that painful reality. But that’s not say the decision is easy; it’s wrenching and painful, especially when your advisor is a jerk about it.

“I knew the odds were against me at the end of my first postdoc. I was always the bridesmaid, never the new TT faculty member. But I persisted into postdoc #2, which caused me to realize that for all my education, for all my fighting, I ended up worse off than where I started (poverty), because not I was still in poverty and $90K deep in student loans. It was rough. I had no plan when I left. I had interviewed for the job I have now, but they hadn’t called me back yet. I woke up one day and sent an email to my boss saying I was giving 1 month notice— she was a total a-hole about it. I packed up my life and set off to be an outdoor guide (which paid better than my postdoc) until I could find something. When I was offered the job, I debated it but those student loans got me. So I negotiated a higher salary than the evil postdoc advisor has; worth it. Now I do some of my own research and I am learning new things like instrument development. It’s pretty good. Trust your gut; you’ll know if/when it’s time to leave. Start planning a year ahead if you can. I needed time to mentally transition and to network. There is light outside the ivory tower. [Nonac STEM I’m 40, white, married queer woman. I grew up in poverty and although my mom got a degree while I was in high school, they couldn’t help me navigate this world. She was and is an addict, which meant I did it all on my own without a safety net.]


After two years of hourly paid teaching I needed a job with a regular salary.  [Postdoc, Hum; 50, white, female, married, part time BA & MA, full time self funded PhD ]


Finished my Ph.D in Political Science in 2011; spouse was a post-doc from 2009-11. She received TT offer from institution where we are now. Made fatal error of not negotiating for anything north of adjuncting for me. Did that from 2012-2015, then received this position on staff, which paid solid wages, benefits, etc. Continued applying to academic positions here and elsewhere. No luck here; got a nibble from a similar institution in heartland (4-yr public aspirational) 2.5 years ago, but spouse would not consider move and we had 3 children by then. Still publishing as am able, but I do it because I enjoy it. May even pursue a book project, but not for any instrumental goal. So it was a gradual process that involved thoughts ending in “I would have never made it financially if I had stayed in the academy.”[Professional staff at 4-yr public institution; SS; CIS-gendered (male), straight, married, four children ages 18-mo – almost 10).]

The precarity can include the geographical instability as well – saying no to the need to move every few years.

After staying unhappy for one year in postdoc, I decided to leave academia and find a stable job where I did not have to move across the world considering the employment possibilities of my husband as well. I did not want to keep moving the continents for contractual postdoc positions and always be worried about future. Now, I work for a bank in the Netherlands and feel much more secured and happy. [Postdoc, STEM; I am a 30 years old Indian woman. I did my PhD from India and then moved to Switzerland with my husband for postdoc. Leaving home and moving to a new country with temporary residence (translating to limited options for spouse’s employment) discouraged me from persuing.]


When I was no longer enjoying the research that much. I liked the reading and writing aspect, but not necessarily the being in the lab (being faced with broken down equipment and related frustrations). My role now provides me with all of these, without actually having to do (what I consider) the drudge of repeated experiments. Why? I wanted to not have to move location every few years, and wanted to stop being in a long distance relationship. I also wanted to be respected for what I do and not feel I am constantly competing with others and feeling stupid. Essentially I wanted stability. It has been great being a research development manager at a University supporting academics and being considered to be a funding support professional. I could go on maternity leave and not worry about what happens to my work load. I have a permanent job and have no need to move location to find my next job. I can have a holiday without worrying about my next publication or grant.[Research Dev Manager; STEM; 33, white, female, UK (non British)]


How tragic that PhDs cannot afford to see a doctor when they need to. Or have more than $20 to spend on groceries a week. But it can be the catalyst for deciding: why am I still doing this?

When I hit rock bottom. I was stringing together PT and adjunct jobs, but was being priced out of the city because my jobs were contract or grant-based and I couldn’t qualify for a mortgage; my grocery budget was less than $20 a week, doctors were on emergency basis only, and my only social activities outside of work were online. I started applying for post-docs and VAPs/TTs three years ago and haven’t gotten a single interview, despite the constant refrain of “you belong here, your ideas are great, your students love you, you’re doing great work”. It really hit home when those same people wouldn’t even look twice at my application for jobs at their own institutions. So, I started thinking hard about what I really wanted to do with my life, and whether I was trying to stay in academia because I loved it or because I was still trying to get validation. Eventually I realized that I could still publish my book if I wanted to, go to conferences, be a part of the conversation; I might not get picked up by the major publishing houses, but those only matter for tenure which – and here is the crucial part – NO ONE CARES ABOUT OUTSIDE OF ACADEMIA. So I decided that I would take my talents elsewhere and try living above the poverty line for once. I’m still looking for a full-time job, but now that I’ve blown open my search radius I’m finally looking forward to the possibilities. [Nonac Humanities; 35 single white female]


Everyone has to face the reality: the adjunct positions Is. Not. Going. To. Become. Tenure Track.

I left my full time position in the academy full time after realizing that my position as an adjunct lecturer was going to remain on a quarter-to-quarter system despite having extremely positive student evaluations (over 95% of students reported that they would recommend me as an instructor on my evals). The lease on my car was up and I needed to purchase a new one, but I couldn’t guarantee my long-term income. This, combined with my husband’s military service, meant that the tenure track would simply not be feasible for our family. So, I pursued other employment opportunities and now work as a defense contractor using my research skills in an environment where I can network with those likely to employ me as we move on military orders over time.[Nonac, SS; 33 year old heterosexual woman married to an active-duty Naval Officer plus mother to a three year old and pregnant with my second child]


I’m Alt-Ac, so not completely free of the shackles of academia, but I now work in an administrative position, running a writing/tutoring center. I got out of teaching because after seven years as an adjunct, I had had enough of being poor and taken advantage of. I was frustrated trying to get jobs outside of academia, because the economy was in the post 2008 slump and my industry experience wasn’t “fresh” enough. So in some way the choice was made for me, and I’m still not “out” of academia altogether. I am, however, out of the publish-or-perish rat race, I get to work one on one with students and pass along my years of experience to a new generation of tutors, and most importantly NO GRADING! I’ve been able to reclaim my identity outside of teaching and scholarship and only do the academic work I’m genuinely passionate about, essentially as a hobby. I am still working on a PhD, but I’m doing it for me, for fun, because I want it and not because I HAVE to. It is incredibly liberating when your ability to make mortgage payments no longer rests on your ability to publish. [Admin, Hum; Late 40s, queer white woman.]


In the end, the poverty, anxiety, uncertainty, and struggle just…. break a person.

I knew when I had to bail at the last minute on my field’s annual conference because of a mix of burnout and the inability to put together enough income from my odd freelance editing jobs (I was still in the thick of a nine-month-long job search in the medium-sized city my wife and I had moved to for her non-academic job—there were no field-adjacent adjunct gigs available in the city either) to even pay my share of rent. It seemed insane to pony up for a conference attending which would require sacrificing what was already a pittance of an income. I had even received a travel stipend for underemployed people, but it wouldn’t have been enough to cover the trip. And by that point, I was mentally broken from four years of post-PhD precarity.[Nonac, Hum; Thirty-five y/o white male, heterosexual, married]


Part 2: The Body Keeps the Score*

The problem is, academics live so thoroughly at the beck and call of external validation, we often cannot register exploitation for what it is. Sometimes, it takes listening to the body’s warning signs to realize definitively it is time to stop.

When your flight response is too loud to ignore, get out. It doesn’t matter how many opportunities you have or how much money in scholarships, our bodies have a way of “knowing” reality and sometimes you need to listen. [Grad Student, Humanities, Female, woman identified, queer, married, white, Jewish, under 30]


Do you feel your heart sink when you score an interview? That’s a sign!

I knew it was time to leave during my second year on the academic job market. This was right after my defense and I was working as a contractor for a medical device company as a contractor. The treatment, pay, and working conditions were so much better than what I experienced as a graduate student and better than what I could expect even if I got a TT job. I could pick where I lived and not have to uproot my family or end a significant relationship. I would not be complicit in propping up an academic system that preys on contingent labor. When my heart sank at an interview invite, I knew it was time to leave permanently. [37-year-old white married cis woman with an additional long-term serious partner (ethical nonmonogymy)]


Then there is the brutal reality of academia: that it consistently refuses to accommodate the needs of sick and disabled bodies. There are folks who, with a little bit of understanding, could keep trying…. but academia makes it impossible.

I knew it was time to leave the academy when I was kicked out – my contract was not renewed in the wake of both physical and mental illness that I was not managing well. I was having trouble keeping up with emails and grading, and was unable to figure out how to ask for help – when I did, I was not offered help that would ease my workload. (At one meeting, we reviewed emails I had not answered and was told many of them were not actually important to answer, as the information was in the syllabus, etc.) That said, I have pretty consistently been told to deal with my illnesses myself and had no accommodations offered. My graduate funding was cut off early, although I was recovering from 2009 H1N1 flu with complications. I texted a colleague with supervisor authority over me for help from an ER for cellulitis in my leg that required incisions, and still taught two lab classes the next day, despite doctors wanting me to rest and elevate the leg – I never received a reply and was too embarrassed to follow up. I relocated to a climate that is less stressful to my body and searched for jobs I might be able to sustain on fewer hours. I have been with my current company for 23 months and have been promoted twice, making more money in an area with a lower cost of living. I sometimes miss the intellectual vibrance of academia terribly, but I know that I am still susceptible to infections and am increasingly convinced that I can never go back.[Nonac STEM; 39 year old cis het woman; Jewish; biracial (Tewa Pueblo and Ashkenazi Jew); single; main diagnosis: fibromyalgia, but possibly more (immune problems that are being assessed now). PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology; two postdocs; was contingent (“term”) teaching faculty at American University]


If you find yourself deliberately taking the broken elevator so it might break down and give you an “out”? THAT’S A SIGN.

I ultimately knew it was time to leave when I started deliberately taking our unreliable elevator and willing it to break down so that I could have a moment of quiet without the constant go-go-go pressures. There wasn’t one specific issue, but the combination of pulling 80+ hour weeks, only getting paid $11,000 for 9 months (with almost no summer opportunities), and the ultra competitive environment caused my mental and physical health to deteriorate. Also the university provided health insurance was as good as useless. The History Department faculty oscillated between complete indifference and dire warnings that none of us would find employment upon graduation. At one point, during a graduate student meeting a faculty member who earned his Ph.D in the late 90’s sent around a binder of all his rejection letters from that time. The department fostered a cut throat competitive environment, and used office assignments and the limited coveted RA positions (versus the more ubiquitous TA positions) to further divide us. Actual teaching opportunities were doled out sparingly and frequently taken away. During my first year, we were threatened that our TA positions would be taken away and given to incoming graduate students regardless of our accomplishments, grades, and academic progress. During my second year, I was paired up with an adjunct who berated and insulted me in front of the class (and berated and insulted our UG students during class). When myself, and her other three TA’s filed a grievance, we were told by a TT faculty, that the abuse didn’t matter because “being an adjunct is hard.” I was told to ‘share my research’ with a fellow male Ph.D student, and when I expressed concern about my rights to my own work, I was sent an email saying that I did not know how to work collaboratively (at my previous institution I had worked on several successful collaboration projects without incidence). As I already possessed an MA History from another institution, I did not have an option to master out, however, leaving was definitely a positive decision and I only really regret that I lost two of my earning potential years to a program that clearly had no desire to support their graduate students. [Grad student; Hum; I left my Ph.D History program in 2013, after finishing up my 2nd year. I am a white straight married female – I’m not sure these played a role in my negative experience, other than perhaps my gender. The only indicators that I believe did influence my negative experience were that: 1) I started off as an F1 International student but did become a green card holder during my second year. My F1 status meant that I had less power to complain about unfair TA assignments compared to my peers 2) my SES was lower than other grad students making the ability to live on the stipend ($11,000/year) almost impossible without taking on cc debt. Since leaving in 2013, I have built a career in another field, and successfully completed a second masters’ degree. ]

*Be sure and check out the SUPERB book of the same title.

Thank you to all our respondents!

Updated Next Question: How do I prepare for a campus visit that has switched to all-online due to Coronavirus? And Search Comm members: if you’ve made the switch, what do you expect-slash-want to see from candidates?

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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.

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