The author earned a PhD in public health and is a research scientist working in a patient-focused biotechnology organization. She transitioned to industry after leaving a full-time faculty position in a large research university.
A couple of years ago, I left a tenure-track faculty position at an R1 university and don’t regret it at all.
I went to graduate school specifically to become a professor because of a wonderful Principal Investigator I worked for after college who was one of the good ones: incredibly smart, successful, and a kind and generous mentor. I was always focused on the next goal: PhD, postdoc, tenure-track faculty position, tenure, etc. I stayed focused on the next step because I was constantly told that landing a tenure-track job was the brass ring and I wanted to prove that I was good enough.
During each milestone, I struggled personally. I lost multiple family members. I had children and moved across the country multiple times. I was studying, working, and being a caregiver (to children and terminally ill family members) all while trying to just get through school. I earned good grades, but because of my caregiving responsibilities, I really didn’t have the time/energy do much else because I was busy cooking, cleaning, and flying across the country to Dr. appointments. Only a small number of people knew what I was going through, and I’m certain some of the faculty thought I was not living up to my full potential because I was just not spending enough time on writing papers, grants, etc. I should have talked to someone but I didn’t, as it was part of how I compartmentalized to focus on my work when I was on campus.
Somehow, I managed to land a tenure-track position and negotiate a position for my partner at the same university (though not tenure-track initially, I was given a verbal commitment that their position would likely become this…of course it didn’t as I later learned is very common…).
After starting to recover from losing my second parent early in my faculty position, things finally started to come together in my research and I started to feel like I could really focus on my career for the first time in many years. However, my partner was being openly exploited in their non-tenure track position and we were unsuccessful in getting any institutional support to convert the position. Eventually we decided that we would leave ASAP, would figure out where we wanted to live (not in whatever college town we were able to find jobs in), and would find jobs to fit around that.
The day I took my first non-academic job, I cried. I was excited by the new position so my partner could not understand why I was upset. Finally, I said: “I’m not a quitter.”
I had never quit anything before, and I felt like I failed. When I told colleagues who I thought were friends, some said things like: “I can’t believe you’re selling out!” I cried in my office with my door closed A LOT during that time before I left.
I know that we are taught to follow through. We are made to feel as though leaving academia means failing. Most academics are high achievers and not used to quitting, but quitting is sometimes the right thing to do. Non-academic jobs are not inferior, but of course people who have only ever been in academia would think that and make us feel this way. You don’t have to be in academia to teach, be a mentor, or be a researcher.
When I was thinking of leaving academia, every person I talked to who had left told me that they wished they had done it sooner. I assumed they probably just had a bad experience because I thought I loved my job and my job was not the reason why I was leaving. Time and space away from it, though, has made me realized that it was ridiculous that I justified all the stress, anxiety, and long hours as somehow worth it. I now have a job that I love more, that I actually only spend 40 hours in, where I feel my work has more of a direct impact, and that allows me more time with my family and hobbies – plus pays way better.
To those of you who are on the fence and need some extra encouragement: I quit. I truthfully wish I did it sooner.