When I was about 20 I made the decision to quit pursuing a career doing the thing I’d been best at all my life. Some of you might be surprised to know that I was “supposed” to be an artist. I was better at art – drawing, building and sculpting, photography – than I was at anything else, and I was usually better at it than anyone around me. Of course that changed when I started my BFA, but I was still very good at it and would have been much better if I’d felt the motivation to perform in the way I was supposed to. But I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t like the performance (which was far more than just “artistic”), and it meant that I had to start questioning “why not?”. I knew I had to make a decision before I went too far down that track, narrowing my options to the point where it would be difficult to start something else, and investing a lot of time that could be better used elsewhere.
In making that decision, I went with my “gut feeling”, as it were. I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t know what would come next. But over time I realised the feeling was grounded in some very practical knowledge both of myself and of the kind of career I’d be pursuing if I continued. But it was still hard, because leaving all that behind meant abandoning not just a career path but also a version of the person I was supposed to be, based on everything I knew about myself up to that point.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve finally had time to read through some of the many posts written by academics who’ve decided to leave academe. The genre’s been given the label “Quit Lit”, and as it’s expanded, several of the posts have garnered significant attention and provoked much debate about who gets to have a faculty career and why.
So what is it about academe that demands these kinds of posts, as public declarations of intent?
They function as correctives, and often as confessions, too. The correction being made is usually one about how leaving an academic career is in fact a decision or a choice (and not usually an easy one – based on context), not simply an outcome of one’s lack of capacity or tenacity or merit. Not only that but the posts are statements about identity, choice, and control, even when they are full of the anger and grief and self-doubt that many people feel when they depart.
Lots of others have pointed this out, but it’s worth emphasizing that academic culture encourages us to see professional identity as personal identity – and thus to see “work” as “life”. What are you left with, then, when you walk away from the work? This has also been questioned through the recent criticisms of the idea of “do what you love”, which is in some ways the epitome of the rhetoric around higher education careers.
It’s not just those blog posts that get me thinking, nor even the context to which they so regularly refer – one where we know very few PhDs move into full-time permanent faculty positions. Those things are on my mind a lot anyway, because the research I do is about higher education, and I consider that an advantage when it comes to understanding the context in which I’d be seeking a career. Each time I sat down to read something research-related, I knew I was also looking at the potential conditions of my future work.
In spite of that knowledge, and in spite of what many people already know are the adverse conditions for creating an academic career, what really surprises me is the response that I still see when I tell people I made the decision not to apply for faculty positions (and that I decided quite a while ago). For every reason I provide, a “solution” is bounced back at me. For every hesitation I express, someone else is there to tell me not to think twice.
Every decision has its reasons, yet somehow my reasoning on this issue is always in question. This is extremely frustrating considering the time and effort involved in making a “realistic” assessment of my own strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, with consideration of the resources available to me, and of course the positions that may or may not open up in the future. It wasn’t easy, but I wanted to face those facts. I’ve also tried to pay attention to what day-to-day faculty work actually looks like, and I’ve thought about whether I’d be happy and competent at doing that work in the context in which it currently happens.
If we think again about that conflation of academe with a specific identity that becomes our “lives”, then it makes more sense that the decision to leave elicits such a personal reaction from other academics: it’s because there’s the assumption that we’re making a judgement or moral pronouncement about other people’s choices. I think this is also why, in many of the blog posts that I’ve read on this topic, the authors emphasize that they haven’t changed as people – they’re still scientists, teachers, scholars, but they may no longer be doing those things within a context recognized as “academic”; therefore they become “unrecognizable” as scholars.
I’d love to be able to believe that academe has the right job for me, right now – because then at least I’d know what to do next, what options are on the table, and where I fit in the grand scheme of professional “value”. In my own case, this isn’t about giving up on some ideal life or role; it’s about bearing in mind, constantly, that the job I may have imagined or desired doesn’t really exist and that I can’t pretend it does. While the academic path may look clear enough, each of us has to consider what sacrifices we’re willing and able to make to travel along it, and those sacrifices are (like the privileges) unevenly distributed and becoming more so over time. That context is not a choice. I also feel a sense of urgency in that there are limits to my time and energy, and I want to do as much as possible within those limits.
At this point, long after having come to these conclusions, what disturbs me most is that it feels like there’s an underlying assumption of “wasted” potential if one don’t follow a particular path. But as art has already taught me, I shouldn’t worry about wasting anything because I’ll still have what I always did. I’m still doing photography (and even getting paid for it), and most importantly those photos bring pleasure to me and to others, which isn’t something I ever would have predicted when I was 20. I can still pursue the goal of writing, researching, and in general doing something that matters to me and pays the rent. There will be limitations there, too, but that’s the case with any career, including an academic one with the notoriously intense competition for jobs and the heavy workload for aspiring and junior scholars.
This post, then, isn’t about “quitting”. Doing an advanced degree doesn’t mean you have only one career path and anything else involves “quitting” or worse, “failure”. In my case, you can’t “quit” something so specific when you weren’t really aiming for it in the first place. My decision may have been easier because I’d done it before – I walked away from something that was supposed to be the focus of my life, and I got through it. Maybe this time it was that I knew all along I didn’t start a PhD specifically to become a professor, so I was always open to multiple options. I just didn’t know what they might be (and I’m still finding out).
Returning to the “Quit Lit”, it’s still often the case that there’s a silence in the space where PhDs feel compelled, or make the choice, to leave the well-marked path to professional success in academe. The “Quit Lit” seeks to fill that silence with something other than the assumption of failure, one that’s perpetuated in the meritocratic culture of academe (where incredibly smart, capable people must keep insisting, “I was good enough”). When others question the fact that I don’t see academe as the place for me, I think of that culture and how it shapes people’s perceptions of “other” work. If the part of the answer here is to make those “other” paths and choices more visible, possible, and acceptable as “success”, then I’m happy to contribute to that.