Escape From Academia

I’ve read a bunch of stories lately about people leaving academe. Vitae even started compiling a Google Doc full of quitter narratives and created a special genre that Sydni Dunn dubbed #quitlit. The document has 69 stories and counting.

I’m not surprised how many people are leaving the once-heralded halls of the academy–especially given the way all the good academic jobs are drying up and being converted to low-paying contingent positions.

I guess it is interesting how many people are especially vocal about their decision to flee the academic life. Usually quitting a job is not necessarily something to proclaim from the roof tops. You just kind of quit quietly and move on.

It suggests to me that people are especially bitter and pissed off about their circumstances in the world of higher education. Any job that causes you to do a happy dance after quitting must suck pretty bad.

escape from academia

Part of the post-quitter elation seems to come from finally releasing the hold gained by many years of academia’s burrowing into one’s mental and psychological health. It’s hard to give it up once you’ve invested so much. After investing a decade or more in earning a degree and training to use it, academics become especially adept at ignoring the sunk cost fallacy.

A form of cognitive dissonance I suppose. As long as I can convince myself that what I’m doing is worth it, then it must be so. Nevermind the interminable “apprenticeship” of adjuncthood or the low pay and self-sacrifice.

And that doesn’t even address the opportunity cost associated with an unsatisfying academic career. What might you be doing if you weren’t sticking it out in the academy? Could you be working a more fulfilling career? A better paying one? Might you have more free time?

It’s easy to forget about these opportunity costs when one is pursuing a goal with the monomaniacal tenacity of Ahab.

At what point must we own up to the sunk costs and simply walk away? All that time spent in grad school, all those years teaching as an adjunct, all those rewritten chapters of your dissertation? They’re already done and gone. They’re in the past and they can’t be gotten back. So why allow them to continue to derail your future plans?

Best to just leave the past where it is and move on to the future.

Anne Helen Peterson just did. I’m drawn to Peterson’s story*, which I read today in The Hairpin, because she’s achieved exactly what I’m trying to achieve. An escape from academia in favor of a career as a writer.

After earning a PhD, Peterson started writing on the side and gradually built up an online presence. In the process, she learned how to adapt her esoteric academic prose to the reading style of a pop culture audience. It worked and now she’s heading to Buzzfeed full-time. Lucky her.

Apparently, Peterson was as excited as the other #quitlitters to get the hell out of the academy. You can tell from the opening question of the interview.

After confirming her new position, interview and interviewee apparently shared a moment of exuberance because “eight minutes of screaming” had to be redacted from the interview transcript. Ha. An exaggeration no doubt, but you get the picture.

Getting away from a job for which you are “not a good fit” (as Peterson eloquently puts it) is a great feeling. Finding a job for which you are a good fit is even better.

The sooner I can join the quitlit ranks and embark on my escape from academia, the better. I always enjoy reading stories like Peterson’s because they give me confidence that it can be done.

*Thanks to Jacqui Shine for tipping me on Peterson’s escape from academia.

  • Amy Leggette

    I think that quitlit also springs from the impulse to write our way to a more solid, actionable sense of how our skills transfer to other endeavors (and they do). It builds the clarity and confidence to move forward and, at least in my case, it turned the sunk costs into a unique set of competencies. Its what “normal” people do when they are navigating a life change; only academics would make a special genre out of it. My own quitlit post is coming soon, stay tuned: http://www.amyleggette.com
    And thank you for writing this piece!

    • josh_boldt

      Great point, Amy. I look forward to reading your quitlit post!

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