Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Why So Many Academics Quit and Tell

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Straight out of graduate school, Matt Welsh landed a pretty choice gig. As an assistant computer science professor at Harvard University, he had a home in a highly-respected department; he had his own office, with polished furniture and stocked bookshelves; and best of all, he had a pathway to tenure.

“The best, the top, the most high-caliber graduate students went on to be professors,” Welsh said. “Anything else would have been a tremendous failure. A few years down that path, my whole life was focused on getting tenure. So much of my self-worth was centered on reaching that bar.”

Which makes it all the more surprising that shortly after attaining his goal—becoming a full professor at Harvard—he quit. And then, on his personal website, he explained why.

“I joined Harvard because it offered the opportunity to make a big impact on a great department at an important school, and I have no regrets,” he wrote. “But my own priorities in life have changed, and I feel that it's time to move on.”

When Welsh took to the Web to make his announcement, he was ahead of the curve. But he’s now in good company: Recently, there’s been a surge of cathartic columns in which scholars—with tenure and without—explain why they’re leaving academia. (We've listed the essays we've read here in a Google Doc; take a look and add pieces we've missed.)

There’s nothing new, of course, about academics leaving the ivory tower. But the exploding genre of “Quit Lit” demonstrates that saying goodbye is becoming an increasingly public act.

We’ve been collecting these pieces for a while, in part because we wanted to get a sense of what was driving the writers to move on. Find the results of our informal study here.

But then we came to an even more basic question: Why are so many ex-scholars motivated to write? So I asked a bunch of the stars of Quit Lit for their thoughts.

The Explainers

Welsh’s reason to blog about his big decision was simple: It’s not typical for a tenured professor to jump ship.

“Any time anyone decides to leave, rumors fly and people jump to conclusions,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t get tenure, maybe I had a problem with my institution, maybe there was a falling out. None of those things were the case. I felt I had to be very open about why the change was happening.”

It wasn’t just a matter of heading off the rumor mill, he added: “Some of me put it out there to solicit feedback and check my own reasons, to put my thoughts out there and try to justify it.”

Because even if you’re confident in your decision to leave, it’s a scary process, said Peter Larson, a biology professor of 10 years who left to become a full-time running blogger, coach and exercise physiologist. After you’ve invested so many years into a single career, he said, the idea of giving it up is “very final.”

“I got to the point where I was at a crossroad,” Larson said. “I wasn’t unhappy doing what I was doing, but I knew I would be happier doing other things. I realized I’d never forgive myself if I never took the chance.”

Starting last school year, Larson told his department that his resignation was a possibility. He was granted a one-year leave of absence to explore the idea. “By the spring, I realized the leave of absence was delaying the inevitable,” he said.

Larson sent his resignation letter to the dean April 15, and he published “Leaving Academia: One Chapter Ends, Another Begins” one week later.

“There were a lot of factors that went into making the final call,” he wrote. Chief among them: “I’ve come to realize that though I love teaching, I’m not in love with academia.”

After Larson sent his resignation letter, he said, he felt instant relief. He wanted others to understand what happened and realize a professor could make it in the outside world.

“It was a story worth telling,” he said.

The same is true for young academics who got out before they spent much time seeking tenure-track jobs, said Blithe Rocher, a physical chemist who took a job as a web developer after a two-year research fellowship. She, too, felt like she had to back up her choice.

“The main purpose was to say, ‘Here’s something I’ve worked my whole life for, and I’m pretty much stopping my path,’” Rocher said. “I wanted to explain to people why—and maybe it wasn’t even for others, maybe just for myself—this was the right decision.”

The Statement-Makers

For some writers, the decision to publish their reasoning was the equivalent of yelling “take this job and shove it” to their home institutions, and to a higher-education system that they feel is heading in the wrong direction.

Zachary Ernst, a former associate professor of philosophy who now works as a software engineer, was among the most prominent writers to take this approach. His account, “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower,” went viral in October.

“My decision to leave isn't really about my department or university in particular, but about a perverse incentive structure that maintains the status quo, rewards mediocrity, and discourages potentially high-impact, interdisciplinary work,” wrote Ernst, who declined a request for an interview. “My complaints are really about the structural features of the university, and not about the behavior of particular people. Although I believe that my university is unusually bad in these respects, I think these structural features are quite common.”

And then he unleashes.

Alessandra Lopez y Royo, a former reader of visual culture in the United Kingdom who took early retirement in August, was another who didn’t shy away from highlighting the shortcomings of higher ed. In a column for Times Higher Education, she equated universities to money-hungry machines and criticized new research expectations. (Several Quit Lit authors expressed concern about the corporatization of academia. See more reasons why folks quit here.)

“I feel I can no longer sacrifice my dignity and integrity within a university,” she wrote. “I feel part of an oppressive and hierarchical structure that demands the compromise of individuality and creativity in order to fit the mould.”

Some readers thought her piece was a “case of sour grapes,” taking issue with her decision to name her university and department. But she said she felt like she needed to voice her opinion.

“This is what happens,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with telling people what things are like.”

The Destigmatizers

For others, Quit Lit isn’t about flipping a middle finger to the system. Instead, it’s a platform for debunking myths about academics who look beyond the professoriate.

One of those beliefs is that Ph.D.’s who don’t land tenure-track jobs aren’t trying hard enough, said L. Maren Wood, a former adjunct who now runs an education consulting and research group. She said she has learned firsthand that this isn’t true, and that higher ed just isn’t for everyone.

“Some people who have written these pieces had an inkling it wasn’t for them in graduate school,” Wood said. “That had never been the case for me. Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a teacher.”

But when she entered her third year on the academic job market with no security in sight, she said, she hit a brick wall. She phoned a friend and told him she planned to quit. His response: “I don’t blame you.”

“I cried at the end of the phone call and cried a lot more in the following months,” Wood wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “I was angry—at myself, at the system, at the administrators who were cutting tenure-track jobs, at those who’d caused the 2008 economic crash. I kept looking at job boards, trying to find a reason my decision to leave was wrong.”

When she finally felt confident in her decision to leave, she shared her experience with others.

“I wanted to write it for people who assume we didn’t want it bad enough, who say perseverance is all you need,” she said. “That’s not true. You can work as hard as you want and have an amazing CV, but—in a saturated job market—not get an opportunity.”

There’s another myth worth debunking, said Melissa Dalgleish, a Ph.D. candidate who decided early on to take an alt-ac job as a university research officer: the notion that academics have failed if they deviate from the classroom. Leaving traditional academia carries a stigma, she said, but it shouldn’t; it’s not shameful to pursue an alternate career.

Dalgleish, who wrote about her choice to accept an alt-ac job for Hook and Eye, said her motivation to write was to help normalize the act of leaving and to help students recognize that there’s life outside academia.

“I was attempting to get close to a world in which people won’t have to go through the stressful experience of renegotiating their entire identity when they decide not to remain in academia,” she said. “If we, the people writing, can counteract the stigma, the sense of alienation for people going through the same thing, then our purpose is fulfilled.”

‘It Definitely Struck a Chord’

There’s a long way to go before people stop questioning those who flee, Dalgleish said, but openly discussing the act is a start. Quit Lit has worked as a catalyst for that conversation, she said.

For one thing, this stuff definitely draws eyeballs. “It was our most-read post this year,” says Dalgleish of the Hook and Eye essay, “and one of all time. It definitely struck a chord in some way.”

Other authors agree: They’ve seen spikes in their reader traffic when they discuss breaking out of higher ed, and they’ve received a range of feedback from commenters and colleagues alike.

“People within academia understand the want to get out,” Rocher said, noting that the response to her piece was mostly positive and supportive. “But some of the younger academics, those who are still in grad school, were disillusioned. ‘Oh, no. Why is Blithe leaving?’”

In more extreme cases, Quit Lit has inspired others to take action.

Mark Smithers, who left academia more than a decade ago, happened upon Rebecca Schuman’s “I Quit Academia: an Important, Growing Subgenre of American Essays,” published by Slate in October. It was only then that he decided to write about his own departure.

Schuman’s column "got me thinking about my own reasons for leaving the academy in 1999 and also my gradually decaying anger with higher education before and since leaving,” Smithers wrote, before detailing his own track record.

After years searching for a full-time gig, he left the classroom to do higher education consulting work. But the new job didn’t dissolve his frustration with what went wrong in his own academic career. “My anger seems to have a half life of about seven years,” he joked.

When all of his pent-up emotions resurfaced, he said, he turned to writing as a “cathartic exercise.” “I decided I needed to get it all out of my system,” he said. “I wrote things I’ve been thinking about over a long time. I let it splurge.”

And through his prose, he found assurance: “Rebecca Schuman’s piece talks about those that quit as ‘failed academics.' I think she’s right. I am a ‘failed academic.’ A proud one.”

Welsh agreed, saying he knows he made the right decision when he left Harvard to be a software engineer at Google—even if he did lose the fancy office and title.

“I basically sit at a desk with no walls,” he joked. “But it suits me. I’m very happy in my role. In some sense, the reason I became a computer scientist was to write software. I’m returning to my roots.”

Image: Yep, that's Johnny Paycheck.

Sydni Dunn is a staff reporter at Vitae. Find her on Twitter at @SydniDunn.

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