Leaving Academia And The Five Stages Of Grief

I read this post on Slate about Karen Kelsky, a former professor and university administrator who left academia to found her own business consulting with grad students preparing for the academic job market. Back when I wanted to become a history professor, I used to read her blog religiously. I stopped reading it when it became apparent that I wasn’t going into academia.

Anyway, the Slate post (it does read more like a blog post than an article) has a question and answer with Kelsky, who says this about quitting academia. She meant it in the sense of leaving once you have a PhD, but I felt like I could relate, too.

The academy demands a total identification with its principles, practices, and values. It’s like a religion, and sometimes it’s like a cult. If you leave it, there will be a void. You will lose your sense of self. You’ll lose a large chunk of your social network and support system. You’ll lose the future that you anticipated for yourself. Acknowledging these losses is essential to the grief and eventual healing process. You can relate all of this to Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief.

This is so true, even the part about academia being like a cult. I wasn’t even that deeply embedded in academia and it was devastating for me to leave. I haven’t talked about this much on this blog, but I was sad for a long time when I realized the whole history professor career path wasn’t going to work out for me. (The reasons are long enough that I’d need a separate post to fully explain!) In fact, it’s only been recently that I’ve really felt okay with the idea that I probably won’t work in academia anytime soon.

I’d like to say to anyone who has realized that an academic career won’t be happening that everything’s going to be okay. Really. I know it may not seem that way if you’re dealing with the disappointment of not being able to pursue your “dream career” (I’m hesitant to use that phrase because it implies there’s only one career you’re suited for and I don’t think that’s true), but everything will be okay. Even if you hate what you’re doing now, you’ll be able to use the work experience you’re getting now to find something better later.

There’s a pervasive view in academia that the only jobs worth having are those that are academic in nature. Honestly, I do think that working in academia could be fun, and I don’t know if I’d say no to such a job offer even now, but there are a ton of other things out there that are good—and even better—than working in academia.

Just remember this: you may be confused and wishing you were back in academia, but don’t worry. It really is going to be okay.


8 thoughts on “Leaving Academia And The Five Stages Of Grief

  1. I read this article too and found it oddly comforting. A few years ago I was heading for an academic career, and I still haven’t written it off, but the competitive, almost stifling environment where everyone is competing for a limited number of jobs and is constantly being rated and judged and having to justify themselves and their funding eventually put me off.
    Don’t get me wrong, I’d probably work in academia in a heartbeat! But as you say there are lots of other jobs that provide that level of intellectual stimulation and challenge, without the bullshit 😉


    1. OMG we are like the same person! Kind of! That’s literally the same thing that happened to me. I was so gung-ho on an academic career that when it didn’t happen, I was a bit lost for a while. We will have to discuss this further by email or Twitter DM…


      1. Absolutely! I still haven’t written it off – studying and writing things and teaching, it just seems like the best thing. Except for all the crappy bits that make it non-viable and not-the-best-thing. Totally email/Twitter DM rant worthy!


    1. That’s a great way of looking at it. I’m going to try to incorporate that attitude into my way of thinking. I fully admit that this could be a “grass is greener” kind of scenario. Logically, I’m sure working in academia wouldn’t be perfect by any means. Have you found a job yet? Let me know how everything’s going. 🙂


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