Leaving Academia: Loss, Grief, and Healing
I’ve been out of academia for two years, having finished my PhD in 2015. I think I’m finally on the road to healing.
I often joke that leaving academia feels like the worst break up ever.*
HAHAHAHAHA. That’s a good one!
Except that I’m not joking. Giving up on something that you thought was your life’s calling hurts like hell. When you experience rejection from the entire institution of academia after devoting years of your life and thousands of dollars to become an academic, betrayal and rage sometimes become your only emotions for a good long while.
For me, the grief of leaving academia feels about the same as the loss and grief of the end of relationship. Even when you know that the relationship wasn’t right for you (”It’s not you, it’s me. Well, okay, it’s you.”), loss is loss. The loss of my academic dreams also triggered a whole avalanche of of old, deep losses that I’m never going to really get over.
We’ve all got dreams that don’t work out, even when we really really really want them to, but academic grief hit me so much harder than the novels I want to write that won’t get written or the places I want to travel that I know I’ll never visit. In academia, your work becomes a part of you; you become your work. Losing the academic part of us feels like losing a limb, complete with phantom pain when it’s gone. Loss often involves a lot of self-blame, shame, second-guessing and endless asking why and what’s wrong with us and why the fuck are we never good enough anyways.
Academia requires a life commitment. I devoted a total of seven years of my life to trying to understand a single thing. I was committed to my research in ways that were sometimes deeper than commitments I’ve had to people. I was fully prepared to spend the rest of my life focused on this one particular thing. Some days I didn’t like my research very much and found it hard and difficult and frustrating. Nevertheless, I never for an instant wavered in my devotion to it. Like in any relationship, academia and I went over rough patches. I thought about calling it quits several times, but didn’t want to throw away something to which I’d devoted so much time. I was not a quitter.
I’m now working in victim advocacy and now talk to people about grief, trauma, and loss every day. I wish I’d had someone like me to talk to about grief and loss after my PhD. I wish someone had told me that they were sorry that I didn’t get a job. That it wasn’t fair. That it wasn’t my fault that the market had collapsed and hadn’t recovered. That sometimes stuff just happens to people for no reason. Sometimes the story doesn’t end the way that we want it to or expect it to.
The grief I felt when I conceded defeat on the job market was the real deal. I cycled through every one of the Kubler Ross model’s stages of grief several times. And as anyone who has been through the five stages of grief knows, they are not really stages at all, but rather suggestions. Grief is a full body contact sport that involves cycling and recycling through the stages of grief, moving forward and backwards and sideways at the most inopportune moments until the heart and soul decide there’s nothing more to be done and they’ve let go. There’s nothing rational about grief and no time table to “get over it.” It’s insanely confusing and consumes massive amounts of emotional resources. Grief is involuntary and wild and frightening.
If you’re coming to the realization that you’re going to have to walk away from academia, let me hasten to tell you that your feelings are real and valid, whatever they may be. I believe you. (Maybe your feelings aren’t grief. Maybe they’re relief? That’s valid and legit too.) Nonetheless, you’re going to have to do some stuff to get through the emotional crap swamp. Here are some suggestions. (Keep in mind that I’m not a counselor. I’m a victim advocate and post-ac historian. If you're struggling with mental health, please please please connect with mental health resources in your community.)
- You’ve lost a big chunk of your identity, both personal and professional. Grief is a normal reaction. You ain’t crazy.
- Self care is key. Emotional eating is okay for a little bit, but you’re eventually going to have to make real food. I know it’s hard.
- Let yourself be very not okay for a while. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be really really sad.
- Healing isn’t a matter of “getting over it.” It’s a matter of incorporating loss into your story and telling it in a new way.
- There’s no timetable. Anyone who thinks that you should be ready to move on according to any kind of timetable can shove it.
- Take life one day at a time.
- Know that healing isn’t a destination; it’s a journey and a process.
- You might think about investing in a good therapist.
Leaving academia isn’t just a “career change.” It’s the worst breakup of your life and you might not even be able to see into next week, let alone imagine possibly being happy and okay again someday. Be in grief for as long as you need to.
You’ll heal. Eventually. You’ll have the scars to prove it. Healing will happen so slowly that you might not even notice it. In one of the biggest cliches ever, I’ve learned (and now teach people) that healing is a PROCESS.
You’re going to get through this. One day you realize that you haven’t cried in a few days. Then maybe you notice that you’re daydreaming about something you’ve always wanted to do. Some idea for interesting and engaging work crosses your mind. And then you might find yourself wondering if you could actually do that. And then maybe you start thinking of how you might do that. And then you start talking to other people about how you might do that. And then you’re off and running again.
*This may not be your experience at all. A lot of PhDs these days are actively planning NOT to become academics, so I suspect their sense of academic loss may be less. I don't know. Those of the tenure track or bust generation, from my conversations with other people about their experiences, seem to have taken academic loss pretty hard. We didn't have backup parachutes ready; we made up the post-ac life as we went. We're still figuring it out. As always, YMMV.