Almost a year ago, I posted a piece on my blog about my personal feelings about the grief I felt about deciding to leave academia. I didn’t expect anyone to read it because it was about mushy things like feelings and uncomfortable topics like grief. My post wasn’t an amazing exegesis on the neoliberal destruction of higher education, the adjunct crisis, or crushing student debt. It was about feeling, not thinking.
To this day, that post is still the most read thing on my blog. I’m still getting email about it. People told me about how they’d had the same feelings and that I said things that they couldn’t say.
And here’s what I realized: many academics struggle to talk about feelings. Emotions and feelings are not intellectual processes. People who leave academia, either willingly or unwillingly, experience grief because of the identity loss follows. And a lot of people have shame because they’re feeling grief. No one can seem to talk about it.
I’m not the same person I was when I wrote my original grief post. I’ve grown, moved on, healed, and have started thinking that academia is too small and narrow for me. Nevertheless, it’s been a massive process (and I’m still sometimes so tired of my process and my feeeeeeeeeelings).
When I first decided that I wasn’t going to be an academic, all I can remember are the feelings of panic and desperation when what I had assumed was solid ground started crumbling under my feet. What was I supposed to do? I remember thinking that I was falling and had no idea where I’d land. When I finally landed at rock bottom, I wondered where the hell I was supposed to go and had absolutely no map to help me find my way.
Here’s what I learned: when you don’t have a map, you have to make one from scratch. But you don’t have to make a new map alone.
I’m massively grateful to an amazing new community of people (IRL, on the internet, and authors who have no idea I exist) who helped me figure out which direction I was heading. I called total strangers, networked my heart out, found my tribe, read books that promised to help me find my North Star, confirmed my Meyers-Briggs Personality Type (INFP), and completed a bunch of career assessments, some of which suggested that I’d be suited to be a history professor and others that listed ‘magician’ as my next possible career choice.
I’ve gotten things together a lot more since then. My post-PhD life really started coming together when I got serious about figuring out who I really was, what I cared about and valued, who I wanted to serve, what I was good at, and what people might pay me for. Thinking about my post-PhD in terms of a Venn diagram helped me redefine my life beyond the holy academic trinity of teaching, research, and service.
What I value: Turns out, the things I value are partly influenced by my academic experiences, but draw a lot from my non-academic life. Some of the things I value include: learning, critical thinking, place, knowledge, connection, compassion, creativity, curiosity, change, and community. [And alliteration, apparently.]
What I’m good at: I’m really good at living abroad. I’ve never been a traveler in the conventional sense. Rather than travel the entire world, I’m interested in having deep relationships with a place. I’d never wanted to be an academic tourist, swooping into archives for a few weeks and then returning to the U.S. with knowledge that probably wouldn’t be repatriated. I craved long and deep encounters with places that felt special to me. And to a surprising degree, I've been able to make that happen.
I’m good at teaching in unconventional settings. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I taught small workshops to Maya women who often didn’t speak Spanish, lacked schooling, and sometimes couldn’t read. Teaching them the basics of dairy goat care was sometimes really hard. I did a lot of demonstrations and hands on teaching. I even taught some of the women to give their goats injections of dewormer. We learned a lot together, which was awesome. I also taught study abroad when I was in graduate school and loved it. [I wrote about my study abroad experiences here] I also used to give lectures to groups of university alumni that would arrive in Guatemala. I discovered that I’m really good at facilitating meaningful cultural experiences.
I’m also really good at talking to people about trauma. Somehow, wherever I go, I end up working with traumatized people in some way. I worked with people traumatized by state violence in Guatemala. I’ve worked with crime victims. I went to Puerto Rico in October of 2017 to work with people traumatized by natural disasters. (And yes, working with people in trauma is a function of trying to understand my own histories of trauma better.) Most recently, I participated in a webinar to talk to graduate women in science about trauma. I’m good at talking to people about the difficult stuff that makes other people uncomfortable. I’m good at holding heavy stories with people.
Who I’m serving: I’ve always had a soft-spot for unconventional learners, mostly because I’ve so often been one myself. (I am a high school drop out with a PhD. I’ve taken lots of time off from school to work weird jobs and live abroad.) I want to be teaching people who aren’t university students (although I’ve been so blessed with the uni students I taught). A lot of my friends have always been at least twenty years older than I am, so I’d like to work with older people. I think everyone should have access to high quality knowledge and education and that everyone can benefit from learning and practicing critical thinking skills.
What people might pay me for: it took me a little bit to figure this one out, but I’m on my way. I’m primarily a writer, which is a valuable skill itself, but I’m also an educator, a speaker, an editor, a guide, and a creator of cultural experiences. People could pay me for any of these things. I’ve been editing for academics, but I’m working on branching out and developing new products and services that incorporate these skills.
So when I thought about how to put all of these pieces of my personal Venn diagram together, here’s what I realized: there are many ways to do what you love.
Here’s the new plan:
I’m using my knowledge of Latin America and my relationships with those places to facilitate meaningful cultural experiences for people. I’m giving writing retreats in Mexico and Guatemala. I want my retreats to focus on helping people get writing done, but also on telling their own stories, including trauma stories and memoirs. I want to be doing public speaking about how to hold trauma stories, and doing more public education on issues of adoption and child welfare. I also want to be teaching older people about history and critical thinking through travel and cultural experiences. I want to be writing my own books, of which I have so many to write (including a book on trauma, adoption, a trade book on the history of Mesoamerican archaeology and fake science, and some novels).
And now of course, the challenge is to stop planning and writing about wanting to do these things and actually do them.
None of this developed overnight. And none of it has been easy, either. Writing about grief was an absolutely necessary for me to move forward in my new non-academic life. I’ve had to get massively uncomfortable in my life and become my most tireless advocate for change in my life. I had to get real about what I valued and cared about, who I thought I might be serving, and what value I can create for people. But the great thing now is that I’m doing what I want and I’m feeling pretty awesome about it.
I don't usually end my blog posts with a pitch, but I did want to let you know that I've teamed up with Kristi F. Lodge, PhD of Incipit Careers to bring you a three part webinar that deals with all of the stuff I talk about in this post. I'll be talking about the mushy feelings stuff, like grief, shame, and anger, and Kristi will be talking about how to launch a new non academic career. I'd love to help you build your own new map forward. Click the button for more information and registration.