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On leaving academia
Jan 21, 2023
Omer Preminger’s recent blog post about leaving academia and the resulting fascinating discussion on his Facebook post have left me thinking. I want to write about choosing to leave academia, what I miss about it, and how I choose to engage with it now. This post is the story of my leaving academia. To keep the length manageable, and I’ll circle back to musings about what I do and don’t miss about it in another post.
For me, the decision to leave academia was more of a process than a flipped switch. I was fully committed to academia through grad school and was lucky enough to end my dissertation year with a nice two-year Mellon postdoc. Things were looking good.
The first time I was on the verge of leaving was the following year, after a disastrous end to my second job cycle, which involved a job offer with a (as I’ve later come to learn) highly unusual and very stressful negotiation process, culminating in the offer being suddenly rescinded with no explanation. I’ve alluded to it briefly in the past and even though it’s been almost a decade and I have a whole lot more to say about it, it’s still traumatic to talk about. But I had a guaranteed second year of a postdoc with minimal teaching, and I was able to push my teaching to the spring semester, so inertia kicked in. I went to live with my parents for half of the fall semester to recover (I am acutely aware of the luck and privilege that entails).
To be sure, I had been diagnosed with panic attacks and eventually needed to go on medication to really get my life back on track a year later. In the meanwhile I just kind of went through the motions. From the outside you probably couldn’t even tell anything was wrong (if you happened not to hear the rumors); my CV certainly doesn’t show it. The bright side was that I also discovered a broad network of supporters who truly cared and wanted to help. They’re really the only reason I was able to keep going.
Being an international person on a visa, having (or not having) a job also means being (or not being) able to live in the place you have built your life in and chosen for a home. Feeling trapped into a field by a complex (but all too common) immigration situation is unpleasant, let me tell you. So after returning from my time off that year, I also decided I couldn’t wait for a job to take care of my permanency and living arrangements. I initiated a process that would eventually take ~2 years to self-sponsor a green card.
I’m sure I said I wanted to leave academia at that point once in a while, and I’m sure I meant it, but at that time I had taken no steps to explore or prepare for any other jobs. I fiercely wanted to believe what my advisors kept telling me, that it was just a matter of time and things would work out. I was regularly getting long- and short-listed and getting concrete feedback from search committee members that I was doing well and decisions going another way wasn’t about me. But I also kept having strange and sometimes actively bad experiences on the job market.
It kept happening
Aside from the worst experience I’ve already described above, the second worst experience I had was a visit two years later that ended with a committee wanting to offer me the job but then backing away and choosing another candidate without making me an offer when a politically powerful professor on campus (but outside the department) intervened and threatened to make my life miserable and my tenure unlikely. That person had reasons to want to hurt my one of my PhD advisors and generally had a research program that conflicted with the kind of research I had done in the past. I discovered all of this through a verbal conversation with a search committee member after what I felt like a very strong visit and warm discussions of an offer had turned into a form rejection email. I seriously freaked out for a day, flashbacks and everything, but then decided to just write the committee member, who I felt was a supporter, and ask if I had just misread the situation very badly. They wanted to speak on the phone, and told me this story. So, I have no proof that any of this happened, but also no reason to think they made it up. It’s consistent with other things I know.
So at this point I had two “almost-offers” and a nice and thriving research program (and no green card) so inertia continued. Although I didn’t get that job, I had another offer for a position that was temporary but with a permanent hire planned for the next year and I had been told I’d be the strong internal candidate who they’d want to hire. Of course, I took that job. Anyway, that year ended with incident #13-14, which was worse than it might have been if it were just a random interview because I had to stay in that department for another full semester. But — I finally got my green card. That is the point when I actively decided to leave academia: third time’s the charm. I finally realized that while I might get a job at some point, the politics will never stop.
I had additionally grown picky about where I wanted to live and what kind of department I wanted to work in. That limited my options. And — and I realize this may sound like bragging — I had a really strong CV, including by then a Linguistic Inquiry Monograph on the way and a steady stream of publications in top tier journals despite the constant precarity and lack of funding. I had been at it for 4 years post-PhD. I am sure I could have been close to tenure based on this CV, but I was applying for jobs that would have me essentially start over on the tenure track and where I’d have to wait at least 4-5 more years to have some stability in the form of tenure. The whole thing became less and less appealing with each passing year.
I didn’t leave immediately that year. I had some health reasons to want to keep my insurance and to slow down on big life changes. I took another 1-year contract, this time with the explicit resolution to apply selectively to academic jobs but also to prep for and apply for non-academic jobs. As year 5 of precarity started, I finally had only one new course prep, instead of 3-4 per year as had been the case in the past. What a concept!
I started by conducting informational interviews. I really started out knowing nothing, and there weren’t really many resources out there to help. What could I possibly be qualified for? What were these jobs even called? Where are the physically located? Where do I find the ads? What do I need to do to prepare? How much should I expect to make? I am forever grateful to the friends who took the time to talk to me, especially to that one friend who took multiple meetings with me, read my resume, and helped me prep for interviews. The friends I made along the way are the best part of having been in the field.
I also took some online courses in Python and SQL (which in hindsight weren’t necessary but I’m glad I did them anyway), and I spent some time polishing my resume. The process of learning the lingo and understanding how to present myself, and also just identifying what things that I had done in the past were of interest to other industries took some getting used to. Most of the details from my academic days that you’ll find on my resume aren’t things I’d ever think of listing in my CV. It’s just a whole different genre.
At that point, things happened quickly. I know the exact date I decided to actually act on my increasing desire to leave academia. It was the day I got the rejection from the only job I was short-listed for that year that I was really interested in. (I’ve since also heard multiple stories about this department that convince me that I was lucky not to have gotten this offer.) It was March 4, 2019. It was also just two weeks shy of when my LI Monograph was officially published, the last big project I still wanted to see through.
Between March and May of 2019 I went on two full job application cycles, from submission to chatting with the recruiter and hiring manager to phone interviews to on-sites, and ended up with three offers for roles as an ontologist or analytical linguist. I accepted one of them, moved to the Bay Area, and started the job in July of 2019. It was such a stark contrast with the experience I had in academia. This job search was everything that the academic search was not: fast, uneventful, successful.
There is a lot more to say about my current thinking about academia and linguistics. I don’t miss most of it. I lost interest in the details of my research, which I had been so passionate about in the past, surprisingly quickly. I have not a single ounce of respect for the politics that senior academics play on the back of junior folks, especially knowing how rigid the market is. Mostly, I just don’t see the point of it all anymore. Now I get to have an exciting and fulfilling job with lots of flexibility and interesting problems that have real world impact, I get to choose where I live, and I make a nice salary. Even with the ongoing tech layoffs which make it clear that job security is ephemeral at best, I prefer where I am now to where I was before.