I’ve been reading a lot of “Quit Lit” recently and I am seriously contemplating quitting my own academic job. This (hopefully still) anonymous blog is the only place I have written this down, or even admitted it beyond my immediate family members.
One piece of academic “quit lit” included this PhD comics cartoon:
My life so far looks an awful lot like that top “Life plan”. I met my husband in college, and we got married 1 year after I started grad school, when I was 22. I finished my PhD at age 27, and had my first child at that same age (the only thing significantly off the timeline, it that I did it earlier). I started my “academic dream job” (tenure track, R1 university) at age 29, and also bought a house at that time. I haven’t published any books but I do have a few high-impact papers under my belt, and I could plausibly win a prestigious career award in my mid-to-late 30s. Im well on my way to tenure, I have graduate students, and I’ve been fairly successful with grants and funding. So why do I think about quitting nearly every day?
The reasons are many and varied, and it’s hard to point to just one thing. I guess the best summation is a combination of exhaustion and loss of passion for my research and teaching. When I sit down at my desk, I am not eager to begin working. It’s hard to remember when I was last really interested in a research problem. I think I’ve just been faking it for a number of years, at least since the end of my Ph.D. I teach because I have to, not because I want to. I am nervous in front of a classroom (though I hide it well – too well, because people don’t believe me when I say I am nervous) and I struggle with anxiety about all things large and small. I worry constantly that students are judging my appearance and competence, and I am mortified when I make mistakes in front of the class (as I inevitably occasionally do).
The pressure of the job is high. I am not publishing enough papers, and I feel constant pressure to publish more. But I hate everything about the publishing processes. I recently had a paper rejected, a paper that it took me over a year to write because I hated the work and could hardly bare to look at it. It was rejected with an invitation to resubmit – essentially, I was told to start over on something I barely finished because I hated it so much. I have another project that is ready to be written up – a task I hate doing – but I don’t have the time to do it even if I wanted to. That’s because first I need to find and fix an issue with some code my graduate student needs to use, something I’ve already spent weeks trying to do and getting nowhere. I also need to read and review over 20 proposals because I agreed to serve on a proposal review panel for a government agency, something that every other professor tells me I “should” do. This fall, I’m scheduled to teach two very difficult courses simultaneously, while keeping up with research, publishing, and advising. It’s just gotten to a point where the pressure and stress levels are quite high, the to-do list very long and never ending, and I no longer really enjoy any of it. The exception is advising, which I actually do enjoy, but less and less with time. I’m starting to feel like my advising might actually be harming students, because I am of course leading them down the same path I have followed that has made me so unhappy.
I still believe in the power of science to help society in a general sense. I even still believe in the usefulness of my own research, and I love talking about the topic because it is pretty cool stuff. But science is incremental, and I know that my entire branch of research (which is rather new) may turn out to be mostly useless. It also might turn out to be a huge breakthrough, but scientists in my field are unlikely to know which is true for decades. This is not a criticism of my field, or of science, because the reality is that promising research avenues often turn out to be duds, and it’s often impossible to know that without decades of research. To stick with something that might be a bust, and is really really difficult to do, for decades requires a fierce love that I fear I just don’t have.
For now I am staying for a few reasons. Yes, I am unhappy, but I know nothing else. Will I be happier outside of academia? Will I even find a job? I have no idea. My family relies in my income, and for now, my job is secure. If I leave, I’ll be letting down a lot of people. My colleagues will be rather upset, because in the current university climate, they know they will not be approved to do another search, so the faculty line will die with me (this is academic lingo which essentially means if I quit they won’t be allowed to replace me, and will have to get along with one less faculty member). The person I feel the worst about letting down is my Ph.D. advisor. I see him as a 3rd parent of sorts (he is about the age of my parents) and I know he’s proud and happy that I became a professor, which is what he wanted for me. A handful of other students of his have also gone on to become professors, but I was the first in over a decade and still the most recent.
In 2 weeks, I’m traveling to serve on this proposal review panel. The location happens to be just a few miles from where I did my Ph.D., and I plan to visit with my old advisor. I will likely discuss my career issues with him at that time. I hope that gives me more clarity. For now I feel stressed out, confused, scared, and most of all, increasingly unhappy where I am.