Thursday, January 3, 2013

Reframing Leaving, Quitting, and Failure (especially for "type 2" leavers)

Often the decision to leave academia can be accompanied by feelings of failure. If you choose to pursue an advanced degree, chances are you are intelligent, hard-working, driven, and accustomed to success. You have embraced the idea that persistence will pay off. For you, quitting is not an option. Quitting is for those other, lesser, mortals.

In fact, academia encourages this kind of thinking--you live a life of the mind, you brilliant little snowflake. And, after hearing this pervasive rhetoric for countless years of graduate study, it can be difficult to "detox" from it.

In Thomas H. Benton's (aka William Pannapacker) "The Big Lie About the Life of the Mind"  he succinctly describes why choosing to leave academia can be such a colossal mindfuck,

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon "the life of the mind." That's why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

But as Dr. Karen reminds us over at The Professor Is In, IT'S OK TO QUIT:

It is ok to decide that’s not what you want.  It is ok to make another choice.  There is life outside of academia.  But academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls.  You will be judged harshly by others and, to the extent you’ve been properly socialized into the cult during graduate school, by your own inner voices.  Making the decision to leave involves confronting that judgment, working through it, and coming out the other side.  It is long and hard and involves confronting profound shame.  I went through this.  I know.

If you feel ashamed by your decision to quit, you are not alone. Since leaving academia, I have struggled with doubt, insecurity, and feelings of failure. Feelings of failure may be particularly intense if you are a "Type 2" postacademic. At From Grad School to Happiness, JC writes about the two kinds of postacademics, Type 1 and Type 2 leavers. She says,"The first category contains people like me, who have really had it with academia [...] The second category would be people who still love academia, but who know that their ability to get a job that pays them a fair wage in an area they'd like to live is severely hampered by the academic job market or some other factor."

Type 2 leavers may find the decision to leave academia particularly fraught, as they did not "quit" academia so much as academia quit them. As a Type 2 leaver, your decision to pursue a life outside of the ivory tower may feel less like a positive affirmation to leave an unhealthy environment and more like a "failure" to land an academic job.

Regardless of how and why you decide to leave academia, be proud. If you've decided to leave because you're miserable doing the work, you're consciously choosing to make yourself happier. That's something to be proud of. And if you're leaving because you can't make a reliable living doing what you love, you're consciously choosing to give yourself the kind of security you need as an adult, and choosing to stop allowing academia to exploit you. That is also a decision of which you should be very, very proud.

The process of reframing your decision to quit and re-calibrating how you define successf, failure, and a worthy endeavor is not easy and takes guts. You'll have ups and downs, and you'll struggle with it, and you'll second guess yourself. But that doesn't mean that you're making the wrong decision. It means that you've been socialized a certain way, and now you need to re-socialize yourself to think differently about what "quitting" means in the realm of academia.

As you go through the good, bad, and ugly process of redefining personal accomplishment, please keep these helpful links in mind:

For an entertaining look at the career of successful television and, not so successful film actor, Alec Baldwin read hereA self-described failure, this article chronicles how after numerous dubious professional and personal choices, Baldwin is at the top of his game at the age of 51.

Also, take a listen to this podcast from Freakonomics on The Upside of Quitting:

To help us understand quitting, we look at a couple of key economic concepts in this episode: sunk cost and opportunity cost. Sunk cost is about the past – it’s the time or money or sweat equity you’ve put into a job or relationship or a project, and which makes quitting hard. Opportunity cost is about the future. It means that for every hour or dollar you spend on one thing, you’re giving up the opportunity to spend that hour or dollar on something else – something that might make your life better. If only you weren’t so worried about the sunk cost. If only you could …. quit.

A fascinating collection of stories "ranging from prostitutes and baseball players to former government officials and a couple of Amish women who left the fold," The Upside of Quitting reminds us that quitting can be a strategic decision, if we only embrace the opportunity cost of change.

 Quitting is a powerful choice. Embrace it.


  1. [...] Reframe your concepts of “leaving,” “quitting” and failure with our article here. There are tons of great reads that will stoke the fire of your indignance and make you feel like less of a chump (you are not a chump, but you probably feel like a chump). [...]

  2. I quit a professional grad school program in historic preservation and am struggling with feelings of guilt and failure. I was probably a type 2 quitter, since I discovered that the hp job market wasn't as rosy as the graduate admin committee made it out to be when I was applying. I have a family and getting a Masters in HP seemed more like a shot to the head than a practical, professional career move.

    I love reading blogs like this and Mama Nervosa, but I can only relate on a certain level since most of the grad school quittas were PhD students and wanted to become professors.

    Maybe you guys can rally up some terminal master's students who quit and they can share their stories as well.

  3. Please consider sharing your story! I think there are a lot of folks like you out there and it DEFINITELY "counts." And I think it's important for more traditional academics to understand that careers in "alternative academic" tracks like librarianships, historical preservation, museums, etc, aren't the perfect antidote to the academic job market. Thanks for reading, and keep coming back!


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