Breaking Up With Academia: Finding a New Way to “Do What You Love”

Breaking Up With Academia: Finding a New Way to “Do What You Love”

Roses are red
Thorns leave you weeping
If I “do what I love”
I’ll get paid to keep sleeping!

The other day, I posted this Alt-Ac Career Generator that I made last year and posted to Facebook. At the time, several of my grad friends and I had just attended an alt-ac all-day workshop. In one session, the poor presenter (who couldn’t have anticipated our collective angst) gave us a handout on using your interests to find a new career. One of the suggestions was along the lines of, “I like writing and architecture, so I could start a business building doll houses.”

You can probably guess how well that went over.

At the time, my own feeling was that following my passion was exactly what got me into this mess in the first place. All I wanted now was a job where I could work decent hours, take weekends off guilt-free, and make a good living already!

I can’t even afford Barbie’s dream house, let alone my own house, on a grad student salary. (And I’m sorry, Barbie gets an ELEVATOR now? She’s too good to walk up the stairs in her tiny pink shoes? Yeah, okay, grad school has reduced me to envying a plastic doll.)

In the year since that presentation, a time in which I’ve decided to leave the PhD, I’ve done a lot of rethinking about this money and love and work problem.

A friend of mine (who is finishing the PhD but has no intention of going on the job market) recently pointed out that in spite of all the crap involved, she’s really glad we’ve taken this alternate route: spending years deeply pursuing a topic that we value for its own sake. And yeah, wow, I’ve really studied the hell out of this field I care about! With other people who are passionate about their fields! And I’ve gotten to help hundreds of students become better writers in the process! I got paid to read books!!

And I don’t mean to cast an overly-rosy glow over non-academic careers. I know work can suck, too. But for me, the kicker is that I am NOT doing what I love by staying here. I love parts of it; finishing a tough bit of writing (emphasis on finishing), participating a great seminar or leading an awesome class, coming up with or reading an exciting new argument, experiencing gratitude from students. But I don’t love the totally amorphous day-to-day schedule, the isolation, the drudgery of grading or the often-tiring student-teacher dynamics, the low pay and lack of control over my own life, the insecurity (mine and others’), and even (maybe especially) the never-ending process of academic writing.

Elizabeth Sergan said it well in “Finding Meaning After Academe,” a post on The Chronicle from last July:

It’s hard to know what might make you happy in unfamiliar realms. I pursued an academic career because I thought it would give my life meaning, but as I veer further and further away from the path I had initially set for myself, I have found that there are many rich sources of meaning in life. Over the last three years, I have stumbled upon fulfilling work that I never would have discovered had I not been nudged out of academe.

Priorities change. Interests change. Love changes. Change can be a beautiful thing.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
I did what I loved,
Now I’d love something new.


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