I realized the other day that it’s been just over a year since I quit graduate school, and by extension gave up on a life in academics. It was around the middle of April 2011 when I submitted my resignation letter. (I was spending the month teaching a course at my alma mater, and I felt more than a twinge of poignancy at the fact that I wrote the letter just a few hundred feet away from where I’d written my acceptance letter about nine years earlier, during my last semester of college.) Anyway, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how the year – my first spent as a non-student since I was four years old! – has gone.
The most personal of my fears about leaving graduate school had to do with the way I define myself. I was proud to think of myself as the academic type, and doubly proud to think of myself as a philosopher. (Observation: when someone who wears many hats does some work in philosophy, it’s common to see “philosopher” move to the front of their list of self-descriptors. Quelle prestige!) I’d spent about a third of my life under a certain avatar (in name if not always in practice), and I was nervous about casting it aside. How would I think of myself? How would I describe myself to others?
It turned out that the transition of self-definition was much less difficult than I’d feared. There are a few reasons why. First, from a practical point of view, I wasn’t really that engaged in my academic work anyway. The second half of my graduate career was characterized by attempt after semi-subconscious attempt to distract myself from the philosophical tasks at hand. These attempts were overwhelmingly successful, with the result that even when I did devote large amounts of time to doing philosophical work – which happened in fairly infrequent but significant bursts – my heart wasn’t really in it. A second, related reason for the easy transition is that, as a result of years of productive distraction, I had a number of alternative, and more meaningful, identities on which to fall back: software/web developer, educational technologist, teacher, etc. I imagine that such a transition would be far more difficult for someone who didn’t have viable alternatives.
So, from the internal point of view, the transition from academic to ex-academic went more smoothly than I’d hoped. The external transition – how the change has affected my relationships with others, or at least how I perceive the relationships – has been a little bit harder.
The thing is that, while I’m not one of the academics anymore, I spend much of my time with them. Most of my professional work is for universities, and many of my friends and co-workers are tied to schools in one way or another. Thus, I haven’t been able to quit the academic world cold turkey: I still have to go to meetings, deal with institutional BS, navigate political obstacle courses, etc. These are the crappy parts about working in universities, and becoming an ex-academic hasn’t made them any better in my case. (Admittedly, this is because of choices I’ve made to continue working where I work. I have friends who have left to go into, eg, banking.)
In addition to the more obvious annoying bureaucratic details of working within the university, there are the negative social aftereffects of dropping out: I don’t have a PhD, and never will, which means that I’m viewed (or at least, I feel like I’m viewed) in a different way. My opinion on academic matters just doesn’t matter in the same way anymore. I suppose that’s as it should be: the more time I spend away from the day-to-day of the university, the less relevant my opinions about that day-to-day become. Thus, when doing development work with universities, I’m a developer with some helpful experience in academia, rather than a technically-inclined academic. I should note that there have never been any specific instances where I’ve been called out on this distinction, or where it’s had an obviously negative effect on a relationship, but it’s always there in the background. (On a related note, I’ll probably never have a job where I, say, lead an academic computing program – but that’s not something I really want anyway.)
Thus, while I hate to sound sourgrapesesque about it, I haven’t lost much of anything by dropping out. I’m still heavily engaged in enabling the functions of the university that I find most important: teaching and scholarship. It’s just that I do it one or two levels of abstraction higher than when I was in the classroom or the library, and maybe it’s just as well.
On a personal level, the gains of dropping out have been enormous. Not only do I no longer devote any time to working on a project that I’m not really invested in (the dissertation), but I also no longer feel the crushing weight of the unfinished dissertation in my spare time. In the past year, I’ve read more broadly than ever in my life, discovering and developing areas of interest that I would never have dared to devote time to. I’m a new dad and I work from home, which means that I’ve been able to be the kind of dad I’d always hoped I’d be, without feeling guilty about the work I “should” be doing. I’m making an amount of money that is directly connected to the quality of my work, a startling and frankly disarming contrast to the way things seem to operate in universities, especially in the work I did as an adjunct. It’s been about a year since I intentionally read anything explicitly philosophical, but recently I’ve started to feel that itch again – and when I pick up a book or article, it’ll be because of an independent interest, rather than because it’s in an Important Person’s Bibliography.
So for me, quitting graduate school has been a nearly unmitigated success. It took years to work up the courage, and to develop the alternative paths that would make quitting feasible, but once those factors were in place, it was really the best decision I could have made.