The Great Academic Resignation

I don’t often find relevance in the articles published in the Nature Careers section because they tend to be too US/UK centric. But this recent piece on The Great Resignation in academia resonated a little. To be clear, I love my job and I have no intentions of joining the great resignation. But, we’ve all thought about it in the last couple of years.

Terry McGlynn has a post over on Small Pond Science summing up some of the reasons why so many academics have these feels. While the problems with academic work systems were building before the pandemic hit, the last few years have exacerbated them. The pandemic has also caused a lot of people to reassess their priorities, as well as their tolerance for some work conditions.

The part of the article that stuck with me most was the idea of the ‘mid-career malcontent’.

A lot of academia’s problems stem from university executives and politicians trying to force what is essentially a public service role into a corporate for-profit model. Square peg, round hole. Most people enter an academic career out of passion and talent for their research field and a desire to make a difference by educating the next generation and contributing scholarship to their discipline.

In everything there’s a trade-off, and the poor job security and instability of postdoc life is often offset by the relative ‘freedom’ you have from time-intensive teaching, admin, and service. Likewise, the job security and career benefits that come with transitioning to the lecturer track are offset by the increased intensity of workload, increased involvement in internal bureaucracy and politics, and a decline in time available for research. A few years in (often around the same time as you’re transitioning from early to mid career), it’s a rude shock to discover working in academia is not quite what it says on the packet.

What with drowning in admin and unnecessary bureaucracy, trying to find a balance between research and teaching, and juggling parenting as an academic, it’s no wonder so many talented people run out of patience with the university system. This is not a new phenomenon – researchers have been documenting people (especially women) ‘leaving academia’ for all the same reasons since at least the 1980s.

It’s appalling that these problems are still problems, decades after they were first recognised. Imagine how frustrating it must be for academics still in the system who have been fighting the good fight for years, trying to change things for the better, only to see the same problems still driving talent away. Change happens slowly, but sometimes it feels like we’re going backwards.

It’s an important issue that needs to be addressed. But a lot of the discussion I’ve seen recently, especially on platforms like Nature and Science, have oversimplified it to the point where the main solution offered is ‘quit and get a better paying job in industry’.

Industry is not immune from the issues that academia suffers from, and it also adds an inherent bias and lack of independence to research. It’s not the solution for everyone.

A lot of good people stay in academia for a lot of good reasons. I want to read more stories that acknowledge why some academics can’t or don’t want to quit, stories that reflect on how the public focus on quitting academia impacts the mental health and self-esteem of those who choose to stay, or what the future of research and higher education will look like as more young people are discouraged from pursuing an academic career.

In the last couple of years I’ve mentally shifted from “I’ve finally found my forever job” to “I’m actually not sure if I’ll still be in academia in x years (and I’m sad about that)” – a place I never thought I’d get to when I started on this career path. I made the postdoc – lecturer transition, and then became permanent, and then had a baby, all during the pandemic, so there are too many confounding factors to pinpoint one reason for this shift.

Academia is a collaborative system and being an academic is a fine balance between operating independently as an expert while also depending on collaborators and colleagues to achieve most of your research and teaching outcomes.

It feels like so many basic aspects of my job have become unsustainable in the last couple of years, as more and more people drop out of the system to make better life choices for themselves and their families, or we simply need more time or flexibility than usual, or we have to say no to more things. Yet the bureacratic processes, expectations and deadlines aren’t changing with us.

It’s not only the direct impacts of losing projects and trusted allies from your own collaborative networks. Fewer active researchers in your discipline can make it harder to find relevant peer reviewers, thesis examiners, grant reviewers, mentors, or even just people to bounce ideas off. Departmental staff that you don’t collaborate with can impact your own work if they leave, causing remaining staff to pick up more teaching and service roles on top of their already full workloads.

Many of our academic processes, conventions and expectations were established at a time when the world was a very different place, and depend on effort that most academics no longer have to share.

Without data it’s hard to know how severe the Great Resignation impacts will be, and how far it will spread. Sure, things will change eventually, but in the meantime we’ll need to rethink what we expect from academics who choose to stay in a depleted system.

© Manu Saunders 2022

5 thoughts on “The Great Academic Resignation

  1. jeffollerton July 2, 2022 / 4:34 PM

    Very well articulated Manu. This sentence resonated with me:

    “oversimplified it to the point where the main solution offered is ‘quit and get a better paying job in industry’”

    Because, yes, there’s lots of other options for having a fulfilling life! I chose to go down the freelancing/consultancy/writing route and be independent, but there’s no shame in working in other areas, becoming a farmer, opening a bakery, getting into gardening, etc. Twitter’s full of stories of people with PhDs doing this sort of thing. It’s got to be about what makes you happy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul Sanborn July 17, 2022 / 5:29 AM

    Thanks for this thoughtful commentary. I will offer myself as a somewhat different data point, but I came to pretty similar conclusions.

    I’m now about a year away from retiring in my late 60s after ~ 20 years at a small Canadian university. I had a roundabout route into academia in midlife, after a couple of gigs in government ministries, 2 postdocs, and a year-and-a-half of freelancing and consulting. Except for working in a big corporation, which isn’t really an option in my field, I’ve experienced most of the available employment niches.

    On balance, I’m pleased that made my final switch in 2002. But I’ve certainly had my fill of the things that you mention which take the fun out of the job. And I keep my fingers crossed for the cohort queued up to take the places of me and my peers.

    Certainly, COVID has been the antimatter cherry-on-top at the end of a career. Although inadvertently brilliant sabbatical timing spared me most of the vortex of ’20-’21, this just made the re-entry shock all the greater. My long-term plan would have had me retire at the end of this August, but I decided a couple of years ago that I’d push it back to Sept 1, 2023. I naively thought it would be nice to get to teach my favourite courses one last time under “normal” conditions – silly me!

    What I find most demoralizing now is having to live through the fragmented shambles of how the Canadian education sector – at all levels – is dealing with COVID. Protections like masking requirements have been lifted almost everywhere, and I will only be able to implore my students to wear them in class.

    Even more disappointing is watching the steady falling off of mask-wearing among my colleagues. Although it’s mid-summer here, and many are away for field work or vacations, the remaining sample doesn’t appear any different in its behaviour from the folks that I meet in the grocery store or any other public setting. It’s depressing and tiring always having to be the one who pleads for this basic precaution when organizing transport for excursions, arrangements for meetings etc.

    I just want to make it through the next year managing to avoid both short- and long-COVID. But even if I do, it will be hard not to have a pretty disillusioned view of the people that I’ve worked with for two decades. When it comes to showing the value of higher education, we’re certainly not making a strong case by example! I really do want to leave next year on friendly terms with everyone, but just the thought of the effort this will take is enough to make me want to take a nap!

    If you’d asked me, say, 5 years ago, I certainly would have never expected to be in this frame of mind when I was so close to the finish line.


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