We don’t talk enough about thinking about quitting academia.
We tend to focus on the two extremes, the success stories in academia vs the reasons many people quit. But what about the more common middle ground?
Most of us think about quitting multiple times during our careers without following through. There are many reasons (financial, personal or professional) why an individual can’t or won’t quit, even if they think about doing it. But we rarely voice these feelings to friends or colleagues because of the stigma around quitting, the risk of not being taken seriously afterwards, or the potential for professional retaliation.
‘Wanting to quit’ (but not actually wanting to quit) is a sign that something in your professional system needs to change. These feelings usually arise when we are faced with unreasonable expectations and obstacles that seem too hard to overcome at the time. And it’s hard to pinpoint one causal factor – the feelings are usually a product of multiple interacting factors across multiple professional scales (eg research group, department, institution, discipline etc.), with a cumulative effect thrown in for good measure.
When I feel burned out, it’s rarely from my actual work (which I love). It’s usually a result of exhaustion from battling the administrative minefields, strategic games and survivor competitions at multiple scales. The battles that most of us didn’t sign up for when choosing this career, but that you can’t opt out of. The assets or knowledge needed to win most of these games are not fairly distributed or openly accessible, and many of us are disadvantaged from the outset.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about wanting to quit, although I have no intention of doing so. With ongoing pandemic stresses, changing life priorities after becoming a mum, and dealing with a spate of professional betrayals, hunger games and unreasonable demands, I’ve started questioning my future in academia for the first time in my career.
It’s not the first time I’ve experienced these professional obstacles in my career, but it is the first time I’ve thought about the possibility of quitting as a result.
I’m not writing this for sympathy or solutions, I’m writing about this because, as I processed these feels, I realised that there are very few options to talk about this professionally. Partners and non-academic friends and family can be caring empathetic ears to the general problem, but when you’re in the ‘wanting to quit’ headspace, you need perspectives from people that know the system and can see your place in it. You need to find real solutions to the obstacles you’re facing, and you need to know where your professional support lies.
Whether it’s dealing with a toxic individual, learning the hacks needed to circumvent privilege in a particular system, or shifting your research niche to avoid unreasonable competition, you often need someone else’s perspective to see the most effective solution.
But admitting to colleagues that you’re thinking about quitting (even if you’re not planning to actually quit) comes with a whole lot of stigma that most people don’t have capacity to add to their already burdened emotional space.
There is fear of how you will be judged: you can’t hack it, you’re not serious about your work, you’re not good enough at your work, you’re not interested enough, etc. etc.
And there is the real potential for conscious or unconscious professional retaliation afterwards. If colleagues perceive you to have lost interest or capacity to work, even temporarily, they may (consciously or unconsciously) stop inviting you to participate in new projects, strategic discussions, or professional events, or it could bias their decisions about your job or funding applications.
There’s absolutely no shame in thinking about quitting, even if you don’t plan to follow through. Let’s normalise talking about ‘wanting to quit’, with colleagues, mentors and friends. It’s not a binary ‘stay or leave’ scenario, it’s a starting point for important discussions around what needs changing in our professional environments to enhance our wellbeing.
© Manu Saunders 2023
We should definitely normalise expressing doubt and frustration. There are however some people on the other end of the spectrum who are perennially threatening to quit but never actually do. One friend of mine has been ‘giving this place 12 months max’ for the best part of a decade now. As you suggest, saying you want to quit is often a way of not saying something else, and even if a fantasy quit provides some release it would be better to tackle the issues directly.
That said, it’s all part of a healthy working life to periodically look elsewhere, evaluate your options, and make an active decision to stay where you are. Even though I’m very happy in my current job it’s reassuring to know that there are other paths and I’ve chosen not to take them. I hope you can say the same :o)
LikeLiked by 3 people
Interesting post Manu. I think you’re totally not alone in any of these thoughts or feelings. I think about quitting academia all the time, and often am pretty vocal about it. For me, thus far, the main reason was that I don’t have a permanent position, although I’m not sure it would change things. One of the other reasons is having many other passions I would like to pursue potentially, in a way it’s a constant fomo that haunts me. I think it’s normal to want to quit. When I worked in a factory, I wanted to quit. When I was a gardener, I wanted to quit. When I delivered pizzas I wanted to quit. Most people want to quit. We’re also not that special!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks. That’s great that you do feel secure and comfortable to discuss these feelings openly, but not everyone does and I think it’s important to acknowledge this. I agree that some general frustrations with work are common to all jobs, but there are many power dynamics and obstacles that are unique to academia and are demonstrated to have real impacts on marginalised people and general wellbeing, so I think it’s important not to minimise these feelings.
I fully agree, although normalizing almost always has a minimizing feel to it. I think many people struggle with being open and honest, and even with being around open and honest people. I don’t know why this is, but this contributes to the problem.
Really interesting post Manu. In contrast to some of the comments above, I never wanted to quit my university job, at least for the first twenty-odd years. I always loved the diversity of the job, combining teaching, research and “service” roles. It was starting to feel over-stretched and burned out from around 2018 onwards, and not at all enjoying the job, that prompted me to think about leaving, which I finally did in October 2020. Even without a paid post in academia I don’t feel as though I’ve left it behind, I’m still involved in research projects and I still write and review, etc., But I’ve managed to choose those roles that I like the most and leave the others behind. I feel fortunate in being able to do that, even if the income can be a bit unpredictable!
LikeLiked by 1 person