Many Ph.D.’s who write about leaving academe knew it was not for them. I envy those people. I enjoyed being an academic, and I loved teaching. As a kid growing up, all I wanted to be was a teacher, and when I entered university, my career goal shifted to being a professor. When I decided to end my quest for a tenure-track job, I told a friend that, some day, I hoped I would enjoy whatever I ended up doing as much as I enjoyed teaching and being a historian.
I will never forget the afternoon I decided to leave academe. I had just learned that I was second in line for a visiting assistant professorship, with a three-year contract and a 3-3 teaching load. We were well into the summer, and this was my last hope of a job for the following year. The pay was less than $40,000 a year; the hiring committee admitted to me that the salary was probably not enough to cover living expenses in the area.
That afternoon I hit the brick wall. I had spent three years on the academic job market and felt further away than ever from my goal. Was I to work yet another year as an adjunct, scraping by, with no promise that the next year would be any better than the previous three?
I phoned my good friend who was facing the same reality. His dream was to be a professor, but, like me, he could not land a job. We had told each other the same piece of advice over and over again: It’s not you; it’s the system. The system is broken. You are not a failure; the system failed you. I told him that day, “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore.” He responded, “I don’t blame you.” The following year, he also left academe.
I cried at the end of the phone call and cried a lot more in the following months. I was angry—at myself, at the system, at the administrators who were cutting tenure-track jobs, at those who’d caused the 2008 economic crash. I kept looking at job boards, trying to find a reason my decision to leave was wrong. I spent days depressed, watching crap TV and drinking cheap wine.
Finally, when I started having success as a research consultant, I turned a corner. No, my consulting career is not the same as being an academic, but I have incorporated into my new profession things I enjoyed about academe: research and writing, leading workshops, and giving presentations. I still feel sad when I look at my history books, or when friends are creating their syllabi for the coming semester. But, over all, I enjoy my new life. People treat me with respect, they value my contributions, and my research is having an immediate impact.
Over the past few years, I have met many Ph.D.’s who are excellent teachers with exciting scholarship and impressive CVs. They, too, can’t find academic jobs. They, too, are looking for a way to move forward professionally, where they can make a living and have their contributions valued. Many, like me, have spent months consumed by grief over the loss of their dreams and fighting a sense of failure. But, as people who earned Ph.D.’s, they are hard-working and too ambitious to stay in a broken system. And they all eventually found new professions that bring them satisfaction.
L. Maren Wood earned a Ph.D. in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the founder and lead researcher of Lilli Research Group, a small education-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., metro area. She will be blogging regularly for the Ph.D. Placement Project about nonacademic career issues for Ph.D.’s.”