Thursday, March 30, 2006

Leaving the Academy

Here's a really interesting article about a woman who has decided to leave the tenure track and do something else. What's really more interesting to me, though is the comment thread below.

There seems to be a very large dichotomy in commenters. There are those who really agree with what the author has to say, and talk about how they either want to or have run away from the academic life, and then there are those who complain bitterly about this person's self-focus and lack of appreciation for what the academic world has to offer along with a few "you'll see how bad it is out there, yet"'s.

I think that there's something to be said about both sides, (although I'm not fond of the academic traditionalists) and that makes me sad, because it means that we could probably do something about the larger situation, but we choose not to.

I couldn't handle having an academic job when I left gradschool. I went through alot during my final couple years. Alot of it was wonderful -- getting elected to a University wide office was amazing; helping a highschool student place in the county science fair was empowering; hearing my advisor call me Dr. for the first time after my defense was the best thing I'd ever heard (up until the point my wife said, "I do"). There was also alot that was terrible. I spent too many late nights doing stuff I wasn't interested in, and sometimes wasn't even mine. I felt horrible about myself for not publishing. I couldn't handle going to meetings and thinking that I didn't have a good enough network. My advisor isn't as active, and I didn't have people seeking me out. I didn't know how to do that myself, and I sunk further down.

As much as I loved being in the University world, I just couldn't take doing it anymore. I didn't really apply to academic jobs. I didn't feel like I was anywhere near good enough. I didn't want to move across the country to who knows where, just to teach physics. That wasn't going to wake me up in the morning. Unfortunately, I didn't know what was going to wake me up in the morning. I wanted to get ahold of myself, because I felt like I was coming apart at the seams. I felt run over by an academic world that I thought I understood when I went in to it, but had passed me by somewhere.

After some time, I started getting myself together, but it's still day to day. I'm in the real world, and all I can say is that it's boring, but it pays nice. It seems to me that alot of people have this same experience. I don't agree with all the real-world posters on the comments who complain about how tenure breeds incompetance. The real-world breeds incomptetance too. Any large human system will be largely inefficient. It's what you do with that inefficiency and how you think about it that's important. Yeah, layoffs happen more in the real-world, but most people are able to find a little niche where they can hide and the world passes them by. It doesn't take much work to keep most bosses happy, and at the end of the day you go home.

I miss having an academic world of the mind more than anything. Summer break would be great, but mostly I miss being able to be able to go to coloquium.

I think my time out here has been great for me. I couldn't do the academic world before, so I'm glad that I didn't. I've dealt with a lot of problems that I never could have being a junior faculty. I got to move nearer to my family and my wife's. That wouldn't have been a given. I got to think alot about life, and I don't think that many professors get that.

What I would have liked more than anything in gradschool would have been someone to talk to, and I think the comments in the article point that out alot. Even though I would have hated having someone question my thinking as a brash young first year who knew everything, I look now at how useful it would have been. Like many introverted academics, I took everything on myself. That wasn't healthy. I needed someone to tell me that I was still worthwhile as an astronomer even though I didn't get the fellowships I wanted in my second year. I needed someone to help me figure out how to make the academic connections that my advisor couldn't do for me. I needed someone to tell me how to feel justified in not taking on everyone else's problems (my biggest flaw). I little talking then would have prevented alot of stress now. But I didn't know that then. Oh well. I do now, and that's most important.

I think I'll probably get back into academics again, but probably in different way than I envisioned as a 21 year old. I miss using my mind too much. I'm glad that I've followed the path that I have, even if it doesn't look "perfect" from the outside. But, I still have along way to go, and alot to learn.

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