Academia and I Have Decided to Leave Each Other

Academia and I Have Decided to Leave Each Other December 31, 2020

At the conclusion of this most melodramatic of years, I have some some news that’s only tangential to wacky presidential politics, plague, or explosive racial tensions. I’ve decided to leave academia. After more than a decade of graduate school, postdocs, and research associateships, I’ve been forced to accept the hard fact that the professorship I’d dreamed of either isn’t out there, or isn’t likely to show up soon enough to justify keeping up the grind (and the wait). In fact, I’ve already walked out the door: as of the beginning of December, when my most recent research grant salary ran out, I was no longer employed in academia. 

While there’s plenty of disappointment in this decision, I won’t be lingering wistfully outside the door. Even as I write these words, the mixture of frustration and sadness is palpable. I’ve spent more than half of my adult life investing in a career that, in the end, isn’t going to pan out. That’s a stiff drink of reality, neat and with no chaser. But even stronger than the feeling of regret is the giddy anticipation of what comes next, combined with the enormous relief of leaving a profession whose future looks increasingly cloudy, and where people such as myself — driven primarily by curiosity, enthusiastic about seeking out truth, not very good at status jockeying — are increasingly feeling unwelcome.

Permanent Globetrotting

It’s not entirely accurate to say that I decided to leave academia. The decision was mutual. I’ve applied for dozens and dozens of jobs since earning my PhD in 2016, with no dice. In those four years, I managed to get four first-round interviews for tenure-track jobs, and only one final-round interview including a campus visit. (For all you lucky non-academics out there, that’s nearly the Holy Grail of academic job-seeking. If you get invited to campus for the traditional daylong job visit, including dinners with the deans and a public lecture, you know you actually stand a chance of bagging a tenure-track jobroughly as mythical a beast as a yeti, but less likely to show up in photographs.) When, back in March, I learned that the professorship for which I’d been a finalist had ultimately gone to someone else, I knew that it was time to look for something better.

This isn’t to claim that there were no options left. Sympathetic friends and colleagues put jobs on my radar, hoping I might come work with them for a few years while building up my CV and waiting for that tenure-track job to finally appear. The long-term postdoc thing is pretty common, even standard, in academia nowadays, especially in the sciences — you do one postdoc in, say, the UK, another postdoc somewhere in Germany, and eventually land a permanent gig someplace completely different, all while getting to see the world. 

I could probably have done this. I’m grateful to friends and colleagues who offered me chances to apply for gigs with them, who believe in my work, and who don’t want to see me leave the field. It means a lot.

But contemplating this possible trajectory, I had to admit to myself that I’m no longer in the stage of life where an open-ended globetrotting adventure, with no guarantee of a final destination, sounds all that appealing. I already did that. It was called my twenties. I had to get extra passport pages put in my passport back then — the foreign entrance visas and residency permits filled up space fast. Fast-forwarding to today, sure, I could probably have stuck around in academia doing the postdoc thing, itinerantly moving from country to country for a year or two each, racking up peer-reviewed articles and hoping that eventually one of them would go big and launch me to that coveted tenure-track job I dreamed of. 

Sometime in my mid-forties. With no permanent community other than my wife. And no guarantee of ever actually finding that job. 

Or I could admit that this cost-benefit analysis really doesn’t work out and, with gratitude for my eventful years as a full-time researcher and the immense privilege of my postgraduate education, punch out for good while I’m still young enough to have a shot at trying something different. 

So I elected for Option B.

Cost-Benefit Blues

It wasn’t just the costs in the cost-benefit ratio that were out of whack. That ratio’s denominator — the projected benefits and joys of an academic lifestyle — have been subtly diminishing for some time. Some of this was the natural consequence of maturity. The perennial drawbacks to academic life, such as long hours and vicious competition, don’t seem that troubling when you’re younger and hangover-proof. In my thirties, I started noticing them. The late nights and weekends spent doing research started to add up. The careerism ate away at my relationships. The boons of academic life were increasingly hard to pick out amidst the lonely, workaholic clutter.

To survive in academia, it helps to be an obsessive, which I am. When people ask me if they should do a PhD, I tell them they should only do it if they literally — and I mean literally in the proper sense of “not metaphorically,” not the nitwit sense of hyperbolically emphasizing a point — knew that, PhD or no, they would keep studying their chosen subject matter even if they had to work a full-time job in sales administration in Tulsa to support it. This criterion applied to me nicely. I was greedily reading texts in religious studies in the evenings after dreary catering shifts long before I even thought to take the GREs. 

But obsession can only power you for so long. Eventually, you need something meaty and three-dimensional to consummate your obsession, or the quest will peter out in a thicket of wasteland, far from civilization, and with nothing edible in sight. You need your obsession to translate into paying the rent, the possibility of having a family. As I grew past the sleepless frenzy of my twenties, the pains and discomforts of the quest grew sharper and more insistent, and the lack of comforts began to feel like an insult.

Narrow and Contorted Is the Ideological Path

Another big factor in the shrinkage of the denominator in the cost-benefit ratio of academic life was the sinking sense that truly curiosity-driven types, people who love knowledge for its own sake, are, sadly, increasingly unwelcome. Colleges and universities have come to see their roles in more and more utilitarian, transactional terms, leaving relatively little room for the sheer pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Scholarship and research are often no longer intrinsically valuable or “autotelic,” as the medievalist Johann Huizinga would describe it. Instead, academia sees itself as fulfilling three primary extrinsic purposes:

First, it produces scientific research that offers applied functions: cures for diseases, engineering breakthroughs, advances in artificial intelligence, tech innovations. The bulk of research funding pours into these pursuits. Science and engineering departments have long since become the beating heart of most American universities, even if the tree-lined quad is geographically anchored by a quiet library or a chapel.

Second, American higher education recruits and bestows credentials upon future members of the upper-middle, professional, managerial, and leadership classes. Every non-forager society needs a leadership cohort, and for hundreds of years top colleges and universities have produced that cohort for the Western world. Lawyers, doctors, and — for most denominations — clergy were traditionally “college men” (and now college women). Teachers in the U.S. were educated at universities or teacher’s colleges — many of which evolved into the state universities that now pepper the American landscape. A full 75% of American presidents have been college graduates (including the long pre-WWII era, when only around five percent of adults held a four-year degree).

Third, academia pursues social justice and counters oppression according to progressive definitions of those ideas. This focus on social activism is a relatively new development, but it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it has remade the American university system in the space of a generation. College professors, always reliably left-of-center, have become much, much more progressive in the past two decades, far outpacing the nation as a whole, and so have students. In New England, whose leafy oases host many of the nation’s most prestigious (and trend-setting) institutions, liberal professors outnumber self-described conservatives by an incredible 28 to one. 

But it’s not just the professors. Administrators are even more left-leaning than professors, a trend that only intensifies in more elite colleges and universities. Samuel Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, observes that

a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate — and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.

Playing the Game Badly

Many will object: conservative values are, in fact, inherently evil, and so they shouldn’t be tolerated on college campuses after all — or anywhere else, for that matter. Unfortunately, I can’t think of anything productive to say to people who think this way. Echoing Alasdair MacIntyre, we don’t even share the basic premises that would make conversation possible. It’s surprising how often this realization hits home in academia these days.

What I can say is that, as a male who’s roughly centrist (according to pre-2015 definitions), who appreciates the value of both progressive and conservative morals, and who has a well-developed sense of obligation to those who built up the country and institutions I’ve benefitted from as well as a deep hunger for knowledge and a low tolerance for B.S., I have come to see elite higher education as simply unappealing. Looking around, it’s hard not to notice that, at least in the humanities, the young scholars who are most likely to succeed, get jobs, win awards, secure book deals — the departmental stars, so to speak — are activists, or in some other way carefully advertise themselves as principled antagonists of the prevailing social order (or what they imagine that order to be). 

The message we’re supposed to receive is not particularly subtle: professional academia in the 2020s wants and encourages performative disaffection, and it rewards and celebrates cynicism. Because of these jaundiced priorities, it all too often traps its most talented young people in cycles of resentment and maladjusted striving. Ultimately, they end up having a hard time psychologically maturing in an Eriksonian sense — that is, putting their adolescent resentments to rest and taking at last a constructive or generative stance toward the society that birthed them. 

It’s too bad, because this process of maturation is really one of life’s most rewarding experiences. I think the atmosphere of resentment that so often floats at the edges of academic spaces comes, in part, from the buried, repressed understanding that most people in those spaces are getting a bum deal. To use a Biblical metaphor that most college graduates will no longer understand, they have traded a basic human birthright for a mess of pottage, and they’re often justifiably bitter about it. But the empty rewards of the game — prestige, publications, accolades from peers — are too addictive to give up. So they stay in the game, and bitterness mounts.

Those of us who were not department-favored pupils got the exciting benefit of flying under the radar, fulfilling our own cravings for knowledge. I and most of my friends are like this. But the price we paid is that we never learned to fit into the academic clique all that well, the trouble being that securing one of the increasingly rare tenure-track jobs is now almost entirely a matter of fitting into the clique. Hoping for acceptance above all else, young academics are increasingly conformist and prone to self-censorship, pursuing only the research lines that they know will get approving nods. Space is too limited here to get into the numerous ways that this timidity is impinging on academia’s ability to help society solve its problems. But it obviously is not helping.

I find the rigorously patrolled conformism and semi-permanent, self-focused adolescence of academia disappointing, but I also find them boring. I’m hopeful that in whatever comes next, I can use the skills and knowledge I’ve built up over the past twelve years to better effect than I could in a 2020s university classroom. Of course, I could be wrong about much of what I’ve said here, and a near-perfect academic job could land in my inbox tomorrow. I would enthusiastically apply. But I would be more than mildly surprised. 

In the meanwhile, I plan to return to weekly blogging here for the first time in several years, as the ideas that I’ve self-censored while searching for academic jobs come bubbling forth. While I plot my next steps, I’ll be open to any suggestions or opportunities, so if you know of any or just want to commiserate or share your own experiences in the academic wilds, get ahold of me:

No Hard Feelings

Finally, I want to emphasize that I don’t feel bitter about this choice at all. It’s disappointing to leave an environment that was so close to being just the right one for me, but in the end it was not, in fact, the right one. I know many good, principled, intelligent people who’ve made a great life for themselves in academia, particularly in my own, small, odd discipline of the scientific study of religion, which tends to attract people who are refreshingly immune to or just completely uninterested in much of the ideological game-playing I’ve discussed here.

So, despite my enumeration of the systemic flaws in higher education, this is at least as much a matter of my own personal settings as it is an indictment of the industry. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I’ve never been good at publishing quickly. I have other flaws, including the tendency to take on too many dissimilar tasks and so spread out my efforts instead of focusing them. In other words, I take complete responsibility for the decision to leave academia. I’m not walking away sulkily into the darkness.

I’m a grownup. Like any real grownup, I know that responsibility exists where external circumstances intersect with individual agency. And I’m not interested in lifelong or even daylong resentment, no matter how fashionable it might be elsewhere. Instead, I’m grateful for years of privileged immersion in the world of ideas, for good funding that allowed me to get away with only a modicum of debt, for mentors who taught me to think rigorously and clearly across disciplines, and for the many friends I’ve made along the way. So here’s to what comes next. I’m looking forward — yes, a bit anxiously, but with excitement — to learning what that is.

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