When to Quit Your Job

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 28, 2012

My nightmare job in academe had no end in sight. I had reached a point where I couldn't remember the last time I had come in to work happy. My co-workers shuffled around the office like tortured zombies. The toxicity of the place had slowly infected my soul. The time had come for me to leave.

Before that realization, though, I wasted a lot of time thinking about how the problems could be fixed. I would pitch ideas for improving things to my department chair. I would sit through hour after hour of tedious committee meetings, hoping to find a way to make our lives less miserable. Nothing worked. In the end, I could only escape. The hardest part of it all was understanding that I simply couldn't fix the problems.

How do we know which problems with our jobs in academe are solvable? In my experience, the most impenetrable problems that ruin our daily work are the ones that come from the environment around us. Here is a list of the five I have observed the most. If any of these ring a bell, it might be time to dust off the CV and look for greener pastures.

Always doing more with less. The nightmare department I worked for seemed to lose funds every year. As soon as we figured out how to survive the current workload, we would lose another teaching position. Did our chair allow us to streamline our work or drop useless projects? Of course not. The result: burned out employees, myself among them.

That problem occurs all too often in this age of declining budgets. Professors at budget-strapped colleges are teaching more students every year. Advisers are chronically overworked and underpaid. Administrators with no support staff often spend 60 hours a week doing everything themselves. While financially struggling departments occasionally get windfalls of cash, most budgets remain stable from year to year. If your department doesn't have the resources to fulfill its mission now, it probably won't anytime soon.

Horrible leadership. Those of us who read the Dilbert comic strip can laugh at the evil antics of the pointy-haired boss. The not-so-funny part happens when we work for that boss in real life. While I have worked for different leaders of different calibers, the stereotype of the clueless manager is alive and well for good reason. Who truly suffers under such fools? The faculty and staff members of the department.

Unfortunately, you can't fire your boss. But bosses can do worse than fire you. They can make each day miserable. An incompetent boss can frustrate every impulse you have for making a difference in the lives of your students. For every step forward, your "leadership" drags you back two. A cruel boss can make you feel like less than a human being. In either case, the problem comes from the fixed personalities of the people you work for. That rarely goes away on its own.

You're not making a difference. My first job in higher education was working on the staff of a student government. I lasted a year. The position wasn't outsourced and no one fired me. I left because I realized we weren't making the kind of difference on our campus that we always talked about. I wanted my work to be meaningful; I just wasn't happy otherwise.

I've talked to many other folks in our industry who feel the same way. Faculty members and advisers get frustrated when institutional problems prevent them from improving students' lives. A researcher might have stellar ideas for groundbreaking topics but doesn't have the resources to deliver. In all of those cases, our will to improve the academic world has been frustrated by our situation. While cherishing small victories might make a dent in the problem, at the end of the day you're either in an environment where you're able to make a real impact or you're not.

The slow punishment of boredom. Boredom is like the ocean at the beach: It moves in slowly, inch by inch, but will eventually wash away your castle. I once worked at a job where I did the same menial tasks day after day. While it was initially fun to learn about the new people and new things to do, the newness wore off after a month. Unfortunately, they wanted me to keep showing up after that. I kept asking to switch responsibilities with someone else, just for the change of pace. No such luck.

I am far from the only person who has been stuck in a boring role in acadame. I once took a philosophy course in which the professor openly told us that she only cared about research and only taught because she had to. Not surprisingly, she wasn't a very good teacher. The reverse is often true for professors who just want to teach but are forced to spend time in the lab or library.

In such situations, you should never have taken the job in the first place. In a weak job market, people will take whatever job they can get. But a teaching job isn't going to miraculously change into a research job and vice versa. And if you're unwilling to change your priorities, you should admit that you made a mistake and take the shortest route to the exit.

No room at the top. Moving up the ladder finds its way onto many a career checklist. While low employee turnover at one of my previous departments was a sign of excellent morale, it also meant few opportunities for promotion. I worked patiently for years, hoping for an opening in the organizational chart. It never appeared.

Many academics are content to do the same job for 30 years. Some people, however, don't crave the near-eternal stability of the tenured professor. We staff members are also occasionally drawn to the opportunities—and salaries—of administration. But to be promoted up the ladder, the ladder must first exist.

Perhaps your institution is small and has a limited number of openings each year. Maybe it has a culture of hiring outside candidates. In those cases, the career ladder is often a mere footstool, and the only way to move up is to move out. The greener pasture is often a larger institution with more openings in a given year.

We should never spend our precious time stuck in jobs that make us fundamentally unhappy. While the minor problems can often be fixed, the major ones—like the five I've just described—are typically systemic. Systemic problems can't be solved by one person, and they don't go away on their own. Moving to a new institution, while daunting, is the best way to reclaim your career.

Brent Miller is an academic program specialist at Florida State University.