Why It’s So Hard to Leave Academe

Rational people have good reasons for staying in a system that has failed them

October 07, 2015

It’s the time of year when fresh academic-job postings lure aspiring academics toward a future that promises intellectual fulfillment, professional respect, and economic security. For some hopefuls, particularly those struggling financially in unstable or low-paid academic work, it may be time to ask themselves whether they should try again — just one last time — to secure a full-time (if not tenure-track) faculty position.

With the start of the hiring cycle, there have also been some thoughtful posts on how to decide if it’s time to call it quits, as well as some less-considerate remarks on why anyone who’s been teaching part-time should be smart enough to just move on already.

Surely, any person intelligent enough to have completed a Ph.D. should be able to recognize that — without a very strong CV and more than a bit of luck — a tenure-track position is probably out of reach. So why, then, do so many unlucky scholars, surveying their dismal prospects in academe, end up echoing that poignant line from Brokeback Mountain, "I wish I knew how to quit you"?

This isn’t a love affair. Academe has been unfavorably compared to many things: a cult, a bad boyfriend, fraternity-style hazing, or indentured servitude. In all of those analogs, victims are bound to perpetrators in such a way that the victims believe they have chosen to stay in dysfunctional relationships, when in reality they have been manipulated or coerced into them.

These sorts of comparisons don’t credit Ph.D. holders with much in the way of agency, savvy, or common sense. So beyond the frequently expressed motivations for staying — a fear of lost identity, a desire not to disappoint others, or a sense of obligation to mentors, financial supporters, or self (all of which are real and powerful) — what are the reasons why rational, intelligent people might find it hard to leave a system that has so egregiously failed them? Let’s consider some of the possibilities.

Sunk costs. The more you are invested in any particular venture, the less likely you are to abandon it. The same holds true for doctoral study. It’s not uncommon for a Ph.D. to have spent more than a decade in higher education before reaching the point of leaving. That adds up to a lot of misspent energy. While some might consider the sunk-costs rationale to be faulty reasoning, it does lead to several other implications, which are not.

Circumscribed networks. As a Ph.D., most of your professional network is in academe — and probably a large portion of your personal network is as well. That has a cascade of consequences for anyone trying to leave. First, if most people rely on networking to find a job, that makes it very hard for Ph.D.s to find jobs outside of academe. It also means there are few people in your immediate circle to turn to for advice and support about an alternative career. And in many cases, if you want to leave the door open to return to traditional academic employment at some point, you have to keep your post-academic aspirations a secret from the very people you should be able to ask for help.

Even if you are 85 percent inclined to leave academe, there may still be a few positions that would keep you in the profession.

Those factors make it very difficult to transition out of the faculty pipeline. Practically, many graduate programs can’t or won’t help doctoral students seeking nonacademic employment. Personally, leaving academe can mean abandoning a community of like-minded friends and colleagues — associations that were nurtured "in the trenches." Few people outside academe will understand what that means.

The Ph.D penalty. Prospective employers outside academe are looking for proven abilities to do a particular job, not future potential for success. In revising an academic CV into a much-briefer résumé, how are you supposed to quantify results? As a Ph.D., you certainly can’t do that in terms of sales volume, regions covered, or contracts negotiated. Ph.D. training is training for a scholarly career. Only a person who has been simultaneously pursuing a distinct and parallel career path will be able to transition relatively seamlessly.

For example, after several unsuccessful years on the academic job market, a colleague of mine who had previously worked as a lawyer decided to return to practicing law. After he passed the bar in his new home state, his employer offered him a salary well below what he had been earning as a lawyer 10 years before — and less than what a first-year associate with no experience would receive — on the grounds that going to graduate school had made him a worse lawyer.

The ease of securing part-time academic work. On top of the above challenges, when economic pressures are immediate, the most direct route to earned income may be part-time lecturing. Many new Ph.D.s may even keep their graduate-student-era jobs. Regardless of whether they would prefer a different career track, their credentials and networks set them up to continue working in academe.

In my first years after earning my Ph.D., I had no trouble assembling a full schedule of varied teaching and research work, and I probably could have renewed those part-time positions indefinitely. What I could not do with those jobs was pay my bills. That left me in a double bind: To pay rent, I needed the income from a full-time job, but making a career transition takes a lot of time and effort. The fastest way for me to earn more money would be to pick up another teaching section or part-time job, but doing so would make it that much more difficult to search for a full-time job on a new career path.

Desire for intellectual satisfaction. Some graduate students discover along the way that the scholarly life is not for them, but most Ph.D. students are drawn to doctoral work because it offers a kind of satisfaction that is difficult to achieve in any other occupation. Academic work is good work, even if the working conditions are not. For many, academic work offers a chance to be part of a larger conversation, the kind of "something bigger" that gives meaning to labor and life. It can also offer the satisfaction of passing on what one has learned to others. While other career paths may also offer such intellectual rewards, it is difficult to assess that in advance.

An unforgiving job market. Even if you are 85 percent inclined to leave academe, there may still be a few positions that would keep you in the profession. Given the slow rate of turnover in faculty positions, it is entirely possible that a good job won’t come up in your first, second, third, or even fourth years on the market. When that prime job does come available, if you have hung on and continued to add teaching or research credentials to your CV, you may still face long odds, but you are likely to be a more competitive candidate than someone who’s been working in campus administration, publishing, or the nonprofit world.

Love. Despite the indignities small and large that aspiring scholars face, some will go to the death doing what they love. Even if their logic is wrong, it is hard to argue with passion.

Still want out? What if you never intended to pursue the tenure track anyway? Shouldn’t it be easier to leave? Because the features I’ve mentioned here are inherent in the doctoral-education system, I think they still apply to Ph.D.s with nonacademic career aspirations. They still make leaving hard.

I also suspect that people who trumpet the alt-ac career path as a solution to the problems plaguing the academic job market are being disingenuous: Rather than a robust response to a systemic problem, it is a justification for continuing to recruit and produce Ph.D.s in a flooded market, and it perhaps also serves as a proxy argument for the relevance of humanistic education to the greater good. ("A Ph.D. can do anything" sounds a lot like "A liberal-arts grad can do anything.")

So this year, if you find yourself stuck in academe, wanting to leave but not able to (yet): Don’t be too hard on yourself. It isn’t because you’re stupid. It’s because you’re not.

Debra Erickson is a writer and independent scholar, and formerly a visiting assistant professor of religious studies at Siena College.