Beyond “QuitLit”

I quit my job text on cardboard

I spent weeks working myself into a fine lather over the how, when, and why of explaining my current relationship with academia (which I eventually did in my most recent post). Grad school is a fantastic incubator for self-consciousness, and—though I make a genuine (and, I would argue, largely successful) effort to stay optimistic and confident in all things—I couldn’t help but worry about how my colleagues and peers might respond to my public declaration that I’m not 100% sure what I want to be when I grow up.

While some of that anxiety was inevitable, it also proved to be a fantastic waste of my time.

Since returning to school (and SMDS), I’ve been buoyed by support from peers and mentors around the country. It turns out I’m not alone. There are a lot of graduate students who aren’t really sure the career path they are following is the best choice for them. Indeed, I’ve heard from highly successful tenured professors that they still don’t know if they made the right choices, decades later. Even those who are convinced they found their place in the world are sympathetic to my situation, because they’ve seen it so many times before. I’ve also discovered that some of the grad students I most admire (and least expected) are warming to the alt-ac path, if for no other reason because the exigencies of the job market dictate they must.

I’m sharing this miniature update because—while I consider myself a pretty astute observer of micro and macro trends in higher education—I didn’t anticipate the tide of empathy in which I’m currently bathed. At best, I assumed I’d face a lot of cajoling; at worst, I figured I’d be written off as too weak to survive in academia. I came to these expectations honestly, in no small part thanks to a number of articles on the topic (so-called “QuitLit”) that have been circulating in the recent past. I was especially struck by Elizabeth Keenan’s Vitae post on “Having the Talk.”

It might seem counterintuitive, but stay with me here. The fact that so many people are taking to the internet to enumerate the reasons why they left academia, and to empower others as they do the same, made me feel like the thoughts I’m currently indulging required justification. It felt like I was committing some kind of radical thought crime, just by acknowledging that—at twenty freakin’ eight—I’m not 100% wedded to my current career path.  That’s insane.

None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate the efforts of my fellow bloggers; I think “QuitLit” deserves a big, prominent place in discussions of higher education. That said, what I needed to hear over the past few weeks, more than anything else, was what I heard when I went back to school:

“Oh. Yeah, me too.”

“It makes a lot of sense for you to be having these thoughts given where you are in your career.”

“Leaving academia seems far less upsetting now than it did a couple years ago.”

And my personal favorite, from a friend who beat the odds and actually got the tenure-track job: “[I]t seems pretty self-apparent that a true scholar can find fulfillment and do the world some good in any number of professions.”

So there you have it folks. If you are considering alt-ac career options, or leaving grad school, or are SURE you want to try for tenure but want to feel like it’s okay to discuss other options, shoot me an email, leave a comment on this post, or join the SMDS Facebook group. I will tell you what you need to hear… with a comforting lack of fanfare.

“The Six Million Dollar Scholar” is the personal blog of Andrea Milne, a Ph.D. candidate in modern U.S. History at the University of California, Irvine. To get the story behind the blog’s name, click here.

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