Tuesday, 16 April 2019

What does it take to leave academia?

Dr Vikki Turbine
Twitter: @VikTurbine
Instagram: @vikturbine

This week, the hashtag #fullatforty, was doing the rounds on academic Twitter.  As the responses clearly highlighted, there are many reasons why this is only possible for a handful of academics enjoying a range of privileges and on a - now uncommon - linear career path. I commented on the hashtag myself - rather than aiming for the goal of tenure/promotion by forty, I was exiting academia.

Back in January, I announced that I had chosen to resign from my full time permanent post at a Russell Group University.  A post that I had held for 10 years. In that blog, rather than spelling out why I was leaving, I framed my blog around the reasons ‘Why I stayed’.

For this guest post, I was invited to reflect on my exit from academia. It is not going to be another ‘hints & tips’ for ‘post-aca’ life.  I won’t be reiterating here my motivations for leaving.  You can check out my Twitter feed for clues if you don’t already know…  We do need to continue to highlight the toxicity in academia at present- a culture of overwork, hyped up competition, gaslighting by default, audit cultures.

What I want in this post is a more candid discussion of what it takes to be able to exit the academy - and not to regret that exit?

This is therefore a reflection on how those of us exiting the academy are as differently positioned via shifting precarities and privileges as those trying to get in; and those already inside.

As Dr Catherine Oakely has been highlighting on Twitter recently, the ‘post-aca’ success stories can be grating, triggering. What if your exit has not been by choice, or led to a seamless transition to another ‘fulfilling job’?

While, my exit was in part pushed by my chronic illness (Stage 4 endometriosis), I think even if I had not become so unwell, I would have been planning my exit anyway.

I stayed for at least 2 years too long.

I stayed because I felt I had no other option.  As I mentioned in my resignation post, for a first generation working class woman, you cannot easily walk away from a secure and well-paid job. One that allows you not only to get out of debt (after almost 2 decades), but to also glimpse a life you had before only read about, or seen represented on television.

However, this is still a trap. Working in a toxic environment corrodes everything about you, including your health, values, creativity, ability to care. Everything I thought I could attain via that job - that privileged professional income - was in fact being pushed to the side.

I fully acknowledge the obvious material privilege in being able to get out of debt thanks to a full time job with a well-paid salary that also gave me the ability to save a small buffer fund.  I know this makes me very lucky. However, I am not going to feel guilty that I have been to choose my exit. I have in the past allowed that narrative of gratitude and ‘luck’ at not being precarious sway me away from my own health and happiness. This is also what breaks down the hopes of collectivity and solidarity.  We need to be focussing our energy on the structures, not the individuals.  Many of us who are often well-aware of their privilege, are trying to challenge the structures. In the full knowledge that will make them more precarious.

I am also not feeling guilty, because as a first generation academic woman and a mother, I have been trained to feel that my entire life. I have rarely been met with positivity and encouragement when expressing what I want to do with my life. Rather, I’ve been met with responses about why I ‘can’t' or ‘shouldn’t’. How it would be disastrous for me to ‘throw away’ an opportunity.

But what kind of opportunity? And this is as close as ‘advice’ I’ll come to in this post; I wish I had been made to feel that there were options other than ‘an academic career’ post PhD. I wish that I had access to more information about what an academic career would look like as a job; a university as a space of employment; as a large organisation. While we buy into the narrative of academia as privileged space (and it can be) - it is also a job. This is important to remember. It keeps our perspective keen on what it is we are being asked to do.

So to exiting; it goes without saying that it takes an enormous set of material and cultural capitals to leave. I fully understand that I am celebrating my exit because it comes as a relief. It comes as a relief because I have not spent the last 10 years fighting my way through temporary contracts across countries.

Exit becomes a rediscovery of my creativity because I had been permanent. Which for women who are mothers and working class can become stuckness. It became very clear to me that I could not progress, or reposition myself, in the current climate in academia without playing the very game that had broken me - and was not designed for me to play anyway. I never knew the rules, or when they would change.  Progressing illness also made ‘exceeding’ the ever-increasing workload impossible.

And, I didn't want to. It’s not who I am. I can’t try to change myself anymore. I like me and my values and my interests. They may not be “REFable” (although they were…) but they are what I’m interested in.

Exit becomes empowering when it is an active choice for something better.  When you are in a position to make that choice.

I do hope in writing this, in being honest about the privileges we need to leave, or choose not to enter, we can also understand how different forms of precarities both force exit and staying put.  Why people continue to chase elusive academic posts, settle for part-time contracts. We can begin to build a much better understanding of why so many feel trapped into staying in toxic job search cycles, working environments-  as I had for many years. Much to the detriment of my physical, mental and emotional health.

Just as few of get #fullatforty, few of us get our happy exit after.

I don’t know if I will. I’m on a steep learning curve, setting up my own business, developing a website, a podcast. Putting myself back out there.  At nearly 40.

It might not work out. I don’t have much of a safety net. I have a temporary buffer. I do worry about my old age, my children’s future. I don’t know what will happen in the next year.

I only know how I feel now; and that is happy. Healthier than I’ve been in years. Excited. Engaged.

You may be at the other side of this journey - trying to get into academia - I get that too. It can be an inspiring, transformative, amazing space.  As can life on the outside. 

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