Dr. Mowat or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Leave Academia

Well. Hello again. I promise we’ll embark upon the fun & frivolity I had intended for this place soon, but first, I need to address an elephant that I hadn’t quite realised was in the room.

My first post generated a surprising amount of discussion. Dozens of lovely, wonderful people, some of whom I hadn’t even seen in years, commented on Facebook or sent me messages reacting to the news (if you can call it that) that I had left academia. Some offered encouragement/congratulations, some shared their own stories of leaving, some confessed to a desire to leave, and some expressed concern that I would regret this later. There was a lot of love, and some emotion, and a flurry of gentle debate. Thanks to all of you for all of that. What an incredible feeling to know that my friends and family care so much.

Here’s the thing, though: I did not see it coming at all. At all. To my mind, it was a non-announcement about a non-event. I had reached the point over the past few months – years, even, in hindsight – where it was pretty obvious that this was going to happen.

I had been pretty solidly miserable at school for two or three years; once I reached the dissertation stage, everything about my research made me feel awful. I took a break from teaching last fall to concentrate on writing, and instead found myself paralysed by anxiety and self-loathing for months. What should have been a pleasant, productive time wound up being one of the lowest points of the past seven years. I was so close, and wanted so badly just to finish the damn thing, but I couldn’t make myself do it, and couldn’t make myself care about it, if that makes sense. Every now and then I’d have a heart-to-heart with my older brother about it, and he’d call me out on always saying stuff like, “I’m sure it’ll get done eventually,” or, “It had better be finished within a few months, because it has to be,” as if it was going to write itself and I had no agency. Well, hell, *I* wasn’t going to write it!  I last met with my awesome supervisor in the winter, and we agreed that we’d give it until September then throw in the towel if nothing had materialised.

Then Mike learned about his postdocs – one in Prague this fall, one in Calgary starting in January – and the writing was pretty emphatically on the wall. There was no way I was going to a) finish in time, and then b) get anything more than token teaching work in those places. I still kind of pretended for a bit that I might finish, but I had my out and I took it.

So leaving academia came on gradually. And my god, what a relief now. I’m sick of whining about it, I’m sick of feeling bad all the time, and I’m sick of not looking forward to the future. There was a time when I was excited to get my PhD and become a professor, but as I became more familiar with what academia is really like and how soul-crushing it is trying to get your foot in the door, that course lost its lustre. I had found myself working toward something I wasn’t even sure I wanted.

So then by the time I had written that first blog post, even though I’d only been out in the real world for like a week at that point, I’d pretty much made my peace with quitting. I mean, I’m certainly having a crisis over what I’ll do with myself now, and an even bigger crisis over leaving Toronto, but the decision to end my PhD is decidedly NOT a crisis – it’s the end to a crisis, in fact, that I’d been going through for too long.

I still have the loquaciousness of a grad student, I see. Where was this when I had fucking chapters to write? Let’s wrap it up. I wrote all of this, I guess, because I was deeply touched by all the concern for my well-being that you guys expressed. I hope you can see now how this is more of a relief than a disappointment. I’m excited for the future again, and that’s pretty great. Thanks again for the well-wishes, you awesome people.

As a postscript, I’ve spoken to a number of people who either aren’t sure about continuing in academia, or are just now making the decision to leave. I just want to say, you need to make your peace with the fact that this isn’t a failure. It’s a choice that you’re making freely. Whatever you decide to do, acting in the best interest of your health and happiness is a success. This article gave me lots to chew on at a time when I desperately needed it. xoxo

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7 thoughts on “Dr. Mowat or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Leave Academia

  1. Your blog is interesting and relevant. I spent 11 years as General Manager at Canterbury College acting as mentor, den mother and disciplinarian to students from all all over the world. All of these students were upper years Masters or Phd students from as many as 46 countries, many of whom I grew to love. There were days I was in awe of their research, their passion and their determination but as yous state there were many days I wondered how they could spend so much time in the world of academia which often seemed not part of the real world. Fortunately for me, I spent thirty years in small business banking asking tough questions to help entrepreneurs improve their small businesses. They showed such determination, passion and raw intelligence that truly inspired me. They put everything on the line for the success of their business ideas and many were sooo successful and some lost everything but I found that world very real. Now I am involved in my first political challenge running for councillor in our town. It is very real, very tough gig… but my mantra is no risk no reward. I think you would be a great entrepreneur, just follow your passion and the rest will follow. J.

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  2. Good for you, Janet. I left after my MA, and relief is what I felt too. The world of professional academia is not, unfortunately, all it’s cracked up to be when you first start out. There are so many things you can go out and do now, and hot damn you’re gonna love it!

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  3. My PhD was in ecology i.e. three years of hard experimental fieldwork. I wasn’t about to waste all that effort by not writing the thesis, but I still quit academia as soon as the damn thing was cobbled together 😉 I have to say though that throwing a thesis into the sausage machine and seeing that certificate pop out of the nozzle has make a big difference to how I feel now about how I used those years of my life. I’m not sure why, and it would depend on the individual, but don’t forget a thesis doesn’t have to be a world-changing testament. Apart from the examiners, who just want to get it the hell over and go home, only you and your Mum will ever read it. In the UK at least, a PhD is not graded, it’s just pass or fail. A doctoral student that doesn’t complete is a significant embarassing to a department – it looks bad on their stats and good departments find ways to minimise wastage, even if it’s an MPhil. I found once I sidestepped my immediate supervisor – an unworldy academic for whom research was an end in itself – there was a shedload of previously unsuspected practical support available. If you ever get a chance to sling a ropey thesis together and find someone in your old uni who’ll sign the form to get it examined – maybe a different, more realistic supervisor – I’d do it, even if you take for ever to get round to it, a la Brian May 😉 bw A

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    1. Ah, thanks for the words of wisdom. My supervisor was all kindness and understanding, bless her, though our minds work very differently. No, I guess my stumbling-block boiled down to some combination of impostor syndrome (surmountable with enough motivation), and despair at the plight of academia – and particularly the humanities – since 2008. But having come so stupidly close to finishing, I suppose I don’t mind the idea of taking another stab at it someday in the distant future (yes, and perhaps I’ll take a stab at becoming a Rock Legend first).

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