When To Quit Academia (Ought Experiment)

When To Quit Academia (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s question is from a full professor that has done everything right, built a successful career, and yet finds her/himself miserable in professional philosophy. S/he wants to know whether it’s just a case of burnout or whether it’s time to go:

Dear Louie,


I have been a professor for almost 20 years. I’ve worked hard, fought my way “up” from a state school job to a research university, I’ve published a lot of papers, done a lot of presentations, done more than my share of service (multiple committees in multiple societies) and mentored grad students and new faculty, I’m a full professor who is well respected in my subfield and is somewhat known even outside my field. In short, I have done everything that I am supposed to do and been successful at it. 

I am miserable and thinking about quitting the field entirely.

Before you (or others) dismiss this as problems of the privileged (for indeed I am privileged), you have to understand that I am truly stuck and deeply unhappy. There are many contributing factors, surely: having taken on too much service work, frustrations with the state of the field and frustrations with the state of my department, but I don’t think those are the main reason.

The main reason, I have come to realize, is that, even though (unlike most academics) I went into this because I wanted to teach, teaching is killing me. I think that I don’t have the personality for it. Preparing for class is a constant burden that blots out everything else in my life; it is a weight hanging from my neck. It is long and slow and stressful. Then there is teaching itself. I actually think I am fairly good at it. I am good at explaining things clearly and at engaging students in discussion. But the teaching day ends and I am wrung out, exhausted, brain dead. Lather, rinse, repeat; it’s time to prepare for class again. Over and over and over again. For years I told myself it would get better, that I would be more efficient or less stressed or, I don’t know, have a life outside of academia. But recently when I had a moment to think I lifted my head and realized that despite everything I have tried, it isn’t going to get better if it hasn’t gotten better in 20 years, and everything I might do to try to improve my situation is just fooling myself and stringing myself along. That’s how I got here in the first place.

So, do I quit? At my age? And do, what? Do I just chuck out all the work I’ve done to get me here, in a position that is envious to many? Is there any hope for me, or are there some people who just are not cut out for teaching, even as they realize it is a worthy and in many ways fulfilling endeavor?

— Retired of This


Dear Retired Of This,

Even though you’re at an advanced stage in your career, one of the reasons your question is so important is that it resonates with struggles we academics face at every stage in our careers.

Why, when the work gets taxing, do we so often pour more of our energy and emotional bandwidth into the job, instead of holding something back in reserve? How do we create a robust work-life balance in a career that’ll readily gobble up every spare moment we leave unguarded? Considering just how many different professional obligations compose our jobs, how do we mitigate the parts of our days we don’t like so that they don’t overwhelm our enjoyment of the rest? What should we do if we find ourselves unhappy after sacrificing so much on behalf of a job that so many people are fighting so hard to have? And if we do ultimately quit (or get drummed out), what does that say about us and what our lives have been about? Was it all for nothing? Was it all a mistake?

We spend so much time wondering how to get these jobs or how to be better at these jobs that we often slip into thinking that academic success and a fulfilling life are one in the same. It’s a trap, as unhealthy as it is common. Surely I’m not the only one that routinely has thoughts like “If this R&R comes back an acceptance, then everything in my life will be okay” or “I need this project to go well, because I’ve been down for a while and could really use a win” or “This semester flew by, and on a totally unrelated note, I’m afraid that my life is just going to be a series of things I’d like to do or be one day but can’t because there’s always more work to do instead.”

It can be difficult to prevent the profession from dominating our self-conceptions. Ours is a prestigious career, one that allows us to do something suitably ambitious and worthwhile with our time, and to prove that we’ve delivered on our potential. It can also give meaning, as if a big part of our lives has suddenly snapped into place—one less struggle, one less thing to figure out. And all that’s true, from a certain point of view.

So if you find yourself unsatisfied in your career, it’s only natural to feel guilty in turn, like you’re insufficiently appreciative of what you have, or selfish for wanting more. It makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you. And because of how entangled our careers and lives become over time, the idea of changing direction can send us into a disorienting tailspin. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is admit that you have a bad feeling about this.

No, I don’t think being privileged means you ought to be happy or that it’s unseemly to want something more, or something else. Academic success and fulfillment in life aren’t one in the same. So your concerns aren’t going to get dismissed here. If anything, your situation demonstrates that academic success isn’t the panacea those in earlier career stages take it to be.

Given your feelings, should you quit? There are just so many considerations in play here. Let’s start with a few that shouldn’t inform your decision:

¬1. “What right do I have to hold on to a job I don’t like when there are people out there without jobs?”

There’s been a lot of discussion the last couple of weeks about whether there are too many philosophy PhDs (here, here, and here), so I imagine that a number of folks will be tempted to suggest a new strategy: let the rookie win. And I think that’s a mistake. A career isn’t like lingering at a cafeteria table after you’ve finished eating, while a long line of people stand around with trays looking for a place to sit. Careers aren’t usufructs to be surrendered. Setting aside all the reasons why a vacated senior position is unlikely to go to a recent PhD (the possibility is approximately 3,720 to 1), strangers simply don’t have a claim on you to make life-altering decisions because they happen to desire what you have more than you do. This is your life, and it’s permissible to focus on what’s right for you.

¬2. “Can I really give up on a position that’s so valuable?”

Sure! If you’re miserable, then it’s not exactly valuable to you, is it? Particular careers aren’t objectively valuable, or at least not to the extent that individual preference gives way. True, others might consider your position valuable—they might even envy you because of it—but paying attention to external attributions of value is a great way to guilt yourself into sticking around when you’re unhappy. Believing you should be fulfilled just ignores the problem. Do you really want to spend your life pretending, saying things like “Uh, everything’s perfectly all right now. I’m fine. I’m all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”

¬3. “How can I leave, after spending so much of my life getting where I am?”

The sunk costs fallacy has a bad motivator. Absolutely you can leave now, if that proves to be the only way to ease your misery. First, quitting doesn’t automatically mean that you failed to make it work. It might just mean that your career is complete, that you’ve gotten everything out of it that you could. Admitting that you don’t want to remain an academic doesn’t retroactively devalue the decades you spent in the discipline. That’s a little like saying that if a marriage doesn’t last a lifetime, then the 20 years it did last weren’t valuable. They were. Second, life is long—long enough, at any rate, for more than one adventure. Assuming material circumstances and other obligations cooperate, you can reinvent yourself, and make the second half of your life about getting somewhere else. Tenure can make us think that we’re supposed to spend our whole lives as academics, but job security aside, why would that be necessarily true? Step down, and you might become more fulfilled than you could possibly imagine.

Unhelpful thoughts banished?

Okay, now on to some considerations that I think are relevant, along with several strategies to try before deciding that leaving is the solution:

  1. Address the smaller, contributing factors

Even if frustrations with committee work or the state of your department aren’t the main reason for your malaise, resigning from a few committees or trying to move to another institution might change how you feel about academia. Because there’s only so much we can endure, removing the peripheral irritants can make the main problem tolerable, even in cases where the main problem remains basically unchanged. In fact, sometimes 1,138 tiny irritants are actually worse than whatever the main problem is, because the high baseline of frustration they create distorts how we experience and evaluate everything else. Either way, enough small changes can make a massive difference. And if anyone gives you flak for walking away from responsibilities or burdens that you’ve voluntarily undertaken, politely but firmly state that you’re altering the deal.

  1. Create boundaries at work and from work

I want to compare two things you wrote:

“For years I told myself it would get better, that I would be more efficient or less stressed or, I don’t know, have a life outside of academia.”

“Everything I might do to try to improve my situation is just fooling myself and stringing myself along.”

When I read that conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear whether you’ve just tried to make these changes, or whether you’ve actually been adamant about creating and enforcing boundaries at work (ex. I will spend exactly 30 minutes prepping for class, and no more; I will insist on, say, teaching evening courses so that I can minimize how many days of the week are taken over by teaching; I will cash in chips earned over decades to make my teaching load and schedule whatever I need it to be) and boundaries from work (ex. I will spend my evenings on hobbies that I love and my weekends exploring a city that I love). Trying simply isn’t enough. Do or do not, there is no… promising yourself that things will get better.

In my own case, attempted work-life boundaries usually fail in one of two ways. Either I keep agreeing to things on a case-by-case basis, because individually they’re not so large or I feel a connection to the person asking, or my boundaries are mere aspirations, like resolving to cultivate a hobby “one day”, when I have more time and energy. For all my trying, I actually have few boundaries at all.

You mention that preparing for class is “a burden that blots out everything else in my life… it is long and slow and stressful”, and that sounds like a boundary too generously drawn. Maybe it isn’t that the experience of teaching is so genuinely awful for you that there’s no way to make it more efficient or less stressful, or to have enough energy left over at the end of the day or week to have a life outside of academia. Instead, maybe your attempts to limit its impact on you have given way to your desire to do your best, or your sense of professional obligation. Maybe you feel you owe it to your students, or to the job itself. Maybe you think that giving more of yourself will make the class go well enough that it’ll actually be less draining overall. Maybe you do set real boundaries, but let the needs of others too easily override them. If any of that’s true, then you’re not fooling yourself when you imagine that things still might get better.

Look, you mentor grads and junior faculty, so nothing I’m saying here is news to you. I get that. But sometimes it helps to hear our own advice mirrored back to us. So for what it’s worth, it’s very possible that teaching makes you miserable. But it’s also possible that you let it.

  1. It’s okay to teach less well

Speaking of which. This might be borderline heresy, but since most of your misery stems from just how draining the classroom experience is for you, have you tried being… just okay at teaching? Perfectionism is a recipe for unnecessary exhaustion and unhappiness. We’re in part educators, and I would never encourage anyone to be indifferent about that aspect of the job, but nor do I think it’s obvious that we have an obligation to give our all in the classroom. Especially when giving our all undermines our ability to do the rest of our job effectively. Some professors are natural communicators or entertainers, try their hardest to make sure that students not only learn but have a memorable and transformative experience, and feel invigorated as a result. Some just discharge their duties, presenting information and answering questions until the bell rings and they’re free to go do something else. I think you should give yourself permission to be in that latter camp. It’s not coasting – you contribute plenty in other domains, and again, your very happiness is at stake.

  1. Reevaluate why you’re here

You went into philosophy because you wanted to teach, but does that mean that your negative experience with teaching should determine whether you stay? Maybe there’s something else you value about the job, and the job can become about that something else instead. Disillusionment and disappointed expectations might be contributing to the misery you feel, and if so, making peace with the fact that you’re not cut out for the classroom can ease some of your misery. It won’t make you like teaching, but it can make the fact that you don’t less crushing.

When you ask “Is there any hope for me, or are there some people who just are not cut out for teaching,” that sounds a lot like a false dilemma to me. The two claims are perfectly compatible. You might not be cut out for teaching, but there might be a new hope for you because you’re cut out for other aspects of the job. Some gifted teachers feel like publishing is pulling teeth, and are wiped for weeks every time they send off a draft. Some gifted writers detest conferencing, and need long stretches of time to recover afterward. And when it comes to service and department meetings, well… okay, bad example, everybody loves those. The point is, a lot of academics dislike wide swathes of their wildly varied professional obligations. Maybe the classroom experience is so awful for you that you can’t be happy, no matter how good you are at everything else. I’m not dismissing that possibility. But before reaching that conclusion, it’s worth exploring if some of the misery you feel is the result of still thinking of yourself as primarily a teacher. A teacher not cut out for teaching is a lot different than a researcher not cut out for teaching.

  1. Consider what you’d do instead

What I didn’t see in your letter is an indication of whether there’s anything you’d rather be doing instead of professional philosophy, or what kind of work you might take up if you left. Those omissions tell me that it’s not really about falling out of love with philosophy or falling in love with something else. You’re not contemplating a career change. It’s more like you’re the frog in the gradually boiling pot of water—this is about how much academia you can tolerate before you jump free. And if teaching is so profoundly unpleasant that you’re considering leaving without entertaining career alternatives, then that itself might be evidence that leaving is the right call.

If strategies #1-4 don’t work, and you can neither alter the dynamics of the job nor endure the job in its current form, then your choice is between a guaranteed paycheck and the possibility of finding happiness. And here’s one benefit of being relatively privileged: having the luxury to pick the latter. As soon as that’s the choice you face, then it’s not really about which you should pick, but rather about laying the groundwork to weather the pending career change. Your level of risk aversion, available alternatives, competing obligations (ex. the familial sort), and so forth will affect when and how you leave, and where you go next, but if the only things stopping you are the sunk costs fallacy and the fact that others envy your position, then there’s no real choice here at all. Don’t let shame or imposed expectations root you in place.

So here’s the question I can’t answer for you: is that really where you’re at?

  1. Sometimes making any decision can reveal the right decision

Thinking of quitting can be healthy at any career stage – it’s a stress release safety valve. If you believe that academia is your last hope, it’s important to remind yourself that no, there is another. But once you cross over from fantasizing about a change to realizing that you should quit and that it is okay to quit, the emotions that follow can offer evidence of what you ought to do. Maybe you’ll feel a sense of release or even liberation, confirming that you’ve made the right call. Maybe you’ll recoil, and come away from the experience with the resolve necessary to enforce the kinds of work-life boundaries that you’ve only gestured at before. Alternatively, decide that you’re staying in the profession no matter how miserable you feel, and that you’re just going to try and make the best of it from here on out. Now, how well does that decision sit with you? Do you find the lack of exit disturbing? Then you’ve learned something important. Are you surprisingly okay with it, or even relieved to be past all the uncertainty? Then your misery might be more manageable than you thought.

  1. Set a countdown on the decision

Following directly from #6, maybe you’ll feel neither relieved nor mistaken. Maybe reaching the decision to quit will just leave you feeling conflicted and uncertain. In that case, replace the “maybe one day things will be better” current that you’ve been drifting in for years with a bounded experiment. Set a timeframe, like one or two years, during which you will attempt x number of concrete strategies to improve your experience. If things improve now that there are real stakes involved, great. If they don’t, then the experiment will conclude, and that will decide the question for you. Or maybe take a leave of absence, and see how you feel with some meaningful distance. There are any number of experiments you might run, but the important point is to make sure that none of them are open-ended. You need a testable hypothesis and a deadline. It’s your very last chance to find a way to stay, not an ongoing existential crisis. Either that framework will light a fire under you that gets you to try new strategies, or it will provide you with the information you’re looking for. Either is good.

  1. Plus whatever considerations folks raise in the comments

Did I miss something important? Did I get something really, really wrong? Please share.

— Louie Generis

Do you want Louie Generis to tell you what to do? Send your questions to [email protected]! You can also follow Louie on Facebook. And in the meantime, continue the discussion in the comments below.

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