How To Tell People You’re Leaving Academia (Ought Experiment)

How To Tell People You’re Leaving Academia (Ought Experiment)

Welcome back to Ought Experiment! Today’s letter is from a philosopher who’s decided to leave the profession after several years of trying to get a tenure-track job, and is wondering how to break the news to academic friends and mentors:

Dear Louie,

After spending several years in NTT positions and failing yet again to get a TT job, I have decided to leave academic philosophy. I just want to be happy, and I’m coming to realize that, even with a TT job, academia means (at least for me) constant, unending stress and frustration. I don’t want that, so I’m going to move on. I don’t plan on giving up philosophy entirely. The job I’m going to shoot for next will give me a lot of opportunity to engage with professional philosophy still, even if I’ll have other work to do as well and won’t have a school affiliation attached to my name any more. I am excited about my future.

My question is: how do I talk to other philosophers about this? My dissertation adviser and committee members have been working hard for me for years. They’ve been encouraging me for so very long. I know that my PhD program’s reputation relies on the success of its graduates, so I can’t help but feel like I’m hurting my department. I’ve formed working relationships with a number of other philosophers, and I can’t help but feel like I’m skipping town on them all.  I am afraid of letting everyone I know professionally down, and I am afraid of looking like a failure. How do I talk about my plans with my old advisers and mentors, my colleagues and friends? (Bonus round question: how do I feel this while avoiding feeling like a total failure for not getting a TT-line job?)

Finally Getting Free

Dear Finally Getting Free,

Hey, when did we start doing bonus rounds? Well, I’m going to begin with your bonus round question anyway, because it informs absolutely everything about this letter, and what you’re feeling.

You didn’t ‘fail’ to get a job. You didn’t get a job. There’s a difference there, and it’s worth repeating about a thousand times. If every single deserving philosopher out there got a job, and you’re the one schmuck who didn’t, then we’d have some pretty solid, modus tollens-style evidence that you were a failure. Then your unique situation would say something about your abilities, or your creativity, or how hard you worked. Then you’d have some splainin’ to do. And who knows, maybe there’s some truth to that. There’s a chance you’ve made some mistakes, or lacked a key skill that helps people break out of the pack in times like these. But there’s also a really good chance that it’s not your fault. That there aren’t enough positions for all the folks who sacrificed incredibly and produced brilliant, important theory and would make positively delightful colleagues to have down the hall. The decisions of the market mean a lot to us, but they don’t actually mean much. They affect us tremendously, but they rarely say a damned thing about us.

There just aren’t enough jobs, and the jobs that do exist aren’t distributed according to a universally shared set of criteria that ranks all available candidates objectively (as if such a list were even possible to generate in the first place). You had an unlucky run-in at the intersection of Contingent Searches and Supply & Demand. That’s all there is to say. You’re a ‘failure’ in the same way I’m a failure when a vending machine is out of the Diet Mello Yello I want. The only difference is that your self-conception and life projects are currently wrapped up in the outcome, because of course they are, and so you can’t help but see it as a referendum on you. But it actually says as much about you as the Diet Mello Yello thing says about me. [JW edit: that you have awful taste in beverages?]

Look, I don’t want to go full Good Will Hunting on you, so I’ll cap the “not your faults”-s there. But hopefully you see the point. And hopefully you can also see why the point is so relevant to all your non-bonus round questions as well: those mentors and colleagues and friends you’re worried about explaining things to almost certainly see the situation this way, too.

They won’t think you let them down. Hell, the best of them probably feel like they let you down—which is equally irrational, but also kind of sweet. When we care about people and value our relationships with them, there’s not much anyone can do to talk the whole lot of us out of feeling a personal stake in ‘the failure’. But I’ll wager that these friends and mentors of yours would be stunned to hear that you would even for a moment consider yourself or your upcoming decision a disappointment to them. They’re your friends and your mentors for a reason. They believe in you. And you leaving the profession doesn’t mean their belief in you was misplaced, or that their investment in you was a waste. They want for your happiness. And you leaving the profession doesn’t guarantee that they’re going to argue with you about what will make you happy, or what’s in your best interest. The whole situation is unfortunate and filled with inevitable disappointment, but not an ounce of that disappointment is aimed at you.

So, when you ask me how to talk to your friends and mentors about this, there are several different things you could be asking. You might be asking how to have an emotionally difficult conversation about parting paths with people whose opinion you respect. You might be asking how to assure them that this is for the best, that you’re happy or at least will be happy in time. You might be asking how to prevent them from launching into the kind of ten minute “No! Just hang in there N+1 more years!” speech that might mean well, but will only frustrate you further. You might be asking how to explain your decision in a way that won’t let them down, or make them feel like you don’t appreciate all the things they did for you. You might just be asking how to face them when you feel like a failure, and when you worry they’ll think the same.

And the reason why I keep harping on this not being your failure is because it means you don’t have to prepare for some versions of the conversation. Some versions of the conversation just won’t happen. The “how to explain your decision in a way that won’t let them down” version is a prime example. They know you. They know how hard you worked. And they know this market. They know that getting a job is like winning a scratch-off lottery ticket. That takes the better part of a decade to scratch off. And instead of a quarter or a car key, you use your emotional well-being and sanity to do the scratching. As long as you make it clear that this isn’t a whim or a rash protest born of dismay, the decision won’t let them down.

You don’t have to prepare for the version of the conversation where they either express or secretly believe that you’re throwing away years worth of effort that they invested in you, or letting go of relationships years in the making. Because they probably aren’t going to say or secretly believe anything of the sort. Because it would be kind of mad for folks to think this decision is about them, or says anything about them. They all understand that you’re trying to do right by yourself here, and they all understand that “How can I do right by myself?” is the right question to ask in this situation. I don’t know anyone who thinks that job candidates ought to keep trying indefinitely, no matter how frustrated and unhappy they feel, or how much of their life is passing them by.

The only diversity of opinion is over how many years the campaign should continue. For example, I don’t think people should give up after just one or two years on the market. Considering how different each market year is, a couple attempts is just too small a sample size to provide much information about your prospects. And considering how much work went into the attempt, it’s not throwing too much good money after bad to give things at least a few years to play out. But even if I thought one of my friends or students was getting up from the table one hand too early, I wouldn’t think they were squandering my efforts, or making a statement about how little they valued me. I wouldn’t think they were skipping town irresponsibly or impermissibly. I might argue with them, but I’d still recognize it as their choice to make. And I certainly wouldn’t think they owed it to me to keep gambling with their life, because what the heck does any of this have to do with me?

If the above is any indication, then one version of the conversation that you probably do have to prepare for is “No! Just hang in there N+1 more years!” But since you’ve actually spent several years trying, you can forestall the conversation (or at least minimize it) by framing the reveal a certain way. Explain what the years on the market are doing to you. Explain the direction you want to take your career next. Explain that you’re happy with that direction. Then tell them your decision. That comes across a lot differently than leading with the decision to leave academia, and then trying to drown out their protests with a series of rapid fire justifications that are going to sound ad hoc. Going about it the first way tells that friend or mentor that yes, you’ve carefully thought through the pros and cons of giving it another try. Which, I mean, of course you have. Going on a road trip is a spur of the moment decision. Finishing the whole bag of chips you just opened is an impulse move. Changing career paths is neither a spur of the moment decision nor an impulse move. And if your friend or mentor is being stubborn on this point, gently indicate the absurdity of believing that someone who’s spent several years in NTT positions hasn’t spent a bunch of that time thinking carefully about the market…

There aren’t many conversations that you have to prepare for. In fact, I think the biggest thing you have to do is to stop preparing yourself for the kinds of conversations you clearly won’t have: the conversations where you’re forced to endure the disappointment of friends, or hear about just how much you’ve let your mentors down. Not only is preparing for moot possibilities wasted energy, but if you can forgive my meddlesome presumption, preparing for those sorts of conversations sounds an awful lot like projecting your own feelings of failure onto people who actually care about you, aren’t let down by you, and certainly haven’t been hurt by you. Everywhere I look in your letter, I see the expectation that your friends and mentors will think you’re doing the wrong thing, or worse, that you’ve wronged them. That you’re not just a failure, but that you’re failing them directly, and maybe even deliberately.

Here’s one example. You write: “My PhD program’s reputation relies on the success of its graduates, so I can’t help but feel like I’m hurting my department.” Okay, two things. First, did you do everything within reason and within your power to get a job? Did you work hard? Did you put yourself out there? Did you write, and network, and slap on a happy face? Did you pour your time and energy and maybe even a little bit of your soul into this mad dream? Did you pick yourself up again and again and again after each rejection, after every close call and bewildering turn of events, and get right back into line for some more? If so, then you didn’t hurt your department by ‘failing’ to get a job, anymore than a patient with a chronic condition hurts their doctor by ‘failing’ to recover. Sure, maybe the doctor’s stats will go down a little because of your incredibly selfish still-being-sick-ness, you jerk, but it takes a funny view of moral responsibility to reach the verdict that you’re blameworthy for that harm, or even that that harm is the one worth paying attention to in this situation. Sometimes life doesn’t go our way all on its own, and the notion that everything is a matter of merit or effort or that everything is possible if we just want it badly enough is nothing less than a way to make people feel bad for suffering, on top of whatever they already feel. To hell with that.

Second, if your program was the only program out there struggling with its placement numbers, AND if your program was only struggling because of YOU, then yeah, I guess you hurt your department. But neither of those conditionals are true. Why? For the same reason that you didn’t ‘fail’ to get a job: the academic job market still hasn’t recovered, and it wasn’t exactly a universal employment situation before it crashed. No department out there has perfect stats right now because lots and lots of talented grads aren’t finding academic jobs. But look, even if you alone are hurting your department, and even if your department is the only one that’s hurt, you’re probably not hurting it badly. It’s not like graduate students will stop applying to your program because of you. The department’s not going to have to shutter its doors and look for other work, and end up with a temp job making telemarketing calls. (“Hello, my name is Philosophy Department, and if you have a moment, I’d like to talk to you about Nutrisystem.”)

And even if all of that somehow were true—yes, even the Nutrisystem thing—do you really owe your department the unending stress and frustration you describe, not to mention more years of this one life of yours, all in an effort to spare the department some hurt? No. Of course not. I mean, really, really, really, really of course not. Because as much as the department might be hurting thanks to your entirely intentional plan to not get a job (you jerk), your hurt is the only hurt any decent observer will care about. Whatever you might owe your department, you owe yourself more. And the good news is, your advisors and colleagues and friends are probably all decent observers who agree, and just want you to be happy. Even if you are a hurtful jerk. Good folk, those.

Yes, preparing to talk to people about leaving academia makes it real. Yes, the emotional stakes are high. But as you rehearse these conversations over and over in your head, you’re putting increasingly unlikely words in their mouths, and the wait is only giving you more time to attribute ever more fanciful meanness to your friends and mentors. Pretty soon, the imagined conversations are going to get quite crappy, and rehearsing them is going to make you feel like crap, because you’re imagining all the people you care about saying all the crappiest things they possibly could. That’s just, you know, too much crap for comfort. So pick your warmest friend or your most supportive mentor, and go for it. You’ll be relieved to see just how differently the real life conversation goes, when the views expressed aren’t projections, and when the people you’re talking to are kind and reasonable and human and want what’s best for you and appreciate just how hard it is out there right now. These conversations won’t go how you’re imaging they’ll go. There’s every reason to suspect that the conversations will be ones of sympathy and understanding, and I think it would be good for you to prepare for that possibility. Because doing so will change how you’re thinking about this situation, too. It’ll affirm that you’re not a failure. Which by the way, you’re not.

And hey, if some of the conversations do take a nasty turn, then you’ll have learned something about the fair-weatherness of those friends, and the so-called wisdom of those mentors. And having already faced your closest friends and mentors first, the words of these lesser shmucks will sting less and less the further down the list you go.

So, how do you have these conversations? I’ve already given you some advice. Stop preparing for conversations that won’t happen. Start the process right away, before you can build it up even more, and start wherever support is likeliest to be given. Explain your circumstances, the new direction you’re thinking of taking, and your reasoning, all before you mention your decision to leave, as that sequence has the best chance of preventing or at least dampening possible “You haven’t thought this through!” objections.

That said, the most important advice about how to have these conversations is right there in the letter you sent me. You start the first paragraph with “I just want to be happy.” You end the same paragraph with “I’m excited about my future.” There you go. Say that. Say the other things too, of course, but that’s the secret. If I’m right that your friends and mentors just want you to be happy, then this is what they need to hear. They want to know that this decision is right for you, and “I just want to be happy” and “I’m excited about my future” mostly settle the question. Hearing how unhappy you’ve become, and how unhappy you expect even a TT job would make you feel, are relevant for the comparison. Knowing that you gave the decision due diligence will mollify most of their concerns about a rash or grass-is-greener thought process. And if they’re one of those weirdos who think that academia is the one true route to happiness, then deploying the “the job I’m going to shoot for next will give me a lot of opportunity to engage with professional philosophy” line from your first paragraph will pacify them. (But really, nobody actually thinks that.) Heck, maybe the people who’ve spent years encouraging you also think you’d be happier if you changed direction, but just wanted to be supportive about your stated goals, or were afraid that suggesting another route to happiness would sound like a verdict on you and your potential.

By definition, friends are people who want you to be happy. Mentors are people who are excited about your future. If you believe this career move will make you happy, then your friends will be on board. If you’re excited about this career move, and aren’t just frustrated by the uncertainty of the academic job market, then your mentors will be on board. Everybody wants you to have a happy life and an exciting future, and they just need to hear that you’ve figured out how to make that happen.

My best advice? Remember who you’re talking to, here. Friends, and mentors.

— 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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