Leaving Academia, Grieving Academia: a message of hope from the other side

For me, the grief of leaving academia feels about the same as the loss and grief of the end of relationship. Even when you know that the relationship wasn’t right for you […] loss is loss.

Lisa L Munro, PhD

Out of my box of theatre and gig tickets that went unused due to Covid (AKA The Fun Mausoleum), the one I’m probably most sad about was for an Alanis Morissette concert. After idolising her in my teenage years and being secretly SO thrilled when a friend’s-brother’s-friend said I looked like her (maybe if you squint… a lot), the excitement of seeing her live was real.

To lament the gig not going ahead, smashing a bag of Haribo and a glass of red whilst listening to her suitably morose number ‘Not as We’ seemed appropriate. A song that vocalises the raw and identity-stripping loss of a relationship, this 2008 song from Morissette’s seventh album Flavors of Entanglement hit right in the feels, before the feels were ‘a thing’:

Day one, day one, start over again
Step one, step one
I’m barely making sense
From now I’m faking it
’til I’m pseudo making it
From scratch
Begin again
But this time I as I,

And not as We

Morissette & Sigsworth (2008).

Reading those lyrics written down, I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that ‘Not as We’ could easily be Alanis’s accidental ode to leaving academia. As Lisa L. Munro describes in our opening quote (from her 2017 article ‘Leaving Academia: Loss, Grief and Healing‘), the experience of having lived out an academic identity – and having made significant emotional, financial and intellectual sacrifices for that identity – mean that ‘leaving’ academic research and teaching can be experienced as a profound loss. Our deep investment in our academic work can blur the boundaries between our work and our selves, conflating the value of our research with our own self-worth. Hence, Munro expands, ‘losing the academic part of us feels like losing a limb […] You’ve lost a big chunk of your identity, both personal and professional. Grief is a normal reaction’ (ibid.).

In this respect, I have to admit that I was lucky. I was only in the second year of my PhD when a bit of part-time work in my university’s student recruitment office, and a spot of volunteering for an art gallery started to show me what post-PhD life could look like beyond academia. By the time thesis submission came around, I’d taken academic research as far as I was willing to take it. It was time for pastures new. I didn’t even apply for academic jobs, even though a little voice still gnawed away in the back of my mind that this was something I ‘ought to’ do. I was preparing to ‘leave academia’ not through the exhaustion that follows so many academic job hunts; instead, I’d found other problems out there in the world that I wanted a go at solving, and I was excited to throw myself at them.

Hence, I was not expecting the sucker punches that came with the job hunting process. Stripping back my academic CV to reveal the bits of me that were of most interest to my new future employers was like clearing out after an ex leaves: you’re up for making a fresh start, but as you start sifting through the photographs and old birthday cards, you come unstuck. One minute you’re angry that after everything you put into that partnership, there’s now nothing but a folder of memories to show for it. The next minute you only remember the good times and refuse to part with anything.

What I’d attached such value to over the past 4-5 years – the conference papers, the journal articles, the big-name external examiner – wasn’t of much importance at all to the sectors I was now targeting. And that was hard to swallow, even as someone who was moving on with a relatively strong sense of choice and agency. Just as Basalla & Debelius describe in their seminal ‘Post-Ac’ book “So What Are You Going to Do With That?” (2001):

‘No one likes to remove all those hard-won publications and conference papers from their CV or condense years of teaching experience into a single line. Downplaying your academic credentials feels like failure. ‘

Basalla, S., & Debelius, M. (2001), p.99

However… there is hope. I’ve heard these uncomfortable feelings of loss and failure much talked about by researchers I work with who are on the brink of the ‘break-up,’ about to embark on job hunts beyond academia. What I hear about much less, however, is how all this looks and feels further down the line… when you’ve moved past the rawness of the ‘split,’ and onto the better things that you hoped, but maybe doubted, were out there for you.

So, to try to offer some hope from the other side of all of this (where the soundtrack is somewhat more upbeat), here’s where it hurt most for me back then, and how it’s going now.

1. Leaving academic publications off the CV

I didn’t have much desire to accrue any more by the end of my PhD, but they were still my babies. I was so proud of them:

What that section of my CV looked like THEN

  • Prescott, H. (2011). ‘Reclaiming Ruins: Childbirth, Ruination and Urban Exploration Photography of the Ruined Maternity Ward.’ Women’s Studies Quarterly, 39 (3/4), pp. 113-132
  • Prescott, H. (2010). ‘Re-thinking Urban Space in the Contemporary London Descent Narrative.’ Literatur in Wissenschaft und Unterricht, 43 (2/3), pp.185-198
  • Prescott, H. (2009). ‘birth-place.’ Feminist Review, 93, pp. 101-108

Each one had a story behind it, and was part of my evolution as a scholar. One of them even reminded me of drinking hot Ribena with my Master’s supervisor because she knew I couldn’t have caffeine.

But alas, they had to go. Farewell, my pretties.

Writing them down now is almost an out-of-body experience: like it was someone else, not me, who toiled over them. However, whilst cultural geography feels like a distant memory, the acts of scholarly writing and grappling with reviewers’ comments are still with me. The rigour I learned as a researcher, and the desire to contribute to the literature of my subject, have never gone away… and needn’t have done. In a previous post we explored the opportunities to apply your ‘researcher brain’ to jobs beyond the academy. So, fast forward ten years and we have:

What this section of my CV looks like now

  • Prescott, H. (forthcoming 2022). ‘What the Data Doesn’t Tell Us: Navigating the Challenges of Post-PhD Employability.’ In Miriam Firth et al., ed., The SAGE Handbook of Graduate Employability. London: SAGE
  • Prescott, H. (2020). ‘Life Beyond the Doctorate: Getting your first Job.’ In: Keith Townsend et al., ed., How to Keep Your Doctorate on Track. Cheltenham: Elgar Press, pp.420-428
  • Prescott, H., Sharples, J., & Alpion, D. (2016). Demystification, Diversity and Doctoral Identity: Supporting students along the postgraduate pathway. Supporting Postgraduate Students: AGCAS Phoenix, 151, pp. 8-9

That’s right… I publish about postgrad careers now. I’ve brought my nerdery (um, I mean my scholarly rigour) and applied it to my new(ish) professional field. The moral of the story? Even if you’re currently having to cut publication details from your CV to make it more intelligible to non-academic audiences, there’s nothing to say that your curiosity, drive and passion for research won’t lead to you full circle to contributing to the literature of your next professional field.

2. Bidding farewell to future research outputs

‘You need a five year research plan’ I’d heard someone say in a talk about finding an academic job post-PhD. In response to this, I’d had a pretty interesting but ill-formed idea of writing a monograph about ‘The Birmingham Novel’ : what characterised novels about the city of Birmingham (UK); how was the city portrayed in novels, etc. etc.

That book would never come to be once I left academia, and I’d never get to write on my CV:

British Academy Research Fellow: ‘Writing the Midlands’
University of X

  • Undertook first large scale mapping of ‘The Birmingham Novel,’ 1979 – present day
  • Monograph under commission from [insert name of fancy publisher]

That said, I certainly still got to write and to contribute to new, innovative projects. The Birmingham Novel project never made my CV, but I got this on there instead:

Postgraduate Recruitment Adviser
University of X

  • Collaborated with team of four to design, develop and write content for UK’s first bespoke customisable prospectus for doctoral-level study
  • Awarded team Gold award for innovation at UK Education Marketing Awards

So I never got the call from the fancy publisher, but … I did write content that was read across the world, that informed people’s decisions, and that was nationally recognised in its field. And once I was able to see academic outputs as just one genus on the vast spectrum of professional achievements, I could value this new experience and see that it too was pretty cool… and probably got read by more people than my Birmingham Novel book ever would have.

3. The ‘discipline bubble’

Something I enjoyed about academia was the secret language that you share with others in your discipline. That sense of being ‘in the know’: to say ‘oh my days, I met X at a conference last week and got massively academically star-struck’ and have everyone know who and what you mean. Beyond academia though, I might mention a name of a theorist or name drop my external examiner and no-one would care. How dull.

But again, that can come full circle as you re-find your tribe beyond academia. Now I can say things like ‘hey, I brought Chris Humphrey in for a key note last year and it was brilliant’ or ‘how good is that new coaching book by Lianne Hambly ?!’ … the principle is the same. It turns out that knowing lists of theorists or authors wasn’t the extent of my value. Instead, my value lay in my ability to get to grips with an area and keep up-to-date with it; to understand who else was working in that field, what they were doing and how I could borrow from and add to what they were doing. When applied to other sectors, this practice is effectively market research, meaning that with a PhD you have the ability to understand the lay of the land, scope out new ideas and gaps, and help your employer to seize these opportunities.

So, with ten years of other work under the belt post-PhD, here’s a message from the other side. Yes, there’s a lot of letting go to do… but it’s all part of the process of remaking yourself into a professional that you’ll look back on and be proud of.

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