How can I put this? I’m quitting academia. At least, quitting the version of academia that I’ve been pursuing for the last six years (who am I kidding, the last 20). To write those words is like stabbing myself in the gut. This decision has not been easy and has been about three years in the making.
My life has changed a lot since I started in my PhD program in 2016 and the job market has also changed dramatically. I was warned by my undergraduate mentors, two professors who wrote my recommendation letters for graduate school, that the job market was rough and that I should only pursue graduate school if I was prepared to fight through that. I thought I was—and I think that I would have survived a 2018 or even 2019 market. But COVID wrecked universities in a way that is unsurvivable for me.
I’m grieving because the last two years of my graduate experience have been the most fruitful and intellectually stimulating years of my life and I finally felt like I was really hitting my stride. I’m learning how to dig into my ideas with confidence and pull them apart so that they can be reassembled for people who don’t live in my brain. In large part this was due to a feminist theory course that I took way after I was done with coursework, exams, and my prospectus defense. I took it for fun, I had been the TA for our introduction to the political science major course, which was really a survey of political theory, for three years. I considered myself a junior theorist but I really grew to love theory during that graduate course.
Political theory doesn’t matter much in the professional world. I won’t be able to have debates about different feminisms or the tension between feminist and queer thinkers in whatever job I pursue next. So, to find it so late was devastating. The best representation of “bitter sweet” I’ve had so far. That graduate seminar shaped my dissertation profoundly because my professor gave me permission to get lost in my thoughts a bit. To spend the time pulling words apart and asking what our assumptions and expectations were for them.
My dissertation is very fucking cool. And I say without shame that if I was staying in academia I’d be absolutely changing the field of political representation forever. But since I’m not, I don’t really mind if you don’t believe me. The classes I taught were also pretty cool too, and I’m going to miss my students so much. The joy that you experience as an educator when you get to see the curiosity and confidence of your students grow over a dozen weeks is unparalleled. I’m grateful I was able to teach as much as I did, and to meet so many incredible undergraduate students.
Those are all the things I’ll miss and you’re probably wondering how I could ever leave if I have such fond feelings for the many parts of academic life. As I recently told a friend, there’s a long, medium, and short version of that answer. The shortest version is that I’m the primary earner in my little family and we cannot make a graduate student stipend work anymore. The medium version includes that bit, but also the fact that I’ve made a home for myself in Philadelphia and I really don’t want to have to move away, during a pandemic, and try to start again. The long version is all of that, plus the reality that academia is hostile to anyone with mental health issues or disabilities. I suffer from pretty intense anxiety and have ADHD symptoms (caused by ADHD itself or depression, my psychologist isn’t sure).
In order to succeed on the job market, you have to be perfectly ready all the time and wait. You wait for jobs to be posted and then you wait to hear back and then you wait for the self-loathing to dissipate when all you get is radio silence. During all of that waiting, academia has no interest in what’s going on in your personal life. Want to buy a house? Wait. Want to get a medical procedure taken care of? Wait. Want to settle into a routine in this city you live in? Wait.
Not everyone has the ability to wait, and this is even more true for those living with disabilities or financial insecurity. In part, I’m leaving academia for my own challenges, but I’m also leaving because my partner and mother-in-law are both disabled in different ways and being in the hustle culture of academia pisses me off on their behalf.
My advisors and friends don’t really understand when I explain all of this. To be honest, it took me two years to get the message across in a way that made me feel like they were actually hearing me. I still don’t know if any of the faculty in my program actually understand…they’re all living very different financial lives than I am. My partner and I both have student loans, combined it’s well over 200k. We also pay for my mother-in-law’s rent and other living expenses. This means I can’t take a VAP and just wait around for the job market to get better. Why? Because we pay VAPs shit wages (you’re lucky if you get 50k a year).
So I’ve spent the last six years training for jobs that don’t exist and trying to squirm my way into a world that isn’t very interested in having me around. I’m queer and trans and I study queer trans people. I’m not interested in perpetuating the colonialism of political science and so my job options are even more limited. I’m not going to teach a class on international development. I’m not trained in American politics or intense quantitative methods. I think that’s all pretty dumb, to be honest. So not only is the institution failing me I practical ways, but also intellectually.
I’m not going to re-read this or make it sound better. I’m definitely forgetting to include certain points or experiences but, I don’t really owe academia a more thorough explanation. This is all they’re getting from me and its more for my catharsis than their benefit. I’d like to think that the wonderful people who are working to try and change universities from the inside out will succeed, but I don’t think they will. They’re up against so much: nationalism, surveillance, late capitalism, racism, sexism, transphobia…
I wish you the best of luck if you’ve decided to stick it out. I just couldn’t take it anymore.