Should You Stay In Academia?

Most of the people I speak with about leaving academia have already decided to make the leap. But not all have. A significant number of people are trying to decide whether they ought to stay on their academic career path. Some are in grad school; others are on the academic job market; and some have already held faculty positions in one capacity or another. For some of these people, I end up suggesting that they stay on their current path. Personally, I think that teaching in higher education is a really important job that needs good people. Academic research is also equally worthwhile. And despite the dismal state of higher education in the United States, it’s still possible to carve out a very satisfying existence in the ivory tower.

So here, I want to discuss some of the reasons why one might decide to stay in academia, despite all the negativity that you’ll find on this site (and elsewhere). I’m gearing this discussion to people who aren’t already well-established with a secure academic position.

Reason 1: You just love it

If you absolutely love what you’re doing, you’re good at it, and you can’t imagine a satisfying life without being a part of higher education, I say, “Go for it!”. Some of my former graduate students and undergraduate students who are bound for grad school fall squarely into this category. They can’t get enough of the subject, they happily spend almost all their free time studying and writing, and there’s nothing else that makes them nearly as happy. Especially if you’re relatively young, and you don’t have lots of commitments to other people, you should do it.

Of course, you should do it with your eyes open. Don’t let your love for the field blind you to the fact that success in academia is probably more difficult now than it’s ever been. Imagine that you pursue the next stage of your career (job-hunting, going to graduate school, going up for tenure) and you fail. In such circumstances, ask yourself whether you would be able to sincerely say, “I’m still glad I invested the time and effort — I loved the experience and it was worth it.”

Reason 2: You’ve got everything going for you

I’ve known a few graduate students who were in this situation. They were in excellent schools with top-notch reputations; they had already been quite successful (perhaps by publishing a lot of high-quality work in prestigious venues); they knew the “right people” and could get glowing, enthusiastic recommendations; and they were politically well-situated so that they would have the inside track to a desirable job. These people exist, and if you are one of them, then why not keep going?

The trap here, however, is that I’ve known far more graduate students who believed they were in this position, but weren’t. Usually, they were working with an advisor who was considered some kind of “big shot” in the department, but who was actually much closer to average, and who wielded far less influence than the students thought. Another trap is the charismatic, well-positioned advisor who is perfectly capable of giving his or her students a lot of help, but chooses not to. In some scientific fields, there’s the concept of faculty who “eating their young”, referring to the senior faculty who mentor their students only to undermine their careers later. The moral is that you should be very conservative when evaluating your own relative advantages.

Reason 3: It would be nice to succeed, but you don’t have to

I’ve also known plenty of people in this situation, perhaps because academia tends to attract people from more affluent backgrounds. If you’re independently wealthy or have a very good fallback career, then there’s little risk to pursuing the next stage of your academic career. You’re under no pressure to get an academic appointment or to do well in graduate school. Again, why not give it a shot?

Reason 4: You are comfortable with making a transition later

When I was considering whether to go to a PhD program, one of my professors asked me to name ten other things I could do if graduate school didn’t work out. Her advice was that I shouldn’t go unless I’d be happy doing something else, and if I was comfortable with the idea of suddenly stopping and changing careers.

I generally agree with that advice. If you don’t fall into the other categories, but you’d be okay with making a sudden and severe career transition, then academia poses little risk to you. But in my experience, there are very few people like this. Most academics I have known are extremely emotionally invested in their career path. They tend to identify themselves primarily by their field of study, and it’s terribly difficult for them to stop thinking of themselves that way. It also seems to me that this attitude becomes much more firmly ingrained in people the further down the academic road they go. Speaking for myself, despite the fact that I was very unhappy in my academic job, didn’t ever feel like I “fit in” with my field, and was plotting and scheming my way out it for years, it was still surprisingly difficult to make the adjustment.

The Upshot

I think these are pretty good reasons to stay in academia. There are plenty of bad reasons, too. Basically, the decision comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. But the analysis is very difficult because so many of the costs and benefits are psychological, and it’s so easy to think that you understand how you’d react in various situations, but be totally wrong. The one piece of advice I always give people is that they should allow themselves a lot of time to make this decision, even if they feel a great sense of urgency about it. If you think you need to make the decision right now, give yourself a couple of months. You can only make a reliable judgment about such personal issues if you’re very calm and deliberate when you do so.

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