Why Leave Academia?

In my experience, there tends to be an assumption that the only reason to leave academia is because one couldn’t get a job, get tenure, get into the right graduate school, and so on. Of course, those certainly are good reasons to leave. But for my own part, I had tenure in a Research-1 institution, a decent (by academic standards) salary, and a good research record. I liked my students, enjoyed teaching, and generally I found my research satisfying. But I couldn’t stand the job any longer. Here are a few reasons why.

Money

That’s right, I said it. Money was a major reason I left academia. I know that as good intellectuals, we’re supposed to be above such crass concerns. But I agree with Nietzsche that these values exist to serve the powerful. How convenient that administrators are permitted to care about the size of their salaries, but faculty are not! When I left my tenured job in 2013, I was making almost 15% less in inflation-adjusted dollars than I did when I got my first tenure-track position in 2003. That doesn’t include the loss of value in my benefits, health insurance, and so on. Those losses were quite substantial. And I had a quite good research record, excellent teaching evaluations, and so on. So the loss wasn’t due to any kind of performance issue.

When I became a junior-level engineer, my base salary jumped by about a third, my health insurance was vastly better, and I got stock options. And this was not a particularly high-paying job because it was with a small (but growing) startup.

The fact of the matter is that academics are human beings. They have families to care for, and interests outside of their job. Meeting their obligations, caring for their families, and pursuing other interests all require money. Eventually, I realized that I simply couldn’t afford to remain in academia; and I know I’m not alone in that regard.

The poisonous atmosphere. Academia is notorious for having the political dynamics of a snake pit. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions, but in my case, this was especially true. The political machinations, back-stabbing, illegal discrimination and harassment, and so on were eventually unbearable. Everyone treated everyone else terribly, and the only way I kept some semblance of sanity was by detaching myself from the department almost completely. I stopped going to meetings, assiduously avoided all my colleagues, met with students in other buildings on campus, didn’t attend talks, and stopped participating in any committees. My self-imposed exile from my department followed years of fighting and conflict, which I couldn’t stand anymore. Finally, I decided that life was too short for this kind of environment. Again, practically every other academic I speak with has some set of stories that are comparable to my own, so I know that my former department’s environment wasn’t terribly unusual.

In stark contrast, I’m extremely engaged with my current employer. I enjoy collaborating with my new colleagues, and I even go to meetings I’m not required to attend! The difference is that my current environment is both supportive and sane.

The sinking of the university

I firmly believe that American universities are becoming increasingly corporatized, and that this is destroying the quality of higher education in the United States (I can’t speak to the situation in other countries because I don’t any experience). Administrations are bloated and radically overpaid at the expense of students and faculty. Resources are going to campus amenities instead of infrastructure. Education is increasingly seen as merely a ticket to a job after graduation, which greatly harms every department, but especially departments in the humanities. Students are being squeezed economically both by skyrocketing tuition (that seems not to result in any increase in the quality of their education) and by a growing list of increasingly expensive and mysterious “fees” (such as “lab fees” for courses that don’t have labs, as happens at my former university).

Academics have three options: (1) live with it; (2) fight it; or (3) get out. It seems to me that more and more academics are choosing to get out.

Lack of impactful work

I definitely felt that my work, despite having been published in “prestigious” venues, had virtually no impact in my field. And it certainly had no impact whatsoever outside it. I’ve known people who love their research so much that they’d be satisfied even if they knew that nobody else in the world would ever read it. But I wasn’t one of those people. I wanted to change the way that people approached certain problems, and I wanted my research to have a positive impact outside of academia. This was very unlikely to happen even if my career was very “successful”.

The opportunity cost of academia

It’s a truism that every opportunity we pursue comes at the cost of other opportunities we ignore. An increasing number of academics are starting to realize that there are other opportunities for meaningful work that’s rewarding, both intellectually and financially. There’s a huge shortage of skilled workers with good analytical and communication skills. And the cost of starting a company with an enormous potential upside is smaller than ever. As those opportunities increase, the cost of remaining in academia increases as well. Speaking for myself, this was by far the most important reason I left.

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