How I Left the Academy: A Meditation on Personal Values Part II

How I Left the Academy: A Meditation on Personal Values Part II

Photo credit: Jessica A. Hutchins

By Jessica A. Hutchins

My previous post on this subject describes my process of discovering a certain set of personal values that seem incompatible with an academic career and that motivated me to take non-academic work after completing my Ph.D. Based on feedback from an astute colleague, this follow-up post defines how I use the term “values” and describes how a non-academic career satisfies some, but not all, of these for me.

I use the psychological definition of the term “values” to mean subjective thoughts and feelings that guide actions. These include judgments, beliefs, morals or opinions that are personal but can also be the result of social influences. We often compare personal values with one another, arrange them hierarchically, and can even find them in conflict. They can motivate our way of acting in the world and easily go unacknowledged and unanalyzed. As an aspect of the personal that this project considers to be political, I find it useful to explore the individual experiences and feelings that lead Ph.D.s to make one career choice or another. In this way, values becomes a useful term for connecting the experiences with the choices.

Part I of this meditation includes a list of personal values that revealed themselves to me as I experienced their absence. For example, doing an M.A. at a land grant university told me that I needed to live in a city to be a happy and productive member of society. Although spending a year abroad would have been extremely useful for my research on Caribbean literature, the prospect of living away from my partner for so long terrified me and taught me that taking a job apart from him would be untenable. I found classroom instruction and student mentorship thrilling but felt the tedious work of grading papers and planning classes to be less pleasant. Finally, grad school is a notoriously anxiogenic environment compounded by an almost nonexistent work/life balance. My intellectual highs were accompanied by emotional lows that were only remedied with professional medical help. The process of earning a Ph.D. not only made me an expert on literature, but also taught me that my mental health requires a work environment with less pressure and more personal space than I felt the academy was likely to offer.

Thinking about the experience of unsatisfied personal values is a useful heuristic but it cannot construct a complete list of my critical beliefs and judgments. I would like to expand my list here to include two additional values not previously mentioned, some aspects of which had to be sacrificed as I left academia:

  • My belief in the social and personal value of education is unwavering and it is what drove me to pursue a Ph.D. in the first place. I remain committed to the mission of the academy, but discovered that an academic career might not be the most reasonable way for me to express that commitment. It is difficult for me to sit with the daily reality that my dissertation research goes unpublished and is therefore outside of the conversation it was intended to contribute to. There are students in need of instruction and mentorship that I am not supporting. I trust that they are in good hands but the uncomfortable thought remains that I may have abdicated my responsibility to educate the next generation.
  • I think that the struggle for social justice is perhaps the most important goal facing humanity today, with mitigating climate change coming a close second.* I characterize these as “life work” goals but I do not feel that they need to be reflected in the work I do for a job, telling me something about my personal definition of the word “career”: it is the work I do for pay to support the health and happiness of myself and my family. It may not be the most noble definition, but for me it means putting self-care first so that I have the energy to work for social change in my free time. The Alt-Ac Diaries, done at my leisure but not in a leisurely way, is an example of how that career/life work symbiosis functions for me.

Based on these experiences, I conducted a job search on two fronts: 1) I applied to tenure-track academic jobs with light teaching loads in locations where my partner and I could both flourish and 2) I applied to non-academic writing and research jobs in St. Louis, Missouri where I live.** The second front ended up being successful and my current non-academic employment satisfies the values listed in my first post on this topic. As noted above, my job simultaneously conflicts with other values that I now attempt to fulfill by other means.

My decision to conduct a limited academic job search produced the expected result of thirty-two rejections over the course of two years. I am satisfied that I only applied to jobs that I would have been willing to accept and that I established the criteria for acceptability based on my own personal values. In choosing a career, I have rarely been asked to actively consider my requirements for happiness and my desires for building a better world. Rather, I have stumbled upon them, ignored them, considered them to be inconveniences or indulgences. I had to go out of my way to understand my values and am still engaged in that process of discovery. I meditate on it here in the hopes that others may find a way to connect their careers and values in ways that are meaningful and productive for them. The choice I made to leave the academy may not be for everyone, or others may make a similar decision but for different reasons. I think it is important to explain, to ourselves and to others, the reasons for our actions as we all struggle to make meaning from our mortal lives. And that too is a value.

*I would argue that fighting climate change is a social justice issue because marginalized populations are also the most vulnerable to its effects.

**I have also discovered that my values are deeply entangled with this place, making it very difficult to leave; that meditation will have to wait for a future post.