The Long Twinge of Grief of the Left-Behind

In his novel Paper Towns, author-historian-vlogger-nerdfighter-extraordinaire John Green writes that “It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”

Well, it is. But it isn’t.

I “left academia” nearly seven years ago, and even though I’m incredibly happy with where I landed, I think there will always be that twinge that pops up every-so-often, that wistful longing of “if only I could have made it.”eastman_johnson_-_the_girl_i_left_behind_me_-_smithsonian

I’m not always very good with staying up on Twitter, but about two weeks ago I caught Erin Bartram’s post on leaving academia the day she tweeted about it. In “The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind,” she writes eloquently and passionately about her decision to leave academia, to not pursue another round of the academic job market, and the grief, of course, that comes with that.

I nodded as I read it. I’ve been there. A bit differently, of course, but I’ve been there, and I have felt that.

One of my grad school mentors told us that getting a tenure-track professor gig was like winning the lottery. There are so many graduate students and PhDs out there: you can do every. Single. Thing. RIGHT. And still be left without the winning ticket.

That’s incredibly frustrating, especially in a society that values hard work and believes in the idea that if you work hard, of course good things will come. Nearly 250 years in, we’re still mired in Protestant Work Ethic and Horatio Alger dreams. Hardly anyone knows who Horatio Alger is anymore, but we all know about the American Dream and the idea that in America, all it takes is hard work and a little industry.

So not true.

I started my PhD in the fall of 2005, when I was in my mid-20s and had spent about three years after college working full time. I entered the program after two years in corporate relocation and job searching, something that made me very good at Googling, researching, and writing resumes. In a lot of ways, I felt I had a leg up: I was realistic about the job market even then, knew I had to make sure I planned for options, and knew that I was doing this because I really just wanted to study history, read, and write. In so many ways, getting a PhD was first and foremost a personal challenge to pursue a personal passion. I knew it would have ramifications for my career, but that was all hazy.

[None of this, by the way, is meant to imply that other graduate students didn’t know these things. Many people I know started PhDs with a realistic sense of the market. We also tend to have a good deal of hope and optimism.] But knowledge only goes so far.

I did “all the right things” in graduate school, including:

  • I was studying US history and women’s history, but made sure to have major fields in ALL of US History and US women’s history (not just post-1865 or 20th century).
  • I added a minor field in world history, which sounded interesting but also seemed like it would make me more marketable
  • I presented at least once a year, every single year, at conferences.
  • I applied for grants and got them, including a prestigious one in my final year of graduate school.
  • (I should probably add to this the fact that I was very fortunate to have landed in a fully-funded program at a private university with resources plus my spouse had a full-time job and we had no kids at the time. These things make a difference.)

By the time I’d wended my way toward the final leg of my dissertation, I knew a few things. I knew for sure that the job market stunk. I knew I didn’t want to adjunct because I would stress myself out. I knew that my husband I weren’t going to up and move somewhere for a VAP or temporary gig, and that we weren’t keen on living apart for the duration of such a position.

I also knew, from experience and personal interest, that there were a lot of things that I might enjoy doing with my PhD. Please don’t let that fool you: that fact didn’t make the loss of a tenure-track possibility any rosier that year.

I spent hours working on job applications, scouring college and university websites to learn more about departments, and inventing courses that will never see the light of day. I tried to avoid the job market wiki and couldn’t stop myself from taking a look every now and then. I got super excited when emails popped in in November and December from various jobs, hoping against hope that someone wanted me for an AHA interview.

None came.

The AHA finally came, of course, and off I went to give a presentation in Boston (what a great line for my CV!) and to talk to folks at the State Department in what seemed to be basically an informational interview. I scoured the job boards. I went to receptions. I toured the city.

And, like so many other people, there were no AHA interviews for me, no follow up contacts from anyone that winter – no signs at all that anyone in the academic world wanted me.

I did not win the lottery, and it was not a game I cared to play any longer. I wanted to be somewhere I was wanted, and I wanted to build a career where I could thrive.

When a teaching position opened up at a local independent school that winter, I jumped at the chance.  Teaching at the high school level isn’t for everyone, but it was something that I found intriguing and a place where I’ve found a professional home.

I accepted my current teaching position just a few days before I defended my dissertation, which may make my leaving academia story a little different since I didn’t try the academic job market more than once. For me, though, this is what worked. I had a lot of people ask if I was going to try the market again; I always gave the same answer: I was done. I had gotten a job – a good job – that I was very excited about, and I was good to go.

I write here from time to time about my job, which is currently in one of the busiest phases of the school year. In secondary school teaching, I’ve found a place where I can be creative, continue to learn a wide variety of historical topics, contribute to other people’s lives in a meaningful way, and basically, have a lot of fun.

It turns out, though, that you can be entirely happy in your life and still wish in a little part of you that you’d won the lottery. We all dream about that at some point in our lives, right? My dream runs most rampant when I drive past WashU or hear about students getting accepted to awesome colleges, or when I get to reconnect with one of my graduate school professors. Sometimes, it comes when I’m reading a grad school colleagues’ post on social media, or when you realize that those colleagues get four-week winter breaks and finish school a month earlier than you. But sometimes, it just comes out of nowhere, and that’s okay.

There are so many of us out here who have these moments and still feel the loss. Seven years on, it’s still a thing, and probably always will be.

For all those who will find themselves leaving academia – or feeling left behind – I feel you. I get it. Know that you’re not alone.

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