Beyond the Ivory Tower

During an 8-hour meeting at my previous job, at a university in Asia, it dawned on me that it had been almost a year since I read any ‘literature’, as in primary texts that inspired me to pursue a life of thought in the first place. Instead, what I had been doing for 1.5 years included attending meetings, filing endless piles of paperwork, reading the most mind-numbing books on language education, and regurgitating the same banal teaching material week after week to students who could probably care less. Of course, I was grateful for a job with a steady income, at a time when most of my peers did not have stable jobs, but when the brain becomes feverish after enough meetings, money no longer seemed like an attractive lure. A month later, I submitted my resignation.

This initial experience with academic life (albeit in a particularly hostile environment) led me to rethink my decision to become an academic. The life of deep contemplation, reading, writing, and engaging discussions is, alas, a fantasy that is increasingly unlikely in a world of contingent positions and suffocating tenure pressures. I began to wonder more and more about what lies beyond the formidable walls in which I have enclosed my life. Nowadays, it is no longer controversial to speak of the post-academic life. Informative websites such as Beyond Academe, Alternative PhD, and How to Leave Academia, all indicate a growing trend towards ‘post-ac’ jobs. After spending a few months collecting information about alternatives, I realized I was not alone, and that many PhD graduates are becoming discontent with the ivory tower. The article in Forbes, which argued that professors have the least stressful jobs in the world, is outrageously inaccurate (and Forbes has since then admitted the potential unreliability of their research). The academy brings a whirlwind of stress, anxiety and insecurity that makes leaving seem like a logical solution. This brilliant Manifesto says it all:

“Because I am tired of being made to feel like a failure because I have been failed by a flawed system…Because participating in a system that degrades, demeans, and disempowers you is masochism…Because obfuscation, elitism, arrogance, and self-righteousness should not be rewarded…Because I refuse to believe that a system that does not value me is the only one in which I can have worth…Because life is short…Because I am prevented from doing the work I was trained and prepared to do…I am leaving the academy.”

Many of the reasons listed are the reasons why I left my old job, and are now reasons why I am contemplating a post-ac life. Considering the harrowing state of crisis that has besieged the academic job market (endless applications followed by endless rejections, coupled with poverty and despair), it is only logical to be open to other options. Yet the academic world has always frowned upon those who ‘sell out’. The elitist attitude of academic culture means that most academics do not acknowledge – or are at least skeptical of – the idea of an intellectually-engaging career elsewhere. As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang argues, such an attitude ‘only shows that academia’s conception of the life of the mind is narrower than it should be’. This narrowness is damaging to new graduates. The truth is that many PhD graduates pursue a career outside academia, which turns out to be just as engaging as academic work, if not more. Instead of pushing PhDs into the narrow tunnel of academic positions, departments should inform PhD candidates, from the beginning of their studies, that there are alternatives to an academic position, and that these alternatives are not ‘second best’. As Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman write:

‘A first step toward adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs […] that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.’

Academic elitism – or snobbery – has cultivated a system of shame that deludes us into thinking we must be professors in order for our education to have been worthwhile. But the real-life examples of many who have had fulfilling careers outside the academy tell a very different story. We need to redefine ‘success’. There is also a certain disdain for money and a misguided belief that careers in the ‘real world’ are solely about profit, not about the mind – as if competition for tenure has absolutely nothing to do with higher pay and power! Liberal-minded academics have always upheld the academy as a place of egalitarian ideals and humanitarian goals, but this ignores the steeply hierarchical structure of the university system (just look at the miseries suffered by adjunct faculty) and the narrowness that it perpetuates. Many academics are, in fact, conformist and conservative, and in many ways, radicalism has never been as far from campuses as they are today.

Choosing to leave the academy, then, can be an act of rebellion. But there is positive change at the end of the strife – or at least I hope so. A life of the mind and career-building outside the ivory tower are not mutually exclusive things; I plan to continue doing research and writing, regardless of what I do. There will undoubtedly be a sharp learning curve, as I try to convince potential employers that my expertise in 19th-century literature and culture might be useful outside a niche field. There is also the additional difficulty of leaving the sense of familiarity felt in the academic world, and ditching the prestigious title of ‘Doctor’. More importantly, I believe that while universities are undervaluing the arts and humanities, such disciplines still play a significant role in our society – in places such as non-profit organizations, in community reading groups, in the ever-changing publishing industry and in creative work, where literature can move beyond theoretical play and into ‘the realm of emotional significance’ (Jonathan Franzen). Leaving academia is not about selling out – it’s about finding a more fulfilling life for oneself and pursuing meaning beyond the bounds of education. And when the day comes, when I’m comfortable thriving in the ‘world outside’, then I will once again be able to read Romantic poetry with an unfettered mind.


More articles on post-academic life:

1. Out of Academia

2. Doctor Outsider

3. The Repurposed PhD

4. Leaving Academia

5. I Quit Academia


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