Quitting Academia: Is the grass really greener on the other side?

The COVID-19 pandemic tested (and continues to exert an impact on) numerous aspects of daily life. Nowhere has this been more profound than with lots of peoples’ relationship with their jobs, work, and careers. Many individuals discovered how much their work cared about them and vice versa.

Some workers struggled and prevailed. They were able to make the transition to remote or hybrid work and feel good about the outcome. Others had come to Jesus moments questioning their commitment to their jobs, bosses, co-workers, employers, etc. This situation led to such phenomena as quiet quitting, and the great resignation.

Academia has witnessed similar patterns. Numerous people connected to colleges and universities, from Ph.D. students quitting their programs to tenured full professors have announced that they are leaving or have left.

Their complaints centered around major themes like an overabundance of uncompensated service, toxic work environments, the publish or perish treadmill, shitty salaries, overwork, overly ideological or woke departments and scholarly fields, and the high sacrifice versus rewards of academia.

Some of the people who quit academia did this relatively silently while others announced it on social media, occasionally with rounds of applause from friends, colleagues and followers.

A handful of those who are leaving academia indicate that they are now working for nonprofits, or in the private sector, and some are more specific with respect to the job they are moving to (generally tech-related).

I get it academia is not perfect. It never was and will never be. And to succeed the average academic has to eat a lot of shit.

Unless you are independently wealthy, just won the lottery, or expect to get a big inheritance, my biggest question to those quitting academia is do you really think things will be that much better outside of academia? Most jobs and careers have significant drawbacks, including the ones people identify as their reasons for quitting academia (albeit in greater or lesser quantities).

For example, if quitting academia enables you to move to your dream location, what is the cost of living, availability of appropriate social connections, alternative job opportunities, and working conditions there? Will the new job situation really allow you to spend more time with your loved ones?

If the job you’re moving to has a considerably higher salary, will you have to work longer hours, a significantly different time zone, or even twelve months a year?

Many people want at least a middle class income. Some believe that this is attainable by working in an in demand profession. But most of those careers (e.g., architects, engineers, lawyers, etc.) also require entry level workers to work long hours (and make sacrifices) if they want to make it to the next rung to escape from the more mundane aspects of the job.

Alternatively if you want to open your own business (or work for a startup) this often requires long hours and you are faced with lots of unpredictable kinds of curve balls, not to mention the damning statistic that most businesses fail within the first year.

I’m not saying don’t quit academia, but think twice about quitting the hallowed halls of colleges and universities for the reasons you proffer, and assume that the grass is always greener on the other side.