Realizing I needed to leave the profession was a long process and it’s difficult to pinpoint when it began without the benefit of hindsight. I don’t think I would have had very many organized thoughts on this issue before this summer even though I now feel I’ve been deciding to leave for the last two years. I couldn’t have predicted two years ago that all of my questioning, research and daydreaming would lead me to the conclusion that I needed to leave. After all, I had been successful in an extremely competitive job market and I’d put years into achieving this success.
Avoiding rants about the negative aspects of academia and the poor behaviour of colleagues (which I cover in other posts), the way it began was with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction with what the future held. When it began was significant as well: almost immediately after I sent the final corrections to the proofs for my book to the publisher. With the completion of this book, I had made it to the biggest milestone of an academic’s career, especially so for an American who grew up (academically speaking) with the idea that publishing a first book was accompanied by initiation into the world of tenured professors and permanent jobs. It was my first major, public contribution to the intellectual world. And once it was finished, I suddenly had time to think about all sorts of other things that hadn’t crossed my mind in a very long time.
So that nagging sense of dissatisfaction soon became a voice: ‘Is this really it? The biggest, most exciting moment of my career over? No more bigger hurdles to overcome? Years before the next promotion without doing much other than repeating what I had already done? Would I really spend much of the rest of my career at this middle of the road institution in a small cultureless city where I had virtually no research interests in common with anyone else? Would I ever be able to break out into a fabulous position at a university where there was a real community of Victorianists? Would I really be happier in such a place? Would it actually make a difference to work with other Victorianists? Or was this really it, just as things were at the moment with no major changes to anything for most, if not the entirety, of the remaining years of my career. Thirty-some additional years of this . . . ?’
When I was thinking of my current post as a stepping stone, it was all ok. I wouldn’t be there forever. New and exciting—or at least different—things were around the corner. It started as a temporary post after all. But then my contracts were extended. I was living in a nearby larger city with a friend that I got on fabulously with. The death of a close family member also changed my personal circumstances considerably and caused me to have no choice but to stay put for a couple years. I received a lot of antique furniture in the estate settlement and then it became silly not to buy a house, especially given the excellent rental market in my home city in case I did land that dream job elsewhere. The incentives to stay continued to build.
Why had all of this led to me feeling so trapped and claustrophobic? I get a feeling of sick anxiety just thinking about it. Shouldn’t I feel safe, settled and secure with my research career progressing in a permanent position with a good salary?
The truth is that I’m just not the sort of person who can forego personal preference in choosing where to live and I can’t stand to live in any one place for long. I don’t need to go far or to go far away for long, though I sometimes have, but I need variety. Unfortunately, variety cannot be had in academic careers. Some people stay in the same position for their entire careers. Others hold only three different positions over their careers. As for short stints teaching elsewhere, these require a mountain of work to achieve and they’re few and far between anyway (ie, often a once in a career event). Academia brought me to the UK (and through the difficult UK immigration system) so I was under the impression that it would keep taking me to different places, at least throughout the UK. But that’s not been the case. I feel stuck and stagnant and as though there are no more opportunities to pursue in the profession. So when this realization hit me really hard after finishing my book, when I had time to stop and take a long hard look around for the first time in years, it was time to do some research about what else was out there.
I guess I started by thinking, ‘what, ideally, would I like to do if I had a very, very early retirement?’ Then it became, ‘maybe I’ll change careers in about eight or ten more years—after I’ve achieved the highest title of Professor (reserved only for full professors in the UK). Then I’ll have reached the highest point I would ever want to reach and can move on without feeling like I’m giving up.’ Then after a few more months, it became, ‘I’ll stick around until after the next REF. There might be some deals to be made then, just when the funding cuts really start to bite.’ Now, after having completed a fifth exhausting year of teaching at my current institution and finishing a collaborative publishing project that has been the bane of my existence for the last two years, there’s no more procrastinating: as soon as I sort out another job, it’s time to go.