Being Grateful for Frightening Times: Facing the Fears of Leaving an Academic Position
When “normal” years draw to a close many of us reflect upon what we are grateful for and how we have changed. Twenty-twenty, however, has been anything but “ordinary” and challenging for everyone I know. Yet, for me, with all that has been frightening about it, 2020 was remarkable.
I come to the end of this year celebrating some bold changes I made in my life and being grateful for all of those who offered me support in many different ways to help me make these transitions. The most significant shift I made was deciding to leave a permanent position as an associate professor of classics, ancient history, and archaeology to develop my own business, Pax in Natura, which is Latin for Peace in Nature. This enterprise promotes environmentally sustainable practices, something I have always been concerned about, through online and public outreach teaching and training. In these events, I incorporate my areas of academic expertise—Greco-Roman history, archaeology, ancient medicine, environments, and “applied arts”, such as gardening and flower design—with my passion for environmental activism and making artistic crafts. While looking at the past creatively, I guide my audience to ask what we can learn to help alleviate the crises and make the planet better for ourselves and future generations.
Making this leap, however, was not easy and still frightens me from time to time. Even though as a professor, I loved teaching, seeing my students develop, researching, writing, learning new things, and working with likeminded colleagues across the globe, what became stronger was the calling to do something that appealed to a broader audience and was more meaningful in terms of helping the environment. The type of work I now want to do cannot be supported in academia. Besides a longing to follow this new career path, there were two other reasons that I decided it was time to leave.
I had a choice to make. I could seemingly “play it safe” and hope for the best, while continuing to remain in a negative situation, or I could see this as the perfect opportunity to answer a new calling and do something that makes a difference in the world. I chose the latter.
First, I worked in a very toxic department from the day I started to the day I left. Rather than dwell on the negatives, suffice it to say that at a certain point it became apparent that no matter how much I worked to try and make my work-life better, the situation was never going to change. To live without becoming vitriolic and resentful, I knew I had to release myself from this “hamster wheel.”
Second, the University where I worked had been facing financial insolvency since 2018, and the Covid-19 outbreak only exacerbated the situation. To try and save money, they offered voluntary severance packages for two years running. In 2019, I held on to the hope that the economic issues would be resolved and my department would get better. Moreover, as I had worked hard to get and keep an academic job, the question that always came to mind was “Who in their right mind would want to leave an apparently secure position when academic jobs are scarce?”
However, it became increasingly apparent that there was little hope for the University and/or departmental survival. Even if the University did survive, I would be facing pay-cuts, excessive teaching loads, and the constant threat of job loss. Thus, the combination of factors, meant that I had a choice to make. I could seemingly “play it safe” and hope for the best, while continuing to remain in a negative situation, or I could see this as the perfect opportunity to answer a new calling and do something that makes a difference in the world. I chose the latter.
As I began to think about leaving a permanent position, I employed the help of a wonderfully talented career coach who helps people make the transition from academia to new positions. By working with her, I was able to untangle a huge knot of conflicting emotions that helped me move forward onto this new path.
The emotions I faced leaving academia included
Being considered a failed academic. I regularly hear academic colleagues make derogatory comments about that those who leave academia. Yet, people leave jobs all of the time to follow new dreams and goals. By leaving, I am allowing myself to grow, learn new skills, and live happily. To me, the Ivory Tower had metamorphosed into a prison that was closing me off from living a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Guilt. I worked very hard and sacrificed a lot to get a PhD and a university position. I was fortunate to have the help of my family and scholarships to complete my PhD. I felt that I was letting myself and those who had helped me down. Yet, my family has been amazingly supportive of this change. Moreover, I completed financially sponsored projects, and remained in the field for twenty years, actively publishing, getting grants, teaching, and giving talks. I am now ready to work with a different audience so that my research can have a greater impact.
Fear. No salary means times will be tight. This is especially difficult for someone like me who is petrified of debt and loves to save money. However, in reality, Associate Professors do not make very much money in the UK compared to the United States, and in retrospect times had always been tight. So, given the University’s finances, I decided to take matters into my own hands rather than rely on an institution to determine the quality of my life.
Self-doubt. I worried that this new venture would be considered too eccentric. Yet, whenever I work on my current project, I feel happy. Moreover, the reactions to the developing stages have been very positive! It is also frightening to challenge the status quo and do something out of the ordinary. Yet, it is the “mad” ideas that tend to transform attitudes and practices. In a time when it is evident that we need to develop new ways of thinking and living to guarantee better environmental wellbeing, now is perfect to launch this project.
Along with working through these emotions, the unfortunate situations of this year forced me to face the reality that nothing is permanent and the security I seek is illusory. Of course, I know myself, I will always seek some semblance of safety in this world. Yet, this need for safety also prompts other questions: how can the world be safe for everyone and how can I use my interests and talents to work towards this?
So, at the end of 2020, I would like to acknowledge that I could not have gotten to this stage without the help of my friends, my career coach, my family, and my husband, who also decided to leave academia. Leaving opened the doors to opportunities to start something wonderful, move back home to the United States after a quarter of a century in the UK, be closer to family, and build friendships with loving, supportive people, who share my ideals.
I do wish everyone a wonderful 2021 with exciting new adventures and hope that it is the best you have so far. I also ask that when thinking about your resolutions, perhaps from everything we have faced together in 2020, you can include how you would like to make the world a better place for others as well as yourself. The world is beautiful when people are happy, the climate is healthy, and life is secure.