Creating a new identity: the third stage of leaving an academic career.
Inscribed in the forecourt of the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Greece, was the maxim know thyself (gnothi seauton). Since leaving academia in 2020, this has been at the forefront of my mind because I have been questioning, “who am I now?” I wrote about taking the leap to leave academia and letting go of the negativity of being in a toxic work situation. Yet, for me, there is a third stage of making this evolution: reinventing my identity from academic to entrepreneur. This has been the longest and most challenging part of leaving my former role. I had and have plans for work and life, but for a long time they were not aligned with my personality because I still identified as an academic.
As a scholar, I knew who I was, how to behave, the people with whom I interacted, and how to pitch my research and publications. As most who teach in universities will understand, being an academic is not just a job, it is an all-encompassing part of life that subsumes one’s whole identity. Once someone is indoctrinated into the system, there is both an internal and external expectation that this is who one is expected to be for the remainder of their life, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Work comes first and the competition is fierce.
The role became central to my character, and I worked and lived in accordance to the unwritten rules of the academy. Leaving it was similar to facing culture shock because I had to navigate new ways of working and identifying myself. This was not easy, and I vacillated between my former self and finding a new purpose and meaning to my life.
An opportunity arose in March 2022 to face this problem that was preventing me from embracing a new start in life head-on. I was invited to speak at a virtual conference in Istanbul on medical history. Although I jumped at the chance to speak because it was something I knew how to do and it was an honor to be asked, I honestly found working on the presentation tedious and uninspiring. The topic excited me, but the academic setting was inappropriate for the impact I wanted the research to make.
I worked and lived in accordance to the unwritten rules of the academy. Leaving it was similar to facing culture shock.
It was not only the paper that caused me to change my direction in thinking, but also the most complimentary introduction to a paper I ever received. The session leader reported at length all that I had accomplished and stated that she ensured her students were aware of my publications. It was a beautiful send off and made me feel that I ended my academic career on a “high.”
From that point onwards, I turned down invitations to speak and went back on promises to write papers, with feelings of relief because I was no longer wasting my future on my past identity. Consequently, I spent the remainder of the spring and summer beginning to rework my academic papers and finding publication venues better suited for my goals. I also devoted more time to my current work as a floral designer. This position is giving me invaluable experience learning about the business and improving my design skills. It is helping me to determine how I will develop my own business. At the same time, I was also feeling lethargic, stagnant, and sad. I let my website, blogs, and films rest for a bit.
With these feelings of malaise, I had a meeting with my former career coach, Hillary Hutchinson, who had helped me immensely when I decided to leave academia. When we spoke, she pointed out that I was going through a period of grieving because I was letting go of an identity I held for over two decades. Like all who grieve a loss, time was necessary to recover. I gave myself the summer to think and rest. By the end of August, I was feeling energized and excited to move onto something new. I began writing this blog, and then an email arrived.
When taking a break from writing, I checked my email account and found a message sent earlier that day asking if I would be available to teach an online survey class on ancient history this semester, Autumn 2022, for History at Virginia Tech. I was contacted by VT because I undertook a teaching exchange with them in the Spring of 2014, and in 2021 I taught a virtual Roman History class for a friend, who was diagnosed with cancer. In the academic year of 2021-2022, I was on-call in case my teaching was required. Sadly, my friend’s situation deteriorated in the summer of 2022, and she succumbed to the disease four days after I began teaching this autumn.
When asked to teach this time, I am ashamed to admit, I was angry to be asked to do it. Angry because it was Friday and the semester was starting the following Monday; angry because I knew that I would have to write a new series of lectures; and, most of all, angry because I had finally let go of my identity as an academic. I was beginning to move on and develop my business. My life was going in its new direction, and this request was pulling me back into something I no-longer wanted to do or be. I kept thinking of the character Michael Corleone in the Godfather III saying every time he wanted to get out the mafia, he was dragged back into it. I could feel the character’s pain and conflicting sense of duty.
I reluctantly said yes, because I was aware that the Chair of the Department was in a desperate situation, having experienced someone quitting with less than a week before the start of term when I was a chair of my former department. Yet, if anything, this teaching has confirmed my feelings and new sense of direction.
I now look back on my academic achievements with pride. Rather than thinking I never did enough, never achieved enough, and everything I did could have been better, I can see that I achieved an amazing amount. I wrote many publications on various topics that always taught me something new and challenged me to think in different ways; I had fabulous teaching reviews; I taught, created, and updated 22 classes ranging from basic Greco-Roman history to MA level archaeological theory and historiography; supervised PhD and MA students; had opportunities to work with wonderful people (those who are still contacts on social media or with whom I am in contact know who you are); I gave academic talks on three continents and 13 countries; I will always have the title Doctor; and, most importantly, I had wonderful students, who impacted my life through many exciting seminar discussions, field-trips, archaeological excavations, and creative projects. It was an experience I am grateful to have had, and the skills I gained are invaluable for my future work, but it no longer defines who I am becoming.
For me, leaving academia has been a process that requires of a number of stages, so I wanted to share my experience of letting go of a long-held role and identity. With time, a bit of grieving, and self-reflection it is possible to become excited about reinventing oneself. Finding value and self-worth in creating something new that is at the core of my beliefs and creative expression is a way for me to embrace life. Thus, the words of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius come to mind when making a major transition in life.
"Do not act as if thou wert going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over thee. While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good." Or, in this case, remain true to yourself,.
— Meditations IV. 17, trans. George Long
Dr. Patty Baker
 For anyone thinking about leaving academia, I cannot recommend Hillary enough as a transition coach. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her.  I would like to say that Dr. Trudy Harrington-Becker was a wonderful friend, colleague, and educator. She had a positive influence on all of her students, who always praised her enthusiasm and knowledge of the ancient world, particularly Rome. She always had time to stop in my office when I taught at VT and had fantastic stories about her family that often had me laughing. She is greatly missed, but I am grateful to have had her be a part of my life and one of the happiest academic situations I had.