Why I’m choosing to leave academia

Today’s entry is by Tamara Cooper. You might remember her from a previous blog entry on chronic illness and research. Even before the covid-19 pandemic began, Tamara considered the nature of work within the higher education sector and decided to pursue a career elsewhere. In this entry, she explains why—and emphasises that we need to think in different and healthier ways about the employment options and career goals of higher degree research students.

T Cooper Profile Picture

Tamara Cooper.

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the future of the academy and the job prospects of current PhD students and recent graduates. Blog posts like @thesiswhisperer’s glorious anger at the need to reform the PhD and the academy, and @colourful_hist’s eloquent expression of the disruptive effect of the pandemic on career plans have been making the rounds. I have also seen numerous twitter posts wondering if now is the time to jump ship to other sectors such as education. About halfway through last year I made that exact decision, to re-train as high school teacher, and it seems like a good time to reflect on the reasons why.

Firstly, and I must stress this, I made this decision pre-pandemic, COVID-19 did not exist. I made the decision because I saw the university sector becoming more and more casualised, I was hearing stories of people spending ten years plus on casual contracts before landing a permanent job. I decided I didn’t want to do that, I was sick of being poor, I was sick of having to lean on my parents for financial support (though eternally grateful that I had that option). I had done the casual thing for years in retail and I didn’t want to go back. So, I made the decision to train as a high school teacher, I liked teaching and it seemed like a good fit for my personality.

At this point it would be best to tell you that when I left high school, teaching was always the plan. I took the advice of my godfather who was also a trained teacher. He told me to do my bachelor’s degree first, really get to know my teaching areas, and then complete my Graduate Diploma of Education. So that’s what I set out to do. But than I did my honours year, then I, out of curiosity, applied for some PhD programs and, to my surprise, won a scholarship to complete my PhD. At this point it seemed that I was bound for a career in the academy.

However, after a slightly traumatic run up to the end of thesis, I still shudder thinking about it, I started to wonder if I really wanted to stay in the academy. There seemed to be something toxic about the attitude to work, the style of work didn’t suit my personality, and I wasn’t enjoying it. Now don’t get me wrong, I love research and I love writing about history, but the metrics around how to do that in the academy seemed, to me, to sap the enjoyment out of it. That, coupled with increasing precarity, meant it just didn’t seem worth the effort to break into the industry. So, I made the decision to go back to the original plan, though I think I was the only one surprised by this decision. When I told my mum she just gave me that smug all-knowing look that mums do so well, and dad just nodded his head.

While I understand that training to become a high school teacher is not everyone’s cup of tea, I think there is merit in considering industries and sectors outside of universities for potential careers post PhD. There seems to be this prevailing idea that pursuing a career outside of the academy means you failed, or you somehow couldn’t hack it. Indeed, for some time I kept my decision quiet because of that reason; while I don’t agree with the idea, I simply didn’t have the energy to argue the point. Keeping quiet seemed like the least exhausting option. However, this thinking is ludicrous. We know that universities produce way more PhDs than there are positions for, even without all the challenges facing the industry. Yet, we continue to berate and downplay the achievements of those who seek careers outside the academy, we even call their career paths ‘alt ac’, like the academy is the only ‘real’ option.

I have heard of academic historians that look down on history teachers as not real historians, they deride academically trained historians who become teachers, but then turn around and complain that high school students are not being taught history properly. That old myths of history are being perpetuated within the school system, yet, they still refuse to engage with the system. It is the same logic that sees academic historians complain about the inaccuracies of popular histories while at the same deriding the efforts of historians who try engage with popular audiences. That said, the ability of historians to engage with popular history is hampered by a metric system that privileges elite journals over popular outputs while still insisting on public outreach (a rant for another time). However, I digress; my point is that we cannot continue to maintain this snobbery over the careers of PhDs.

While I recognise that I have only been involved in the education sector as a student, I have noticed a distinct lack of the competition that seems to colour the academic industry. In the lead up to making this decision I reached out to a couple of old friends who were teachers to discuss the day-to-day realities of being a high school teacher. They could not have been more helpful: they discussed the realities of their jobs, answered my somewhat stupid questions, and were all willing to help me with resources. My fellow education students in my classes are willing to share resources and help answer questions; there seems to be a sense of collegiality, despite the fact we are all going into the job market together. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some very nice and incredibly supportive people in academia, and have been incredibly privileged to have excellent mentors, but the conversations and interactions were always tinged by the fact everyone was competing for same amount of scarce jobs with very similar CVs.

The other thing I have noticed about the education sector, is the growing awareness of the fact that teaching is a JOB. It is something you do that pays the bills. Yes, it does attract a certain type of personality giving it the feel of a vocation and you may enjoy it a lot, but it is a JOB. In one memorable podcast I listened to for an education subject, the lecturer was discussing time management as being one of the biggest challenges for beginner teachers. She emphasised the importance of scheduling time in for relaxation, the importance of having time for yourself, and that by living and breathing the job you won’t be a better teacher. In fact, you will burn out, and you and your students will suffer. I have never seen this attitude in academia. There has always been this underlying attitude that you need to be constantly working to be a success, that taking time out is detrimental to your career. This seems contradictory and weird when you consider the wellness trends currently rife in academia.

And I know the education sector isn’t perfect. I too have read the reports about overworked teachers who are underpaid and not at all appreciated. People have told me the horror stories of the marking that teachers do. I do wonder if they have seen the marking I have to do as a casual tutor at universities; I wager it’s probably the same. But to me it comes down to this, life is full of stress, that’s the twenty-first century, you have to choose the stress that suits you. I know this the stress of academia does not suit me.

There is much more I could say on this topic. Before I made the decision, I did a lot of research on the topic, including job opportunities, wages, growth of industry etc, however, this is already longer than I planned so I will end on this note. I’m not trying to say we should all jump ship and become high school teachers, it’s not for everyone. However, neither is academia. We should be making decisions based on what is best for ourselves and the lives we want. The academy is in dire need of a shake up and it is exhausting to be searching for a job and financial security during this time. If you decide that you don’t want that exhaustion in your life, then so be it. There are plenty of viable and credible careers out there for PhD graduates. If you decide to jump ship you haven’t failed. It isn’t a sign you couldn’t hack it. You simply decided that you wanted something different in life. If you do stick it out on the casual contracts for years and then finally land the permanent job, good for you! I’m ecstatic for you. However, those who stay in academia don’t have more stamina than those who leave, and those who leave aren’t smarter for getting out. The only thing happening here is that people have made different choices, there should be no hierarchy of validity.


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