Why I Decided To Leave Academia

I’ve seen some blog posts floating around Twitter explaining the perils of academia and/or why someone has chosen to go alt-ac. I’m also one of the PhDs who decided to forgo the traditional academic route and go into secondary school teaching. I thought I’d explain why I did.

The reasons why I decided not to pursue academia are not complicated. First, I was always a bit wary of the vocation and often had somewhat existential hang ups. Despite my successes in popular history (which I am still working on), I never felt like my research was really contributing to helping the wider world. Sometimes I would vacillate between thinking my topic was important to thinking it was a self-indulgent passion piece.

The second reason I felt dissuaded from the academic route was, of course, the instability of the academic job market. I came into my PhD program without any illusions of the bleak opportunities. In a way that made me lucky. I never had the moment of shell-shock when I realized the truth. Of course, while I was in my PhD program I got swept up in preparing for a crappy market and became worried about how I would fare. However, the doubts continued to linger. I found research to be an extremely lonely process and the idea of making it my life’s work became daunting. The stress began to eat away at me and it became worse and worse with every passing year, severely impacting my mental health. (That is a topic for another blog post if I ever decide I want or need to write about it.)

I also did not want to become an academic nomad. I had absolutely no desire to take temporary position after temporary position. I also wanted some agency about where I could choose to live. I hated the idea of being at the mercy of a job market. (My recent post about my one academic job interview in the Southeast really sealed that thought.) I turned 30 midway through my PhD. I did not want to suddenly turn 40 and still be without some security or stability.

The final reason why I decided not to pursue the academic job market is because I just could not come up with another project. I heard my friends and colleagues discussing potential second project as early as the first year of our PhD. Inside, the imposter syndrome ate away at me. How could I be a good academic if I could not even think of a topic outside of piracy? What else could I possibly say about Atlantic piracy anyways?

Despite the years of doubts, I still wondered about my choice. I made the decision to move back to Los Angeles during the summer between my third and fourth year. My mental health had taken too many hits and each winter in the UK became harder and harder to handle. The lightbox and Vitamin D tablets did nothing to help. This was not an easy decision to make, especially since I built a life in London. (Repatriation is another potential blog post.) I made amazing friends and I loved the city. I had a fun job outside of the PhD and I even joined a little choir during my last year. But all of this could not replace the security of having family in the same time zone.

So I moved home three days after my viva (don’t do this) absolutely desperate to keep some form of connection to my London life. I applied to academic positions everywhere I could. Fellowships, postdocs, visiting positions, and tenure-track positions. It was during my campus interview that I realized I could not do the academic track. The idea of having to pick up and move again to a place where I had no desire to live sent me into a flight of panic.

I made a decision. One thing I always loved without any reservation was teaching and I knew in my heart that I would be happy in that position. I have a teaching credential but having been out of the professions for 5 years, I didn’t even know how to approach the job market anymore. I signed up with a placement agency that focused on the West Coast, got an interview to teach 7th grade humanities at a private school in West LA, and was offered the job two days later.

Instead of taking it immediately I said I needed time to think. I knew if I accepted the job, I meant that I would be turning my back on an academic career forever. (Or maybe not – forever is a long time after all.) I only considered this for an hour before calling the head of the middle school, but it was an agonizing hour. I chose to trust my gut and I accepted the job much to the school’s delight.

This isn’t quite the end of the journey. One more wrench was thrown in my path. One of the fellowships I applied for the Pearsall Fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research in London. This fellowship, for those who don’t know, is a one-year research position on any topic relating to maritime history. I applied with a hastily put together proposal about how deaths at sea affected maritime communities and families in colonial New England. Exactly one week after I accepted the teaching job and signed my contract, the IHR contacted me to say I had been one of six candidates selected to interview.

For several days I sat on this contemplating my dilemma. On the one hand, an interview is just an interview. There was no guarantee of a successful interview and no matter the outcome the choice would still be mine. I decided to deliberate how I felt about various possibilities. If offered the fellowship, would I take it? That meant moving back to London. A new visa, finding a new flat, working for one year (essentially PhD part 2), and then finding myself back exactly where I was. Instead of feeling excited by the possibility, I just felt anxious and tired. One more line to stay in academic dangled in front of me. With a somewhat heavy heart, I emailed the IHR and said thank you for selecting me, but I had already accepted a position elsewhere.

I’m six months into my job as a middle school humanities teacher and I know without a single doubt that I made the right decision. My job is fun and every day is different. It’s not without it’s challenges. Teaching 12 and 13 year-olds is not easy. I feared I would lose all of the skills I gained during my PhD but this could not be further from the truth. I use all of my skills and more and I believe doing the doctorate made me a better teacher in every way. I even got to design an entire unit about piracy, Atlantic history, and trade.

So those of you currently on the fence, take heart. It’s okay to be on the fence and whatever decision you make will be the right one for you. There are always options out there and you will find something. It can take time, yes, but so can anything.

The next post I’ll write will be how I got a secondary teaching job in detail for those who are interested in going that route.

About Rebecca Simon

A California-girl based in London working on a PhD in early modern Atlantic history at King's College London: piracy, executions, British law. https://twitter.com/beckalex
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