The Hidden Guilt of Leaving Academia

In my 20s I was lucky enough to have an experience that seems rare these days. For three glorious years I was paid to work at my dream job. Well…sort of. From the time I was six and I saw Raiders of the Ark for the first time, I knew that wanted to be an archaeologist. I had no illusions of fighting Nazis, but I also pictured archaeology as slightly more glamorous than what it turned out to be.

As an undergrad with high hopes for graduate school I dutifully put in my time, being lucky enough to find a mentor that was interested in advancing our careers. In addition to my part-time work as an archaeologist I also had a full-time job that paid the bills. My coworkers at the dig all had similar stories. One guy had three jobs. One of the girls shared an apartment with four roommates. A doctoral candidate dug with us, taught classes at the university and worked at a bagel shop. This was all part of the culture surrounding our field. One had to pay their dues to show just how bad they wanted it.

It wasn’t the work itself that was disappointing. That was exactly what I hoped for, even on the hardest days. Where my dissatisfaction came about was when I realized just how dismal my career prospects seemed to be. The position I wanted, heavily engaged in public archaeology, would either have to be created for me somewhere, or I would have to hope that one of the few people already doing this kind of work would retire or quit. The alternative to doing public archaeology was to do contract work, which seemed guaranteed to break my will at some point. It would also frequently take me away from home, a prospect that seemed ill-advised for a newly wed and young father.

I thought of all this when I read a piece from December by Jon Michaud in the New Yorker.

For all the glamour that surrounds the profession—Hiram Bingham “discovering” Machu Picchu in the mountains of Peru; Howard Carter unearthing Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings—the fact is that the work is often poorly paid, physically demanding, and prone to controversy…“It’s tough, physical work, all day, every day,” one of the archaeologists in Johnson’s book says.

The book also illuminates what Johnson describes as “the toil behind an obscuring stereotype.” One of her subjects, Grant Gilmore, withdrew from a project he’d been leading for years on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius when relations with the locals soured over the alleged sexual assault of two of his volunteers. Gilmore was unemployed for two years and applied to hundreds of openings before finding his next job. Another subject in the book, Kathy Abbas, scrubbed floors in the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, in order to fund her decades-long search for the Revolutionary War fleet that lies at the bottom of Newport Harbor. In a letter to Johnson, Abbas referred to herself as one “of the working poor.” “I had more disposable income when I was a graduate student!” The archeologists I spoke with confirmed that these stories were representative.

The woes of academics is not new material and has been covered at length in many other places. What I wish I read more of though is people being honest about the guilt that comes with leaving academia for the stability of a more ‘normal’ job. After my three years in the field, still holding down an additional full-time job, my salary was more than double at my corporate gig. Opportunities were presenting themselves and I was passing on them because I thought my future lay in archaeology. With a family to support, school loans to pay back and having serious misgivings about the bill of goods I had been sold, I decided to leave archaeology. Within a month I was promoted at my day job and started my climb up the corporate ladder in earnest.

When I made the jump I was filled with the predictable doubts. Was I selling out? Was I wasting my college education? Would I regret the decision later? What made it harder was the obvious pity that my archaeology buddies showed me. To them I was one of the people that didn’t want it enough.Interestingly, most of the crew that I came up with are still out in the field, still hanging on to the dream, all in various stages of success.

What I found interesting then and now is the way that someone leaving an academic track for a corporate job will often feel they are disappointing their peers, but at the same time academia depends on people making that leap in order to keep selling the promise of a career in your field of study. When I left archaeology, my coworkers were not just losing a fellow shovelbum, but they were also losing a competitor. The finite amount of jobs at the top of the profession can only support a small percentage of college graduates and every time someone takes their trowel and goes home, it gets a little easier for everyone else.

For a long time I wrestled with the guilt of leaving academia but now it is a faint ache instead of an acute pain. I do miss the work I did, the intellectual stimulation, the intense debates with my coworkers. My back and knees thank me for my career change. I’m pretty good at my current job. The pay is great, the benefits fantastic. When I travel for work now it is for a week at a time, not to spend months scratching in the dirt somewhere. Maybe less romantic, but at the ripe old age of 40 it feels a lot more comfortable.

My hope still remains that academic programs will start to be more honest with their students. Tell them how few jobs there really are at the highest levels and how much sacrifice will be required to get there. Mind you, I’m not asking them to dissuade anyone. Academia is still a place that holds a special place in my heart. What I would like to see though is programs equally celebrating taking the non-academic path. I like to think I use my degrees every day in some way. My company benefits from having a liberal arts perspective in a sea of business majors. There are far more of working outside academia than within. Perhaps both sides would benefit from honoring that reality instead of seeming to ignore it.

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13 thoughts on “The Hidden Guilt of Leaving Academia

  1. 1. I think the guilt potentially comes because it is much more rare to “make it” in Academia because there are a limited number of colleges and universities out there with a limited number of enrolled students.

    2. Completing a Masters thesis or PhD thesis is also a serious accomplishment. There are a lot of Americans with undergrad degrees. The number with graduates degrees is much, much smaller.

    3. That being said, you also made the more “realistic” choice. There were always plenty of people who never landed university positions despite trying and having the talent. The jobs for these people are getting fewer and farther between especially in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. There has always been paying your dues but with the current adjunct crisis, it seems like many people might be paying their dues forever.

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  2. I spent fifteen years as a musician before getting a job that paid anything. All I wanted was a job for the summer to save money to buy a new mixer and a new van.
    Another fifteen years, another career change.
    I have a lot of irons in the fire.
    I need to live another fifty years just to get things halfway done.

    The thing I regret most about walking away from my music is that I feel like I never really hit my peak. My best work never made it out of me.
    With the union, I regret not walking away sooner. I did some of the best work there is to be had. I still feel a surge of pride when I see an Atlas V or a Delta III go up. Probably always will.

    New days ahead.

    btw, one of the things I’m doing now is pewterware. You get some sculpting clay, make a mold, and do a pour. Then you have a ll the pieces you want.
    I do bits & pieces for conquistador re-enactors. Buttons, buckles, hilts, etc. These guys are great, because they are always willing to talk about the history of it.
    Something you might want to look in to.

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  3. Is it a question of archeologists hiding the truth, or is it a case of students neither asking nor listening to sage advise? I ask because I truly don’t know.

    Most private sector careers (or at least the ones people aspire to rather than fall into) out there are harder than they appear, and require sacrifice in order to be successful. For example, the majority of people who go into insurance at a younger age do so because they believe it’s a ticket to wealth. And it absolutely is — but only for a small percentage of the people who do it. The vast majority never see any kind of money, work long hours doing tedious things, and leave after 2-5 years. Every person I know from that industry who talks to young starry-eyed future millionaires explains this to them, but no one ever listens, because everyone always assumes they don’t belong to the statistics.

    I don’t know if archeology is any different from that.

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    • I can’t speak for archaeology or anthropology, but I do think you’re onto something, at least when it comes to history. I’m basing that only on anecdotal evidence, however. I do know, in retrospect, I got plenty of warnings from people, but I just didn’t heed them. There is also a sense I detect among my fellow former grad student colleagues (and perhaps me, too) that “I’m really talented, but there just aren’t enough jobs for us” when the truth is probably a combination of lack of jobs and, frankly, the speaker isn’t as talented or hardworking as he/she thinks they are.

      To your point about insurance, though, I’m curious. When you speak of people wanting to go into insurance make their fortunes, I assume you mean people who have some sort of hope of starting out as management or whatever. When I think of people who contemplate going into insurance (or banking, or whatever), I think of people who are going to start out lower on the food chain, and who hope for a stable, steady job that pays reasonably well and has benefits. Even that goal might be pie-in-the-sky and it could reflect an attitude of “well, it’s an office job and you get to sit down and it’s air-conditioned, so it can’t be stressful.”

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      • Actually, those that look to make their fortune almost always do it on the sales end. There are a bunch of people who have equity in insurance related companies and they also make lots of $, but they almost always come from the sales end prior.

        Actuaries and such don’t usually ever make the big bucks.

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        • I was actually thinking a step below actuaries, more like the entry-level people, who often have only high school diplomas. I once temped at an insurance company for four months and met a lot of such people. From what I could gather, they both chose and fell into the job and wanted the job security that everyone wants, but certainly weren’t making it big.

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      • I didn’t know you were in history.

        I have rose-colored glasses when it comes to history academics, because all of the ones I know in real life are either my sister or people my sister has introduced me to, and they’re all pretty well known, successful in their individual niche, and fully tenured. So I have this unrealistic picture of history as being this academic practice where everything works out for everyone, which obviously isn’t right.

        As with every other career, there’s a whole lotta luck that’s needed with the sweat and the smarts.

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        • Luck and talent. I imagine if your relatives are respected names in the field, they’re actually not only very good, but also tremendously hardworking.

          I’ve actually been pretty lucky so far–more lucky than hardworking/talented, to be honest– because I’m working full time in an academic library, in the manuscript archives, which good because 1) I don’t have to teach and 2) I don’t have to publish. So I get to do history every day and be the “office historian,” but I don’t have the other duties.

          Alas, it’s full time, but also temporary (year to year contract), and with budget cuts, prospects aren’t looking so good. No complaints–the gig has always been contingent and even I have trouble justifying using taxpayer money to pay me when the money might go, for example, to helping poor people–but I might soon be looking for a job.

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    • Do you mean people that start their own little insurance businesses selling policies for bigger companies like SafeCo?

      I get e-mails about this “wonderful” opportunity all the time but I am cynical. I am suspicious of anything that makes a 100 commission as the salary.

      In law, there seem to be lawyers who know what happened to the industry since 2007 but also a lot of people who are rather oblivious or put on the appearance of being so. I’ve heard the same for academics. There are a lot of tenured professors who don’t know or pretend not to know about the adjunct crisis.

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  4. I lke the post but I don’t know about all that guilt business. Guilt is the feeling of remorse for not having done the right thing, or something like that, yeah? Well, you did the right thing by not pursuing a career path with very, very little upside. How do I know that? Cuz you chose to not pursue a career in academia and chose to do something else. What I think you’re feeling – cuz I often feel the same thing – is the sadness which accompanies the realization that a dream is now irretrievably lost behind the bulwark of our personal present. Hell, we all have that, no? Part of growing up. Very much a part of getting older.

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    • I think the guilt I felt at one time was mostly a product of perceived pity from my former coworkers. It made the decision hard to stomach for a couple of years. Plus, you think about whether or not you wasted all those years of school. I think sadness is a better word for the long-term feeling. Now it is about 98% happy memories with no regrets. Every once in a while when I hear about a cool new project I get a little wistful.

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  5. This column really speaks to me, coincidentally I have been having these same thoughts myself with what I have been going through in my career lately. As I think I’ve told you my undergrad is Anthropology minor Art History I went on to get my masters in Art Conservation/Art History. While in the program they made it seem like we would all be heading for jobs in Museum’s when in actuality very few can land those jobs unless someone retires or dies. Most must try in make it in private practice which none of the programs prepare you for. I’ve been lucky had a few short term positions with fantastic museums then private practice working for those same museums. Life happens and had to move back to Oklahoma where museums do not have the budgets for Conservation departments.

    My conservation work comes in, feast or famine it seems. I recently took on a full time position as a Museum Administrator at a SMALL museum and was depressed about not working in my chosen field, Conservation, and feeling like I wasted all that money I spent getting my degree. Of course I am still lucky enough to have a job in a closely related field but the pangs are still there. And of course right after I accepted my current position two! huge conservation jobs came my way. I am doing one on the side (no days off for me until after November) and hopefully the other can wait for me to have some time.

    Any way long story short I feel your pain

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  6. This is a great post – I’ve felt a lot of these same feelings, even after I just recently finished my masters’ – even though I’m still “around” academia, working in a college library.

    Part of it for me (and , I think this speaks to your profs-or-undergrads question above), is that I had mentors whom I *greatly* respected, pushing me to become an academic. It’s hard, deeply culturally hard, to ignore elders when they are telling you you belong somewhere, and go off somewhere else. Although, it’s probably just as much part of culture to leave as it is to stay…. but they are two strong forces, so even if you make a choice, you still feel the tug of the force you escaped from.

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