This article from Vitae explores the growing trend of writing about why one leaves academia. The act of leaving academe is not new, but writing about it is. It’s interesting that academics feel the need to explain their departures–we live in a world where most adults have dozens of jobs over the course of a lifetime. Why would academics be any different?
But there is something to this particular career path–one that is desired by so many but attained by so few. Why would anyone give it up? Especially after getting tenure?
The truth is that like any other job, academia can turn into a rut. Professorships offer unlimited possibilities, but the academia is beset with all kinds of external pressures, many that make the job a lot less fun. The challenge for today’s academic leaders is not only how to meet the conventional demands, but how to engage senior faculty so that they continue to find their work challenging and fulfilling.
Straight out of graduate school, Matt Welsh landed a pretty choice gig. As an assistant computer science professor at Harvard University, he had a home in a highly-respected department; he had his own office, with polished furniture and stocked bookshelves; and best of all, he had a pathway to tenure.
“The best, the top, the most high-caliber graduate students went on to be professors,” Welsh said. “Anything else would have been a tremendous failure. A few years down that path, my whole life was focused on getting tenure. So much of my self-worth was centered on reaching that bar.”
Which makes it all the more surprising that shortly after attaining his goal—becoming a full professor at Harvard—he quit. And then, on his personal website, he explained why.
“I joined Harvard because it offered the opportunity to make a big impact on a great department at an important school, and I have no regrets,” he wrote. “But my own priorities in life have changed, and I feel that it’s time to move on.”
When Welsh took to the Web to make his announcement, he was ahead of the curve. But he’s now in good company: Recently, there’s been a surge of cathartic columns in which scholars—with tenure and without—explain why they’re leaving academia. (We’ve listed the essays we’ve read here in a Google Doc; take a look and add pieces we’ve missed.)
There’s nothing new, of course, about academics leaving the ivory tower. But the exploding genre of “Quit Lit” demonstrates that saying goodbye is becoming an increasingly public act.