**Not surprisingly, this was not an easy post to write. Please be kind. These are my experiences as I remember them. If you think I’m talking about you, I might be. I’ve changed names.**
I was an assistant professor at a small, regional university for the last four years. I put in my notice at the end of the 2017/18 academic year and worked through the 2018/19 academic year on a part-time basis. I mentioned in our 2018 year in review that Justin and I had decided that this would be my last year for a variety of reasons. A few people have asked me why, after spending so long working to get the Ph.D., I’m leaving academe. What follows are some of my reasons for leaving.
But first, a little back story to fill in the details.
I did everything right. I went to a great school for my undergraduate education and was inspired to keep asking questions and keep learning. I went to the same school for my master’s program. I loved it! I loved learning about topics that mattered to me and having interesting discussions and debates with fellow students and professors alike. Every step of the way I was rewarded for doing well and I was encouraged to keep going. Early on in the master’s program, I decided that I would keep going for the Ph.D.; teaching and researching fired me up and gave me some purpose. I was accepted to an awesome Ph.D. program and awarded a full-ride. From the outset I was determined to finish the degree in a reasonable amount of time. Funding was only guaranteed for three years and I didn’t want to pay (much) out of pocket. During my fourth year, I went on the job market and somehow, against all odds, was offered a tenure-track position while ABD (all but dissertation). Applications for full-time tenure-track positions are rare and highly competitive, being offered a position was what we call a ‘unicorn’ in our home. I accepted the offer, knowing that I was unlikely to get another. I had made it to the promised land, but I was completely and utterly miserable.
The short and simple answer is that I left because I was completely over the toxicity of higher education.
prioritizing my physical and mental health
In June 2015, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. This was the culmination of a year of inconclusive tests and being bounced from doctor to doctor. (I’ll write more about this another time.) It was also a few short months before I was supposed to start my new job as an assistant professor. I had my thyroid removed (the major treatment for this sort of cancer) in August of that year. Two weeks later, I sported a scarf to cover my incision site and attended new hire orientation. I ended up using my course release, intended to give me research time but actually used for medical reasons, that first semester. In hindsight, if I had known it was an option, I would have taken medical leave during that first semester. Instead, I soldiered on.
While some have the audacity to refer to thyroid cancer as an easy cancer, having an organ removed and acclimating to a life of daily medication takes time. I was often exhausted and moody due to my body adjusting. There were many days that I would take a quick power nap in my office in between classes just to make it through the day. My weight was all over the place, swinging ten pounds or more in either direction. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I needed down time to adjust, but there just wasn’t space for it. I didn’t want to talk about it or request accommodations because I didn’t want to be seen as the new professor with cancer.
My recovery coupled with my new position inflicted a heavy toll in the form of chronic stress and tension. My doctors assured me that once my hormones were leveled out that I would feel a lot better, but that didn’t happen until the middle of my second year on the job. I struggled. There were days that I sat in my car crying because I didn’t know if I could face another day of going to the office and putting up with the tensions there. I had a hard time being there and supporting my students because I couldn’t add their struggles to my overfull plate.
Leaving academia gives me the space to care for my body and mental health.
dealing with toxic work environments
If the health stuff wasn’t challenging enough, I quickly learned that my work environment was toxic.
The past four years were intense. Sometimes rewarding, but mostly an exercise in frustration. Unbeknownst to me, I accepted a position at a very dysfunctional university in a very dysfunctional department. I was hired by an interim dean and shortly after I took the job a new, permanent dean of the college was appointed. The provost was also hired at the same time as me. At the department level, the chair died suddenly and due to infighting (that I never got the complete story about) a new chair could not be appointed. The department ended up in receivership and was headed by an associate dean. This was the disaster I walked into. Fast forward four years and not much has changed. The provost quit last year, the chancellor decided to leave, and the department is still a mess.
I should have known that this wasn’t going to be the right fit for me during the interview process when I didn’t meet bothof the current program members – let’s call them Jean and Mike (not their names, but close enough). You read that correctly, I was interviewing to be the third member of the program. I finally met Jean during the third week of my first semester and it was a doozy. It was a Friday and the first faculty meeting of the semester. Justin came to work with me to help me move the last of my boxes to my office. We were chatting when we heard a knock at my door. Waiting for me were my two program colleagues. Jean, the one I hadn’t met before, I wanted to see me before the meeting. It was a strangely tense conversation and I don’t remember all of it. What I do remember is her telling me that “God gave me cancer and it happened for a reason.” (It wasn’t said in the sense of the usual platitudes.) I was pretty taken aback and Justin, who heard all of it, said that he wouldn’t have believed me if he hadn’t of heard it all himself. That was the beginning of our relationship and it didn’t get better from there.
During that first semester, I found myself on a search committee for the fourth member of the program. It was not ideal. On one hand, I was looking forward to having another colleague in the program. On the other hand, the process disgusted me. During the review of applications, lots of comments and stereotypes were tossed around about the applicants. Questions about the applicant’s gender or heritage were typical and inappropriate. Questions about whether an applicant’s publishing record were good enoughalso occurred, even though several of the applicants had better publishing records than many – me included – on the committee.
The icing on the cake occurred during the deliberations about who to extend an offer to. Our first-choice candidate had already accepted another offer. So, it came down to the other two candidates. Jean wanted the male candidate because “students would respond to a man better.” Me and other members of the committee wanted the other, more qualified, female candidate. It was a fairly ugly process with the committee unable to come to a unanimous agreement. I stuck to my values and continued to support the candidate that made the most sense, despite making several senior faculty members upset because I refused to tow the party line and allow a less qualified person to get hired purely because he was a he. (The person we did hire is wonderful and we supported each other quite a bit.)
Things reached a boiling point with Jean during my second semester. As part of the annual review process, I needed to have a classroom observation completed. I e-mailed both of my program colleagues with dates that would work best for me, knowing that they would be in the best position to understand the subject matter at hand. Mike responded that he couldn’t attend, and Jean never said a word. After consulting with the department’s leadership, I scheduled a day for one of them to handle the observation and moved on with life. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Jean showed up randomly one day and told me that she was doing my classroom observation twenty minutes later. (It’s common courtesy for faculty to have fair warning of when they’ll be observed. This was NOT that.) I let her know that since she never responded to me that I had scheduled the observation with someone else. She proceeded to scream at me in my office for ten minutes despite my attempts to defuse the situation. This event occurred during the middle of the day with many people hearing it. Yet, no one came to see what the yelling was about or intervened. As I headed to the restroom to collect myself before class, one person asked if I was okay. Like anyone would be “okay” after being berated like that.
During my second year on the tenure-track, Mike, the senior program faculty member who was around most often and who usually acted as a buffer, went on sabbatical. It quickly became apparent that all issues pertaining to the day-to-day running of the program would fall to me because Jean refused to participate and came to campus as little as possible. It was so bad that the department’s secretary told me that she sent students to me because she would “feel bad” for them if they went to Jean. (As if the added workload and stress for me were nothing.) Here I was, a second-year faculty member, being asked questions and having to make decisions that were far above my expertise. I finally put my foot down and told the newly installed department chair that something had to be done. She intervened and things did get a bit better because she started pushing back.
These are just a few examples of how the department I was in allowed for a toxic environment to continue to fester. I could go on, but you probably get the point. When news of my departure spread, I found out that I was the thirdprogram faculty member to leave in seven years. That kind of turnover is incredibly high and should signal problems to senior college leadership.
The college and university structures weren’t all that better either. As I already alluded to, there was quite a bit of turnover and turmoil. The university did a campus climate study and the findings were that my experience wasn’t unique. I wasn’t the only person at that university who felt like they were constantly being bullied and weren’t welcome. Despite knowing this, nothing changed.
The poor climate was coupled with year-over-year declining enrollments and with that declining budgets. Every meeting had the specter of “we’re out of money and need to get more” hanging over it. Austerity measures, like hiring freezes and increasing dual enrollment partnerships (i.e. teaching university courses to high school students), were considered and often implemented. In short, neoliberalism moved in and was here to stay.
Despite all of this, I would have probably stuck it out, but for one event that still bothers me. For the most part, I loved teaching. I loved being able to share ideas and research about the world and having interesting conversations with my students. I loved seeing when ideas clicked for them. The classroom was my safe and happy place, until it wasn’t.
One of my students, a former Marine, was clearly having problems. He came to class late, sometimes drunk, and often displayed odd behaviors like rolling over the desks instead of walking around to his seat or attempting to derail the class discussion with conspiracy theories. I voiced my concern to the department chair but was told that I was overreacting. She suggested that I see the campus psychologist to talk about my concerns and learn coping mechanisms. Essentially, she thought I was the problem.
One class period, he came late. The class was watching a documentary. He took a seat next to me and started talking to me. I invited him out to the hallway for a chat so as not to disturb the rest of the class (knowing that we would be in full view of other people). The student was drunk and wouldn’t make eye contact. Partway through our conversation, he punched the wall and ran. I went back into the classroom with my students still watching the film. I texted the department chair about what happened and told her that the student wasn’t welcome back that night and that I would call the campus police if he returned. I was worried for the safety of my class and myself. Again, she thought I was overreacting.
The same student was in another departmental professor’s class. That professor asked the student to come to his office for a chat since the student had continued to exhibit strange behavior. While in the professor’s office the student pulled out a knife and twiddled it in his hands. He didn’t threaten the other professor, but pulling it out was threatening enough. After that, the student was barred from attending all of his classes. Police officers were stationed outside of my classroom until they were able to inform him that he couldn’t attend class. About a week later, the student pulled a shotgun on a police officer. Thankfully, no one was injured.
I guess I wasn’t overreacting.
After that, I never felt safe on campus. I didn’t bother raising concerns about any of my troubled students because I knew it wouldn’t matter. I did my job and minimized my time on campus. I put my head in the sand.
what comes next
For the past year, we have lived in Colorado. When Justin got the job offer, I gave the university two options: (1) I quit right then and let them scramble to have my courses taught or (2) I drop down to part-time and teach my required classes online to give the department time to figure out their next moves. They went with option 2.
Teaching online was freeing. My classes have always been challenging and I found my students engaging with the course in more meaningful ways than they had in the face-to-face environment. I was removed from the day-to-day department and university drama. I got to do the parts of my job that I actually enjoyed.
Now that the transitional year is over, I’m starting to figure out what will come next for me. Justin and I have a good deal of travel planned for the rest of the year; we’re closing on the new house in the fall; we could be matched with an expectant mom at any time. Big changes are coming and I’m looking forward to this new chapter in my life.
8 thoughts on “i made it to the promised land and still wasn’t happy – why i quit higher ed”
We have similar paths in a lot of ways, but our experience at work couldn’t be more different. Yours sounds absolutely terrible. My department and colleagues are fantastic. It makes a huge difference. I’m sorry you went through that.
One of the most meaningful things that anybody has ever said to me happened when I had found out that I had a “bulky” brain tumor that had to be removed, ASAP, before it did me in. In the time between finding that out and getting the surgery, I had taken my kids to an indoor soccer field to burn off some energy. A woman that I didn’t know came over and saw that I was crying, and she said, “I would hug you, but I can’t, because of the radiation.” I explained to her that I had a large brain tumor, and I should have felt grateful because it was the good kind of tumor (benign, operable). She said “I had radiation because I have thyroid cancer. It’s supposed to be the good kind of cancer.” She looked me straight in the eye and said “there is no good cancer. There is no good brain tumor.”
I still get teary thinking about that. I think we are socialized to downplay the tragedies, to say “it could be worse.” But there is no good cancer.
It was hell. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting my mental health until I removed myself from the situation. I’m in so much of a better place now!
I’m happy that you landed in a good place. Mind if I ask what your discipline is?
The radiation that she was talking about sucks! You drink it and are actually radioactive and quarantined for a variable amount of time (depending on your dose). I’m still pissed about not getting any super powers from it. 🙂 She was right though. There is no good cancer.
I’m in languages. It helps (I think) that I’m at a small liberal arts school so there aren’t a lot of publication pressures.
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Wow. I knew things were a little tense, but I had no idea they were that bad. I guess I’m not too surprised about Jean… I am shocked my the chair’s response to your concern… That student confronted me after class, one day (a few days before he pulled the knife), after being highly disruptive and completely derailing the class conversation. He essentially told me I talk too much and need to get to the point. He suggested “taking up rap”? ALSO, I’m quite upset that nobody told me about the gun — ESPECIALLY since I worked the front desk! I was paranoid for months without even knowing about the gun. Ugh… I hate that this was your experience, but I’m glad you’re in a better place — mentally, physically, and geographically!
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Yeah, they didn’t advertise about the gun issues since he had already been removed from campus at that point and I was too shell-shocked from all of it to even think straight.
Of course, the post was just some of the examples of what I endured while I was there. When your gut tells you something is wrong, believe it.
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