I'm Not in the Habit of Quitting Things

As I was writing my resignation letter last week to the Society for American Archaeology, leaving my post as chair of a committee in light of the massive failure of staff and board members in the wake of a serious sexual harassment issue, I reflected on the fact that it was the second time in a year that I was bailing on something that used to be very important to me.

Exactly one year ago, I quit my academic job at the University of West Florida.

Like most academics who struggle through a PhD or finally land a tenure-track job after years of uncertainty, I follow through on my commitments. Articles I promised, committees I joined, emails that are due, advising to be done, talks to be given -- I'm simply not in the habit of quitting things.

But in thinking about the reasons that compelled me to leave the SAA, I realized many of them were similar to why I left UWF: a lack of communication within a dysfunctional organization as well as a lack of respect for the autonomy and expertise of stakeholders. Basically, while the SAA fell victim to doggedly following their own insufficient policy and ignoring the power of social media, my time at UWF felt like tilting at the windmills of the status quo.

I've written and rewritten half a dozen different quit-lit essays in the last year in an attempt to answer the question that I'm often asked by people still in academia: Why did you leave?

That question gets easier to answer the further removed I am from UWF, far enough where I can look at the big picture rather than all the slings and arrows along the way. And I suspect that, now that I'm moving into my second year as an un(der)employed academic, my answer will soon become more concise and focused on the one or two deal-breakers that, in retrospect, tanked my desire to be a professor.

But before I get to the point where I can speak emotionlessly about one of the biggest decisions in my life, I wanted to briefly catalogue the emotions of quitting. There's no Kübler-Ross model to help academics understand what it's like to make a decision to leave a job and profession they'd worked toward for three decades, so I wasn't fully prepared for the variety of feelings that flooded over me in this process.

Halfway up Mt. Vesuvius in July 2017. I did not quit!
Even though I had just eaten a giant lunch and had
too many glasses of wine and really really wanted to!

❦ Anger 

On February 28, 2015, after getting my two girls to bed, I opened Word and quickly set up a table with four columns that started this way: Things to Like About Job / Things Not to Like / Things to Like About Academia / Things Not to Like.

That date is significant only to me, as it came at the end of a long month of dealing with infrastructural issues with my basement office and classroom: repeated floods, mold triggering my allergies, pipes exposed in the walls, and the fetid smell that permeated both rooms. In my work diary, I'd written:
Jan 23, 2015. The flood that started
it all. Evacuating the skeletons.
  • Feb 25 - Office smell was finally fixed after 2 weeks of complaints. Smell coming from old outdoor septic tank, through pipes that are no longer capped in building b/c they were stripped for parts. University plumber fixed with duct tape. 
  • Feb 27 - Office pipe was blocked, so smell has migrated into classroom. Have to move class again in interest of my and the students' health and safety.
This document turned into the first step in quitting my academic job at the University of West Florida. It was anger that impelled me to create the pro/con list and disappointment that I felt as I opened it, repeatedly over the next two years, through additional floods, leaking sewage, dripping acoustic tile, broken floorboards, and an unconcerned health and safety office.

Moving out of that office space in fall 2017 was therefore a relief coupled with hope that I could start ignoring at least the building issues of the previous two years.

❦ Hope 

In my first three years at UWF, I applied to just five jobs, all at research-focused institutions, since I know that my academic strengths lie in writing and research. There are few jobs like this in bioarchaeology, though, with stiff competition. I had one interview and no offers.

But after I created my job pro/con list in 2015, I applied everywhere I thought I could fit -- 17 applications in 2 years. I was hopeful that I had learned how to be successful in academia, with high teaching evaluations, a stellar track record of publications and small to medium external grants, and a raised public outreach profile, and that I could translate that to hit the ground running in a new position somewhere else.

Getting a job at a research-focused institution was my goal because it was the only way to grow my research program. I envisioned starting a light isotope prep lab so that I could train graduate students, do faster and better research, and collaborate with people across the country on bioarchaeological projects related to ancient diet.

It was impossible to do any of this at UWF, a regional comprehensive university in the perpetually under-funded Florida state system. I'd proposed in my sabbatical application - which was approved for the academic year 2018-19 - to start an isotope prep lab in the space recently evacuated by my retiring colleague. It was the first time I had lab space, five years after I started, and I was excited to apply for grants to create a lab, train students, and undertake research projects. But my department chair immediately made me share it with two other colleagues - both junior women faculty - because "space is tight."

In spite of several on-campus interviews, hope for a new permanent position somewhere else quickly dissipated with a rejection email from NC State University coincidentally dated February 28, 2018: three years to the day that I had begun to think of an exit strategy. It was everything I had wanted in a job and everything I wanted in a permanent place to live, and I had failed to get it.

❦ Failure 

Being rejected is part and parcel of academia. Your grant proposals and research articles are almost always rejected the first time, but if you're lucky, your reviewers have given you suggestions for how to make a better, stronger application.
I once slapped a sticker on a closet in
my office and created a 3D "lab." 

That's not how job-hunting works. It's impossible to be anything but yourself - complete with your teaching philosophy and research program - and it's nearly impossible to get pointers for how to give a better, stronger interview the next time because it often comes down to "fit". You can't work on "fit."

Not getting offered the job I desperately wanted felt like a failure. felt like a failure. Having a tenure-track job to "fall back on" didn't particularly assuage this feeling, since I wanted more and knew I could do more and be more if given a chance. I'd always been good at creating something out of next to nothing.


❦ Stuck 

Even harder to deal with than the emotional rollercoaster of failure, though, was the feeling of being stuck. At least for me. The feeling of wanting to expand my research program and being unable to for structural reasons... of wanting a different job but realizing that with tenure I was even more unlikely to be offered one... of loving the public scholarship I was doing but knowing that notoriety limited my academic prospects. These competing desires bumped into an intransigent reality, and it was anxiety-inducing.

Generalized anxiety is something I've dealt with since high school, heightened by situations that are out of my control. But I was always able to harness it and turn it into productivity -- if I work harder, apply for all the grants, and out-publish everyone, then I will get good grades, fund my dissertation, and find a tenure-track job.

But no one had told me that being stuck in a job I didn't enjoy in a town I hated living in would lead to a different kind of anxiety.

❦ Escape 

Feeling that everything is wrong and you need to escape is common with generalized anxiety. I'd binge Netflix, play Candy Crush, or have a martini -- sometimes all at the same time -- to get through difficult periods. But the feeling of being stuck both mentally and physically was wearing on me.
The day I turned in my
official "separation"
paperwork (May 10, 2018)

After that last rejection, I took stock: I had lost my patience with students; I was frustrated with the direction of my field; I was drinking too much; I had gained too much weight and did too little exercise; I was too quick to raise my voice at my family.

My husband and I started talking about my leaving my job even before that last rejection. I revisited my pros/cons list from 2015. My list of Things to Like About Academia was still solidly focused on research and had changed little in three years. But my list of positive aspects of my job had dwindled from five items to just one -- "already here; already settled in house and school."

We talked for hours, I cried a lot, and we ran the numbers: our family finances would survive without my academic salary. We could move back to Chapel Hill, NC, a place we both loved living as graduate students, where our kids could go to great public schools, where I could potentially look for alt-ac jobs in social science, and we'd have family and old friends and a support network again.

Considering that the mediocre status quo was one of the underlying reasons that I did not like my job or the city I lived in, it was clear the balance had shifted. But in academia, giving up a job - especially a tenure-track one - means giving up an entire lifestyle and professional persona you've worked probably 20 years to create.

❦ Letting Go 

Being willing to let go of academia was the hardest mental step of this process for me. I love research. Learning about the lives of ancient people through their bones is all I've wanted to do since I was a kid, poring through Greek and Roman archaeology textbooks, and wondering why histories and artifacts were privileged over biological remains. I worked goddamn hard to learn Latin, to pay for college, to break into an interdisciplinary field that barely existed, and to deal with critics and jerks along the way. Mentally, I had to be OK with losing all that I'd worked for because academia convinces you that if you walk out the door, another one will never open for you.
Vesuvius, 2017

I did have at least one more summer of research funding for my work at Oplontis, though. So in March 2018, while I figured out how to quit UWF and surfed Zillow for houses in Chapel Hill, I also planned what could be my last fieldwork trip to Italy. I booked a nice AirBNB in a convenient location, funded two students to come help me for all of July, bought necessary equipment, and then lunched at wineries, saw James Taylor in concert at Pompeii, and spent a weekend in Malta because it sounded interesting. My students and I also wrapped up data collection, leaving plenty of grant funding for the analysis that's currently ongoing.

If this is my last research adventure, I think I'm OK with that. This small project worked out well, and the best part -- getting data back and writing it up -- is yet to come.

❦ Hanging On 

Logistically, though, it is difficult to just give up an academic job and divest oneself of graduate students, research, professional organizations, and grants. I separated from UWF easily enough, leaving all the equipment I'd bought with start-up funds, ensuring my last couple of students had appropriate mentorship, and turning in my keys. But I also reasoned that finishing my research at Oplontis would benefit from an affiliation. An official one, complete with title, email, and ideally remote library access.
Back in class!
So after letting go, after convincing myself I'll be OK without my academic persona, I jumped back into academia -- sort of.

I spoke with several of my graduate mentors after I made the decision to quit, to let them know I was moving back, and ended up being asked to teach two courses in the fall of 2018 at UNC. Since one was online and one was at night, they didn't compete much with my parenting or my daily writing schedule. Plus, UNC pays their adjuncts far better than most.

I enjoyed teaching UNC students again, as they reminded me that 18-year-olds can be whip-smart and care about the world and their place in it. I'll probably teach there again at some point, but right now, I am glad that I am not required by job or financial constraints to do so. If last fall was my final time teaching, I can also legitimately say that I'm OK with that.

❦ Uncertainty 

For now, I am hanging on to my research, which I definitely want to see through, and to my five-year UNC affiliation, which lets me apply for new grants if I want to launch another project. I'm in academia doing research, writing books, and giving talks around the country, but for the first time in two decades, I have no clear plan for the future. And no clear job prospects beyond my contract at Forbes. Maybe I'll take some UX classes or figure out how to be a data scientist; there are certainly oodles of jobs in those realms here in the Research Triangle, and they're based on skills that I already have.

For the time being, I'm working in the moment -- spending my days writing, exercising, cooking, re-teaching myself to crochet, reading pop-sci books, and hanging out with my family. It's nice not to feel that constant pressure to do more, to feel guilty that I'm not preparing another grant proposal, publication, or lecture, and to feel that nothing I can do is good enough.

And for the time being, I'm still working through my emotions about academia -- emotions I like to pretend don't exist because how ridiculous is it that an enormous chunk of my self worth is wrapped up in this industry that seems specifically engineered to break your spirit, and how privileged am I that I can just up and quit and only worry about emotions?

I don't really have advice right now, or a grand narrative, or a searing critique of academe that will convince higher education administrators and politicians to fix the catastrophe they've caused.

I have uncertainty, and right now, I'm leaning into it. It's been a great year.

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