Ask the grumpies: Do I stay or do I go now, and if I go… then what?

Tired of being grumpy all the time asks:

I’m an assistant professor.  I found your blog when looking for advice on dealing with horrible departments.  I don’t like my job and have become a big ball of stress and unhappiness.  I had been looking forward to escaping during my unpaid summer months, but have been given a pile of service and administrative deadlines to deal with (still unpaid).  I’ve tried to find another job without any luck.  I may or may not get tenure.

When I read the post on one of the Grumpies quitting, I, quite literally, had the breath knocked out of me.  It had never occurred to me that quitting without a new job was something that people actually did. My husband is on board with my quitting; he even suggested it earlier this year.

I am hesitant to discuss this with anyone I know– if my department hears, I fear they will choose not to renew my contract.  I’d rather choose to leave than be forced to.  Do you have any advice, thoughts, questions I should consider as I contemplate this new plan?

We both actually have experience with this.  Not only did #1 quit recently, but #2’s husband quit a year ago (pre-tenure) without having any other employment lined up.

Neither quit happened overnight.  It’s hard to quit something that allows a lot of freedom and can’t fire you on only two weeks’ notice.  It’s even harder to give up the potential for complete job security.  Add to that the weird culture of academia where, at least when you’re new, leaving the academic track seems like failure (it isn’t!), and you get people sticking around probably longer than they should.

Sometimes sticking around works out– you can change things or go on to other jobs.  Sometimes you just need a year of leave (and you can often get a year of unpaid leave off the tenure clock to try things out– #2’s DH did that just by asking).  Sometimes it’s just delaying the inevitable.

We both know many other people who have made the jump.  All are happier for it.  We know people who were considering making the jump but with one thing or another they decided they could make it work where they were or they got a job offer at a different place and everything worked out.  They’re happier than they were too.  And we know people who are still working on making the decision.

#1’s experience of quitting was that, somewhat thankfully, it got bad enough that I felt good about leaving.  If it had been less bad, I might still be there.  Perhaps that’s where you are.  It took me a year to decide to quit.  Other people in my department also have exit plans (and every year we’ve been hiring to replace recent exits), which tells you how bad it is there.  My experience has been that quitting my job makes me feel amazingly good, but I don’t think I would have felt that way if I’d left pre-tenure.  I also have financial luxury to faff about until I figure out a new career.  And I might hate my next job, too!  (But at least it will PAY MORE.)

Also, consider this:  it’s likely you can outlast administrators.  However, consider the direction your school as a whole is going in (your department, college, university as a whole).  That was one among many clues that I didn’t belong in that particular place.  It was hard, hard, hard for me to give up an academic career– that is, until I was ready to do it.  Everyone has a different breaking point.  While you’re finding yours, save money like a fiend.  Try to stay sane.  Maybe start consulting on the side if you want to turn that into a new career.  This could be an opportunity to move to where you really want to be!  (Better work environment for husband, closer to family or the beach, lower cost of living, whatever.)

There must be something you love about academia to even go into it.  There are also things you hate.  Are they things you hate about the career, or this particular job, or some of both?  If you can figure out the particular *aspects* that are turning you into a ball of stress, you can look at adjusting them within this job or in a new job.

Things to consider:

Academia is just a job

Pre-tenure angst *read this book*.  If you feel trapped, this book will help you feel untrapped and will give you the tools you need to get to freedom, whether that includes staying where you are with an exit plan or making a big jump.  It will help you turn the risk of losing/leaving your job into a calculated risk, increasing the upside and decreasing the downside.

For the past three years or so, #2 has been talking about getting ready financially for her DH to quit, dealing with him being out of work, and adjusting to his new income, off and on in her monthly mortgage posts.   Savings and lowering monthly expenses create the luxury of being able to make a measured risk.

Are you a scanner?  As #1 says, think about what aspects of work make you happy and read up on what kinds of jobs fit those aspects.  For example, like Cloud, my husband is a scanner, so he likes shorter projects.  He likes working in groups.  He likes figuring out problems.  He needs mental stimulation.  He needs regular validation.  He’s currently getting all of these things in his current job, but wasn’t getting them in academia.

From a practical standpoint, it took #2’s husband several months to get consulting contracts and job interviews, but they all kind of hit at once, probably because of the way hiring cycles and budgets work.  He started lazily networking in May, then more seriously in September, and by November he was working in his new job.  (He did get an unsolicited offer to continue teaching off the tenure track at the university, but had no problem turning that down.)

If you quit, you’re not alone.  If you decide to stick it out, you’re not alone there either.  If you decide to stay for a while and work on a gradual exit plan, that actually seems pretty common.  You can make any choice into the right one, if you can find what fits well for you and your life.

Does that help?

And now, check the comments for thoughts from the Grumpy Nation.

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29 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Do I stay or do I go now, and if I go… then what?”

  1. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    I’m not in academia, but I am completely opposed to the idea of unpaid work. I know that it is common in some industries more than others, but I hate the idea of someone working during summer months without a paycheck. I would quit for that reason alone. It sounds like your husband is supportive, and I think that is wonderful.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      But you recommend people do unpaid freelancing in order to get paid freelancing…

      • Rented life Says:

        No more unpaid freelancing! It devalues the work, and makes those of us who think we should be paid have a harder fight. “Well X does it for free…” Can’t stand that.

      • Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

        I am paid by-the-job, not salary and not hourly. I did some unpaid freelancing at the beginning to build up my portfolio. And in the process I built really good links to my website which can also be seen as a form of payment. It’s hard for someone to break into the field of web-based writing without having some sort of portfolio of their work, no? Why so accusatory?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Not accusatory, just stating a fact.

        You might also do unpaid work if you were an academic for the purpose of a larger goal. It’s, for example, hard to get tenure if you don’t work (unpaid) during the summer. Teaching is the only thing most academics are technically paid to do, but if all an academic does is teaching, then ze doesn’t keep hir job before tenure and after tenure ze is considered to be “dead wood” and either a jerk or a loser. As with the free-lance example, there’s reasons that people do things that aren’t explicitly required in salary and hourly jobs.

        Good grief, what is going on in the comments today? It’s as if our normal comments are coming out as, “We think you are all horrible people,” which is certainly not their intention, as that is not what we think. I don’t think they’re particularly different than what one usually gets at grumpy rumblings. Just the standard academic pointing out different ways of looking at things and reconciling inconsistencies. What one comes to expect on an academic blog.

      • Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

        Not only that, but I work for myself. Anything I did to improve my situation or job prospects only benefitted me and it was all on my terms. I would resent an employer who asked me to do free work when they were also paying me for a job I was doing.

      • Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

        I don’t think you are horrible people! =) Grumpy though? Maybe.

        I think that blogging is different than other industries writers generally need to “audition.” I never minded the unpaid blogging I did because I got a link out of it and saw it as an audition for the “real thing.” You simply cannot get hired as a blogger without blogging somewhere first or at least having some samples that are easily accessible. I am thankful that I no longer need to write for free but also thankful that I did the free writing that I did because it led to wonderful things!

        On the other hand, my old employer wanted unpaid work from me often and I always resented it or refused. I think the difference might be working for yourself vs. working for someone else.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Academia is also a bit like working for yourself, in that you mostly set your own hours and you decide on your own tasks. But colleagues who shirk service are bad colleagues and those who don’t do research don’t get raises (with the exception of CC’s and some teaching colleges) and can’t ever leave, should they be tenured. We have salaries, but the only thing we *have* to do for the most part is show up to class most of the time. The other stuff is still expected and is what we’re supposed to spend most of our time on, but it isn’t piece rate, it isn’t usually directly specified in our contracts, but it’s what we’re rewarded for long-term rather than short-term. As with freelance work, hours spent is pretty meaningless in academia, output is what’s important.

  2. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    You know, I’m starting to feel like I should be looking as well. The values of my new parent company are really starting to permeate all aspects of my job. I’m realizing that the patriarchal org structure and stifling bureaucracy does not bring out the best in me. Sometimes I find myself throwing my hands in the air and giving up if something’s too hard to get done and that’s SO NOT ME. I’m all about what’s possible and I’m slowly turning into a negative nelly.

    I’m a big fan of isolating yourself from all your life noise to allow your brain to think clearly. Go somewhere with your best friend…a spa or something and just leave everything behind for a couple of days and really brainstorm big thoughts. Where do you want to be in 5 years, 10 years, what you want to accomplish in life, etc. AND Does that fit with your current career? It’s really hard to think those thoughts when you have work and laundry and family obligations pulling you in 100 different directions.

      • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

        Just went back and re-read it. Interestingly enough my reasons for looking are different than what I was thinking about a year ago. I’m actually on people’s succession plans now as a potential backfill for leadership roles. I don’t know if it’s related but husband who was a senior level global manager is no longer at the company…and I think I may have lost the “trailing spouse” label now that he’s not in the work picture anymore.

        Anyway, I really thrive on change and it’s getting really hard to drive change. Either it’s a mismatch or I’m needed more than ever. Time will tell how it all shakes out.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Maybe it’s time to approach management as an engineering problem. That might be entertaining, at least for a while. (It’s what DH was planning to do if he stayed in academia, because boy did his department need better management. Of course, he DIDN’T stay in academia so that’s a mess he doesn’t have to untangle.)

  3. Cloud Says:

    The “should I stay or should I go” question is hard no matter where you are. (One upside: If you like the Clash, you can play the song a lot and dance around your kitchen…)

    I agree with Nicoleandmaggie that the question is made harder by some weird things about academia and its culture. I can’t speak to those, because I left academia right after graduate school. I remember some angst about that decision, but I was going to be moving on to something else regardless, so I don’t think it was as hard as deciding to leave when you’re on the tenure track.

    I recently quit my job, which was unusually stable for my industry and paid well. It seemed like such a crazy thing to do. But I just ran out of patience with the BS that was specific to that job as well as some of the BS that pervades my industry. My actual moment of quitting was quite spontaneous, but it had been coming for a while, and I had already started looking for my next move. The thing that most helped me make the decision to start actively trying to leave was that I had an honest look at what my future career would probably be like, and saw that the things that were most frustrating in my current situation would not change, and I would never be in the position to make them change unless I changed tracks. So I decided to make the change. This was probably helped by the fact that, as Nicoleandmaggie say, I’m a scanner and LIKE to dive in to new challenges.

    I got very lucky and was offered a part time contract position pretty much immediately, so the transition has been less financially painful than anticipated. It is hard to know what I’d be thinking if that hadn’t happened and I was scrambling for contract jobs and we were dipping into savings. Still, I have been struck by the number of people who blurt out how much happier I look now. And I *am* much happier.

    Good luck figuring out whether quitting is the right thing for you.

  4. OMDG Says:

    Great advice that could be applied to almost any industry. The worst advice I ever received was from my parents regarding my second horrible job post college. “Well, it’s called work for a reason. This is just what life is.” Such BS. The key to success and happiness is a) continuous self improvement, and b) continuous striving to reduce the time spent doing things that you don’t like, and increase time spent doing things that you do.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      My DH’s family also has a bit of that mind-set. I think it’s a great privilege to be able to do work that isn’t horrific and that pays well. It’s not something many people realize that is an option, and it isn’t an option for a lot of people (who don’t have the talent or resources etc.). And, as our society bifurcates into crazy high earners and a vast majority of low earners, it’s becoming less of a possibility for the majority of people.

      • OMDG Says:

        Maybe I’m unrealistically idealistic, but I *hope* that most people can avoid work that makes them extremely unhappy, even if they lack a great deal of human capital.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I don’t think most minimum wage customer service jobs are all that fun. In an ideal world, they’d be temporary jobs for people just starting out. But they’re becoming a bigger part of our economy and the place where more and more lower income (and minority) people are staying as longer-term jobs. Robert Reich’s recent documentary on income inequality is available on netflix streaming. There’s also a really good documentary on the negative health effects of these kinds of jobs whose name I’m not remembering. Structural barriers are real and they’re becoming exacerbated.

      • OMDG Says:

        Not sure where you get off scolding me about insensitivity to the plight of food service workers, or what that has to do with my parents’ misplaced career advice….but whatever.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That wasn’t meant to be a scold, just information that such optimism is becoming increasingly misplaced for a large portion of our population with widening income inequality.

        The previous comment suggested that perhaps your parents had the same background as my husbands’ parents, but if they’re upper middle class, then perhaps they should read Laura Vanderkam’s blog. (Though she tends not to be sympathetic to/aware of people with structural constraints, which is a general problem among people for whom life is going pretty well, which bodes ill for the future of income inequality.)

        But again, you don’t have to read this blog!

  5. Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

    Regarding OMDG and Grumpy’s Debate above.. I do think it is possible to have a lower paying job that you enjoy. I really loved waitressing. I enjoyed that I knew all my regular customers by name, it was social, and I got other opportunities from that job that were even more fun….(housesitting, tutoring, wheeling invalid friends to grateful dead concerts and getting backstage, etc). Sure, it had icky parts to it, but I did get to eat really good food for almost free, got a discount at the bookstore it was connected to and could work the hours I wanted. It was a pretty good gig and the tips were decent on the weekends. I could have easily supported myself as a fulltime waitress.

    Not all unskilled jobs are horrible. Although I wouldn’t willingly go back to that job now that I can use my brain for a living, I had a pretty good quality of life from that particular job. Not everyone needs to use their brain to feel fulfilled. Sometimes, for an extrovert, it’s enough to just be interacting with people all day, like at a salon, etc.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think we were so much having a debate there as talking past each other. In any case…

      Lots of people aren’t extroverts! And the experience working at McDonald’s is different for an 18 year old in school and for a 45 year old single parent in terms of how much potential for fun there is. And the experience for a white person is going to be different than for a person of color in terms of customer discrimination.

      Also another current trend with these shift-work jobs is that people are getting less autonomy and, worse, less regularity in setting their hours. Presumably that will change as the economy heats up, but currently a lot of (grown-up) low-skill shift workers don’t know when they’re going to be working next week or for how many hours, which puts a lot of stress on things like childcare. That’s different even from 5 or 10 years ago.

      • Contingent Cassandra Says:

        I suspect there’s a big difference between working a low-wage job in a small business, where low-wage workers probably interact not only with regular customers but also with the owners on a regular basis, and working a low-wage job for an enormous company with many outlets (or a franchisee thereof, if the franchise owner has most business practices dictated/strongly encouraged from above). A lot of good things, from the ability to negotiate one’s schedule to the feeling that one can make suggestions and have them heard/appreciated, come from more direct contact with “management.”

        Given recent news stories about current scheduling practices, combined with what I know about the retail and food service sectors (which is almost entirely second-hand, from friends and students), I also have the impression that individual store/branch/franchise managers/owners had more freedom to make a variety of decisions a decade or two ago than they do now. Since a feeling of autonomy/control is one pretty well-accepted component of job satisfaction, that would suggest that there’s less opportunity for job satisfaction available for both low-level managers and the workers under them.

        I do think a degree of autonomy counts for a lot. For instance, I suspect that, even with the tax consequences/issues, and the need to find clients, self-employed house cleaners are generally happier in their work than those who work for a company, even though both are scrubbing toilets and doing other messy jobs. The same probably goes for working for a single family (or a small group of families who bring people in need of care to you) as a child- or elder-carer, as opposed to being an employee (or a supposedly “independent contractor”) for a large chain that provides such services. Same work, perhaps not-too-different pay once all the tax and insurance and retirement issues are worked out, but a very different degree of autonomy (and, given the scheduling practices mentioned above, perhaps no real difference in reliability of income stream, which is traditionally one of the reasons for preferring employment-by-others over self-employment at all income levels. Since self-employment at lower income levels sometimes translates to cash-under-the-table employment, one might even argue that the government has an interest in incentivizing formal employment through strengthened wage/hour/scheduling laws, since formal employment encourages collection of income taxes — but that’s definitely not the first argument I’d make for strengthened laws; simple decency, and the fairness of sharing the risk of fluctuating demand for services between employer and worker, strike me as much stronger arguments).

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Cross-posted with you, but yes, that documentary on health outcomes and stress and SES talked a *lot* about autonomy, and the Whitehall studies in the UK really back that idea up.

        Let me see if I can find the name of that documentary. It’s getting a little old, but the research base is solid– I know most of the social scientists that they interview. (As in, I’ve seen them give talks and know of their work because it’s rally important– they probably don’t recognize me!)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        (I taught a class on this topic last semester. Bottom line, it sucks to be poor and it’s far more difficult to become un-poor than most middle- and upper- class people think. Not that any of this has anything to do with the OP’s situation.)

  6. femmefrugality Says:

    The post is great, the comments are greater. I think there is a huge misconception about the difficulty of getting out of poverty. There are barriers built into our welfare system that prevent people from saving money. If they do, they lose benefits. Then they dip into the savings and are back on the system again in a few months. Just one example. And supporting yourself versus supporting a family at a job that likely has no benefits is a huge difference. It’s fact that upward mobility is spiraling downward in this country as the gap between rich and poor grows larger. If you bust your ass hard enough, you might make it, but there’s so many disadvantages and not just financial. Networking, cultural norms across social classes, etc. Things people who have never had to experience don’t really think about.

    I never told you congrats on quitting. Good riddance to poison environments. And congratulations!

    Think I caught all spelling errors, but let me blame my phone in advance.

    • Sandyl FirstgenAmerican Says:

      I’ve really enjoyed this discussion. I busted out of poverty and was raised by a single mom. I did have a lot going for me though that some others do not. She owned her home (and got rent)..but still she was living below poverty level even with the rental income. She also wasn’t on welfare even though she qualified for benefits.

      I’m also white, have no disabilities, above average intelligence and was decent looking when I was younger. In my teens, being a tall skinny girl was enough to get me my awesome waitress job. (It was family owned BTW and the comments above on are dead on. I worked at chains too and it was a night/day difference.) The hiring manager only hired good looking college girls and he had one of us with every hair color (like the spice girls). I never noticed because he was never openly sexist/gross, but some of my single male patrons commented on the cuteness of the staff. It was then I realized my looks probably played a role in getting the job whether the hiring manager realized it or not.

      That being said, I still believe that these advantages will make it easier to get your foot in the door, but it’s your performance that differentiates you and allows you to get ahead. Education is key. If I became a teen mom, it would have been exponentially harder. Planned parenthood and sex ed deserves a lot of the credit for me getting out. I couldn’t have done it if I had daycare expenses and limited flexibility. The other component is the hope & belief it was possible. I knew of people who made a lot of money that came from humble beginnings. Lastly, I didn’t feel a sense of entitlement to a certain lifestyle or certain opportunities. I knew I had to earn these things. Right or wrong, I knew having a kid early in life would kill my chances of success. I knew I needed a college education to get a high paying job. I knew I needed good grades in high school to get scholarships. I knew because I had role models and teachers that told me these things.

      Many people in poverty do not have positive role models so they assume the lifestyle they live is the only option. Many low income teens have a rap sheet before they turn 18 because their parents pulled them into their family business of crime and crime is all they know. Being tough and street smart in a high crime area is usually much more valued than getting good grades. For a long time I had little sympathy towards poor people because I was poor and I got out. That’s until I did jury duty and saw that some of these kids had crime all around them and there was no way not to get busted dealing drugs when the relatives you live with are drug dealers. All it takes is answering the door one time when an undercover cop wants some dope. It’s a cycle that’s really tough to break out of.

      I do admit that my feathers got a little ruffled by the undertone that my experience was somehow easier to achieve than it is today. It was not easy at all, especially since it was during the recession of the early 90s, but it was achievable. I do concede that there are people in even tougher situations than I was in and even in those situations, a middle class lifestyle is achievable. It can’t be done if it’s not the overriding priority in your life above all else until you get there. It takes a certain amount of grit and stamina to be able to put your life on hold for years and do nothing but work work work. Poverty is complex and a lot of things need to come together seamlessly to be able to get out, but it is possible. In my opinion the worst possible thing to say is that it is near impossible to do it. That’s when the hope bubble pops and you just learn to live with the status quo.

      End rant.

  7. Ask the Grumpies: Questions about leaving academia | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] person wondering if ze should stay or go.  With links!  This post has resources for people leaving academia (see comments for more […]


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