One of the reasons why the topic of academic careers and the notion of “failure to become an academic” is so emotive is the notion of academia as a passion or a calling, as Ellie very rightly notes in her comment. On the one hand, it is the passion that fuels the decision to embark on doing the PhD, on continuing with the research and the oftentimes tedious process of knowledge creation and sharing. On the other hand, that same passion makes it so difficult for PhD students and holders to even think of deviating from the academic route because by default by doing so they will be abandoning their passion, their reason for getting up in the morning and carrying on with yet another revision of that stubborn chapter. And the emotional aspect of undertaking the PhD should not be underestimated – in fact, I would compare it to undergoing deep surgery on your psyche as in the course of the three plus years you get socialised into a very particular way of looking at the world and engaging with other members of the academic “tribe”. So saying it is just a job can be a bit flippant and dismissive of the emotional aspects, of that special thrill of discovery, of feeling connected to a special community of knowledge creators. But at the end of the day, given the increased managerialism and overall changes within the sector, academic jobs are becoming more and more like other jobs on the other side of the divide, with line managers, workload allocation and key performance indicators. That doesn’t make the passion go away, neither does it make it any easier for those who for all sorts of reasons are unable to translate that passion into a sustainable career and this is why I think maybe it would be useful to start looking at different models of being an academic and holding on to that internal calling.
The model I would like to propose builds on one of my favourite books, “The Lifelong Activist” by Hillary Rettig who is amongst many other things a productivity coach, an animal rights activist and a prolific writer. It doesn’t matter if you do not consider yourself an activist at all, I still would wholeheartedly recommend the book as it talks about creating good habits for a productive and meaningful life. For some people, that meaning comes from focusing on their chosen cause, for others, it will be derived from being able to make a contribution to academia, in a way that makes sense for them and fits within their life and their career. The book is written from the vantage point of somebody who is an activist and cares deeply about other activists; at the same time, I really enjoy Hillary’s very pragmatic approach who recognised that there are many ways of contributing to various social justice movements and being at the barricades 24/7 is not necessarily the best way to do it. In fact, Hilary would argue this definitely isn’t the best way as that is a sure-fire way to guarantee burnout and disengagement. Instead, it’s so much more about consistency and quality of the effort over time; after all, even an hour over the week will add up. Other options may include advancing the movement by getting a job in an organisation that supports a particular cause or using the money from your corporate job to advance the movement. It will not necessarily be effortless and you may need to make conscious choices in terms of your lifestyle and career decisions but hopefully the end result will be a sustainable and lifelong commitment to your chosen cause. In that context, as long as you remain true to your principles, it doesn’t matter whether activism is your full-time occupation or whether you can only commit one hour per month. The second option doesn’t imply failure, it merely recognises that your involvement in activism may change over time, depending on the circumstances. Who knows, maybe in the future you will be able to re-engage to a much greater extent.
Equally, the notion of “lifelong academic” would allow us to move past the narrative of failure – for instance, maybe at the moment you are somebody who is three years out of their PhD and still working really hard to secure that first academic post. You may well decide that you have enough resources and resilience to carry on applying solely for academic roles and pulling together the experience that hopefully will get you closer to that desired position. You may also decide that it is time to start exploring alternatives and inevitably, that will mean that you will have less time available for engaging in production of academic knowledge. Depending on your discipline, it may mean having to abandon research, at least temporarily, if say you require access to a lab or specialist equipment but there may still be ways of contributing to the broader academic community. And finally, whilst going sideways may make it difficult to return to academia at a later stage, increasingly universities are recognising the input that can be offered by practitioners from industry. The model of “lifelong academic” would hopefully be a more positive way of thinking about academic careers and the notion of failure, especially when the root cause is the lack of academic jobs and not the personal failings of those who seek them.
I would love to hear from others what they think about the concept of “lifelong academic” and alternative ways of approaching academic careers! Most importantly, have you seen any relevant examples of people returning to academia after a period away or people managing to carve out meaningful ways of engaging with their academic passion outside of academia?