Andrew, 39, works in Learning and Development at a UK-based University.
For Andrew moving from academia was emotionally fraught, involving loss and confusion about his identity as a researcher.
Before considering moving beyond academia my career was a huge aspect of my life. It wasn’t the only thing in my life, but it felt like research was my default mode.
I loved the research process and my subject, animal welfare, and cared deeply about the positive impact my research was having on the lives of animals. But I’d also spent a decade working towards a career goal, sacrificed a lot and overcome challenges to get to where I was. That journey melded my sense of myself as a person and researcher together.
My wife and I were lucky enough to have our first baby. Working as a part-time visiting lecturer, needing stable employment to help support my family, a friend sent me an advert for a job working in professional services at a university. It was only a 7-month contract but I figured it would give me a range of different experiences that could be helpful for either an academic career or for a career beyond academia. It did, and the contract was extended for another 3 years.
I knew I was lucky, that it was an interesting and varied job with a great team and a supportive manager. I knew what an opportunity it was. At the same time, it wasn’t what I’d worked so hard for; I wanted an academic career and was still looking for and applying for academic jobs when they came up. It was tough, an exhausting combination of learning a new role, job hunting and parenthood. I tried to focus on the positives of my situation, threw myself into being a dad and husband, and focused on other interests.
I struggled for a long time to let go of the idea of being an academic. It was my identity and my aspiration. Eventually I came to accept that the time and energy spent trying to get back into academia could be put to better use, that there might be careers that were just as fulfilling, if not more so. Letting go of my academic aspirations took years, and, for all the happiness in my personal life and awareness of my luck, I frequently felt miserable professionally.
No longer being an academic meant I could finish work at a reasonable time and be more present with my family without work bubbling away in the back of my brain. In my mind ‘Researcher’ has been replaced by ‘Father’ as the single word I’d use to describe myself. I focused my energies on expanding my science communication website, and spent time as a writer and editor for another website. Doing these things has allowed me to express my creativity and gives me a sense of ownership and agency, both things that I missed from academic life.
There were wild swings in emotion – professionally devastated, personally elated. Looking back, I think I was depressed for the first year or more after leaving academia. Lost, directionless, and shut out: deeply unhappy. I’d worked so hard for and given up so much for a career that I couldn’t have. A complete failure. Who am I now that I’m not a researcher? My sense of identity and how it was bound up in my research career, was suddenly so important: I was grieving for my sense of self and lost future.
I helped others succeed as part of my new job. I was genuinely happy for them, but also occasionally bitter and jealous. Angry and disappointed in the system I’d been part of. Pumping out more and more PhD students. Despite the number of permanent positions barely growing at all, with little-to-no provision of career support or guidance.
Work is still a hugely important aspect of my sense of self. But I’m more than just my work now. There’s so much of myself I lost when I started down the research rabbit hole.
Someone once said that I was a quiet person but that I came alive when I talked about my research. I think that at the time, during one of my postdoc positions, they were probably right. That’s a tragic idea. A robot only programmed to respond to one thing.
Alive for all aspects of life: a multifaceted human again. I still struggle occasionally with the concept of not being an academic – those dreams run deep – but I’m proud that my identity is not solely defined by research and academia.