The Hidden Guilt of Leaving Academia
In my 20s I was lucky enough to have an experience that seems rare these days. For three glorious years I was paid to work at my dream job. Well…sort of. From the time I was six and I saw Raiders of the Ark for the first time, I knew that wanted to be an archaeologist. I had no illusions of fighting Nazis, but I also pictured archaeology as slightly more glamorous than what it turned out to be.
As an undergrad with high hopes for graduate school I dutifully put in my time, being lucky enough to find a mentor that was interested in advancing our careers. In addition to my part-time work as an archaeologist I also had a full-time job that paid the bills. My coworkers at the dig all had similar stories. One guy had three jobs. One of the girls shared an apartment with four roommates. A doctoral candidate dug with us, taught classes at the university and worked at a bagel shop. This was all part of the culture surrounding our field. One had to pay their dues to show just how bad they wanted it.
It wasn’t the work itself that was disappointing. That was exactly what I hoped for, even on the hardest days. Where my dissatisfaction came about was when I realized just how dismal my career prospects seemed to be. The position I wanted, heavily engaged in public archaeology, would either have to be created for me somewhere, or I would have to hope that one of the few people already doing this kind of work would retire or quit. The alternative to doing public archaeology was to do contract work, which seemed guaranteed to break my will at some point. It would also frequently take me away from home, a prospect that seemed ill-advised for a newly wed and young father.
I thought of all this when I read a piece from December by Jon Michaud in the New Yorker.
For all the glamour that surrounds the profession—Hiram Bingham “discovering” Machu Picchu in the mountains of Peru; Howard Carter unearthing Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings—the fact is that the work is often poorly paid, physically demanding, and prone to controversy…“It’s tough, physical work, all day, every day,” one of the archaeologists in Johnson’s book says.
The book also illuminates what Johnson describes as “the toil behind an obscuring stereotype.” One of her subjects, Grant Gilmore, withdrew from a project he’d been leading for years on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius when relations with the locals soured over the alleged sexual assault of two of his volunteers. Gilmore was unemployed for two years and applied to hundreds of openings before finding his next job. Another subject in the book, Kathy Abbas, scrubbed floors in the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, in order to fund her decades-long search for the Revolutionary War fleet that lies at the bottom of Newport Harbor. In a letter to Johnson, Abbas referred to herself as one “of the working poor.” “I had more disposable income when I was a graduate student!” The archeologists I spoke with confirmed that these stories were representative.
The woes of academics is not new material and has been covered at length in many other places. What I wish I read more of though is people being honest about the guilt that comes with leaving academia for the stability of a more ‘normal’ job. After my three years in the field, still holding down an additional full-time job, my salary was more than double at my corporate gig. Opportunities were presenting themselves and I was passing on them because I thought my future lay in archaeology. With a family to support, school loans to pay back and having serious misgivings about the bill of goods I had been sold, I decided to leave archaeology. Within a month I was promoted at my day job and started my climb up the corporate ladder in earnest.
When I made the jump I was filled with the predictable doubts. Was I selling out? Was I wasting my college education? Would I regret the decision later? What made it harder was the obvious pity that my archaeology buddies showed me. To them I was one of the people that didn’t want it enough.Interestingly, most of the crew that I came up with are still out in the field, still hanging on to the dream, all in various stages of success.
What I found interesting then and now is the way that someone leaving an academic track for a corporate job will often feel they are disappointing their peers, but at the same time academia depends on people making that leap in order to keep selling the promise of a career in your field of study. When I left archaeology, my coworkers were not just losing a fellow shovelbum, but they were also losing a competitor. The finite amount of jobs at the top of the profession can only support a small percentage of college graduates and every time someone takes their trowel and goes home, it gets a little easier for everyone else.
For a long time I wrestled with the guilt of leaving academia but now it is a faint ache instead of an acute pain. I do miss the work I did, the intellectual stimulation, the intense debates with my coworkers. My back and knees thank me for my career change. I’m pretty good at my current job. The pay is great, the benefits fantastic. When I travel for work now it is for a week at a time, not to spend months scratching in the dirt somewhere. Maybe less romantic, but at the ripe old age of 40 it feels a lot more comfortable.
My hope still remains that academic programs will start to be more honest with their students. Tell them how few jobs there really are at the highest levels and how much sacrifice will be required to get there. Mind you, I’m not asking them to dissuade anyone. Academia is still a place that holds a special place in my heart. What I would like to see though is programs equally celebrating taking the non-academic path. I like to think I use my degrees every day in some way. My company benefits from having a liberal arts perspective in a sea of business majors. There are far more of working outside academia than within. Perhaps both sides would benefit from honoring that reality instead of seeming to ignore it.