If I’d known quitting felt this good, I would have sent in my resignation letter a lot earlier.
It was the most extraordinary feeling. Friday 28th April 2023 was my last day in the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology, my last day at the University of Würzburg, and my last day in academia.
I was so excited to go in that day. Not at the thought of leaving the Department (there’s obviously a bit of sadness there), but at the thought of the vista of new possibilities opening up in front of me. Having spent several years feeling as though the walls were slowly closing in, for the last few weeks I’ve instead felt happy, curious, optimistic, and eager to start a new chapter in my life.
It’s funny that “resignation” has two such different meanings. Resignation can mean passively accepting a bad outcome because it’s inevitable, but it can also mean actively walking away from an unfavourable situation. It’s a Janus word, with two polar opposite meanings when applied to human behaviour: one onward-looking, and one downward-looking.
For me, resigning has shaken me out of a torpor that took hold several years ago. For the first time in a long time, I no longer have the sense of a slow haemorrhage of agency and energy and power; instead, I feel much more like my old self, lively and alert and interested. In quitting, it feels as though I have asserted myself, regained something that I’d lost, shaken off shackles that had been holding me down.
Because if it feels as though the walls are closing in on you, then they probably are. That claustrophobic sense of confinement so common to academics comes because we can tell, either overtly or deep down, that we’re not in a good place. Either we’re being taken for granted and worked to an unreasonable extent, or we’re agreeing to conditions that we know are not in our best interests because we feel as though we don’t have any choice.
I’ve spent the last eight years in professional poverty, raising 100% of my own salary from 2015-2021, getting no direct financial support from the department, and watching my career prospects slowly ebb away as my research output slowed to a trickle. I felt trapped. And I felt undervalued.
Of course, there’s plenty of demanding jobs out there besides academia. But in most of these other jobs, the ones recruiting people with PhD-level intellects and the kind of work ethic and creativity and commitment demanded in academia, you’ll be amply compensated for all that stress – that’s the deal. You’ll be stressed and overworked but you get paid a lot in return to compensate for it.
In academia, it’s different. The thing that supposedly sustains us is the vocational aspect, but the problem is that the things that stress us take us away from doing the things that make the vocational side most rewarding (benchwork, mentoring students, lecturing, other research activity). So instead of being compensated for being overworked and stressed, we’re actually taxed on the thing that supposedly justifies that stress and overwork! Of course it doesn’t work out.
I remember once reading an interview with one of football’s super agents, one of the people negotiating million-pound contracts for players that produce preposterous paychecks of hundreds of thousands of pounds per week. He said that the wages paid to the players were obviously ridiculous, obviously wildly disproportionate to the activity itself, but, he said, that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about the player earning 300,000 a week, it was about the club giving them a signal of their perceived value.
In academia, the wages and the short-term contacts are a signal, an overt one, of what our real value is reckoned at by the system, and our acceptance of those conditions is part of the process of our demoralisation. We are kept in fear because it is communicated to us very clearly that we are a plentiful and disposable resource and we could be cast aside at any moment. No wonder we scramble for the supposed security of tenure – this is an entire career structure built on replicating the panic felt aboard a slowly sinking ship, with only a limited number of places in the lifeboats.
Waiting for the worst to happen is a miserable and debilitating experience. Feeling the worst slowly happen to you while you seem powerless to affect it is just as bad. Resigning is a way of asserting your own estimation of your value. Resignation is empowerment.
This is not a bitter leave-taking, as Robert Graves’ was, but it’s certainly a sorrowful one. Nothing will ever convince me that I was not a perfect fit for academia, but ultimately, circumstances meant that I felt I had no choice but to go.
I’m worth more than that.