Walk away

Walk away

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No matter how committed you are, sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away.

“But why don’t you just quit?”

Anyone in academia who’s complained about their situation to friends has probably had to field that question. I had to, many many times. Then comes the squirming awkwardness of explaining why although that sounds pragmatic, it’s somehow not an option in academia; that even though you’re unhappy and probably haven’t been happy for a long time, that even though you’re working long hours to hang on to a dream that’s turning to vapours, that even though you don’t feel in control of your own career any more and have the sense that you’re being taken advantage of, you can’t just leave….because?

Because there’s nothing that’s as satisfying as academic research?
Because you have a responsibility to your students?
Because even though you know things in the system are bad, by staying you can try to make things better?
Because you’re not ready to leave?

But the point is, you can leave. And perhaps you should. I’m glad I did. 

In academia, we are so institutionalised that we forget we always have the option of walking away, and that it’s ok to do so. We all get so stuck in our routines (especially so when the jobs are few and far between, and you feel you have to hang on to anything you’ve got) that pulling the plug, even when it’s the right decision, is never as easy and straightforward as it should be.

It shows how confining academia has become when there’s loads of people who are miserable but who feel that they can’t quit. Many of us inhabit an environment that takes our love of learning and research, and the academic life supposedly attached to them, and uses it to extract as much from us as possible. 

Sure, perhaps Germany is a special case. With >90% of post-PhD scientists (i.e. postdocs and junior faculty) on fixed-term contracts, there’s an unhealthy and unhelpful imbalance in the power dynamics that can all-too-easily be leveraged to ugly effect…but look elsewhere and things don’t seem any better – the ongoing university strikes in the UK show that even when lecturer positions with permanent contracts are plentifully available, this still doesn’t stop people from being in a situation where they feel overworked and undervalued.

Am I just being soft? Complaining too much? Expecting too much special treatment? Maybe…but if so, why did I feel so exhausted? Why was there the feeling that I’d been going without pause for years and years? Why is it that when I read about the lives of 20th century scientists (especially the prewar and postwar ones) I get the impression they had so much time for thinking, talking, socialising, and recreation? Why is it that ever since I resigned I have felt absolutely amazing?

Might it be partly because…

  • I have always been hired without a clear job description, or any defined plan for career progression?
  • I had to raise 100% of my own salary, even while employed as a group leader? (In total, I raised 100% of my own salary for 11 of the 16 years I spent post-PhD, as postdoc and group leader)
  • I had people write horrible things, always anonymously, about the quality of my work, which ruined my confidence?
  • I have had to deal with the chronic uncertainty of not having a permanent contract for the entirety of my working life?

It…doesn’t sound like fun, does it?

And let’s assume, just for a minute, that things right now are actually no different to 20 years ago – but if so, that makes it negligent in the extreme that those currently with their hands on the levers of power have done so little to change things for the better. This is survivorship bias in the extreme, and a wilful propagation of an unhealthy and unfair work culture.

It’s a feature of most toxic relationships that the partner being dominated and undermined is taken for granted, that their efforts are never enough and will never be sufficiently appreciated. Their value can only truly be sfelt when they walk away. Our value will only be felt when we, when enough of us, walk away.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an email written by a friend, which applies to so many of us:
I can also say with extreme confidence that any organisation you work at or for will be all the better for it, and you have the ability to make an incredible impact. I think I’ve also learned the hard way over the years that sometimes institutions or situations just are toxic because not everyone has the integrity or values that you or I might have, and you can exhaust yourself fighting something that feels impossible to understand…but after the event I’ve generally come to realise that I was a better person than that environment and the values of the people controlling it. That’s not to say there aren’t always things to learn, but I’ve always been overly logical and simplistic about human beings and underestimated that some people simply don’t have any interest in your (or ultimately their institution’s) interests – simply their own. Given you can’t always control that, leaving is actually the thing to do.”

Acknowledgements: A huge thanks to PR and JH for the discussions and solidarity.

Original published (May 2023) on Total Internal Reflection - here.

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