Against leaving academia

For quite some years, newspapers and the academic blogosphere have been packed with advice for those considering leaving academia. There are practical tips of how to enter the non-academic world or pleas against the stigma that one might see in “giving up” etc. Many pieces of such advice are very helpful indeed and imparted out of the best intentions. However, I am troubled to see that there is also an ever growing number of pieces that advise leaving academia or at least imply that it is the best thing one can do. The set of reasons for this is always the same: academia is bad, bad, bad. It is toxic, full of competition, a threat to one’s health and exploitative. On a famous philosophy blog I even read that it is “unethical” to encourage students to stay in academia. In what follows, I’d like to take issue with such claims and present three reasons against leaving academia.

Given my own academic biography, I’d be the last person to underestimate the downsides of academia. Surviving, let alone “making it”, is down to sheer luck. All your merits go nowhere unless you’re in the right place at the right time. However, that does not mean (1) that we don’t need academics, (2) that academia is worse than any other place or (3) that work in academia can’t be fun. Let’s look at these points in turn.

(1) We need academics. – Believe it or not, even though politicians of certain brands, taxpayers and even one’s parents might ceaselessly claim that most academic work and the humanities in particular are useless, the contrary is true. Discourse and reflection are an integral part of democracies. Academia is designed to enable just that: research and higher education are not just some niches; they are the beating heart of democratic cultures across the globe. Of course, our actual daily practice might often look somewhat differently. But there is more than one response to the fact that the nobler ends of our work are often under threat, from inside and outside. The alternative to leaving is attempting to improve academia. That might be quite difficult. But if masses of good people keep leaving academia, it will lead to increasing corrosion and undermine our democracies. To be sure, ultimately anyone’s personal reasons are good enough, but I find the general advice in favour of leaving slightly (if often unintentionally) anti-democratic.

(2) Academia is part of the rest of the world. – Academia is often called bad names. We are living in an ivory tower and some philosophers never even leave their armchairs. I often talk to students who have been advised to pursue their “plan b” before they really got started with their studies. They unanimously seem to be told that “the world outside” or the “normal world” is better. It seems that academics have a lot of special problems that don’t exist outside or at least not in such numbers. Again, I do not wish to downplay our problems, far from it. I truly believe that there are a number of issues that need urgent attention. But then again I wonder why leaving should help with that. Many problems in academia are problems owing to (bad) working conditions and policies. But why would anyone think that these very same problems do not exist in the rest of the world? Plan b won’t lead to some sort of paradise. The conditions apply to the workforce inside and outside of ivory towers. In fact, I know quite a number of people who have non-academic jobs. By and large, the conditions don’t strike me as much different. Competition, (mental) health issues, exploitation, harassment, misogyny, bullying, you name it – all of these things abound elsewhere, too. So if you want to leave, look around first: you might find the same old same old in disguise.

(3) Academic work can be fun. – We’re often told that our kind of work causes a lot of suffering (not solely in our recipients). Again, I don’t want to downplay the fact that a lot of things we are asked to do might feel quite torturous. But when I listen to myself and other people describing what it actually is that makes it so troublesome, it is often not due to the actual work itself. Writing might be hard, for instance, but the unpleasant feelings are not owing to the writing, but to the idea of it being uncharitably received. Similarly, interacting with fellow students or after a talk in the q & a might be stressful, but as I see it, the stress is often created out of (the fear of) unpleasant standards of aggressive interaction. Imagining talking through the same stuff with an attentive friend will not trigger the same responses I guess. Again, my advice would not be leaving but working towards improving the standards of interaction.

You might still say that all of these considerations are cold comfort in view of the real suffering going on. I won’t deny that this is a possibility. In fact, academia can be full of hidden or overt cruelties and people might have very good reasons indeed to leave academia. I don’t see doing so as a failure or as wrong. What I find problematic is the current trend of advising such measures on a general basis. But of course, for some this advice might still be helpful to embrace a good decision or an inevitable step. What ultimately encouraged me to write this post today are my students, two of whom came to me this week to tell me that, contrary to their previous expectations, they found their fellow students ever so supportive, charitable and encouraging. Where they were warned to fear competition, they were actually met with the friendliest cooperation. I don’t hear this all too often, but who would want to let this hopeful generation down?

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