This week, an odd fact suddenly struck me: it's two years to the month that I decided to leave my job as a tenure-track assistant professor in rural East Texas and start a new career as a teacher at an independent high school in New York City. It was something I had once considered unthinkable, but I took the leap gladly and whole-heartedly, and have never looked back. Today I love my job, and have put any thoughts of returning to academia or feeling its absence completely out of my mind.
I've been looking at the stuff I wrote on my old blog back then, and this little snippet still rings true with me today:
"Over the last two months or so, that resistance and reluctance [to give up my academic career] has turned into a hardened resolve to get out at all costs. Strangely enough, now that my impulse has become reality, I don't really feel like I am losing anything. I have three articles published in top journals and a book contract, I have constructed and taught thirteen(!) different courses over the last five years and have received rave reviews on my teaching from students and peers alike. These qualifications could not even get me an AHA or phone interview with a university during this job cycle. And yet at my home institution these accomplishments have been met not with praise, but with fear and loathing. Why bother sacrificing my life and, quite frankly, my will to live itself to a profession that refuses to give any reward?"
That last sentence is especially important. I had worked so hard and done so well by standards of my profession, but it got me nowhere. The disjuncture between my accomplishments and my treatment was making me insane. Despite my many bona fides, prospective employers would not talk to me, yet many of my then colleagues mobbed and bullied me for how my efforts drew attention to their relative mediocrity and laziness.
I began to wonder if I was indeed a worthless loser, that the judgements of my peers were deserved. (When I say that I was losing my will to live, that's not an exaggeration.) The lowest moment probably came in April of 2011, when I visited my family over Easter. My father had just been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer, my wife (living 1500 miles away) was dealing with struggles at her job, and my family's cat of twenty years was on his death bed. I had just gotten the last of my rejections from yet another failed run at the academic job market, and began to think I was caught in a trap that I couldn't escape.
In that darkest of moments, I realized that I had to go for broke and radically change my life if I wanted my soul to survive. When I applied for teaching jobs, I wrote the most florid, emotional job letters of my life. For the first time in a job search, I decided to put my heart on my sleeve and let it all hang out. Fortunately, one school liked my style, and plucked me out of the academic refuse heap. I have given the school all of my heart and soul, and they have repaid me in kind. For the first time in my professional life, I actually feel appreciated and loved.
Yes, there are times when I wonder if I will ever get my research back on track. I know that being an "independent scholar" means wearing a giant scarlet letter "I" on my tweed blazer at academic conferences when others check out my badge. Nowadays I do my research and writing in stolen moments. It's not an ideal situation, but in return for library privileges and my academic credentials, I have my life back. In the words of The Who, I call that a bargain, the best I've ever had.