A maddening paradox characterizes the situation of academics who leave higher education at the start of their careers. They are accomplished knowledge workers with an impressive range of pedagogical, analytical, administrative, research, communication, and project-management skills. Yet they feel like failures. They face financial precarity, existential doubt, and emotional exhaustion. Academic culture conditions aspiring professors to believe that, if they can’t get a job in higher education, the fault is theirs, not the system’s. The lack of career advice for those seeking nonacademic work fuels a psychic nexus of self-deprecation, grief, insecurity, and fear. How can you perceive your power in the workforce if your own mentors can’t tell you what defines it, or how to translate it into a job?
Ironically, such questions are rarely addressed in academic “quit lit,” in which former graduate students or faculty share their (often traumatic) experiences quitting—or being pushed out of—the academy. Christopher L. Caterine’s memoir-guidebook, Leaving Academia, fits within this genre, but it leaves out the grief and loss that characterize most other contributions.
Now a corporate-communications strategist, the former classics scholar argues that life inside the ivory tower has become so miserable and precarious that its devotees should want to leave—and never look back. Caterine offers a spot-on critique of the profession’s exploitative insularity, along with helpful tools for readers seeking careers in other sectors, especially business. In doing so, however, he dismisses academic work, especially humanities research, as impotent, and glosses over the personal, social, and cultural costs of renouncing it. His advice to cast off or conceal your scholarly self reinforces the very stigma of ineffectuality that impedes academics inside and outside higher education.
For those who want to, or must, leave academia, the goal of transforming yourself into a different kind of professional insider—so that you can infiltrate and climb the ranks of another institution—seems sound enough. But what about those of us who are not cisgender, heterosexual white men, and who don’t fit so easily within institutions? Or those of us who can’t discard our scholarly identities without incurring new layers of psychological distress?
Academic outsiders may benefit from turning away from higher-ed discourse and toward Stacey Abrams’s 2018 memoir-guidebook, Lead from the Outside, which shares career advice about how institutional outsiders can succeed in a workforce that needs them. Abrams argues that outsider status can be a potent force for change, allowing individuals to “overwhelm” or “hack” the very systems that make them think they’re powerless. When her gubernatorial election was stolen from her, Abrams did not abandon a broken system for greener pastures; she launched a massive voter-enfranchisement movement that won the state of Georgia for President Joe Biden and Senate seats for Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Abrams specializes not only in seeing power where others can’t—or don’t want to—see it but in calling on institutional outsiders to use their individual actions to realize collective agency.
As Caterine observes, leaving the academy may feel like failure, but it can function as an act of resistance against an exploitative system. Real resistance, though, requires collectively dismantling the web of bias, silence, and doomsday speak reinforcing the myth that humanities scholars are useless outside the ivory tower. Resistance requires cultivating clear-eyed distinctions between the good and the bad: between what higher learning does for society and what white patriarchal capitalism has done to the academy.
Trained academics, even—perhaps especially—those who leave the academy, possess the capacity for profound influence. Gerda Lerner, a pioneering historian and Nazi resister, understood this when she founded the field of women’s history. In 1986, after more than 20 years of groundbreaking research and teaching, she observed that even “short-term exposure to the past experience of women, such as in two-week institutes and seminars, has the most profound psychological effect on women participants.”
Transforming the landscape of higher education into an equitable field of opportunity requires accurate evaluations of the powers—political, cultural, social, and psychological—of scholarly work, along with inclusive methods for doing this work on the institutional outside, where more and more of us find ourselves. Academic outsiders are not responsible for fixing higher education, but we may prove essential to creating the changes universities resist.
Caterine’s Leaving Academia doubles as an exposé of higher education’s crippling insularity and its impact on PhDs seeking nonacademic jobs. It was only when compelled to look beyond the academy for work that Caterine realized he only knew other academics. He knew next to nothing about other professions. He enjoyed no substantive help from institutional insiders. And he faced hiring bias, particularly from employers in business. “When you tell people that you are or wanted to be a professor,” he explains, “they’ll likely imagine you living a cushy life, working nine hours a week, and enjoying extended summers free of responsibility.” They’ll also think you’re ill-suited for other kinds of work. Caterine focuses much of his advice on how to tackle the negative stereotypes associated with professors, who are widely seen as arrogant, verbose, overly critical, and hopelessly mired in narrow, obscure fields of study.
The insularity built into higher education not only fosters these stigmas—it also shapes everything about the profession, including its cutthroat, club-like culture, as well as its members’ specialized methods, ideas, writing styles, and approaches to the very purpose of their work.
What new PhDs experience as a lack of career counseling isn’t a minor, tangential flaw so much as a window into the system’s conservatism. Training students to become scholars and teachers who address their research and teaching only to other scholars and students is precisely how the institution reproduces traditional power structures. Cloistered operations yield not only homogenous faculty and student populations but also a quagmire of obstacles for those forced to find work elsewhere. Caterine observes, for instance, that 85 percent of all jobs are filled via referral. This reality puts academics trained in an insular world at a massive disadvantage.
Some professors have spent over 15 years trying to solve the insularity problem with structural reforms geared toward public scholarship. In 2005, the Imagining America consortium, made up of more than a hundred institutions, began promoting policies that recognize and reward scholarly work done with, for, or about the public good. Other academics have focused on doing “public humanities” work, creating programs or digital projects that bring scholarly insights to broader audiences.
Literature professor and wide-ranging writer Leonard Cassuto has argued that, despite these valiant efforts, the urgent call to go public still hasn’t taken hold, and students are suffering badly for it. Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch’s The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education (2021) examines efforts to reform graduate education, why they have failed, and how program directors can do better. To actually serve students, the new PhD must become career diverse and public facing.
Leaving the academy may feel like failure, but it can function as an act of resistance against an exploitative system.
Caterine’s solutions for job seekers are diametrically opposed to the public-scholarship argument for resuscitating graduate education and, with it, the academy’s position on the world stage. Don’t waste your time publicizing your scholarship, he counsels—you’ll have better luck if you conceal it, diminish it, or translate it into a different sector’s vocabulary.
Depending on the job, he says, you may need to do the same with your teaching. In his own résumé, Caterine no longer writes that he taught three courses each semester: “Instead, I’ve taken to boasting that I delivered $500,000 in education services annually.” Trade the vocabulary of students for that of stakeholders, the mental attitude of critical analysis for that of risk and reward. Upon starting his new position, Caterine hid his academic past (a strategy he advises others to adopt, at least at first). When he finally revealed his classics PhD to his coworkers, his ability to write in Latin became a running joke among his team: “I knew in that moment that I was truly one of them.”
In this account, leaving academia requires creating a new identity and rejecting—whether by omission or mockery—your former scholarly self. Become a different kind of insider, Caterine suggests, because there is no place for academics outside higher education.
The problem with this career-switching philosophy is that it doubles down on the toxic psychology of disempowerment that hampers academics both inside and outside the system. Thanks to the neoliberal university’s idiosyncratic mixture of economic insecurity, white middle-class privilege, and sequestered marginality, most academics believe they are powerless. Leaving Academia suggests accepting this doomed inefficacy as a kind of liberatory mental entrée to seeking strength where it really lies: with top-tier institutional insiders.
Interlaced with the book’s practical tips are anecdotes about a host of successful male executives; these are intended to inspire. If you’re not a straight white cis man and you’ve worked literally anywhere, this reflection about a classics-PhD-turned-tech-marketing-director may make you laugh out loud: “Michael Zimm, for example, was able to walk into an office, ask for the CEO, and talk himself into a job.” Caterine’s vision of postacademic success replaces one archetype of white male genius with another. Unfortunately, trading the white male philosopher, who haunts the history of higher education, for the white male corporate executive, who underlies our surveillance-capitalist hellscape, keeps the map of power unchanged.
Abrams’s Lead from the Outside offers guidance well suited to PhDs pushed out of the academy. Abrams appreciates the fact that work is inseparable from power: “I wrote this book with the experiences and challenges in mind that might hinder anyone who exists outside the structure of traditional white male power—women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, those without money, and millennials ready to make a change.” She directs her advice to every job seeker who suffers not only from systemic economic disadvantages but also from psychological obstacles that thwart their ambitions.
Outsiders, Abrams says, rarely grow up consciously considering what they want and how to get it. They are conditioned at an early age to lower their expectations and fear the consequences of venturing outside their lane. For her, the first, crucial step is to name and deconstruct your fears. Only then can you identify your personal ambitions and cultivate the skills necessary to achieve them in ways that bring others along with you.
Abrams has built an idea-driven career spanning a remarkable range of fields, from politics, law, and activism to entrepreneurship, academic writing, and fiction writing. The through line is her mission for social change. Her radical privileging of her own desires and ambitions, along with her notion of “work-life Jenga,” rejects the tired fallacy that the personal can be separated from the professional.
Lead from the Outside would have saved me a lot of anguish if I’d been able to read it when, in 2013, I left my academic job for a reason so personal that I couldn’t speak about it. I resigned from my full-time lectureship because I was enduring a mental breakdown triggered by classroom teaching. My panic attacks typically occurred before class. I quit in the middle of the school year, afraid an attack might strike in front of my students. Only years later, thanks to Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement, did I realize that my sharp descent into depression and anxiety had stemmed from childhood sexual trauma, some of which I experienced in a classroom setting.
My failure to fit within the university system was not a failure, of course, but a clarifying incentive to detach my ambitions and self-worth from the institution. Paradoxically, my departure from a humanities job reinforced my belief in the urgent need for humanities work, with its layers of social, political, and personal influence. After all, academic feminism was helping me name gender-based violence and heal from repressed trauma. Far from impeding my sudden career swerve, my sense of self and expertise as a feminist literary historian shaped my decision to pursue collaborative nonprofit work and independent research. Today, feminist and anti-racist scholarship guide my grantmaking, research, writing, and parenting.
Those of us who leave the academy, for whatever reason, can chip away at the perception of impotence surrounding the humanities by acknowledging and using our strengths as trained academics on the institutional outside. Only by redefining the boundaries of oppressive systems can we transform them.
This article was commissioned by Carolyn Dever.