So you probably know that the Olympics have taken over London, but did you also know that the Paralympics are here too? I am one excited piglet about the latter, and have tickets to see several of the events (although sadly not Murderball). The noise around the Paralympics is interesting – some of the marketing has been horribly patronising and there is far too much use of the term ‘inspirational’. Oscar Pistorius epitomises a lot of the problems – the man is truly amazing, but as this essay points out, it can be disingenuous to focus on the example of an outlier elite when the majority of that population struggle with general inclusion. Similar points have been made about women in the workplace – what use is it to look to Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg when, by dint of being rich and powerful, they don’t face many of the issues around childcare and money and time and so on that ‘ordinary’ women face.
But don’t we all need heroes to look to? The original subject of this post was going to be all about ‘awesome people who left academia and got awesome jobs AMAZING’. I was pulling together a list of such people when a couple of things struck me. Firstly, the majority of the posts and whatnot written by people trying to get out of academia are about guilt at leaving, excitement at getting the hell out, confusion and paralysis about what on earth comes next, fear about possibly never finding a job we like (or indeed any job) and being eaten by wild dogs, and the need for sleep. There’s nothing there really about wanting to be the next Brian May or Gillian Tett and figuring out how to do that. Instead, we need to know what the next couple of steps are going to be, and then the next few after that – we need to know that we will be ok at crawling, let alone walking, running or flying.
Sabine Hikel used to run an excellent site called ‘Leaving Academia’, with interviews she conducted with ex-academics. My favourite was with Krista Scott-Dixon; she had worked as a postdoc in women’s studies for several years at York University in Canada before jacking it all it to become a fitness and nutrition expert (stuff she’d actually been doing for about 10 years on the side anyway). The bit of the interview which blew my mind was (and I paraphrase because I can’t find the original):
PhD’s just don’t realise how smart they are. You are smart. You are SO smart. There are people out there who will STEP ALL OVER THEIR GRANDMOTHERS to get to you. You just have to believe it.
I made partner Piglet listen to that too because I was so :O about it. YOU ARE SMART. IT WILL BE OK. A PHD WHO HAS MADE HER WAY IN THE WORLD WHICH IS NOT A UNIVERSITY HAS TOLD YOU SO. And that has been so much more comforting to me than knowing that there are ex-academics out there who are currently flying to the moon or riding elephants across the Himalayas; I need little steps for now. Scott-Dixon is not president and queen of everything – although she does seem to be very excellent – but I think that’s the point.
Things I am worrying about now are: what on earth do I do next? How will I end up paying the bills in a year? Who would want to employ me? Am I too old for this? Where will I live? What will happiness look like on the other side? How I can I compete with people the same age as me who built a career in their 20s and 30s rather than trying to get published in the Journal of Outrageous Edwardian Architecture? None of this really fits in with the question whether I will have OMG the best job EVAH within 3 nanoseconds of leaving the academy. They are very dull, but very real, fears.
I do also wonder whether even the ‘leaving academia’ narrative is useful because it makes such a big deal of leaving and heroes of those who do; would it be better just to make the act of leaving not a big deal, in the same way that moving from any job to another is, you know, just a thing that people do when they want better pay, a chance to progress, maybe to do something new. But then, isn’t that the point? That’s why we’re all writing here, because it’s not normal and it’s not ok and we’re made to feel awful and useless when we try to get out. We might need stars to aim our ships towards for the longer voyage, but we need smaller lights to guide our way now.
Anyway, what do you lot think? Do you have any ex-academic heroes and if so, who and why?