Allyssa Allen (PhD, Human Services Psychology) on dealing with trepidation, regret, and feelings of failure.
You did it! You left academia. Phew! You saw the writing on the wall, decided you didn’t like that type of work, or were just feeling really adventurous. The early days of leaving academia can feel euphoric—liberation, the-world-is-your-oyster kind of stuff.
But sooner or later, reality sets in. What now? There is a burgeoning wealth of resources out there on new career paths (this site included), but what is often left unsaid is how leaving academia might affect you emotionally.
Everyone is different. Perhaps you are so happy with your decision that you never look back (awesome!). But for many people, there will be a period of processing your decision, and that may come with feelings of failure and regret.
Leaving academia can feel like failure. Perhaps you never considered an academic career in the first place (smart!), but for those of us who did, leaving those dreams of a “life of the mind” or a cushy academic career behind can be difficult. You may have had a vision of your future that included reaching that goal, and for goal-oriented types (ahem, PhDs) not meeting that goal can be disappointing. You may have even internalized the idea that not securing a tenure-track position after graduation means that you weren’t good enough.
All of these feelings can start to make you wonder why you even got a PhD in the first place. A career change might mean starting out at the bottom again, and you most likely won’t find people calling you “Dr.” outside of academia. You might have taken out tens (or hundreds, ugh) of thousands of dollars in student loans, or convinced a significant other to make sacrifices for you to finish your degree. You may have put the rest of your life on hold, or neglected important relationships. You may now be wondering what it was all for.
But take heart, my friend! The first thing you should realize is that you are not alone. PhD grads are leaving academia in droves these days. It’s important to reach out to others who are going through the same thing and can relate. Especially because not many people who haven’t been through it will.
The second thing to realize is: it’s not your fault! While this experience will certainly cause you to grow and perhaps approach life differently, it is not a sign of gross ineptitude of decision-making or an intellectual failing on your part. You made the best decision with the information you had. And hey, a lot of us made that same decision (remember the first point?). If you don’t believe me, see here, here, here, and here (to name a few).
And finally, what can seem scary at first can give you a new lease on life. You get to develop a whole new identity for yourself. Academia is all-encompassing. You are given the message that your life is your work, and your work is your life. But now that you are free of those constraints, so, too, is your identity. For me, this meant getting back to what I am passionate about, and finding a new way to achieve that professionally. But also, and perhaps more importantly, it meant realizing that I have a life outside of my career, and I am in control of what that life looks like.
This may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transition to life outside of academia. But if you can work through these emotions and come out the other side anew, you have achieved something much more profound than a PhD.