The emotional aftermath of leaving academics, part 1: old and new colleagues

When you leave academics, more than your work environment changes.  Emotional responses come along for the ride, and while no two people experience them exactly the same way, here are some of the common elements.  This post is about former and new colleagues; another post addresses new and old places, another addresses family and friends, and another addresses reclaiming what you miss.  If there’s a topic you would like me to address that you do not see here, email me at, or contact me on Twitter @akrook.

You and your former colleagues

You and your former academic colleagues had many common experiences, many common interests, but you also had your own individual set of experiences and  interests: your research, your thesis, your relationship with your adviser, and so on.  Your and your former academic colleagues’ interests and associations will now diverge more markedly, and faster.  You will have different work patterns: while you won’t be moaning about all those papers and projects to mark at the end of the semester, you also won’t be eliciting sympathetic responses from people who understand.  Your academic colleagues will not necessarily understand your new work and its attendant stresses and rewards, and when you talk to them, you will get recognition and empathy less frequently and puzzlement more frequently.  The need to explain work patterns to people to whom you previously did not have to explain such things is a new kind of tiring.

If your former colleagues stay in academics, they will go on doing the academic things that you may no longer doing, depending on your new job: teaching, researching, writing papers, attending conferences.  And you used to do those things, and now you don’t.  It’s easy to feel bereft, and don’t be surprised if you mourn a little, or a lot.  It’s actually easy to feel that since you no longer have an academic job, you no longer have a job, or an intellectual job.  Don’t sell yourself or your new colleagues short in that way.

A few of your former academic colleagues may stop engaging with you altogether, whether face to face, in social gatherings, or on social media.  It’s frustrating, mysterious, and sometimes profoundly isolating if it happens with formerly close colleagues. This disengagement generally has one of three causes.  When someone leaves academics, his former colleagues often believe the leaver would rather have stayed and that as a result ongoing contact would be painful (I think what is painful is making assumptions and cutting off contact as a result).  A second cause is superstitious fear that staying in touch with someone leaving academics may make the same thing happen to the person remaining behind, like the fear people often develop after reading about a disease that they have or will get it, too.  A third cause is fear of being distracted: the benevolent version is someone who doesn’t stay in touch because your leaving distracts from her own need to stay focused in order to finish her thesis, say; the less benevolent version is someone who doesn’t stay in touch out of fear that your path might be better than the one she is staying on, and staying in touch with you reminds her of that too forcibly.

You and your new colleagues

While in academics, you had various sets of professional colleagues: fellow students, adjuncts, tenure-track faculty, tenured faculty.  You had a set of shared experiences: seminars, exams, papers, conferences, theses, teaching, marking, researching.  Your new workplace colleagues may have had some of those experiences, but even if they did, they probably have not had them as recently as you.  No matter what, your new colleagues will be more distant from your experience than your previous group of colleagues, at least for a while.  Your conversation will reflect that, as you explain yourselves and your work to each other.  Explaining your experiences to your new colleagues in ways you haven’t recently had to means that you will often initially feel more alone than you did in academics.  That’s the normal result of taking a new job with new people.

As you develop your new working relationships, you spend less time with your academic colleagues and your academic work.  What may also happen is thinking that you are thereby becoming less than you were before: less intellectual, less valuable, less interesting, less whatever.  Remember that academics taught you to value one way of work and intellect, and while it is a good way, it is not the only one and not the only good one.  Don’t assume your intellect has changed because you left academics; your workplace has changed.  And don’t assume your new colleagues are any less smart, interesting, or intellectually demanding than your academic ones.  Don’t sell them short, and don’t sell yourself short.  This is a particularly acute problem for people with PhDs who leave academics: remember, it’s not that you are a PhD, it’s that you have a PhD.

Your new colleagues may or may not value your academic training as such; it is nearly certain that they will not value it as much, and in the same way, as your academic colleagues did and do.  When they ask about it, you may sense anything from admiration to plain inquiry to active snark.  The explicit question is often about the progress of your career: “why’d you do [that], if you’re now doing [this]?” or “why’d you take that path to preparing for [this]?”  Sometimes the implicit question or comment is different: “wow, I wish I could have done that” or “how are you going to adapt to this place?” or “think you’re so smart?”  Listen for both the explicit and implicit questions.  Very often the questions are less about you than the questioners, though they may temporarily make you feel an outsider.

In my experience, academics who leave for other kinds of workplaces focus on the differences between their new workplaces and old.  Former academics who make the transition well, on the other hand, focus as much on the similarities – of learning new things, of researching, of solving problems, of expressing the solutions clearly in writing and speaking – and tend to be happier, and happier sooner in their new roles.

Good luck!