Editor’s Note: You can find an essay here by Kelly J. Baker on the psychology of quitting versus staying put.
You don’t decide to leave academia in one fell swoop. It happens in bits and pieces, once you start to realize that academia has become a dead end. Kelly J. Baker has been chronicling her career transition — from Ph.D. to contingent faculty member to freelance writer and editor — in a series of columns and blog posts for Vitae since 2013.
Now she’s written a book — Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, published in June — about the challenges and emotional turmoil of leaving the faculty life you had trained for and pursuing a nonacademic career path. As a Ph.D. in American religious history, she had “done everything right: written a provocative and well-researched book, given presentations at national conferences, published articles, and created and taught a number of popular classes. Doing everything right, however, doesn’t guarantee anything if the career you trained for is no longer sustainable.”
In this Q&A, Baker reflects on her decision to stop seeking tenure-track jobs, on her work as a full-time writer and editor, and on how Grace Period came to be.
What inspired your new book?
Baker: In 2013, I was a lecturer at a big state university on a year-to-year contract, I was pregnant with my second kid, and I had just struck out on the academic job market — again. I had had enough, so I decided to take a year off from academia. Once I made that decision, I realized that I had to let a whole lot of people — advisers, mentors, students, friends, letter writers, and more — know what I was doing. I wasn’t going back on the faculty job market the next year. I was moving to Florida. And I wasn’t sure I even wanted to continue being an academic, which felt like something I couldn’t say aloud.
I didn’t want to have the same conversations over and over again about why I was taking a year off and what I planned to do next. At that point, I hadn’t even left academia yet, and I already was tired of explaining my choice. So I wrote down everything I was feeling and put it up on my website for folks to read, engage with, or ignore. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave academia for good, but I was pretty sure I couldn’t stay. I hoped to document my ambivalence and my other emotions in my essay, “Grace Period.”
I felt the need to publicly declare that I was taking the year off to keep myself honest. Frankly, I thought that blog post would be the first and last thing I would say about my academic hiatus. And then Vitae asked to me to start writing a column, also titled “Grace Period,” to document my transition away from academia. I couldn’t pass up that offer. I couldn’t believe someone would want to read what I had to say.
At the same time, I wanted to show readers my transition, or transitions, as they happened in real time — alongside the emotional fallout that came along with giving up my dream of a faculty career. At that time, there was still so much silence about folks who chose to leave academia, or were forced out. The only track my advisers ever suggested was the tenure track.
I decided to write about what happened to me both to break the silence and to figure how the hell I ended up where I was. Now, four years later, those columns, and more writing on the same topic, have become a book.
Tell us more about the title.
Baker: The title comes from the idea of a “grace period” in finance. It’s that period of time during which payment is not quite due and no extra interest is charged. I was seeking a title that characterized what I was trying to do in my time off from academia. The term popped into my head, and I couldn’t shake it.
I began to imagine my grace period as a time during which I could forget (or at least bracket) what I thought I owed to academia and to all of the people who’d trained me. When I decided to take a year off, I was afraid that I was letting everyone down: my department, my professors, my students, and maybe even myself. I had all of this guilt, but it was tied up in what I thought I should be rather than who I was in that moment.
"Grace Period” fit because I finally decided to cut myself some slack for a little while. For one year, I didn’t have to pay back any debt that I’d accrued (what was that debt anyway?), and instead I could take a deep breath and figure out what I wanted my life to be — as a human being, rather than as an academic.
How do you think Grace Period might help other Ph.D.s and graduate students in and around academia?
Baker: What I hope the book does, if it doesn’t do anything else, is let people know that it is OK to leave academia. Academic notions of success are remarkably narrow, and the world around us has more possibilities than we might think.
Yet, in writing Grace Period, I didn’t want to tell a tidy story: All you have to do is move from Point A (an academic job) to Point B (an alt-ac job), and then you’re done. I wanted to tell the messier story — one in which I tried and failed, I was plagued by self-doubt, I learned from failures, I tried new careers that didn’t work the way I’d hoped, and I spent an inordinate amount of time watching Netflix. Most of us who leave academia don’t hop into a brand-new career overnight. It takes work, and it requires us to reimagine who we are, which is much harder than I thought it would be.
What’s the most personal aspect of Grace Period?
Baker: I talk openly about breaking down, mourning the life I could have had, being angry and depressed, struggling with worry and anxiety, and admitting that I really had no idea what I was doing during these transitions. I was flailing, so I wrote about how I was flailing.
I wanted to be honest about what it felt like to leave academia, and I didn’t want to suggest that I had a plan when there was clearly no plan at all. Heck, I threw the plan out the window. To be that honest and that emotional felt like a betrayal of how I imagined myself as a serious scholar, who stoically evaluated the world around her. I was never that kind of academic, but I tried to be and failed miserably. It felt really weird to move from writing about other people as a historian to writing about myself. I put my story on display. I invited readers into my life. I’m still not sure how I feel about that, but I decided to do it, anyway.
What is the one small way that you hope Grace Period will change the world?
Baker: I want academics, and everyone really, to realize that transitions are so much harder than we think they will be. Transitions crack us open and force us to put ourselves back together, and that process is seldom pretty. Yet we tend to underplay the challenges of a career transition, or tell folks to get over them as quickly as possible.
Why do you think that is? Is it because watching other people struggle in these transitions makes us uncomfortable?
Baker: I think it is exactly that. Transitions makes us uncomfortable, and folks in the midst of one, make us even more uncomfortable. If you’re trying to refocus your professional life, you don’t know what is going to happen next. There’s no tidy resolution. There’s no sense of clarity.
I hope this book helps people recognize that transitions can be painful, but they also transform us into the people we are becoming. Transitions are so important. Both inside and outside academia, we need to give people the room to figure what’s happening in the moment, rather than always focusing on what’s next.