Image: Getty Images
By Emily Ruth Mace
For two days I dreamed about dying. My heart had been racing for a few weeks, and it was making me anxious. I put it down to excess coffee, but when I had a second terrifying dream of an untimely end, it hit me: I wasn’t the one dying — my job was.
The four years of grant-supported employment that I’d taken a little too much for granted would be coming to an end in just a few weeks. No wonder I was having trouble sleeping at night, feeling anxious during the day, and dreaming about death.
With the summer break fast approaching, I very likely am not the only contingent worker thinking about endings in higher education. More than 70 percent of academics work in contingent positions — part time, visiting assistant professorships, or other term-limited, nontenure-track appointments. So for many us, the end of the academic year may also bring a more final resolution: the end of a postdoc, an adjunct contract, or, as in my case, a grant.
A looming end can be very stressful. Depending on the situation, the end of a job can bring other endings with it, both practical and symbolic. Besides your income, you may be losing faculty and staff privileges. You may have to end your time in a particular city and move elsewhere.
Before taking my grant-financed position, I was already a few years out of academe. I had left adjunct teaching behind when a cross-country move inspired me to rethink how I wanted to earn a living. The grant job fell from the sky in a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time. Even though the job had an endpoint, it offered the advantages of good colleagues and fascinating work. What’s more, it had the perks of full-time life, including benefits, a regular schedule, and something called "vacation days." Of course I said yes. Four years later seemed like a long way off, until suddenly it wasn’t.
You’d think that a predetermined end would have made the actual ending easier to face. It was February in the Midwest, with few glimmers of spring, when the first physical symptoms of anxiety kicked in. But it wasn’t until I dreamed about dying two nights in a row that I realized I had to do something.
In a recent blog post, Hillary Hutchinson — a consultant who works with career-changing academics — explained that what I’ve been feeling was, in fact, perfectly normal. She identified the emotion as grief. It doesn’t matter, she wrote, whether or not you’re leaving academe by choice.
"What matters is whether you have given yourself time to grieve the loss of the old dream," she wrote. "It’s truly like having a broken heart. It takes a physical toll on your body, as well as your mind. You may not be able to sleep. You may have anxiety and panic attacks that quite literally create heart palpitations. Crying and withdrawing from the world is normal. Feeling sad and adrift in the world is normal, too."
I didn’t withdraw from the world, but I certainly felt sad, which wasn’t what I might have expected at the conclusion of a successful four years. After all, I had created programs and projects that had either reached their intended grant-financed conclusion or been turned over to other (read: permanent) employees.
Yes, it was hard to hand over projects I had nursed into being. But the money for my position had been spent according to plan, and the job was over.
I felt caught between sadness and fear of the unknown, on the one hand, and excitement about new opportunities, on the other. I was shifting to freelance academic editing and a work-at-home life, with significant implications for everything from my schedule to my budget. I both dreaded and craved the coming freedom. Knowing that I wanted to transition into editing gave me a box to check off in the "what comes next" column but still presented a great number of unknowns and plenty of complicated emotions.
As Hutchinson noted, when we are presented with a loss — of a job, a grant, an academic dream — "it can be helpful to differentiate between mourning and grief." Mourning refers to "the external part of loss, … the actions we take, the rituals and the customs we use to cope with sadness," Hutchinson wrote. Grief is the "internal part of the loss — how we feel."
In my case, I stepped up both my physical and my mental self-care game, checking off the external and internal boxes of mourning and grief in the process. First I took advantage of the college’s gym — practically for the first time. I started working out in my lunch hour and taking yoga classes.
I also made meditation a priority. I moved a meditation app to the first screen of my phone so I’d have fewer reasons to avoid taking the time to simply sit in silence, letting the emotions I’d tried to shove away wash over me instead.
At home I wrote in my journal. As Hutchinson noted, "naming your feeling of grief and allowing the emotion to surface can actually help you move on. … It’s far better to acknowledge the sorrow than to stuff it down." I dug out a book of poems and found one I’d earmarked with the word "transition" in the title. I read the words and sat again in quiet. Having language with which to frame my experience gave it structure and made the change less alarming. That night I slept better than I had in weeks.
Amazingly, simply honoring the coming change in my life helped to calm my overall anxiety. I still had days when the end of the job felt more like a looming brick wall than a manageable bend in the road. But now I had the tools to slow down, put on the brakes, and recognize that, even if I couldn’t see exactly what lay around the corner, I knew it was just another corner and the path continued on the other side.
As it happened, I came down with the flu the night before my final week of work. What was supposed to be a well-organized transition (with a to-do list and final meetings with friends and colleagues) turned into several days of fevered couch time, during which I did my best to answer emails and hand off the final details. I made it to work on my last official day, still slightly feverish. I cleaned out my office and said goodbye to colleagues brave enough to be in my presence. Even in the midst of an ending, I had to roll where the road led me.
Emily Ruth Mace is a freelance writer and editor, and former digital-humanities coordinator at Lake Forest College, in Illinois. She has a Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University. Read her previous columns on alt-ac careers here