I’m not someone who came to ecology as a kid or always dreamt of being a professor. I happened upon research as a result of summer research grants that I received as an undergraduate. Thanks to these awards, I helped design experiments, analyze data, presented at student conferences, and published my first paper. I fell in love with the intellectual puzzles and developed a passion for nature. This love of research led me to spend the last 12 years as a PhD student, as a postdoctoral fellow, and finally as an assistant professorship. Over these years, I’ve lived in three countries and six cities. In every place, I met amazing friends, colleagues, and mentors; I even met my husband in grad school.
Which is to say that my adult life is interwoven with my academic career. That’s probably why the decision to leave my job as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina feels like a personal loss. Getting a faculty position is the holy grail for a lot of people, and certainly was for me. But there are also well-known downsides to being on the tenure track, and the academy struggles with inequities related to race, gender, class, and health. I learnt that suffering is an accepted (and even expected) part of academia: faculty jobs are rare and highly desired, and if you get one, you are expected to put up with this suffering, otherwise you look ungrateful, unreasonable. That’s why academics tell war stories- about how we moved every year for ten years, how we lived in a state we hated before finding our dream job, about how we were a postdoc for ten years, or how we lived apart from out partner for five years. And – of course – the take home is that in the long run it will be worth it.
Or at least that’s the message, and what I believed for a long time. I thought that after I got a tenure-track job, I could settle down and make long term plans, that the rejections and reviews wouldn’t eat away at me quite so much, that I could work out better work/life balance. But after 3 years of being a professor, I realized that I’m suffering more, not less: I feel burnt out, unfulfilled, and doing less and less of what I got me into research. Like many, I also faced a seemingly unsolvable two-body problem. And as much as I enjoy everyone’s stories of how someone they know lived apart from their partner for multiple years, I see that as a cautionary (and depressing) tale. The cavalier ‘just give it another year’ (subtext: and then it will be worth it) is just not enough anymore.
Pandemic and university shutdowns gave me some time to reflect. The border was closing with my husband on the other side of it, and none of this seemed worthwhile. At one point a spousal hire for my husband had been on the table (which I was incredibly grateful for!), but the terms constantly changed, and nothing was set in stone. Maybe it would depend on job offers (mine or his or both?), then suddenly it was about money I brought in (until I got a big grant, I was told this was unlikely to be of interest to the department or dean). Maybe if I got tenure? At one point the department chair announced new hires at a faculty meeting and my husband’s name was listed. This was news to us. There had been no formal offer, only vague conversations. Upon inquiring if there was new information we should know about, it turned out the chair had included him to help foster “community spirit”. It seemed we were going nowhere.
I might have limped along for a while, but of course this wasn’t the only problem. And even if a job did open up at UNC for my partner, we realized that it was unlikely to be enough to make me stay. The stress of starting a lab, living alone, the uncertainty of the future, and the increasing feeling of being unsupported lead to worsening depression, migraines, and insomnia. But the straw/camel event for me was that the department chair, despite what I am told is a positive report from my reappointment committee, decided that I wasn’t an important part of the department. None of this should have been a surprise to me based on our earlier interactions, and my reappointment did go through despite his critiques of my CV. But it was just too much, too poorly dealt with, on top of everything else.
To be clear, it’s 100% my decision to go. Someone else might have a stronger constitution, different needs, a different family situation, and made out just fine. I’m probably not as well suited to academia as some. And though I love research, I realized that the cost-benefit relationship has been shifting for years, to the point where what I wanted (less stress, settling down, time to really think about research) wasn’t attainable. And sure, I could look for another faculty position, but the post-Covid market is bleak, and nothing guarantees the two-body problem is solved or anything is different anywhere else. So I resigned. In the short meeting (<10 minutes) where I conveyed this info, the department chair didn’t even bother to ask me why. That hurt (and also pissed me off a little). But I think I will be okay. I could have kept fighting for to be in academia, hoping that ‘things will work out in the long run’, or I could make the changes I needed and be happy now. So that’s what I did.