Posted by: turtlebella | 16 October 2006

Leaving academia anxiety

Recently I was reading a diary about the “What do you do?” question over at Mother Talkers* and I’ll admit, it started to freak me out. For a long time, I’ve always said in response to this question, “I’m an evolutionary biologist.” If you ever want to see someone’s eyes glaze over really quickly, try saying this. No one really knows what to say as a follow-up question and it’s usually awkward. Especially if they do think of something to say and it’s like, “So, you believe in evolution?” Ack!

But now I’m having a bit of an anxiety attack about what I am going to say come January. When I leave academia. And leave biology all together since I’m not continuing on as an evolutionary biologist outside of the academy. What I’m actually going to be doing? Well, I’m going to be a NIA teacher, hopefully. Which then means that I have to explain what NIA is, exactly. Kind of movement class that incorporates yoga, modern dance, and martial arts. Right. I’m going to be thinking about being a mother. Helping the sqvirrel with composting, finding a way to eat locally, and fixing up the house. None of which sounds like it adds up to very much. And this freaks me out. Because I am really afraid of seeming lazy, good-for-nothing. This has to do, some, with my perception of how my parents viewed my siblings who never did much with their lives. I’m terrified of not amounting to much. People remind me that just getting my Ph.D. is A LOT and if I never did anything else, ever, that it would still be a lot. But somehow I think that since I never got the job that is the reason you get a Ph.D. (a tenure-track position or the equivalent if you aren’t interested in staying in academia) that it somehow doesn’t count. That I’ve failed in some very real way.

And so when I am faced with someone trying to make small talk and who asks me what I do I won’t be able to say, with the confidence and arrogance** inherent in those with “higher” degrees, “I’m a biologist.” And that scares me. And leads me to think about much deeper questions like, “Who am I?” and “Do I have any worth?” and “Am I contributing to the world? Making it a better place?” Of course, the askers are not interested in any of these things. They just want a chance to have the other person talk for a little while, during which they can think of another question. And this is probably why I’m not essemtially crap at small talk, I’m really more interested in bigger, deeper, and scarier questions. But that’s a whole ‘nother post.

I’m hoping that by blogging about this fear, I can write it away in a sense. That by putting it down in black and white I can see that my fear is irrational and unreasonable. That I am still worthy as a person, even if I’m not a biologist, a professor. But am a NIA teacher, a mom, a voracious reader, and a good friend.***

*I’m not a mom. But I like to read about them? I’m going to be one someday? I don’t know why I read it, as well as Hip Mama and Moms Rising. I’m not a medieval historian, or a literature and writing professor, or an ecology-minded airline crew member, but I read those blogs too.

**Okay, so I’ve probably never been arrogant a moment in my life!

***One of my very favorite stories of my Mami Deer goes like this: She was attending a conference about conciousness (or something like that, very psychological/spiritual). At the beginning of conference all the attendees had to go around in a great big circle, introduced themselves and say what they did. Since almost all the attendees were psychotherapists or professors in whatever discipline, my Mami Deer was getting quite stressed out about the fact that, at the time, she didn’t do anything (she’s now a certified spiritual director as well as a reiki healer). She thought, “I’ve gotten in way over my head [even though she’d done a lot of reading in the particular subject and probably knew as much as anyone else], they’re going to think I’m a total flake.” She was quite worried. But when her turn came, she simply said, “I’m Mami Deer. And I’m a Good Friend.” Isn’t that just amazing? Several of the attendees told her later that they were so impressed and overwhelmed by her statment. And after all, isn’t being a good friend ultimately more important than what you do?


  1. I can completely understand these fears you are discussing so frankly, although I never started at such a lofty place as evolutionary biologist. I got laid off from my lab job in the end of July. It’s amazing how often the question, “so what do you do?” comes up. I just don’t have a good answer. “Nothing” comes across as kind of lame, but “looking for work” seems too pathetic. The response to that is invariably somewhere between pity and hare-brained advice.

    I love your mother’s answer, though. It’s so bold and clever, and almost subversive.

  2. I’ve been looking for an answer to that question ever since I graduated from college. The truth is that I’m just not really very good at doing things. So that’s generally how I answer, these days. What do I do? As little as possible. I’m very lazy.

    I don’t suppose that would make me a lot of contacts at cocktail parties, but then I never liked cocktail parties.

  3. I think what you’re planning to do sounds excellent. It sounds like plenty to me!

    Don’t feel you have to answer this if you don’t want to, but why are you leaving academia? (That would be said in a genuinely curious, open tone – no hint of disapproval!)

  4. Don’t feel you have to answer this if you don’t want to, but why are you leaving academia?
    The short answer? Because the job I really wanted seems to not exist. In biology these days even SLACs have pretty serious research and publishing “requirements.” And I really really hate the whole publishing side of research. It depresses me. Since what I really love about academia is the teaching – and that just doesn’t get you really far these days. And that depresses me. So, I found myself being depressed more often than not, turning to other interests, feeling guilty about that, and getting more depressed! So I said- no more. No more depression. Bring on the next phase of my life.

  5. New Kid, for the long answer see The whole leaving academia bit

  6. First let me say that I like the new template.

    Second, you are brave for talking openly about this and even braver for actually deciding to leave academia rather than sticking it out because that is what you are *supposed* to do with a PhD.

    Finally, someone wise once told me that he really enjoyed hanging out with retired people because when they were asked “what do you do?” they answered by telling about all their hobbies and passions and they were much more fully defined (and more interesting) than the working people who simply could answer with a job title.

  7. It’s a good exercise for everyone. We put so much ego into these discussions of What You Do. Why do we never ask what people love to do? That would tell us so much.

    Good post.

  8. Thanks, turtlebella! I missed that post the first time around.

  9. If its teaching you like, and kids you ponder, why not get a job teaching AP bio at a fancy pants private high school where you don’t need a teaching certificate, but a PhD would make you a pretty helpful doctor? A bit of a “pre-SLAC” without the grants and grad students. I am sure there are plenty o’ these small private institution in your new home state. My impression of the faculty at places like this is usually an eclectic group of folks who love teaching, and have a passion for a particular area which they love sharing with high school students. Kids, science and teaching all rolled up into one low paying but highly rewarding way to spend a week. Have you considered this?

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