I've got about a month left of being a professor. Right now one of the major conferences in my field is taking place a few miles from my house and I'm not participating in it. And the really weird thing is that I feel fine about it.
That sounds like a person trying to convince himself, I bet. But it isn't. It took a long time to get here, trust me, but I feel as ready to walk away as I think I'm capable of being. Reflexively I've always described my professional problem as one of geography; I like what I do, but not where I have to do it. And that is still true. There are Ideal jobs out there that I would take in a heartbeat, were I remotely capable of getting them (I'm not, which I've always been clear with myself about).
But lately I look through academic job ads and it just…doesn't do anything for me. Because the hard truth is that the modal academic job is a really bad job. The pay sucks. The teaching is likely to be miserable – students who either don't care, lack high school-level skills, or both. The locations are often bad. It's hard to participate in the profession in any meaningful way from such positions, given the overwhelming emphasis in academia on institutional prestige. Simply put, I've gotten half-way through a couple of job applications and said, what the fuck am I doing this for? Why do I want this obviously shitty job?
The truth is that I don't. And for the past fifteen years I've never felt that way. I used to think, it's not perfect but at least it's an academic job, and even a bad academic job is better than most jobs. That kind of thinking gets most of us at some point. We devote a lot of our lives to pursuing and getting an academic job, so it's very difficult to walk away. But honestly, how much is it worth giving up in other areas of your life just to be able to call yourself Professor? That thrill wears off pretty quickly; if you're wasting your entire life in Turkey Bone, Arkansas just to have that title you're going to have a lot of regrets when you're 70.
In a lot of ways I'm remarkably fortunate; I don't have kids, I don't have a spouse depending on me for economic support, and I don't have any complications beyond my own indecision to deal with when making this choice. I'm lucky to even have the opportunity to walk away without anyone getting hurt.
I still find political science incredibly interesting. I'm not going to stop paying attention to it. But it has become abundantly clear to me that I'm not good enough at it to get a career in the field that I would be happy with. There are, fortunately, other things I am good at. Legitimately good. Including some things that even the most successful academics are not good at. So, I'm going to try to make a living doing those things instead. It might not work. If it doesn't, so be it. I'll be happier having tried compared to sticking with a job I don't particularly like just because it's safer and more stable. Things might get rough for a while, or forever. Who knows. Regardless, I can keep myself fed, clothed, and living indoors. I can achieve at least that much; maybe even slightly more.
But anyway. The finish line is finally in sight, and honestly I'm not as maudlin or terrified as I thought I would be. I feel a great deal of relief, and a genuine interest in seeing what comes next.