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The way that academia requires us to be everything – a researcher, teacher, administrator, pastoral care worker, equality champion, advocate for staff, etc – it’s easy to lose sight of our own agency amidst the pressures and expectations.

But we are visionary people!

I hear many academics who are helping their students with innovative curricula or who are doing research that benefits their communities, but it’s not valued over grant funding or papers, for instance.

When our vision is questioned or not allowed to be pursued the way we want, we lose motivation because no matter what we do, it won’t change anything.

So, we enter this world with dreams and aspirations, driven by a desire to make a difference. Yet, somewhere along the journey, our sense of control can slip away, leaving us feeling stuck and undervalued.

For many, especially women and women of colour, the journey through academia is fraught with challenges that chip away at our confidence and sense of worth.

Over time, these visions became sources of doubt as people told us we wanted too much. They didn’t have to say it directly, but we got the idea from what we were being told: wanting too much change too quickly.

We’re told to temper our ambitions, to settle for less, to question whether we’re asking for too much.

And really, we should be grateful to have a job, right?!

Image of Jennifer Lopez as Selena saying "Me siento muy... excited"

We start questioning our self-worth, thinking we must be doing something wrong if we’re not succeeding.

But deep down, we know that our visions and dreams are valid, and they deserve to be pursued with passion and determination.

The academic system, with its emphasis on grants, publications, and tenure, often fails to recognize the true value of our work. We find ourselves trapped in a cycle of meaningless tasks and administrative duties, longing for the meaningful impact we once envisioned.

This makes us question our values. The gap between what we are doing on the daily and what we believe in is getting larger, leading to feeling stuck.

Maybe we’re following other people’s dreams, but our own dreams seem to have hit a dead end. It’s not our fault; it’s because our efforts and advocacy haven’t been valued.

From my psychological expertise and my childhood trauma, I’ve known about learned helplessness. Psychology Today says “learned helplessness occurs when an individual continuously faces a negative, uncontrollable situation and stops trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so.”

I think many of us in academia have experienced this. Like the rat that keeps pushing levers or moving to different parts of the cage to avoid a shock, but the shock still comes relentlessly, we feel helpless and we stop trying to escape. This is the stuckness.

Academia promised challenging experiences, continuous learning, intriguing knowledge, mentoring, and collaboration. Instead, we face rejections and constant negative feedback, making us feel like we’re never enough.

Our confidence and agency are both chipped away.

The meaningful work is stripped away as you become a mid-career professional or tenured academic, with more piling of administrative tasks that feel meaningless. This takes away your agency to choose meaningful work.

You wonder why someone with a PhD is asked to attend pointless meetings.

Gif of Salem the cat filing his nails

There’s no real flexibility either. They talk about flexibility, but there’s often a bias against those who try to make their job more flexible. I’ve heard gossip about a female professor with four children who colleagues complained was promoted because of “equality.” I was disgusted by this gossip and challenged their assumptions that she didn’t work darn hard to get there. She left the department and now she’s at the top of her game, doing incredible work in university research. So, flexibility comes at a high cost!

Incessant emails and tight timelines often require working nights and weekends, leaving no time to think, reflect or question if academia is still right for you.

But there is hope!

As we navigate the complexities of academia, it’s crucial to reclaim our agency and take control.

1.      Recognizing your worth beyond the metrics of success imposed by the system. Push back against the idea you’re not good enough.

2.      Write down your accomplishments so you can see your badassery in writing. Maybe ask ChatGPT what jobs you can do with your expertise (e.g., psychology, website building) and your values (e.g., social justice, integrity, community impact). Hello Community Outreach Coordinator! Or Social Justice Advocate in Technology Policy!

3.      Embrace your courage to challenge the status quo.

4.      Say “no” to assert your boundaries and reclaim your agency.

5.      Therapy can help since you’re likely recovering from trauma and burnout.

6.      Do things that restore your self-control, like finding meaningful work.

7.      Make intentional choices that help your career trajectory without worrying if it’s the correct thing to do within academic structures. Those structures were not built with you in mind.

I’m working with a client who, during her sabbatical, finally has space to process her emotions about academia. It’s why she called on me as a coach. She’s exploring her career options because she never had that emotional space before.

Another client dropped to part-time, working four days a week instead of five, to have time to reflect and apply for jobs.

She got one last month!

Will you disappoint people? Yes. Will plates fall? Yes, but it needs to happen.

Leaving academia to pursue a non-academic career can be a daunting prospect, but it’s also an opportunity to rediscover our sense of purpose and fulfilment. Whether through part-time work, career coaching, or therapy, we can find the support and guidance we need to navigate this transition with confidence and grace.

It’s time to break free from the constraints of academia and embrace our belief in the possibilities that lie ahead. By reclaiming our agency and pursuing our passions with conviction, we can create a future that is truly fulfilling and rewarding.

Women from West Side Story dancing in unison

So let’s dare to dream big, push boundaries, and embrace the journey of self-discovery and growth. Together, we can redefine success on our own terms and build a world where our voices are heard, our contributions are valued, and our dreams are realised.

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