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Am I a failure if I leave academia?

Do you wonder: am I a failure if I leave academia? You are not the only one. Leaving the academic path feels fraught for many people. In this blog, I encourage you to reconsider this image of the ‘failed academic’ and engage with your own story.

Image: Pixabay (CC0)

Stories academics tell each other

In academia, many people (and in particular organisations) use words like excellence, impact, top performance and high quality standards. The story that universities and scientists tell about their own and each other’s work then revolves around the importance of quality and high standards.

The dominance of this narrative leaves little room for other voices, such as doubt, humanity and pragmatism.

Critics do criticise this narrative and increasingly look for better standards. Still you don’t often hear ‘good is good enough’, because at its core, the academic enterprise is about discussion, fine-tuning, improving.

But then again, what if you are someone who does have doubts about your future in academia? Or you know you want to leave university? Then it is quite difficult to get your story right for yourself. It is therefore not surprising that you ask yourself: am I a failure if I leave academia?

Asking yourself that question means, in my view: you are examining for yourself how you want to relate to academia and its dominant narrative.

What is your story?

Anyone considering to leave academia cannot escape having to engage in self-examination.

Dwell on questions such as:

  • How do you view your own doubts?
  • What do you think of yourself as a researcher?
  • What standards do you apply?

And then:

  • How can you regain ownership of your career story?
  • What is your story?
  • What motivates you?

If your feelings of failure are strong, you can take some time to list all the things you have done. What are you satisfied with? What have you done in recent years that you like to be reminded of? Also, think outside the box of the well-known scientific end products.

Shift your focus to what does work, what energises you, what you love doing by taking stock of that. Collect building blocks for your new story, for your new direction.

List, for instance, which values motivate you.

Or take stock of your transferable skills.