Leaving Academia: Why I Chose to Go

Leaving academia was walking away from an illusion and jumping off a train before it crashed. People do walk away and live to talk about it - here's my story. 

by Sarah Petruno, Shamana

I entered the Psychology Ph.D. program at University of Wisconsin-Madison after 5 years out of school.

When I graduated from my undergraduate degree, I chose not to immediately enter a graduate program. I made this choice because I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do yet. I wanted to give myself some time to decide.

I gave myself 5 years for one solid reason. This is the amount of time before my graduate school entrance exams, (which I reasonably took during senior year, while all the knowledge I had learned in college was still fresh) would expire.

During those years, I worked as a veterinary technician at a rural veterinary office.

I worked as a hospital phlebotomist in an isolated, Sierra Nevada hospital.

I spent 4 years as an staff research assistant and lab manager at 2 different University laboratories - one focusing on visual neuroscience, and the other on neural bioengineering.

I became an expert in animal behavior, understanding, developing, and testing research paradigms including neural recording, surgery, and code-based video games.

It was as I managed the two university labs during that time that I saw the dark side of academia.

This is a side of the academic limelight that you don’t see as a bright-eyed student filled with aspirations.

Now a staff member, I was heavily involved in funding, grants and inter-lab relations. I saw it all.

I saw the overwhelming stress overtake faculty when their funds ran low, and I even lost my job in one lab due to a research funding crisis.

I saw heads of labs and full professors that dreaded coming to work, if they came at all. I saw the misery in their eyes, I heard it in their voices and in their words.

I watched how many faculty treated each other and their staff members with complete disdain and disrespect.

I began to understand that tenure proceedings were the complete opposite of what I thought - a fair, unbiased, facts-based decision.

I took note: it was rare to see any professor at all happy with their job. There were a few though, but, it was mostly the younger ones.

As a staff member, research associate, and lab manager, I saw it all.

Academia was full of misery and people who hated their jobs. I decided then and there I couldn’t work for a major university long term. I even started looking for jobs in the ‘private sector’ working for corporations.

Despite that, I still aimed to go to graduate school.

This, I thought, was my dream. Even if I didn’t ultimately want to be a tenured head of a lab faculty member, I would teach instead at a small school, I thought.

Yes. This would work.

Despite seeing from inside the facade that was Academia, built on grounds of misery, dread, and worry, I applied to graduate school anyway.

That’s what people do. So I did.

I was accepted to three top universities in my field.

Then, I left my current academic lab job in southern California for the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

When I arrived, I had hoped that once again a student, I wouldn’t see the dark side anymore. I hoped, that was only the side that staff got to see and experience.

I fantasized that now, I would only see hope and encouragement again.

And I was wrong.

People were miserable at this school too, more miserable it seemed than many of my colleagues at the last university.

How was this possible?

Here, faculty openly hated each other, glaring as they passed one another in the halls.

In weekly meetings, which graduate students were required to attend, the tension and disdain was palpable and unbearable. I tried my best to swallow it and grit my teeth to get through.

This was no way to live a life, I decided.

As a first year graduate student, I knew I couldn’t make it through 5 years in this environment.

Not only that, but the department was actively, but quietly, phasing out my field of study, biology, brain, and behavior, and making way for more human-based studies. In doing this, they denied tenure to many women researchers in my field. It became obvious what was happening.

Things were changing fast - and things were not looking optimistic for my field of work.

As I made this realization, I was also making another realization:

Graduate school was not my dream at all.

It’s what people did, so I thought I should too. It was my father’s dream for me. It wasn’t mine.

When I was an undergraduate student, my father died.

After his death, I thought pursuing this dream would make him proud. Except it was no dream anymore. It had become a nightmare.

In the beginning, I kept it to myself.

Not sure what else to do with my life, I felt trapped. I didn’t have anywhere else to go or anything else to immediately transfer my life to. I didn’t want to let anyone down, especially the head of the lab, for agreeing to take me as a student.

In very short time, it became apparent to me that my life was changing to a more spiritual path. Through a series of synchronistic events, readings and nudgings, I learned that I had spiritual gifts and that I was meant to be a shaman.

I didn’t openly accept this fate as an alternative path. It was shocking and seemingly, a complete contradiction to my life now.

But, it was an option for escape.

Because it was an escape route, no matter how weird I perceived it to be, I jumped on it.

Escape is escape, and that’s what I wanted.

Six months after my option for escape appeared, embracing my gift as a shaman, I told my boss I was leaving graduate school.

I walked away from a Ph.D. program, with a Master’s Degree instead.

I continued to teach classes in the department for several semesters, after leaving the graduate program. During that time, my decision was only cemented.

I became the recipient of those scowls and cold shoulders, that previously, I had only observed for others.

I left Academia for many reasons.

Leaving academia was walking away from an illusion and jumping off a train before it crashed. People do walk away and live to talk about it - here's my story. 

For me, Academia was an illusion of a dream.

It wasn’t all ivory towers, hope, discovery and innovation. While some of that hid within, mostly, it was devoid and stripped of those things.

I saw mostly crushed hopes and dreams, open disrespect of colleagues, worry among staff about job security, and regret, for many of the faculty and graduate students I spoke to, wished they had taken a different path.

I didn’t want that life and I didn’t want to live someone else’s dream.

When I left, all I knew what was I didn’t want and that was enough for me. I didn’t want to be trapped, miserable, and grumpy, living a life I regretted.

My only backup plan was to trust that the Universe would take care of me while I followed a spiritual path.

You could call it a leap of faith or you could call it jumping off of a trainwreck before it happened.

Either way, leaving academia and the life I’d planned for myself since I was a child, is one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.

And I don’t regret it at all.


LAST UPDATED: April 6, 2015

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