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"Come down, come down from your Ivory Tower..."

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Ivory Tower, song by Gale Storm

If you are familiar with academic circles, you might also be familiar with the “Ivory Tower” concept in the field. Actually, go ahead and google it (I just did it right now), and this is what I got:

"a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world".

"the ivory tower of academia"

Did you have to laugh at this definition, just like I did?

It’s funny because I never thought of myself as a living in privileged seclusion, let alone an unpractical person. Maybe that’s why I finished my PhD in less than 4 years and then decided that it was not for me.

Throughout my eight years in academia I have met a lot of people who are feeling totally frustrated in the field. Although many of them have very valid reasons to leave the academic world, many others still feel this sort of loyalty to science and maybe (why not) this ego booster illusion of being at the top of the Ivory Tower.

Leaving academia for "the real world" is not a easy strp to take. Yet, it might be worth it. For those who need a little bit of a push to make the final decision, in this post I provide some arguments that might help you to either decide to leave, or not. Based on my own experiences and the multiple conversations with these people, I came up with a bunch of answers:

1. Forced migration. Yes, I know it sounds really bad and probably you're having flashbacks of refuges sailing the Mediterranean on a shitty boat, but this is how I (and several friends) have felt for many years: moving from one country to another in the boat of uncertainty. When I finished my PhD, almost everyone encouraged me to go for a grant, because “I was good”! They forgot to mention, however, that many grants out there are bound to your hyper-mobility. Sorry, I´m getting too academic here. In other words, several grants (at least the ones worth trying) have as a requirement that you ARE NOT based in countries where you have lived/worked/studied in the past x years. My PhD took place across the Netherlands, the UK, France and Sudan, and then I lived in Germany during a considerable amount of time. So, do you want an income in academia? Good, then move to an unknown place (again) and start your life all over (again). By the way, I did not mention that many people finish their PhD on their mid-30s, so that means for many of us: either you dump your partner and children or you drag them with you to a new country. Do you have what it takes to be an academic?

2. Feeling useless. Ok, this might depend on the field and your ideas of usefulness, but within anthropology/social sciences, I felt very frustrated to know that all the stories people told me were just there to be written in academic journals that probably no one would ever read. Throughout my career as an anthropologist I came to meet people with very complicated life stories. They would share their problems without expecting noting in return. This is the part that I loved the most and that I would always be grateful for. Yet, there it was my little voice saying to me: “Is that it?” Yes, that’s it in academia.

3. The (really very bad) contradictions. Academia, as the Ivory Tower that is, should actually be a sort of “flower power work environment” where they respect your rights and treat you as fairly as one could expect… I guess it is fair to feel disappointed (at the very best), when after spending your past 4 years or so reading and preaching about women's rights and feminism, and people's choices, and social justice… you find yourself in situations like these ones (just to give some examples, but believe me there are more....):

a. You're already in your mid/late-30s and you realise that you don't want to continue chasing grants, so you ask your former supervisor to write a recommendation letter for an admin job at a University, just because you're tired of the academic rat-race and realise that you life and wellbeing are more important. And then one nice day you receive your supervisor’s e-mail saying that, as much as they want to help you, they're not going to do you any favour writing that letter for such a “low position” because

“You’re too good for this position”

Yes, my friends, that happened to me some years after I finished my PhD. I had been feeling like a homeless, moving from one place to another, taking 6-month research projects and destroying all my romantic and friendship relationships on the way. When I thought it was enough and I just wanted any regular job, which gave me the possibility to decide to stay in one place, I was refused this possibility by my own supervisor. But it's ok, it'sbecause you're too good, and of course, they know better.

b. Then there are women like my friend, “La Kali”, excellent anthropologist and researcher, who after making the big mistake of getting pregnant, she was turned down by her supervisor for a promised postdoc position on the grounds of:

“How the hell are you going to do fieldwork with that belly?”

4. Free labour. Then your colleagues... the ones who still fervently believe in the mission of academia in the world. When I was finishing my PhD, I was "offered" a little contract for a while. It was so rubbish that it left me without health insurance for a month (yes, this was at a University in the Netherlands, so welcome to the First World!), and no one wanted to help. However, some months later they did ask ME for help. As it happened, I had found a job in the industry, and when I announced that I was leaving in July, they demanded that I continue grading exams until September. Of course, without paying me anything. When I refused, I not only faced contempt from my bosses, but also from my colleagues under the pretext:

"This is academia, we all do it"

(And I wonder... Isn't it because "we all" do it without complaining that the system is increasingly rotten?)

Do you have any more reasons? Feel free to comment below. I'd love to read them.

Leaving academia is not easy. In fact, it is rather complicated depending on the field. There are multiple prejudices against academics within the industry, but it is not impossible, and believe me, it is worth it.

If you're struggling, hesitating or simply going crazy in academia, drop me aline, I would love to help you.

I have special offers and discounts for PhD students.

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