A Story About Paying Off Debt and the Obstacles Along the Way

Career Break Musings: Letting Go?

"I want to be in the arena. I want to be brave with my life. And when we make the choice to dare greatly, we sign up to get our asses kicked. We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.” - Brene Brown

I haven't felt up to writing super-long posts lately. Ideas, sentences, and paragraphs are sloshing around in my brain, but I lack the motivation to pull them together in a coherent, complete way. It just seems like too much work requiring too much energy.

But at the same time, I know these thoughts need to get onto a page. That's what I've always done to work through complicated situations: throw words onto paper and see what those ideas look like on the outside.

It helps. It always helps.


Still Lost But I Guess It's Cool?

In my post about quitting, I compared my career path to being inexorably lost in the woods and my indefinite sabbatical to sitting down on a tree stump to wait for either help or an epiphany. I'd spent more than four years stumbling pell-mell through the employment wilderness, searching for the right path and getting more and more lost instead (as if I'd started out in the Adirondacks and somehow wound up in, like, Death Valley), and I felt done. Pass the sleeping pad and the trail mix.


It's been nearly 2.5 months since I took a seat, and I'm still here. No unicorn or recruiter has come to rescue me, and it appears that what was left of my career map has disintegrated altogether. Nevertheless, it's kind of nice here in Whoknowsville. I've set up a metaphorical hammock, am gathering wood for my metaphorical fire, and am learning to hunt metaphorical squirrels!

Hanging Onto A Pile Of Poop For Dear Life

Over the last few days, two people have reached out to ask me how I'm doing, which is very thoughtful. I haven't been sure how to respond. I'm... great? Confused? Relaxed? Frustrated? In a weird midlife twilight zone? Jonesing for gummy worms? All of the above?

So I've spent some time trying to work through my stack of mismatched thoughts.

In previous posts, I've shared that I went back to school for my PhD when I was in my early 30s. At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. I was passionate about teaching, passionate about research, passionate about fieldwork, and passionate about my academic community. I finished in four years and landed a tenure-track job right away, which in my mind was a sure sign that I had done everything exactly right.

I thought I had found my calling. I thought I had it made.


But that's not how it went. Everything after my PhD was kind of a disaster. I taught for two years under the direction of a brain plagued by anxiety, in a department driven by testosterone, before calling it quits. (That one sentence doesn't adequately describe the complexity of the whole experience, but good enough for now.)

After I left, I couldn't bring myself to let go of academia entirely, so I went the "alt-ac" route.

My next job was as a college advisor.

The one after that was as an online instructor.

The Job From Hell was editing in my area of study.

In general, each position was worse than the one before it, but I never considered going for something completely outside of academia.

As my friend Lisa Munro, who also left the world of tenure-track academia, wrote last year in her post When Moving Forward Requires Letting Go, 

"I wasn’t sure what else I could possibly do and I desperately wanted to still have one foot in work that I still loved. Instead of directly participating in oppressive and exploitative academic systems, I found that as an alt-ac person whose work still relied on academic research production, I’d simply continued participating from the sidelines. Academia-lite."

Exactly. Exactly.

Here's the thing. Neither academia nor academia lite has been great to me or for me, to the point that I should probably go to therapy for the sole purpose of dealing with academia's aftermath. It's been very difficult in a way that's hard to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it.

In summary: I loved it, it treated me badly and made me feel terrible most of the time, and yet I can't seem to get over it because I loved it so much and because so much of my identity is wrapped up in it. So I keep taking whatever scraps it's willing to give me.

Now, as I start to scrounge the job boards and prepare applications, I find myself once again honing in on academia and its periphery like the proverbial moth to the flame.

Or as Lisa so beautifully put it,

"...in my now pseudo-academic life, I find myself trying too hard to still prove that I’m a smart person who deserved the career for which I’d invested a huge chunk of my life and a lot of money."

And maybe that's the problem. Maybe that's why I've started to feel so confused and conflicted over the last few weeks. I've been looking for jobs, and there's a deep chasm between what I feel I should be doing because it'll make me feel smart/needed/legitimate/worthy and what I want to be doing (if I give myself the space to admit what I actually want).

What's Holding Me Back From Letting Go?

Honestly, I think it's shame.

Everyone (not exaggerating, ev.er.y.one.) else I know who graduated from my program now has a top-notch job in our field of study. They've stayed focused, worked hard, and moved up.

Meanwhile, I've bounced around from job to job, lived in an RV for half a year, moved to two different cities, and am now... pet sitting. Don't get me wrong: I love it and am seriously thinking about trying to build a business. I love where I live. I appreciate my family and good health. In the grand scheme of things, we are doing fine.

But here I am, holding on with one hand to a career that has never worked and with the other hand to a giant bag of shame that grows heavier with time as I toss in more and more self-perceived failures. How am I supposed to try to grab onto something new? And... given what I'm holding onto, why am I not letting go?


One more quote from Lisa, because everything she says is so spot-on:

"...Here’s what I’m learning: saying yes to new possibilities, especially ones that seem risky and thrilling and exciting and make me feel dizzy and like I’m going to throw up often involves letting go of that which is no longer serving me. And letting go, even when necessary, still provokes strong feelings of loss on top of the huge amount of loss and heartache I already feel with the loss of my academic life. But sometimes letting go is a necessary part of moving forward."

I don't know what, exactly, letting go looks like yet, but I'm starting to think it's the key to figuring out what's next.


  1. I just want to say that what you're feeling is very normal for career shifters - I've read lots of articles about people who change careers, and having gone through career change a few times myself, this seems to be a common experience. I can only give one piece (or two) of advice: a) Don't compare your career journey with someone else's b) Be kind to yourself. The good thing about what you're doing is that you are exploring and willing to change. This period of "loss and confusion" is part of the process unfortunately. What helped me was to meet "interview" folks who are doing jobs that I wanna do, and also to be willing to experiment and try out tasks. You're already doing it with your cat sitting adventure! You're trying out the entrepreneur boots to see if it fits. Take a deep breath and continue experimenting, and yes, do rest and be kind to yourself. Those jobs sound awfully stressful and it must've taken a toll on you. Allow yourself time to decompress and heal.

    Best wishes,

  2. PS: I find it hard to let go of my previous career too. But I suppose my reasons are different from yours. I was grieving - of failed expectations, failure of a dream. Perhaps it's the same with you?

  3. I feel you so much on this. This is how I felt after working with my Communication degree for about 2 years. I hated it, but I loved it. I felt like because I'd invested so much time into getting the degree, trying to be the best, and sinking so much debt into a Bachelor's - I NEEDED to excel with it. And I just didn't. I hated it. Because I was so tied to it as part of my identity - I even tried freelancing and all that extra stuff everyone does to hustle. I thought - I can make this work for me. And I couldn't. I was so depressed and unhappy - I thought the Air Force would be the EASY way out. And for me, it was. But no one else thought the military was the easy way out. They couldn't understand it. And sometimes - I still feel shame over my (self-perceived) failure at communications. I try to block it out, and every month I make a student loan payment, it physically hurts. It feels like such a waste. Even though I'm excelling now - the shame is still there. Only time has helped heal me. Time, a great support system, and doing what I enjoy.

    It isn't easy, but it will be worth letting go, if you believe that is the right move. I've never regretted letting go of the things holding me back, even if I feel some shame about it. Sending hugs your way!

    1. Thank you so much, Liz. I really appreciate your empathy and encouragement.

  4. I think you are dealing with sunk cost theory. I have a friend who got a law degree. 100K in debt, years of study, the bar etc, and worked as an attorney. He HATED it. He up and switched careers and now is doing something he loves, and probably making even more money with less stress. Honestly, I don't think I could have done it - I would probably be still a lawyer, hating life and scared to give up what I had put so much into. But, whats done is done - Dont look back too much, it can only bring negative thoughts and "could haves" and "should haves" thoughts. Good luck - look to the future, it will be bright!

    1. I think you are EXACTLY right - that's precisely what I'm dealing with. Over the past week, I've been working on letting myself let it go so that I can move forward. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I'm not much for fake positivity. But I'm trying to really focus on the good and on the possibilities, and it's helping.

  5. I left academia after 6 years as a librarian and part-time instructor and am now working in the novel for-profit world as a ux designer. It's a little too early to give a final verdict, but it seems to be a step in the right direction. Letting go of that cornerstone of my self-image and identity was one of the most challenging parts. Moving at the same time was both helpful and not, as I met all these new people who I felt like didn't see a major part of me, but it also let me start fresh. I still cringe at "former" librarian and toy with the idea of bringing my new skills to academia in some capacity, but the reality is that the money and opportunity for innovation is just not there. There are also some feelings of guilt and failure in abandoning my role as an educator, though I'm trying to find other ways of giving back. But there is a huge world of work and activity outside of academia that I didn't even fully process before in my bubble of college and grad school and university jobs, and I'm glad to be exploring it.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Chelsea. Academia is weird, isn't it? Although it's easy to let our identities get entangled in our jobs in any profession, it seems to be particularly common in academia. Congratulations on exploring and excelling in other areas. It's really inspiring and encouraging.

  6. While my investment in my career plans on being a teacher weren't a great or paid for as long as a PhD, I felt, and still feel, a lot of the same things about getting my BA in English and then getting my teaching credential & student teaching, only to realize this wasn't the career for me. I feel the urge to let people know that I taught for a brief moment, to let them know I really tried to make it work, hoping this somehow gets them to think, I don't know, something good and noble about me, even if it was in my past.

    And as you know, Mrs. Done by Forty recently earned her PhD but isn't pursuing a tenure track position. So she definitely is dealing with this stuff.

    It's something somewhat adjacent to FI, too: about how if we retire soon, we give up a big part of our identities. What we do really is who we are to a lot of people, probably most people, even if they wouldn't say it out loud.

    I have no helpful advice or insight but wanted to let you know, friend, we feel you and are in our own way, kind of there with you on this one.