The Duck of Minerva

Why I’ve decided to leave the academy

1 April 2008

I know this will come as a shock to long-time readers, but I decided, after much angst, to accept a position as a public-opinion research analyst with a major Washington-based firm (whose name I cannot disclose until the contract is finalized). This was a difficult decision for me, not least because it will probably necessitate leaving the Duck of Minerva.

I thought I should explain my decision. At the very least, posting about it will help me get a few things out of my system.

There are a number of reasons I’ve become increasingly disenchanted with academia. It goes without saying that I will make more money, and get better benefits, in the private sector. But financial considerations are low on my list.

In essence, I’m basically sick of feeling like there’s always more work that I can do, or another book that I can read, or another page that I can write. I want a job that, even if it isn’t a 9-6pm gig, at least has a clear distinction between when I am “at work” and when I’m “at home” or “on vacation.”

A lot of people like to complain about how academics get the summer off, but the fact is that I spend a chunk of my summer teaching and the rest trying to produce–or, least, stressing about not producing–academic work. The last time I worked as a consultant, of course, I often worked late or went on business trips. I never, however, felt guilty about “slacking” when I read a work of fiction, or played a video game, or watched television. I was just relaxing “after a hard day at work.” I’ve rarely had that feeling as an academic.

Although I’m only a year away from my tenure decision, I doubt that my relationship to my work will change very much if I become an associate professor. The major difference, as far as I can tell, is that I’ll be given even more committee assignments. Which means less time to work and prepare for teaching, and more academic politics to deal with.

Needless to say, I’m not as excited as I “should be” about that prospect.

All of this wouldn’t matter that much if I really enjoyed what I do. But I’ve found it increasingly difficult to justify my academic work. I’ve written a fair amount on international-relations theory, comparative-historical world politics, and even on popular culture. I wouldn’t say that I haven’t enjoyed doing this sort of work (the Harry Potter project definitely had its moments). Yet, at the end of the day, I recognize that it makes little difference in “the real world.”

Neither, for example, writing about the nature of structural-realist theory, nor analyzing why the Protestant Reformations produced a crisis in the European order, really does anything to improve the conduct and practice of international politics. Even my “policy relevant” writings don’t, when push comes to shove, provide the straightforward guidance politicians and policy professionals need to make their decisions.

And we all know that international-relations scholarship only matters if it informs policy. I have tried to deny this, of course. I’ve even written about how this view is wrong. But, when it comes down to it, I think it is true. We have a mandate to be policy relevant, and if we’re not, then what’s the point of our work? And that leaves me in a very bad place.

I considered attempting to retool myself as a statistician or game theorist, i.e., to produce knowledge with clear and immediate policy implications. But when I opened up my old textbooks and talked to my colleagues, it became clear to me that I simply lack the energy to catch up with the “state of the art” in the field.

Given that that academic lifestyle never really suited my personality, it just seems time to throw in the towel.

My apologies to my collaborators and friends, all of whom I’ve kept in the dark about this process. I know that announcing this on the blog isn’t necessarily the best way to tell you all, but I’ve never found a good way to say all of this in person.

If I do have to leave the Duck, which looks likely, I’ll write a final post about blogging. Until then, all the best.