I knew I wanted to be an anthropologist since I was a little girl, before ever taking a class in it. My mom used to volunteer on archaeological digs and taught me what to love about anthropology from an early age. In college, I flew through my coursework and could have graduated in three years, but I kept taking time off to go to the field and get hands-on experience.
I got my BA in 2012 and my MA in 2014, both in anthropology, of course. I couldn’t imagine ever becoming anything else than a professor and anthropologist. By that time, I was 24 and got accepted to do my PhD at an even more prestigious university.
Then suddenly... I quit.
I felt like such a failure for so long after that. It started to make sense why people stick with academia long after they should’ve quit.
Now 6 years down the road, I realize I didn’t need to feel that way, and neither should anyone else who leaves a field they love.
Sometimes a Choice Isn’t a Choice
After I dropped out of my PhD program, I started working as a freelance writer online. For a long time I felt like I turned my back on a discipline that I’d devoted the majority of my life to.
Eventually I realized that leaving anthropology wasn’t really my choice. People leave academia all the time, and rarely is it because they’ve simply lost interest in their subject and want to try something else. We get pushed and squeezed out in one way or another. For me (like many), it was the crushing anxiety and demands of succeeding at academic life that forced me out. I never wanted to abandon anthropology, but I needed to get out to save myself.
For many others it’s simply the realities of the current job market that force them to call it quits. You can’t stay in a field you love if you can’t get paid reasonably or consistently to do it. The toll the pandemic has taken on academic funding has made this issue more relevant than ever.
In a different world, I know I’d still be an academic in the field I love. But sometimes a choice isn’t a choice. And just because you’re leaving doesn’t mean you’re giving up on anything.
Leaving Doesn’t Change Who You Are
I started freelancing so I could travel and go visit my field site (Ethiopia) that I love so much. For the longest time, whenever anyone asked me what I do for a living, I’d say I’m a writer and a former anthropologist.
On more than one occasion I got strange looks at this response, and eventually one kind soul said to me:
“Once an anthropologist, can you really stop being one?”
That comment really struck me. I realized I was selling myself way short.
The field I love has been a part of my identity for a long time, and that didn’t change the second I started a different career. I still have my degrees, my experience, and my knowledge. The only thing I really lost was a university stipend that was never enough to live on anyway.
Now when people ask, I always tell them I’m a freelance writer and an anthropologist. Often, they’re impressed I’ve been able to successfully pursue two unique disciplines. There’s no talk of a “failed” career in academia. That was all in my head.
You Don’t Really Have to Leave Anyway
Just because you’re not affiliated with a university or gainfully employed in your field of study right now doesn’t mean you’ve “left.” You may have left the ivory towers (congratulations!) but you can still participate actively in your field of study.
After returning to Ethiopia as a freelance writer, I settled down and never left. I figured if I couldn’t practice anthropology anymore, at least I could enjoy exploring my field site and learning about the local culture. Then slowly other anthropologists started reaching out to me for help with their research projects. Ironically, I now do more anthropology fieldwork than I ever did when I was in academia.
The same can come true for you, no matter your discipline. There are lots of “freelance PhDs” out there that work on projects in their field without any university affiliation.
And even if you don’t go that route, there are lots of ways to pursue your passions on the side. When you’re in academia, there’s no time to pursue personal hobbies or interests. But when you join a traditional career, or start freelancing like I do, suddenly you have some freedom to work on what you really want. Any professor can tell you how much more time they’d have to pursue their research passions if they didn’t have to deal with the demands of academia. Sometimes “leaving a field” gives you the chance to finally pursue it with the enthusiasm you really want to.
A lot of people are afraid to leave academia because they think they’re losing something or failing somehow. I took the leap and realized it’s actually quite wonderful on the other side. It’s okay to leave a field you love. The experience might even be amazing.
Courtney Danyel is a course creator, business writer and anthropologist, in that order. She coaches recovering academics on how to build a successful freelance business at AcademiatoAffluence.com. Learn more about her writing services at CourtneyDanyel.com