I haven’t opted out just once, I’ve done it twice.
I first opted out of a career in consulting in 2009 to work on a PhD. And then I did it again sometime around 2017, when I realized that I didn’t want an academic career either, at least not the publish-or-perish-in-order-to-reach-full-professor kind. I didn’t leave the academic world, but I did step off the proverbial career ladder to do it on my own terms.
I had a light-bulb moment when I was reworking a particular paper to be resubmitted to a journal for what felt like the millionth time. Several journals and even more reviewers had me and my cowriter jumping through hoops in what seemed like a never-ending loop of critical feedback, rewriting, rejection, resubmission… While the paper was undoubtedly getting better, much of the time it was also a question of nuances and reviewers’ preferences. And ironically, the actual research results remained the same no matter how many hours we spent revising.
I realized I was working my butt off for the wrong audience (and not really having a very good time while I was at it). I came to academia from the business world and I have visions for what we need to do to make the world of work a better place for all of us. Reworking a paper ad absurdum and then to not even have it seen by people in the world that I want to impact, frankly just felt like a huge waste of time.
It was then I realized that it just wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to continue doing research, but I wanted to do it on different terms, on my own terms.
When I started talking about how I wanted to work, some of my former colleagues seemed genuinely worried. Although I’m touched by their concern, I think it was mostly because I was talking about doing things in a way that they didn’t understand. It seemed unheard of. If you haven’t moved between worlds and seen different ways of working and living, it’s hard to imagine doing things differently and going against the expected. I know it is. Banal as it may sound, it was for me too before I opted out that first time and realized that there are so many ways to live your life and make a living.
Besides, one of the things I have learned over the years is that there are several paths that lead to the same result. We don’t all have to do things in the exact same way.
At the same time my art took off and before I knew it my professional life had warped into something very exciting and unique. It wasn’t planned, but I thankfully had the presence of mind to let it happen, maybe because I was feeling so frustrated with where I was and what I was doing (or rather how I was doing it). My art was a breath of air. What started as a side gig suddenly grew into a part-time job.
Now I was not only doing research differently, I was combining it with painting, which must have made it all seem even weirder and harder to understand. I still get asked about what it is I really do. Some ask me if I’ve left the academic world altogether (no I haven’t) or if I’m working as an artist full time (no, not yet anyway, and I’m not even sure that I want to). When people ask me, ‘so do you paint or do research or what?’, I just say ‘yes, all of the above’. I guess it must seem like a whacky combination, even though it makes perfect sense to me.
But it can also make things tricky. If what you’re doing is hard to define, marketing yourself and your products and services can be challenging. People feel comfortable with what they recognize, and a researcher-writer-storyteller-consultant-artist may be hard to, recognize that is.
And then there is the business of finding your group. We all need supportive people in our lives and having your own reference group, be it colleagues, collaborators, friends or networks, can really make all the difference. You need people who you can discuss ideas with. You need people who can give advice when you’re stuck. You need people who can cheer you on when the going gets tough. This is hard to do for someone who doesn’t understand what you’re doing, so friends and family who may be hugely important in your life and who mean well are not necessarily helpful in this respect.
I do have people in my life who can cheer me on, but being a researcher-writer-storyteller-consultant-artist with my own business can also be lonely at times. I’m thinking there are probably a lot of us out there who could really use each other’s professional input and support.
So, in an attempt to grow my own reference group, I’m calling all like-minded people. If you’re doing things on your own terms and could use a supportive group, let me know. Maybe we can set up an international group of so-called opt outers. Or if you’re in the Helsinki area, maybe we could have a group meet up at The Art Place. Coffee is on me!
You can message me through one of my social media accounts or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to hearing from you!