I quit: failure + academia

Whether one realizes it or not, failure is a part of grad school. The most significant failure is leaving academia, whatever the reason(s) for that. It seems that there is slowly becoming more room to talk about how academia is not always good nor is it always good for everyone. But how does one leave something one has invested one’s whole life in? It is a conversation I’ve had with a number of people lately (outside of Campus Edge) and one I struggle with personally as I move away from mainstream academia. Reassuring and helpful reasons have been given (see: Why so Many Academics Quit and Tell). At the same time, my question is whether Christianity and/or the Bible has anything to say to this.

There is a story of Elijah in the Old Testament when he blatantly tells God that he has had enough (1 Kings 19). Surprisingly enough his declaration comes right after he’d had a surpassing victory over the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). The evil prophets had been killed, and God had shown his power in consuming Elijah’s water-soaked altar with fire. The reaction I expect is one of triumph and confidence. Instead, we are presented with an exhausted Elijah who informs God that he has had enough: could God not take away his life?

When I thought about talking about failure and defeat with grad students, this was the passage that came to mind. I don’t entirely know why. Perhaps I saw it as an encouragement: if Elijah, who had served God so well, wanted to quit, it is perhaps not so surprising if they/we have felt the same. Perhaps it was also the perspective – that a desire to quit does not necessarily take into account all the hard work and good things that one has accomplished up until now. Nor is it necessarily bad – perhaps something does need to change. Or perhaps it was simply the hope that God had given me this story for a reason, and it was enough simply to share it with others. He would use it as He willed.

Quitting and failure are such depressing topics, and yet they are a normal part of life for most of us, grad students or not. Even the little failures can be unsettling, allowing us to lose perspective on things. And what about the big things, like failed relationships, unfulfilled dreams, lost jobs, unifinished dissertations? Is there any good to be found in the ruins of these things? There is no simple answer, but I do hope that we, like Elijah, can turn to God, trusting that He will help us in the midst of it all, whether that be through providing assistance from others, giving us new directions, or bringing peace, comfort and courage as we continue to struggle.


2 thoughts on “I quit: failure + academia

  1. I appreciate your thoughts on this. I wonder if quitting is the same as failing. It strikes me that there comes a time to stop but that doesn’t necessarily mean a failure has occurred. And to further complicate matters, that which we perceive as failure isn’t always that. What are your thoughts?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. I agree – quitting and failure aren’t the same. I think that quitting can sometimes be the best thing to do, like when we realize that this career choice right now would mean sacrificing one’s family, and sometimes what we perceive to be failure turns out later to have been wise and good. Yet, I wonder if quitting in academia is perceived as being equivalent to failure (as can be demonstrated by how those who don’t finish their dissertation quietly disappear from the program). A parallel for how much quitting and failing are linked in this area might be the area of relationships: I think that quitting a marriage, irrelevant of the potential reason, would be generally perceived as a failure by most Christians. Just like marriage means being committed to your partner, no matter how difficult it is, academia assumes that kind of commitment to your subject/research area. I think things are slowly changing but quitting is still often considered as giving evidence that one is not suited for academia.

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