Leaving academia: cross-roads.

How leaving academia made me realize how we can save it.

I had done everything. I had published a book with a well-respected press, written the right amount of articles in the right reviews and journals, and gone to three conferences yearly for the past 7 years. On campus, I had a substantial following among undergraduate and graduate students. I had never thought of leaving academia. Yet, a certain spring morning, I learned that I did not get tenure.

It had become obvious that the long history of dissensions and factions that had been going on prior to my arrival had been a serious obstacle to my promotion. Yet, as I walked to my class that morning, I was in complete shock.

After having gone through various stages of grief, I realized I had a choice. Either I picked myself up and re-entered academia or I moved on. Did I want to appeal the tenure decision, which would require me to plead my case and drag myself in front of yet another jury, regardless of my ego and my general state of exhaustion? And above all, had my salary ever been in alignment with the countless hours I devoted to my work 7 days a week?

After a few weeks of soul-searching, it became more and more apparent that I wanted more. So I did something bold. I said NO. I decided that leaving academia was the best option. I walked away.


In the following months, I had the time to look at academia with brand new eyes. It all started when I paid attention -with a fair dose of irony and amusement- to my colleagues who avoided me as if I had the plague. People lose their jobs for various reasons every day in a lot of different sectors all over the world, was it acceptable to display this total lack of empathy? Why did such seasoned minds behave so poorly? And why on earth were they getting away with it?

A few months later, I reinvented myself and went on to work for a prominent MBA program where I found my answer: academics have no EQ.

Your EQ describes your level of emotional intelligence, a skill that enables you to identify and understand your own emotions to manage your thinking, behavior, and relationships. What does a person with high IQ and low EQ look like? Sharp in the realm of the mind but inefficient in the personal world! Although this portrait is a caricature, you might recognize the profile of several people who have crossed your academic path. Why? Because, in the research community, a low EQ is synonymous with smarts, talent, and prestige.

Whether academics like it or not, universities are social organizations. Professors are required to interact with each other and work in teams where research has shown that a fair level of EQ is of the utmost importance to reach success. Why do professors care so little about the administrative tasks they have to accomplish? Because they have not received the proper training necessary to fulfill their duties. What ensues from this lack of training is often chaotic.  As a junior faculty, I more than once witnessed behaviors and attitudes that would have gotten anyone reprimanded if not fired in the private sector. I also saw departments being shut down due to the faculty’s lack of basic managerial skills.

If Ph.D. programs prepare graduate students to become good professors, these programs succeed only partially by putting the emphasis on intellectual training. Doctoral programs need to provide students with the necessary tools to honor the administrative roles they will have to fill in the event that they become academics. While MBA programs across the country require students to become well-rounded by building on their EQ, most departments reduce doctoral graduates to becoming one-trick ponies. When one looks at the scarcity of tenure-track jobs, the lack of professional development geared toward non-academic careers provided by doctoral programs is more than bothersome. It threatens the very existence of academia.

In order for doctoral programs to remain sustainable and for students to continue to enroll, universities need to start importing the curriculum commonly used in industry-aligned programs. Providing graduate students with a professional development program to complete the training they receive in class would not only be beneficial to future academics, but it would also provide students with essentials skills to prepare for a non-academic career.

It’s a win-win situation whether students end up leaving academia or not.

So, yes the system is flawed. What we need to do is to change it. And the best way to change it is for academics to take control of their lives and seek what academic programs are not providing them: the tools to match their EQ to their IQ.


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  • Anne Hajduk

    July 20, 2016 at 10:38 am Reply

    Having been a professional working in an academic research center, I can attest to the accuracy of your observation. Poor EQ leads to demoralized, resentful workers and saps productivity.

  • Chris Cloney

    January 23, 2017 at 5:00 pm Reply

    Powerful story, thanks for sharing!

    I have had a hard time finding a good book for a starting point on EQ. Any recommendations?

    The ones I have looked at did not have much practical guidance.

    • Philippe Barr

      January 24, 2017 at 4:29 pm Reply

      Thanks,Chris! There are many (not that many are very good). I liked Springboard by G.Richard Shell. It’s a good starting point. I’ll also be sending plenty of tips in my newsletter over the next few weeks. Welcome aboard!

  • Chris Cloney

    January 25, 2017 at 7:55 am Reply

    Awsome, thanks for the reference. Some that I have in my audible account are “HBRs 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence”, “Emotional Intelligence 2.0”. Definitely worth checking out, but did not knock it out of the park.

    I am looking forward to the newsletter. Thanks again!

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