Emotional support on losing academic science career / London therapist
October 27, 2019 11:54 PM   Subscribe

After being precarious for years, my partner's academic career in science has finally collapsed. She is in her early 40s and has been in academia all her life. She is depressed, angry and miserable. She finds it hard to imagine being happy in a different career, even if she could successfully transition into one, which will be extremely challenging. I am trying to help and support her but I am out of my depth. I am looking for advice from people who have been through this, helped someone else who has, or who can recommend a therapist who has experience in this area - ideally in London, but remotely as a last resort.

To maintain her anonymity I will not get into the details of her career. In brief, after her PhD she had some setbacks that were largely out of her control, and lost momentum. She managed to cling on in various fixed-term contracts for many years, but these put her at a disadvantage in pursuing her main research area. She managed to keep her research going regardless, but was never able to leverage that work into a permanent position, despite being shortlisted a number of times including at top-ranked universities.

Her last contract ended some months ago. Since then she had been kept busy wrapping up loose ends and applying for positions, but several interviews and rejections later, all the realistic opportunities for the short term have now dried up, and she's out in the cold with no likely prospects on the horizon. Now that she's finally reached that point, a lot of emotions that were somewhat held back before are all coming out in force.

She is depressed to the point of struggling to get out of bed and leave the house. She feels that she's failed, that she wasn't good enough. That she's wasted a huge chunk of her life in a way that she'll never recover from. She's furious at all the ways she got screwed over, at all the people who got promoted past her into permanent posts, often on the back of her own labour. She's lonely and isolated, because so much of her social contact was through work. And she feels invisible: academics have a nasty habit of acting like the people who left don't exist, I guess because it's too uncomfortable to face the truth of how many good people are chewed up and spat out by the system. And despite all the bullshit she had to deal with in science, she finds it hard to imagine ever being happy in a different career, even if she could successfully transition into one, which will be extremely challenging now.

I am struggling to help her. I have had my own experiences with depression and grief, and I also spent some time in academia, so I can relate to some extent but only so far. I got out much earlier, and was in an engineering field where I could easily transition to commercial work. I was never committed to it in the way she was. It is difficult for me to relate to being so dedicated to something that you're just not interested in doing anything else. When we try to even talk gently about other career possibilities, it quickly ends in tears. Given that, I feel like it's still far too soon for her to successfully pursue a different job. But on a day to day basis she just doesn't know what to do with herself.

Fortunately, things are financially secure enough that she could comfortably take a couple of years off at least. So for now, I have been trying to encourage her to take advantage of her current freedom, catch up with personal projects, visit friends and family, spend time on hobbies and so forth. I've been hoping that time will gradually attenuate the worst of the grief, and that having things to do will help that time to go by. But I don't really know what I'm doing. I feel totally out of my depth with this and would like her to have professional help.

She is open to seeing a therapist, but has had bad experiences in the past, including with someone who flat out would not believe her about her experiences of how fucked up academia is. The last thing she needs is have to explain all of that to yet another person. So I am hoping someone may have a recommendation for a therapist who already understands how academia works, how insane and unhealthy and broken it all is, how limited the job market can be and how much of it is stacked against women in particular. Ideally someone who has actually helped people in similar situations. Preferably this would be someone she can see in person (in or near London). Video calls are difficult for Reasons, but might have to do if we can't find someone good locally.

I am also looking for advice from other people who have been through something like this, or helped someone else who has. How did you cope? What things helped? What things didn't?

I am not looking to just hear everyone's wild guesses about what her next career should be, just because that's what you do, or what someone you know does, or you heard that's what a lot of ex-scientists are doing now. We get a lot of this already, often unsolicited, and it is mostly not helpful. I am not going to go as far as saying please don't respond with career suggestions at all, but please consider that we have both been thinking about this for years already, and that whatever you're about to suggest might not be as easy as you think it is for a woman to break into later in life without relevant experience.

If you have something to say that you don't want to post publicly, please email academicgrief at gmail.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience with therapists, the ones who have best understood the ridiculousness of the academic science market have been within academic health systems themselves. I did have an excellent one when I was in Michigan (memail me if you do want the rec), but I would strongly suggest finding out if one of her London positions had some sort of employee referral program (in the US this would be an EAP), and seeing if she could find where they refer to.

Failing that, it might be worth asking this question as well at one of the several “is there life after academia” sites; you’ll probably want a science focused one because the career path has some differences from humanities, but it doesn’t need to be in her field.

Last, she is not the first to be chewed up by the academic mill, sadly. Perhaps some of her friends who left earlier might be happy to hear from her and better support than people who are still inside.
posted by nat at 12:12 AM on October 28, 2019

I work in science doing research in a non academic setting. Mostly government / NGO / privare collabs. Your wife is going to find people like us and get a job with an NGO or an agency and be SO HAPPY. About half the people I work with are refugees from the academic world looking for stability, sanity and life outside college towns. People are increasingly walking away from even tenured positions. Many initially feel like your wife does, as if leaving academia is inevitably a step down and giving up a dream but they come to realize that is a line you've been fed. Work is work, research is research and all you really need is some money, an office and everyone out of your hair.

Leaving academia you can do the same work with 1/10 the the bullshit! Really. She's going to be happier and be around better people and have better work life balance and more options and its gonna be great. I swear.

I cant recommend a therapist but there are life coaches who specialize in exactly this. I'd try to find one.
posted by fshgrl at 12:39 AM on October 28, 2019 [18 favorites]

This is not a recommendation, but this person has experience both in academia, and as a counsellor affiliated with a university. She is based in London. And if not her, maybe she knows someone else who might be appropriate.
posted by plonkee at 1:13 AM on October 28, 2019

My experience was of an order less than that of your partner—I began and studied for four years of a PhD, then, well, didn't finish it. It's a long and irrelevant story, but the point of it is that there's a freemasonry of us who've experienced that personal crisis of identity, of the interesting and challenging career path that comes to a sharp end. It's nasty, and profoundly disorienting, and leaves you unsure about who you actually are. We're everywhere. Solidarity.

I went through one or two jobs, retrained in a different field, then spent some years unemployed and jobseeking. I did find psychotherapy and counselling helpful, but recall disagreeing with my therapist about structural questions; whether the depression that comes with unemployment was more about individual coping mechanisms and resilience, or just a reaction to the harshness of jobseeking. I still don't know the answer. I know that even disagreeing, the therapy was a help.

I found voluntarism a lifesaver, almost literally. I started training with one of my State's volunteer emergency response agencies almost on a whim, but discovered that that sense of community and common purpose, with shared strategic objectives, and habits and history, and a uniform, gave me a sense of use and function that I needed. It's not the same thing as a hobby, or a personal project, it's a commitment to other people outside work and personal leisure that's a call on my time.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:05 AM on October 28, 2019 [8 favorites]

Wow....I'm in the US but man this is really a lot like what happened to me. I became a professor at 26. At 41, I left academia. And I had problems with therapists in the past as well.

Having said that, finding an excellent therapist was what helped me get through this (along with the support of friends and family.

I will say that I did not find a career counselor helpful. I worked with her for a month and was like "Nope, I'm done." But it's a process. That didn't work for me, but it's still worth giving it a shot and seeing what happens.

But I would definitely say a therapist will help with this in terms of discussing with her what works means to her, what she is looking for, etc.
posted by miss-lapin at 2:10 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have had good experiences with psychologists and psychiatrists who are also med school or university faculty and research active and publishing, if you can find one.

My grad school psych was unhelpful because she couldn't quite grok why my PhD program was so traumatizing so I've asked the same questions you are.
posted by shaademaan at 2:32 AM on October 28, 2019

How about a consultant?

Karen Kelsky works with people in academia, and helps people transition out of academia too (http://theprofessorisin.com/about-the-professor-2/). She's written about how terrible academia can be, and she was deep in the game before leaving it.

Not what you asked for, but if it helps your friend focus on thinking about transferable skills and lay out practical steps toward a different (hopefully more pleasant) future, it could be worth her while.

My recommendation comes from having read her excellent book on managing an academic career.
posted by butwheresthesushi at 3:33 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

When I was plotting my own exit, I found the book “So What Are You Going To Do With That?” to be helpful not just practically, but also emotionally. It helped me a great deal to realize that I was not alone and that I had not screwed myself over permanently. I think my situation was not quite as fraught as your partner’s, as I switched gears a decade earlier, but at the time it really did feel like I was stepping off the edge of the world. In terms of timeline, I was not really “over it” until I had established a firm footing in my new career; sad to say I think that took me around six years, though that wasn’t six years of being where your partner is now — there were many milestones along the way and I was more or less breathing normally again maybe six months into my first real job.

I support your intuition to seek out a therapist who has some understanding of these issues. In the US you can be licensed to do therapy with a variety of masters degrees — not sure what your situation is in the UK — but I might hold out for a PhD psychologist; I suspect there is no substitute for personal experience in understanding the cultish side of academia.
posted by eirias at 3:34 AM on October 28, 2019 [5 favorites]

It sounds as if your partner is grieving for the loss of (what amounts to) exploitative labour conditions.

Given that she has also accrued extensive experience and contacts it is perfectly possible that something will 'turn up' in the next few years and this abusive situation will continue.

If your partner does take a couple of years to work on themselves, it would be worth thinking this eventuality through in preparation.

Is this already a life-changing break? Can you make it more decisive? What if something does turn up, is that delaying future pain?

Perhaps working through these questions will help break down some of the inculcation that has occurred.

Good luck and huge sympathies!
posted by einekleine at 4:33 AM on October 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Many professors who teach clinical psychology maintain a clinical practice (on top of the research and publishing demands of academia) in order to stay up to date and connected to the techniques in which they train others. While I don't have a specific recommendation in London (memail me if you resort to the remote option), I would suggest calling the Clinical Psychology departments of nearby universities and asking if any of the professors have a private practice where they would see clients with your partner's profile.

Here is the contact page for the UCL doctorate in psychology program, for example. Just clicking on the professors' about pages it's not immediately clear for everyone whether they have a clinical practice and if so what their specialty is, which is why I recommend a phone call.

If that doesn't work, then there is always Psychology Today, where you can filter by health insurance, neighborhood, specialty, and so on. I usually tell people that a master's vs. doctorate level degree is more or less irrelevant to the quality of care for most people, but in your partner's specific case she may be more likely to trust a therapist who has more direct insight into academia. On Psychology Today you can see the therapist's credentials just below their name. I'm not 100% clear on the regulation of titles in the U.K. but it seems from this page that for a doctoral level therapist you are looking for it to say "Psychologist" rather than "Psychotherapist" or, obviously, to list some type of degree with a capital D such as DCounsPsych.

In terms of specialty, I would advise you to look for someone who specializes in Grief and Loss, not career counseling. From what you've described your partner has a lot to grieve; she has lost something that is a huge part of her identity, and is faced with the challenge of creating new meaning in a world that is missing most of what gave her meaning before. She doesn't need someone to give her a career assessment test, she needs someone to listen and hold space as she mourns. So if you end up on Psychology Today, try clicking on "bereavement" as a specialty to narrow your search.

Lastly, you (or rather, your partner) can write exactly the paragraph you have written above (starting with "She is open to seeing a therapist...") in an email to a potential therapist - or to thirty potential therapists - and enable her to base her decision on how they reply. A good therapist should reply in one of three ways: 1) to apologize that it's not in their wheelhouse and recommend someone else if they can, 2) to explain, in detail, how it is precisely in line with their practice and their professional expertise, or 3) to offer a free phone or in-person consultation to better determine whether this could be a good fit. Don't schedule with anyone who merely replies with their availability for an intake session, as this does not imply that they are giving your partner's specific needs the weight and accommodation they deserve.

Good luck to you and your partner. It is heartbreaking to see someone you love in so much pain. I'm glad you are also asking for input on how to get through this, as it's not easy for you either. To that end, you are also entitled to grieve the life you thought you would live together, to see a therapist, to cry, and to express your pain to your friends and family. Just try to express it to your support people outside the relationship, so that you can show your partner nothing but acceptance, love, and hope until she heals enough to restore balance in your relationship.
posted by philotes at 4:43 AM on October 28, 2019 [11 favorites]

am also looking for advice from other people who have been through something like this, or helped someone else who has. How did you cope? What things helped?
When I experienced the collapse of everything I thought my life was going to be, I quit work and, basically, wallowed for a couple of months. As in, I slept all day sleeping and spent nights lying on the living room rug crying. Then I slowly started to get interested in life again. I can't tell from your question how long she's been going through the worst of her grief, but if it's only been a few weeks, maybe what she needs is time and space to be sad (rather than encouragement to leave the house and keep busy)?
posted by frobozz at 7:21 AM on October 28, 2019 [7 favorites]

Shomit Mitter - a leading therapist, a doctorate from Cambridge and very highly regarded yet affordable.
posted by ashawill at 10:20 AM on October 28, 2019

Just wanted to add another voice saying that this is such a sadly common story. Your partner is in no way a failure and there are so, so many extremely bright and competent people who simply cannot get those permanent academic jobs because there are too few of them to go around. I can also empathize with the frustration of people succeeding due to "playing the game" and taking advantage of the labours of others. This is also sadly common in academia and the system is very exploitative and rewards those people. It sucks.

I'm 36 and still hanging on in the academic world as a postdoc, though I will likely either step away soon or be pushed out through lack of permanent opportunity. I have many friends who have already stepped away or been pushed out.

Although it REALLY sucks that her current opportunities have dried up, there will be many more out there. I don't know what her specific area is, but there are likely lots of interesting jobs out that will pop up say in the next year. If she has a network of people who can send her new opportunities (and recommend her to others), this will be helpful.

I was recently at a presentation where the speaker showed a snapshot of all the places that her grad school peers ended up. There were maybe 25ish people, and very few, I want to say like three, ended up in traditional academic positions. Some were in govt, some non-profit, some research network (lab-based or other), some corporate, some creative, etc. The speaker herself was some kind of research liason, whose job was helping research findings get translated into health care practice. It sounded awesome, and she loved her job. One of her take home messages from this talk was that as academics, we are not told about all of the neat things beyond academia... we are trained to function in that one system with blinders on. Yet, there are so many positions outside academia where we can use our skills, excel, and be happy! It was a very eye opening talk, that gave me a lot of hope for the future.

I also want to nth those above who suggest that grief counseling is probably a more helpful lens than career counseling at the moment. It can be very, very hard to have a longstanding picture of what your life will be like that ends up shattered. Similar to other loss transitions like unwanted infertility, the loss of a marriage, and so on, it's normal that your partner will need some time to grieve and fashion a new narrative about what her life will entail. Building that new narrative is super important after a life disruption like this. That might take some time, but she will get there!

Best of luck to your partner, she's totally got this and I bet in a couple years she looks back at this dark time and thinks something along of the lines of "thank fuck I'm out of academia".
posted by DTMFA at 11:59 AM on October 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Fortunately, things are financially secure enough that she could comfortably take a couple of years off at least.

This sounds like a terrible idea for someone who has defined herself so much by her job. I worry that she wouldn't use this as a chance to rebound but would stay mired in the chaos and mud and upset of losing her job.

What happened to her is terrible, and terribly common in academia. I think she needs to find an alternative career as soon as possible, and she'll be able to start to re-build her self-esteem and professional connections.

If she wants to use that time to pursue some other kind of education, great, but taking time off with a specific reason isn't necessarily going to help her move forward. I think you are saying this because you are a supportive partner and you are at a loss, but I'd say she needs to do two things asap: get a therapist and get a job. Yes, both are complicated. But even a low paying job will be a healthy way for her to engage with the world.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:58 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

I was on what Americans call a tenure track when one of my superiors suddenly wanted my job. I hadn't done anything wrong, contrariwise, so the only way they could get rid of me was through bullying, gaslighting and false accusals till I broke down completely with anxiety and depression.
While I was still there, but on sick leave, I had a therapist paid by the university who was also helping several of my colleagues (yes, it was an unhealthy work environment). She was good at helping me see that it wasn't me.
Then I got a part-time teaching job at another university which I really enjoyed, but when they put up a full position for me, I wasn't ready and failed big-time at the interview. It's a long story, but now I can see I hadn't gotten through my grievances at all.
Then I took a full time position in a little town teaching at the secondary school level, and I actually enjoyed the place and the colleagues, but obviously the academic level was not interesting. While there I found a psychotherapist. This was a barracks town, so there were many vets, and the therapist quickly determined I was suffering from PTSD. This was very helpful. She used methods from her experience with vets, and I felt I progressed a lot. Now I am back in my former part-time job and working on building a new research position for myself. My therapist helped me remember my competences, and I feel happy and optimistic as I work on building this new platform and network.
I do volunteer work as well, and that has been a confidence-booster, too.
It turns out I have lots of friends and former colleagues who want to help me and work with me. I don't need to engage with the people who bullied me, I've moved a very slight bit away from the subject they wanted to take over, but not out of my field, and it works just fine. One friend I met, who'd experienced something similar, said you have to accept that this takes years. But he, and I believe it is a good idea to do something while you are recovering.
posted by mumimor at 1:13 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

My world and identity as an academic crumbled around 7 or so years ago and it was ugly. Like really ugly. I couldn’t shake that loss of self until maybe two years ago when I basically forced myself into a new career (currently data engineering) that made me feel as intellectually challenged, and therefore validated my sense of self as an intellectual much the same way academia did. What that is for your wife is hers to find and it’s going to take a lot of time and struggling and it’s going to suck. I probably should have gotten therapy but rebuilding an identity just takes time and experimentation with the world until something new sticks. She’ll want to go back, probably, in some capacity, which might not be a bad idea if she can stomach being a lecturer or an admin of some sort. I almost did but then I didn’t. Moreover let her grieve and mourn herself as much as she needs to.
posted by Young Kullervo at 4:38 PM on October 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

Might I suggest someone with a sports therapy background? They’re often trained to deal with the grief and loss of career transition out of professional sports, which sounds like a loss of identity parallel to what your wife may be experiencing.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 10:15 PM on October 28, 2019

Then I took a full time position in a little town teaching at the secondary school level, and I actually enjoyed the place and the colleagues, but obviously the academic level was not interesting.

Not sure if this level of back and forth is allowed in AskMe but just a note - it is not actually obvious that this would be true for everybody! Little e (7) has a classroom teacher who has a PhD and decided to switch gears, and I've seen her in action and she's great, really great. The work of getting younger/less experienced people to understand complicated and important things can actually be super challenging and worthwhile. Yeah, I'm sure the classroom management piece is draining and annoying (NB: so are plagiarism and twice-dead grandparents) but let's not neg a career possibility when we don't know the first thing about the other stuff OP's partner might like to do (because even she doesn't know it yet!).

Probably the most annoying advice I've ever gotten is "let's approach this problem in a spirit of curiosity" -- annoying because it is always right and almost always indicates a correct perception that I am fixating on a wrong approach and/or a wrong answer. Here, the curiosity might look like: what WOULD it feel like to work in job x for a time? what would my days look like? what would my colleagues be like? what would the hard problems be? I think the grieving is real and important and has been earned, and I don't want to downplay that work, but I also think healing starts with a glimmer of curiosity for other selves she might become.
posted by eirias at 8:53 AM on October 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Followup from the anon OP:
I'd just like to thank everyone who's responded to this.

I'm not going to try to respond to all the answers, but I have read them all, and I really appreciate everyone who took the time to respond. I know that for many of you this is a painful and stressful topic.

Thanks also to those who responded privately by email - you should have replies from me now, check your spam if they're missing. I will keep checking that address for a while.

I now have a glowing recommendation for a specific local therapist, as well as some very kind offers of help and support from local MeFites. This community continues to be utterly fantastic. Thank you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:18 AM on October 31, 2019 [2 favorites]

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