Monday, June 10, 2019

Sometimes giving up is the smart thing to do.

[likely image source]
A few years ago I signed up for a 10k race. It had an entry fee, it was a scenic route, and I had qualified for the first group. I was in best shape. The weather forecast was brilliant.

Two days before the race I got a bad cold. But that wouldn’t deter me. Oh, no, not me. I’m not a quitter. I downed a handful of pills and went nevertheless. I started with a fever, a bad cough, and a banging head.

It didn’t go well. After half a kilometer I developed a chest pain. After one kilometer it really hurt. After two kilometers I was sure I’d die. Next thing I recall is someone handing me a bottle of water after the finish line.

Needless to say, my time wasn’t the best.

But the real problem began afterward. My cold refused to clear out properly. Instead I developed a series of respiratory infections. That chest pain stayed with me for several months. When the winter came, each little virus the kids brought home knocked me down.

I eventually went to see a doctor. She sent me to have a chest X-ray taken on the suspicion of tuberculosis. When the X-ray didn’t reveal anything, she put me on a 2 week regime of antibiotics.

The antibiotics indeed finally cleared out whatever lingering infection I had carried away. It took another month until I felt like myself again.

But this isn’t a story about the misery of aging runners. It’s a story about endurance sport of a different type: academia.

In academia we write Perseverance with capital P. From day one, we are taught that pain is normal, that everyone hurts, and that self-motivation is the highest of virtues. In academia, we are all over-achievers.

This summer, as every summer for the past two decades, I receive notes about who is leaving. Leaving because they didn’t get funding, because they didn’t get another position, or because they’re just no longer willing to sacrifice their life for so little in return.

And this summer, as every summer for the past two decades, I find myself among the ones who made it into the next round, find myself sitting here, wondering if I’m worthy and if I’m in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. Because, let us be honest. We all know that success in academia has one or two elements of luck. Or maybe three. We all know it’s not always fair.

I’m writing this for the ones who have left and the ones who are about to leave. Because I have come within an inch of leaving half a dozen times and I have heard the nasty, nagging voice in the back of my head. “Quitter,” it says and laughs, “Quitter.”

Don’t listen. From the people I know who left academia, few have regrets. And the few with regrets found ways to continue some research along with their new profession. The loss isn’t yours. The loss is one for academia. I understand your decision and I think you choose wisely. Just because everyone you know is on a race to nowhere doesn’t mean going with them makes sense. Sometimes, giving up is the smart thing to do.

A year after my miserable 10k experience, I signed up for a half-marathon. A few kilometers into the race, I tore a muscle.

I don’t get a runner’s high, but running increases my pain tolerance to unhealthy levels. After a few kilometers, you could probably stab me in the back and I wouldn’t notice. I could well have finished that race. But I quit.


  1. Thank you. I needed to read this just now. This year, I am one of those who are leaving. Wish me luck!

    1. Good luck :) And congratulations on starting a new part of your life. I hope it's more exciting than stressful, though doubtless a combination of both.

    2. But Jolyon, you are also arriving. Welcome!

  2. In leaving academia I have found there are ways of still maintaining an intellectual or research aspect to life. I have published some papers. I can say that I do not miss the stress of academic life, and I had a dislike for what I saw as a snobbishness based on status in departments.

    There is a deeper level of quitting, which is suicide. This is the route my brother took. He was into molecular biology, and got on the tenure track. He ran into some difficulties, took a position elsewhere, but then again ran into troubles and resigned. After 2 year he committed suicide. I always thought he took all of this far too seriously.

    1. Gosh, so sorry to hear. What a tragedy.

    2. I forgot to comment about running. It was in graduate school that I did a compound fracture on my left tibia leg bone. The bone was visibly sticking out at the time. Ever since I can't run. I have various metal hardware in this leg and if I run I get shooting pains. My exuberant, gallomph of a Labrador Retriever sometimes on a leashed walk forces me into a run --- ouch. I do bicycling and swimming.

      My brother who committed suicide had certain obsessive compulsive tendencies. My other two brothers and sister are not prone to this. I have to admit I have a degree of that sort of behavior. He also would fall into depression. Now the kicker which makes things also sad is that his daughter just 1-1/2 years ago committed suicide, so that gets really tough for Pam, the mother any wife of my brother.

      Depression is a serious problem, and something that should be avoided by not engaging in highly stressful activities. Anyone in the family who is in such behavior or depression needs to be encouraged to seek therapy.

    3. Lawrence,

      So sad to hear about your brother and niece.

      It does raise a larger point: there is something disastrously, horribly wrong about a system -- the academic world -- in which the story about your brother does not strike us as surprising.

      It would be surprising if he had been a pharmacist, an accountant, a K-12 teacher, or most other middle-class occupations.

      If every academic were doing something as important as finding a cure for cancer... But most aren't. Most are just drones. (Yes, so are many accountants and civil engineers.. but they have a life.)

      I encouraged my kids' interest in STEM, but I have discouraged them from going into academia. Something has gone horribly wrong.

      Again, you and your sister-in-law have all of our sympathy.


    4. The academic world is very intense, and frankly what is the most intense is the social aspect of it. The intellectual aspects are hard and require a lot of work, but the social pressures are terrible.

      The death of my niece is a "sort of suicide," in that she had been in deep problems with anorexia. This is a mental disorder related to depression that ended up killing her. I talked to her on the phone quite a bit after my brother and her father committed suicide in 2012, just days before the Higgs announcement. She was obviously deeply troubled. In the year before her death it was becoming apparent this would not end well.

  3. Hi Sabine,

    Knowing when to keeping going and when to walk away is one of life's most important judgment calls. I have run four marathons and I'm glad I finished every one of them, although two were very hard.

    I have hung in there with a medical career that, with the ever-increasing dysfunction of the US healthcare system, is making me question more and more often whether it is indeed worth it.

    In the mid 1990s, I dropped out of my doctoral program in theoretical neuroscience. Although the AI revolution has sometimes made me question the wisdom of that decision, at the time, with what I knew about myself, it was the right call. I am very content with doing a little science as a hobby-- on my own time, on my own schedule.

    Thanks for openly discussing another very important issue, and good luck with your own ongoing reflections.

  4. I quit working on quantum gravity around 2005 and put all my energy into n-category theory. I quit working on n-categories around 2010 and started trying to work on global warming. In both cases it was painful but it felt like the right thing to do. With quantum gravity I felt nobody was making solid progress. With n-categories it was the opposite: the field had exploded and I didn't feel it needed me anymore. I've been lucky enough to be able to keep my job during these changes. Ideally tenure gives someone the freedom to quit a line of research when there's something better to do. The problem is that there's a temptation to keep building up ones reputation for expertise in a limited specialty. I feel that temptation. I don't like it.

    1. Dr Baez, I've known you and interacted with you in diverse ways on diverse topics for three decades now, and I still think you are one of the smartest cookies out there. Whatever you keep doing or don't keep doing, I wish you the best and hope you keep loving to do research for decades more.

    2. The problem with quantum gravity, as Sabine and everyone should know, is experimental. Even if some very intelligent human or AI managed to solve the biggest theoretical problem in the world, how to test is essential. Otherwise no difference with old philosophy or religions...Gravitational waves, neutrinos and future extreme astronomy (gamma rays, radioastronomy, or even axion/cosmic ray astronomy) is the only natural way to access scales of energies we can not reveal with current resources on Earth or even the known resources. Personally, I admire your wisdow, John. You did it much more than all that, inspiring people to blog, to talk about what they do and like,...And for that, even when not directly science, I hope you will be always very proud of it...Sabine and other bloggers are also very inspiring, other are more crudes. People in our fields are very different and can tend to the Light and the Dark Side, allow me the metaphor please. By they way, John, I don't know if you have created music like that Liminal piece long ago...But it is also a nice contribution. Indeed, that music helped me a lot in very dark times.

    3. Law is another area where you have to reinvent yourself multiple times in a career. Imagine being a physicist and then Nature decides one day that it didn't need second and third generation fermions after all and they and all the physics that go with them suddenly disappear and you have to reinvent physics without them. In law, stuff like that happens on a regular basis and your entire specialty can cease to exist with a stroke of a pen and then you have to learn how to do something else for a while until that disappears.

      The good thing about it is that you are always learning something new.

  5. All the while I was feeling hapless about myself not able to keep up with fellow peers in whatever I chose to work on. Although I had a lot of resources at my disposal, mentors to guide me through right ways and orient me in a desired direction, I simply lost myself in what I call an ocean of things. I barely could swim or hold my breath. There came a point where I started feeling breathless and couldn't take any more pressure. I hadn't even got into what I call academia. The start itself was a little scary. I found myself amongst people who were a way ahead than what I am, and expected me to think or act like them. It was then I decided I would step back and started introspecting myself. I've had the honors and comforts of what other people, who aspired for them, didn't, but I've also had days where in I withdrew into myself, bursting out from within and the latter was more disturbing. I knew I was sinking. It was then I decided to take a step back and relax. Thanks to you to have bravely put down these thoughts. I have felt this as well, and only few can understand this.

  6. Your reflective note gave me a new perspective on Academia, even though you have mentioned many of the difficulties before. While I was in university, I considered an academic career, but I was a bit burnt out and went to Industry thinking I would go back in a few years and continue the academic path. That never happened. What Industry offered, provided one was a reasonable worker with decent accomplishments, was freedom of movement. I changed companies, and jobs within companies many times. Nothing like a tenure system and publication fever. In industry one usually has the option to be on the supervisor, management, director track or stick to the technical, tech lead, principle technical lead track. Of course, all depending on competence, performance, and energy. I have been well served and am proud of my accomplishments.

    In Industry there are those who pontificate without merit, and overly control, but there is the economic controls to (usually) weed them out. Those who cannot help the team achieve success (money) will not be kept. And, if I were stuck around those types, I left.

    Still, there is, to me, something about Academia that seems to be on the higher moral plane -- a nobler endeavor. And, so I do have some small regrets about my path.

    1. SteveB wrote:
      >What Industry offered, provided one was a reasonable worker with decent accomplishments, was freedom of movement. I changed companies, and jobs within companies many times. Nothing like a tenure system and publication fever.

      Steve, you've nailed the key point.

      In industry, you can have a boss who hates you, and you can just move on to a new firm. In academia, if your thesis advisor hates you, or if you anger a leading figure in the field, your career is down the toilet.

      It's not that there aren't nasty people in industry, but their power is limited.

      When I was a young kid, my dad told me the real virtue of a market economy is that if you hate your job, you just quit and get another job.

      Dad had a point.

  7. Personally, I think quitting is very good advice. So is not quitting!

    The best advice is to cultivate an ability to detach yourself and analyze your situation in light of what you want out of life in the short, medium and long term; and often what I want out of life is the happiness and well-being of other people; that can make me happy and I'm willing to sacrifice to some extent to accomplish that.

    But there is an equation we have to balance, it isn't worth being abused or ruthlessly exploited (in over a 40 year career, I've been both) and it is important to avoid the sunk cost fallacy: Sometimes you need to trust in yourself to figure things out, and walk away without a plan.

    There is always a way out (presuming no crimes were committed), it is usually labeled with a lighted sign reading "EXIT".

    Financially, I have always planned for quitting as well. Our expenses, credit line, investments and savings have for decades allowed at least a year without income, specifically so I don't have an obstacle with quitting a bad boss, or being fired for doing the right thing (or not doing the wrong thing), or losing a job for lack of funds.

    Quitting is good advice. Making sure you are financially able to quit is good advice.

    And staying with something because in the long term it is what you want, despite its hardships and even if you must sacrifice in the short term -- That is also good advice; and making sure you are financially able to stick with it is good advice.

  8. Best whisper for myself to give up something is: "Kill your darlings".

    When done, way to go!

  9. Its totally fine. Your life, your decisions. And at the end of the day human tolerance isn't unbounded. You can't fight everything at the same time, nor you have to!

  10. My case is different. I was not given a fair opportunity to be creative...I have out of academia, and yet I payed myself some workshops and courses/a master, a second master I did not finished due to health and family problems. I have tendency to depression. And though, rational life saved my life...I could have been crazy if not rational part of my brain had been left...I dream yet to leave some pieces of my work out there...Even if they are wrong or ignored...They will be my failures and successes, as any other part of my life. My bigger dream is that the best mind (not all at least) are in academia. It is not justice. As Sabine cleverly said, it is likely luck, fortune to find out a nice group of similar minds and the pressure of not publishing but to do creative job...Sometimes I dreamed to work at university, now, 41 y.o., I think maybe it is not the right path for me...Anyway, I will publish my stuff at my blog and my future video channel (I wish!), my ideas...Academia sometimes has become a completely (not always, I insist) killer of nice people. And the divinization of people with good marks than not always point out the best mind. Maybe, in the near future, the university and the scientific world should think about why we are loosing the best of the best in other places (or even in tragedies, my family has a dark story in the last 25 years, or more, I am not going to talk about here, too painful...It affected too much likely...)...Life sucks, but it is the finding of similar people who makes the life interesting, even when you feel completely alone in this Universe (Multiverse)...Thank you for writing this, Bee. At least, now, ...I don't feel alone...

  11. The problem with the passion and drive not to quit is that it often also makes one myopic, which is not a good thing for a scientist. In spite of all the reasons to preemptively prejude and dismiss what's different from what you're already sure of; having an open mind is likely to be more successful for a scientist than stubbornly pursuing what one wants. Unless you get incredibly lucky.

  12. It can be pretty tough to say to yourself "this isn't working" and realize you have to make a big change.

  13. We need academia and people who like to do it. But don’t worry there a lot of exciting jobs outside of academia.

  14. I find myself among the ones who made it into the next round, find myself sitting here, wondering if I’m worthy and if I’m in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. Because, let us be honest. We all know that success in academia has one or two elements of luck. Or maybe three. We all know it’s not always fair.

    Nobody has done a better job of explaining what's happening in the physics community, and the changes needed if we're to make more progress in our fundamental understanding of nature. Absolutely you are worthy.

    I don't know what's best for you personally or your family. But for physics, YES, you are the right person, in the right place, at the right time.

    It seems there is a little fairness in the world. By swimming against the tide, you've put yourself at a career disadvantage. It's certainly no matter of luck you've nevertheless gotten a new appointment.


    1. I’m going to second Kris Krogh’s assessment rather than reiterate. Yes well done Sabine! (Though her contract wasn’t being extended last I heard. What have I missed?)

      Still I don’t know that theoretical physics is her true calling. I’d like to see her help do a job that I consider far more important. Yes this would include fixing a physics community which has gotten itself lost in math and beauty. But I see that as just one sign of a problem which festers in all vulnerable elements of science. As such I suspect that piecemeal medicine won’t do.

      I’d like her to use her talents to advocate the creation and development of a respected community of professionals with their own generally accepted principles of epistemology from which to do science. Without such formal rules, all sorts of unfortunate practices should be expected in both the nether regions of physics, and certainly “soft” forms of science.

      If Sabine and various likeminded scientist were to put together some basic rules which seem sensible enough, this might start something big. If scientists in general were to find such rules effective, then even its worst offenders should be pressured to comply.

      And who would most oppose the creation of such a community? Epistemologists already exist in academia (known as “philosophers”), and the last thing that they should want is for scientists to work on this as “scientists” rather than as “philosophers”. Doesn’t matter though. Without a respected community that provides various accepted principles of epistemology, vulnerable areas of science should continue to suffer.

    2. Eric,

      Probably a misunderstanding. My current contract is temporary and runs out in November. I only learned on Friday that I'll get a new contract after this, which will run for 3 more years. Then the game starts over again. (It's basically the same position, but with a different research project.)

  15. "elements of luck"
    Werner Israel on the No Hair Theorem:

    He called his discovery a mixture of luck and timing. It was early on in the physicists’ examination of black holes and not many were interested.

    “Back then very few people even believed in them, even Einstein didn’t believe,” said Israel. “Black holes were just too exciting.”

    “So it was very good to get in at the beginning.” he said. “It was actually very easy then to make great discoveries.”

  16. What happened to the prescription about the road to happiness being through "following your passion"?

    1. Axil: You should follow your passion, but when that stops leading to happiness, its time to quit. If it starts producing unhappiness or despair or strife and struggle, it is past the time to quit. There is a difference between pursuing one's passion and repeatedly ramming one's head into a brick wall.

      Pursuing a passion is an emotional imperative, but periodically we need to rationally reassess whether such emotions have become destructive.

    2. If your passion is linked to a particular style of institution or model of employment, rather than particular kinds of interactions, questions, or the like, then you will have problems, and should maybe go back for another round of meditation on your passions. There are some entries on the pro side to academia, to be sure, but none of them are exclusive to it. It's not magical. Getting you to believe that it is magic is a great trick, helpful to get people to swallow a larger con side of the balance than they should have to.

  17. Dr. H,
    Sharing your views has been invaluable to me because they objectively deal with issues. When parameters change, your conclusions seem to change accordingly, whatever your personal bias. Some people call that being mature. Thanks, and best of luck.

  18. The Google allows for searching for images by time, and the first instance of that image is at

    And the author of the blog does look like the runner as well :-)

  19. Hi, SABINE !!!

    Love Your blog.

    Everyone forgets.!...

    Science does not predict.

    Love Your Work .

  20. I would say "giving up" may not be the most appropriate phrase for deciding to leave academia, because leaving is often the empowering, braver decision rather than sticking with something that is not good for you or your life. Knew a PhD student who was probably the most talented philosopher in his university, but because he wasn't the type to take part in all the "career building" pretences of academia, did his PhD with little fuss and quickly left to live a normal more fulfilling family life. The issue is much around academia is the career hoops you have to jump through, seem just as important as the actual work you produce. Many now just get careers because they know how to "work" the system and how to get funding. Just to have a career. This sort of thing helps the less-talented of the students, who are able to get careers more through grit and determination than ability. And also being in the right groups and knowing the right people to get along with. Also common now to just pump out pointless papers while doing PhD just to make you look good, that have little relevance or real meaning.

    Another thing is , there is now so many people doing PhDs, that shouldn't be, and the market is flooded. This is an issue in some subjects more than others. I really think there's a huge problem brewing and the quality of research will suffer due to these pressures, many people are desperate.

  21. "From the people I know who left academia, few have regrets. And the few with regrets found ways to continue some research along with their new profession."

    I'm not so sure. Yes, some, like myself, continue in some low-key manner, but many do miss academia---not the uncertain funding, but talking to people in other fields at coffee time and so on. Of course, there is a selection effect; you don't hear about those who don't continue research, so might assume that it is not uncommon. It's actually quite rare.

    Of course, some people don't mind at all; these are often the types who say "wherever I am, I'll be sitting at a computer, so why not trade in more-interesting work in return for more money". Fine, if that's what floats their boat. But others are interested in deep scientific topics where one needs more than spare time.

    There are advantages and disadvantages. Someone with a real job outside academia can easily afford to pay full price for conferences and so on, and all those citations are from people who actually read the papers and appreciated them, as opposed to citing papers for other reasons. But there are also those who assume that everyone who stays in academia is a genius and everyone who leaves is a loser. When dealing with these people personally, I have no problem: those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind. It can be a pain, though, when someone behind the scenes, with unknown identity, decides, on the basis of institutional affiliation alone, who gets what.

    I moved from doing exactly the type of science I wanted to do, but with insecurity and low pay, to good pay and security, but too little time. I do actually miss those days when I was living in a tent in the winter to save money, but putting in long days at the institute. (Of course, in retrospect, one tends to remember the good times: räkna de lyckliga stunderna blott, as the old song says.

    I was once interviewed by someone who asked me to characterize the period when I was working (more than) full-time in academia. Dickens came to mind:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way....

  22. "And this summer, as every summer for the past two decades, I find myself among the ones who made it into the next round"

    So are you staying where you are now?

    1. Yes, at least for the next 3 years.

    2. Count yourself lucky. More than 99% of the people in the world work at something they are not interested in, for less than your salary. :-|

  23. Academia and research are no the same thing. Many academics are not active researchers and many researchers are not in academic institutions. I left academia over 30 years ago. At the time I was teaching, handling the usual administration stuff, and doing research. I was lucky if I could average 20 hours per week on research. A simple profit & loss calculation showed I would be better off outside academia - I could double my salary, have a permanent job, and easily find 20 hours to continue my research. I left academia, but kept on good terms with my colleagues. Now 30 years later I still attend seminars, use the library, and continue the research I'm interested in. Of course, the danger of working on your own is that you become a crank, fixated on bizarre ideas that you believe to be true. You reach the point where you should give up but are no longer smart enough to do so. However, it seems that academia itself is not immune from being fixated with ideas that it should give up on.

  24. "I" quit to "Myself" but I constantly fail on Quit It ...

    But when/where I don't fail, what remains is existence as existence is given by Itself, without a Self biasing what is happening, always right here and right know .... Enjoying Apeland and Its Absurd Rituals of Ignorance and Superstitious Collective Patterns, self-deception and stupidity ...

    Mixed in the Mass as another Idiot fated to Die in Infamy and Oblivion.

    Fighting for an Objective Truth that The Apes Hate .... But The Fight on Itself is The Reward and The Meaning of this ephemeral impersonation ...

    Death in The Battlefield is Achieving Absolute Peace.

    The Apeland's War is over. The Objective Truth of My Death had found My true self, again.

    Time to rest in Peace forever and ever, and Dream about Wars and Warriors ... Wakeup and Observe, That I am - again - in Apeland playing again this Meaningless Game.

    Sucking Her "Bussy".

  25. It seems to me that if one quits something to start something bigger, better, more fun or more fulfilling, then one has not quit. One has just begun...

  26. @ J

    STOP. and think about it.

    We've both seen days ( and nights)
    - that are unimaginable
    to the casual observer.

    You are not alone.

    You are Never alone.

    This world is , indeed,
    strange and twisted
    - at times.

    I agree with Sabine
    Quitting anything
    is advisable at times.

    Don't quit life.
    i may need to talk to you
    - more than you
    need to talk
    to me.
    - use this blog.

    I'll be there.

    - we both need to
    talk to someone.
    Love Your Work.
    ... or not. lol.

  27. The "luck" part of the equation is what saved me from an unpleasant job environment. Starting a job at a small company in 1979 I found myself the target of a clique of bullies who persistently picked on me. It had taken a long time to find this job, so quitting wasn't an option, not to mention there weren't many electronics companies in the area. Going home at night I carried the stress of the day with me. I can remember staring in the mirror, imagining that I was facing my tormentors saying something similar to Marty McFly's "you talking to me" line in one of the "Back to the Future" series. Fortunately, after 10 years of this unpleasant environment I obtained a very good job that I stayed with till retirement.

  28. It's funny, but I had somewhat of the opposite experience as people who began their careers in academia. I began my final job working at a world renowned oceanographic research institution, after quitting the run-of-the-mill job mentioned above. I had dreamed of working at this institute since being a kid. Indeed, part of the reason I moved hundreds of miles away from my home state of New Jersey was to gain employment at this institute, obliquely mentioned in the movie "Jaws". Working among academics was a wonderful experience, not to mention the perk of participating in research cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. As an engineering technician I avoided the stresses endured by the tenure tracking professionals seeking permanent positions as scientists, or assistant scientists, at the institute in a very competitive environment. Nevertheless, my job was both physically and mentally demanding, and funding for our group was always an issue.


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