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Why I’m leaving university out of love for academia

Do you know this feeling, when you sit in the corner of the entrance hall of a university building, somewhere in the world, on the sidelines of a conference, lost in a fascinating novel dataset or a paper, while other academics rush by? Or this feeling when dozens of pairs of eyes of students look at you in a Zoom meeting, and all you wonder is how you can make them look at knowledge and science with the same fascination that science and knowledge have for you?

I admire these and many other sunshine moments of academic life. In fact I love them. Moments that accumulate over the years until you know why you enjoy being an academic.

These moments started to be meaningful at some point during my studies of political science over a decade ago. It was the time when I discovered that I had an idea. An idea I wanted to explore and that did not fit into the disciplinary boundaries of university, so I had to find my own way in combining knowledge from different science disciplines. This idea ultimately grew into my doctoral thesis years later. It was this process, not the PhD as such, that was the entry key to enjoying academic life.

What’s so hard to explain about this academic life is that it is a weird mix of solitude and sociability, of egomania and team work, of routine and innovation, of teaching and being taught, and of failing and failing again, then failing and failing again. And yet, there is so much sunshine in both the very quiet and the very loud academic moments that its beauty is hard to describe unless you live it.

Many who love academic life don’t always find those sunshine moments inside academia, because they don’t get the right conditions to balance social or family life with academic life; they don’t have the opportunity to team up with the right people at the right time and place; or they cannot build long-term perspectives that make academic life worth the effort.

The hardest thing to do in academic life is to keep moving forward while keeping those sunshine moments coming.

So this is a text about me wanting to move forward in the sunshine. I’ve come to the conclusion that I want to replace the pursuit of an academic career, this goal that for many seems (and is) the only way to a permanent academic life, by trying to just build something new.

Let me explain: Before the Corona crisis started a few weeks ago—which kind of feels like years ago—I had just decided to quit university and the search for a university career to return to my home region to create a research-oriented company.

In essence, my idea was and is to start a social business where profits and other income are invested into basic research or opportunities to experiment with new technologies and methods. The innovations from doing this research would be made available to clients, ideally the right kind of clients. (I keep it this vague for now because the details are in the making.)

But that’s not the only core of the idea. The second core of the idea is to create a place where the energy of people who love academic work and who enjoy science in its different facets is turned into something productive. I hate to see that energy being wasted in a zero-sum game competition for the few places in the sunlight of academic tenure inside university or being lost in jobs that do not value academic working habits.

It was the experience of a job talk for professorship in Potsdam as well as the inspiring stories of fellow post-reunification Germans from “the East”—see the initiative ‘Wir sind der Osten‘ (‘We are the East’)—last year that convinced me to return to my home region and to start something new outside university but inside academia.

The job talk in Potsdam was a wonderful opportunity in my own quest for academic career building. I never wanted a job this badly in my life, and I’ve probably never invested this much energy into being prepared for a single two hours than what I invested for this particular job talk.

In Potsdam, I could see myself building an academic life, a life with the right balance between staying put and moving forward, between valuing friendship and family nearby and enjoying academic work in my home region. The academic and technological environment would have been perfect, the colleagues would have been amazing, and I would have been physically closer to my family and friends—most of them live in regional train distance from Potsdam—than I’ve been for most of the past decade.

I did not get this professorship in the end, and that’s actually fine. It was the most realistic outcome in the first place. Seeing the list of other academics who had job talks for this position,  I could picture any of them being a very good choice. So not getting this position wasn’t the issue.

What I knew right there was that I was not actually at this job talk to compete against these amazing colleagues. I was simply there to get a chance for the right kind of academic life in my home region.

This was when I decided that there must be a second path to living a good academic life in my home region, beyond trying to become a professor: For that, I needed to build my own academic-style organisation. And I needed to build it where I wanted to live, together with people I want to work with, who shared the idea of doing something in “the East”.

Ironically, when I had just made the decision to leave Munich to pursue this endeavour, and when I had already found a place to live just outside Berlin, Corona broke out.

Instead of spending all my energy on this idea and moving, I delayed my move and then spent the last weeks teaming up with a few amazing colleagues to help my institute here in Munich to transition towards academic e-learning in Corona time. In these past weeks, I thus turned 100% towards my current academic life at the exact same moment when I had decided I wanted to look towards my academic future.

What was fascinating, however, was that these past weeks, despite the focus on the present, brought exactly the kind of entrepreneurial energy that I am looking for in my post-university academic life.

At the same time, I saw and see the extreme worries of many of my non-tenured colleagues—especially those with kids—who wonder how they can get through this period and still have a chance of tenure. For those colleagues, new and additional job options need to be created outside university but inside academia. We need places—companies, associations, public institutions—that value their creative and entrepreneurial energy, their methodological and teaching skills, their love of science, instead of eating up their energy like university often does ahead of tenure.

In the coming weeks, the virus permitting, I will thus move away from Munich to return to my home region near Berlin. I will continue to teach and to do research here at LMU Munich, working from home. Funny enough, it doesn’t make a big difference these days whether I work from home in Munich or from somewhere northeast.

Still, COVID-19 creates an additional level of economic and social uncertainty, uncertainty that makes jumping into the cold water and starting something new even more nerve-wrecking right now. But even if my transition out of university takes a little longer to maybe wait for the storm of the economic crisis to pass:

Unless the world falls completely apart, the risk of failing in the attempt to create a viable academic business is probably not much higher than the risk of failing to get tenure in academia. So I’m not actually taking a big risk, I’m just taking a different kind of risk on my path to living an academic life.

And this is where your love for the life as an academic may meet mine, where your evaluation of the risk of staying in or leaving university may overlap with mine. The question is:

  • Do you think about leaving university – but still would not want to live a professional life that is not academic at its core?
  • And, if yes, do you fancy taking the risk of co-founding, or co-financing, or just joining a research-oriented social business in the next 12 months, just outside Berlin?

In case you do, get in touch via e-mail and we can talk about the specifics in the coming weeks. If not (yet), watch this space and my Twitter account to see how things evolve. 

NB: I’ve made a few corrections and non-essential additions to the first version of the text.

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