Falling in love with academia and then rising to overcome burnout: My career story
Updated: Jan 22
Academia can be really lonely when you don't feel like you fit in, and working harder is not the solution!
I fell in love hard with academia. I didn’t even know what a PhD was when my fourth year undergraduate Honours supervisor suggested that I do one… As soon as I started my PhD, I was in love. I chose my topic- body image issues in trainee Health and Physical Education teachers- as it had personal relevance to me, and the reading and writing of my literature review served as a therapy of sorts.
I hadn’t even finished the PhD when I became obsessed with the job search. There weren’t many ongoing gigs in Health and Physical Education, but I landed one and loved it. I could easily have been torn away from research as I loved the teaching, and it was all-consuming, but a wonderful colleague encouraged me to do a post-doc, I won a fellowship and headed off to England for a year where I re-gained research momentum and created solid foundations for my network.
We came back from England 8-months pregnant and I went straight from my fellowship to maternity leave. I got bored about 3-months after giving birth, and agreed to co-author a book during nap times. When my first was 8-months old, a Senior Lecturer role came up at a university much closer than the one I was on maternity leave from, and I got so excited to jump back into a new challenge. I attempted to pick up the pace on my research again, and dove into my new role. Fast forward 18 months and I was heavily pregnant again… this time with twins! After taking 8 months' maternity leave I came back and found that the leadership role I had been in wasn’t needed any more, but there was a new one I could try. Once again, I threw myself back in - keeping up my research as though I hadn’t been away from it for 8 months, changing the classes I was teaching, and running at my leadership position …
Except that I couldn’t go full speed… We couldn’t afford childcare for 3 kids at once. I had to go part time. I tried all sorts of different time fractions to see if we could get the balance right, but I always had waaay to much to do, and felt like I was failing at all of my roles- parenting included. I was performing ok by external standards, but just never felt like I could catch up, and I didn’t want to let my family, my students, and my colleagues down. I though that if I just worked harder, refined our home and work systems to be more efficient, and generally got better at things, then it would all be ok. This ended up with me burning out, and squeezing all joy out of our family life. On reflection, I now know that I hit the maternal wall- a concept that Amy Taylor-Kabbaz teaches about- the upper limit of what you can achieve in your work life because you are a mother.
This was all happening in Melbourne… a city that I had grown to love, and that I assumed that we would stay in. But after one particular visit back to my home town in country NSW, I realised that I wanted to raise my family in the space and freedom of the country. There were lots of reasons, and a strong rationale at the time- but all of them were personal, not professional. There aren’t any jobs in said home town, and even after 2 years of looking, nothing has come up, even though there is a small University in the area.
My university changed a few things about the way that they allocated research time, and I ended up managing to negotiate to just keep my research + supervision fraction, give up the teaching and leadership, and do all of this from interstate. So I am now working remotely through my university (but so is everyone else because of COVID-19 at the moment!) in the mid-north coast of NSW. This was meant to be a temporary arrangement while I got another job… but there aren’t any! (To my colleagues, don't worry, I am still here, still working hard at all of the things, and not going anywhere just yet!)
But somewhere along the way, I have realised that I didn’t want another full time job like the one that I left. One where you are always overcommitted at 155%, where you can’t let any work balls drop as there is no one else to pick them up, and where you technically have flexibility to work around your children, but it’s just that- you are always working around them- at all hours!
So I think it’s time to test the waters outside of academia. I've never really felt like I fitted in there- I'm always on the outer- being a psychology researcher in the predominantly sociological field of education, and being the only one with an education background among my research colleagues. A few years ago I tried using this to my advantage, but it's hard when there is no one else like you out there. Most of all, I’ve realised that I am not that 5% of researchers who will get the big ARC and NHMRC grants, and without the teaching and leadership to give me a sense of achievement, the rejection from journals and granting bodies is starting to become a bit much. I also have a desire to use some of my other skills in research translation and impact, and to work at a faster pace, and in more innovative ways, that just don’t fit within the academic job description. It’s been a great 15 years, but I think I’m ready to move on…
With the help of two colleagues, I've started a not-for profit research translation company, The Body Confident Collective. The aim is to disseminate the body image resources that many researchers develop, evaluate, and prove to be effective that never make it out into the real world. Here I can use my strengths in communication, networking, innovation, and coming up with creative solutions to complex problems.
Leaving academia can be a really lonely journey to embark on- you can’t really talk to your colleagues about it- they still want to stay in. And unless your partner has a PhD, they don’t really understand either. There is no clear path to follow in leaving academia (unlike the very clear path in!), and it’s hard to know what to do next. After putting myself out there, I've had some really interesting conversations with others who had left academia, done their own thing, or worked in industry. Everyone seems to say that it's hard, but worth it.
So alongside my new venture, I'm passionate about spreading the word, about academic burnout, and academic impact. I'm writing here, and would love the chance to speak about this at events, or with graduate students.
Let’s come together, share our journeys, and learn from each other.
Dr Zali Yager is learning to write her bio without using her academic title. She has a PhD in health, and a passion for making people feel better about themselves.
Zali is the CEO of the Body Confident Collective and a freelance consultant, speaker, and coach for high-performing women to navigate motherhood with their career.