Not long after coming back from Uruguay after one of my many trips to Latin America, last April, I started catching up with the usual horror stories of the Italian job market. One of them was particularly touching to me, as I could relate to it. It was published by the very well known Italian magazine, L’Espresso. The article soon went viral. It was a piece by an Italian researcher who just reported his story, and pointed out the total lack of merit in Italian academia (but the same would go for the rest of the job market) – a story that happens only too often in Italy, something we talk about on a regular basis but for which we seem unable to fight.
Then, I read another piece, this time on The Guardian, where the author pointed out that mental health issues of PhD students and academics are becoming increasingly accepted in British universities, where staff is pushed to perform beyond their limits.
Once upon a time, I used to work in academia – and I thought it was cool
Two job environments that should be similar – despite in different countries – in reality could not be more different: in one, researchers struggle to work and have their work recognised; in the other, they are put under so much pressure to perform and gain better results that they eventually face extreme stress and even depression. I have studied and worked in both and, quite frankly, I find the issues faced by academics in the UK are almost laughable compared to the ones faced in Italy. Sure, when I worked at the University of Essex or at University College London I used to be snowed in with work. I had lectures, seminars, meetings, administrative work, conferences, workshops, office hours, papers to mark, exam questions to write (and have approved). All of that, besides having to write my PhD dissertation. But at least I was rewarded. At least my work was acknowledged. And I was part of the staff – from the highest ranking professor to the newly arrived admin worker, we all knew each other, we all respected each other, and we knew that we could count on each other. It was homey.
I should have stayed in England and I should have kept working there. I should have done many things, I suppose. But I didn’t. Because I am from Sardinia, and as pretty much anybody from Sardinia, I have a visceral connection with my land and for as much as I (we) can live away for even decades at times (I spent more than 10 years overseas), I (we) all want to go back home eventually. So, when after more than 10 years away from Sardinia, I got a fellowship to work at my old university, I did not think about it twice: I quitted my job, I packed my belongings and I boarded a plane that would take me home, finally.
Do I regret coming back?
I don’t regret giving up my academic career in England, because through a long and difficult path it brought me where I am now.
Working at my old university in Sardinia, the place where I was educated and that ultimately molded me into being the awesome human being that I am, should have been rewarding. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was the closest I could imagine to being in hell. It should have been homey (more homey than the University of Essex, I would have guessed) but I felt like I was walking in foreign territory and I should watch my back at all times.
For as much as I worked, as much as I achieved (publications in international leading journals, books, conferences and what not), I felt that the university I wanted to give back to so much did not want me and in fact did its best to push me away. I realised soon enough that I was seen as a threat: I was highly specialised, I was a hard worker, and if only I was involved in a research project or participated in a conference, I would easily put the most of the others in the corner. Like the time I happened to attend a book presentation and a professor kept calling the Roma “gypsies” – he did not like it when, at question time, I pointed out that “gypsy” was a derogatory term hardly used by people in the field nowadays. Or like the time another professor said that a specific international treaty hardly had any relevance as not many states had ratified it, when in fact – as I told her – 90% of the UN members had done so.
In my years at my home university, I faced increasing obstracism. The course I taught on discrimination was cancelled on demands of another researcher who – incidentally – was married to a professor. I was first asked to teach at a summer school in human rights, and then found out that someone else was called to do it – and that very someone did not have the expertise to teach the subject, so she demanded that I passed her my notes rather than backing off and pointing out to the director that I should teach the course instead.
The isolation I faced in Italy, the less than cooperative approach to research, the lack of any real connection and the unfriendly environment where I worked slowly brought me to hate academia. What kept me going were the conferences I attended, when I met other international academics and we exchanged ideas, views, projects. But then, that was not enough anymore. The frustration I felt made me forget what I had loved about academia and research. My hey-days in England, when I felt like the world was my oyster, and it was just waiting for me to blossom, were over.
…Then I started travelling, and that is way cooler than academia
Was it all so bad? I’d say most of it was. The good thing about being forced out of teaching and only having to do my research meant that I had no real commitments and thus I could travel whenever I wanted. So I did. Multiple short trips across Europe, then longer ones on the other side of the Atlantic. Peru first, then Mexico, Argentina, and finally Cuba in February 2013.
Cuba changed my life. I did not know it back then, but looking back, two years after visiting, I can see that it did. It isn’t just that the place was so special and that I found myself there. Sure, it was and I finally came to terms with the fact that I love it. But it was a series of factors that, coming together, had a real impact on my life.
Factor number one was the extreme frustration I felt during my first 10 days there. I’d lie if I said I did not hate it. I really did. Travelling in Cuba, for an organisation freak like I am, was frustrating. Try as I might, there was no way I could get things my way in Cuba. It was like the entire country had plotted to boycott my travel plans. It took me a while to get to appreciate and embrace spontaneity as a way of travelling. So, when I got home, with my zero knowledge of the blogging industry, I decided that I wanted to create my own blog, in English, to tell the truth about Cuba and warn anybody who may go there. I knew so little about blogging that I had no idea about how I could even get readers. I just thought that, since it was online, people would eventually find it. In fact, some actually did find me and started following me. In other words, I started a blog to vent about Cuba and say whatever I wanted without being censored. Cuba eventually grew on me – but that is a different story.
Factor number two was meeting Guiselaine on an eventful ride from Santiago to Baracoa. As the tire of the bus exploded, the driver asked all passengers to get off so that he could change it. So, we all started wandering about, taking pictures, and laughing at what had happened (and secretly thanking God that we were all fine). I had spotted Guiselaine at the bus station, and she sat behind me on the bus. We started talking when we were waiting for the tire to be fixed, and we agreed to meet later in Baracoa to have dinner. We did the same for every night we spent in Baracoa and eventually went separate ways, but we kept in touch since.
Starting a blog and meeting Guiselaine may seem two separate things. But they weren’t. In fact, talking to Guiselaine we realised we had many things in common, which included a desire to travel the world for longer periods of time than the usual 3 weeks vacations, and the increased frustration with the traditional job market. I was increasingly frustrated with my job in academia – aside from the obstracism I faced on a regular basis, I found no purpose and no thrill in writing on the same topic over and over, in attending conferences which were auto-celebratory more than anything else, in talking about human rights issues without really taking action towards change. But while Guiselaine decided to take a step towards happiness and establish herself as a digital nomad, I wasn’t ready to go as far.
Then, my fellowship expired, there were no funds in sight to keep me working at my home university, and I did not fight to find any more. I started looking for other jobs in academia, but my heart wasn’t in it. I refused any temporary job I was offered by other universities around Italy, as I saw it as slave labour and the money wasn’t even going to cover my basic expenses for having to move to another region.
Speaking to Guiselaine, she gave me the final push to follow my dream: it was then that I decided that it was finally time to go on that backpacking trip across Latin America that had been on my mind for years. I set to leave at the end of November 2013, first stop Guatemala. Destiny can be tough at times, and with my luck, a few days before travelling, I got a permanent job offer from a university in England, but the negotiations for the starting date did not go as I had hoped – they were not willing to wait for me to get back from my travels. And although that was a good job, that would take me back to British academia, I was not ready to give up my dream when I was so close to fulfilling it.
So I left. I just wanted to explore that part of the world and I thought that, once back, I could still look for a job in my old field. My family encouraged me to travel. My father was enthusiastic to know I’d be visiting so many places. But what is even more interesting is that my mother and sister insisted that I figured out a way to blog about my trip and make this my new career. However, blogging was only a past-time to me, something I’d do (less than seriously) while I travelled.
Finally blogging, for real!
I guess I only realised how right my mother and sister were when I got back and, after a surgery to remove my tonsils, I spent a few weeks of total misery, feeling completely lost and unsure about what to do with my life. The thing is, I did not have the guts to go back to a job in academia. I was so done with it, that the thought of writing yet one more academic paper, or preparing one more lecture, made me sick. My family encouraged me to do what I loved the most and what made me happy. And I could only think of travelling. I knew I had to give it a try, at least.
I thus applied for a course in travel design to become a specialised travel consultant. And all my years of travelling across Latin America (and spending all my savings on it) paid off when I was hired to work as a tour leader in Mexico and Central America. Finally, I decided it was time to give it a try and become a real blogger, and bought my own domain, started studying SEO manuals, social media communication techniques, and working hard on it.
I am not even close to making money yet. I work an average of 10 hours per day, every day. But I wake up with a smile on my face each morning. I like what I am doing and I am happy. I keep being interested in human rights issues and wherever I travel I can’t help observing the world through the lenses of a former human rights lawyer.
Will I succeed? I may, or I may not. But, sure enough, I will keep on trying. The years of suffering, isolation, frustration and humiliation at work were not in vain, as they brought me to a much better place. I have left academia, and I am never looking back.
What is your story? Did you also have a career change?