So, I am part of some conversations elsewhere online about transitioning from academic to non-academic jobs. (I feel like I cheated, in that I went back to school rather than trying to convince employers directly that the valuable skills I learned during my Ph.D. make me suited to do something other than teach, publish, or go back to school. But it is what it is, and I take part in these conversations nonetheless.) And recently these conversations have reminded me that although the transition out of the ivory tower is hard, once you're actually out, it's kind of amazing how quickly you can forget your former life.
(Disclaimer: This is just my own experience, not offered as anything universal. My own transition wasn't that bad - just expensive - but there are some good reasons for that. Leaving my last tenure-track job was fairly miserable, as not getting your contract renewed after third-year review sucks, frankly. But although leaving that job was both necessary to and a catalyst for leaving academia, I didn't actually change careers until later. Also, since I went back to school, my first introduction to this new career took place under very familiar academic structures and culture. It wasn't like I got dropped into a law firm and had to learn both the substance and the culture of the law at the same time. Finally, I had had my shot at academia - I worked as a full-time professor for nine years, and while I enjoyed it and left more because I couldn't find another academic job than because I flat out decided academia didn't work for me, I could walk away thinking, "Well, been there, done that." Not entirely - I never got tenure - but I knew what I was walking away from from long experience. I think the toughest transition is for people who wanted academic jobs but never got one. Not that deciding academia doesn't work for you and you need to find something else isn't hard, but in a different way. In any case. I digress. The point I was trying to make is that I can't really speak to the experience of all former academics (or aspiring academics), since I recognize my own experience wasn't really that terrible and not necessarily representative of anyone else's.)
So, as I was saying: it's amazing how quickly academia recedes into the background. I mean, in some ways, not - the fact that I'm so much older than most (though not all) entry level lawyers makes it hard to forget that I'm different, that I've done all these other things before going to law school. But then, there are tons of people in law school who did other stuff previously. They, too, have developed all kinds of skills and abilities that stood them in good stead in school and now in their careers; so in that respect, we're not all that different. I just took more time than a lot of them.
But when I was applying to law schools I talked once with a former medievalist who became a lawyer, and she said you really quickly forget about academia, and she was totally, completely right.
(For me, this is generally an excellent thing. I have always been good at making a clean break and walking away from things that didn't work; I'm congenitally averse to regrets. Academia was cool; I had that experience; now I'm doing other stuff. And as I've said before, I don't miss academia. I miss the familiarity, and knowing what the hell I was doing, and not being the low-person-on-the-totem-pole, but I don't miss the actual work.)
And I have changed. It's a cliche that law school makes you think like a lawyer, but it does. NLLDH laughs at me when I see liability everywhere (for instance, we visited his family and bought our niece a donut with a paper sports team logo on it; he and she were wondering if it was edible, and I said, "It has to be edible, because if it wasn't, they'd have to warn buyers it's not edible, or else they'd be liable for any injuries from eating it." This, to me, has become a perfectly normal reaction, but NLLDH thought it was hysterical). I can't read academic work in the humanities anymore - I want it to work the way legal scholarship works, and I get impatient with the long sentences and long chapters and lack of headings. (When I started law school, I disdained headings as the refuge of the lazy - I believed you should be able to signal transitions in the text without needing headings. I have now come to believe headings are so very helpful!) I have a different perspective on higher ed. I don't agree with my academic friends' perspectives as much as I used to (I respect them, but don't always agree with them). Partly, I've gained a new field of expertise that informs the way I look at things, and partly, going back to school reminded me what it's like to be a student, and broke my automatic sympathy with the faculty perspective. (And partly, I just don't care about all of it anymore.)
Perhaps the last part of the academic identity that I let go of was the idea of myself as a writer. Now, I have always considered myself a writer, since I started writing what was really probably fanfiction around 4th grade or so (if you can write fanfiction about Nancy Drew and the like). The cool thing about being an academic was that it meant I legitimately wrote for a living. Sure, a lot of that writing was syllabi and student assignments, but still, there was actual published writing in there.
During law school, I carved out an identity as "good writer." I won a prize for being the top student in my legal writing section. I "wrote on" to law review. During 2L and 3L, I wrote a seminar paper or the equivalent in every semester (in my law school, seminars were small, writing-focused classes, and you had to take one before you graduated; I took two official seminars and two de facto seminars. To give you some perspective, something like 90 students in my class of ~165 took their seminar in their final semester). In one of those classes I received the top grade awarded. (Yes, law school tells you these things, and you care. It's kind of sick.) Of course, that means I didn't get the top grade in three of them, so I'm not claiming I was brilliant, but still. Profs told me my exams were well-written and I got one of my top grades (and probably near-top grade in that class) in an exam where the prof explicitly told us she was going to grade on quality of writing. (And I got one of my lowest grades on an exam for a prof who, I later figured out, did not care at all about quality of writing and valued only high volume of correct info.)
And throughout law school, I always kind of assumed that I would continue to write scholarly stuff. Eventually, once I'd learned enough law to have something to say about it. I knew I wouldn't continue to write medieval history. I loved it when I did it (very occasionally I suffer a pang that I won't work on the next project I'd identified for myself, which was going to be a study of social climbers. I mean, seriously, wouldn't that have been cool?), but I have always said that I wouldn't be an independent scholar, and that if I wasn't a history professor, I wouldn't keep writing history. (Not knocking independent scholars - just what works for me.) But I thought I would continue to write scholarly stuff, and I sort of kept a mental notebook of stuff I'd be interested in writing about.
And you know what? That notebook is largely blank, and sitting, undisturbed and dusty, abandoned on some mental back cupboard.
I find myself almost entirely uninterested in writing any more. There are a lot of reasons for this - right now, at work, I do nothing but research and write, and when I get home at the end of the day I'm just. not. interested; I've actually reclaimed my non-work life and developed hobbies that I love, and I want to spend my spare time on them; and I find myself kind of conflicted about legal scholarship and the purpose it serves. (I could say more about this but won't right now or this post will never end.) The only thing I'm really interested in writing about (at least for now) is unionization of contingent faculty - and I'm not interested enough to spend any of my spare time on it when it's not my job to do so.
Initially, it was hard to give up the idea of being a writer. But I feel less and less conflicted about it as time goes by. I watch NLLDH carve out time to do research and write papers, and be tired all the time. I offer to edit drafts for him, and find myself completely irritated by giving my time to such work (even though I offered. Never claimed consistency).
I may well find myself in a place in the future where writing becomes appealing again. I don't know what kind of writing that would be, but it's possible. Right now, it's more of a relief than a disappointment to let the label "writer" go, slipping into the ether with the rest of my academic identity.