How I Escaped Life As An Academic To Find My Own Happiness

I returned to Italy from one of my many trips to Latin America less than two months ago. It did not take me long to catch up with the many horror stories that my country has been going through since time immemorial. One of them was clearly reported on an article I stumbled upon, published by the reputable Italian magazine “L’Espresso”. That article soon went viral on the web. It was an op ed piece by an Italian researcher who talked about an issue Italians know too well, but do not fight strongly or convincingly enough: the almost complete lack of merit in the job market in Italy.

The article on “L’Espresso” talked of an issue I knew and had experienced myself: the complete lack of merit in the research industry of Italian academic institutions. For some reason, it reminded me of another article I had read months before, about how mental health issues of PhD students and faculty are becoming increasingly accepted by British universities, where staff lose their mental health searching for the best performance.

I could not help compare the working conditions of the two countries situations, in which I had both studied and worked before deciding that it was time to change my life and seek happiness. If academia in the United Kingdom and other European countries can be demanding to the point that even PhD students battle mental health issues and depression, in Italy it is, to say the least, mortifyingly humiliating. 

Working in academia in most countries is – like one of my supervisors would say – a piece of cake, compared to the working conditions I found in Italy. Sure, I was often snowed in with work, I was under pressure to deliver, I had lectures, research, meetings, administrative work. But the pressure to deliver that was a cause of stress when I worked in the UK was nothing compared to the lack of fulfillment and the isolation I experienced in Italian academia.

I used to be a brilliant international human rights law academic, with a great potential, until I decided that, since I had the opportunity to do so, I would not mind going back to Italy and live closer to my family. In my years overseas, I had landed some significant international publications, including a book with an excellent publisher. But I missed home – shame on me. So I applied for a research fellowship sponsored by the regional government, and got it. I was assigned to work at the very same university I had obtained my BA from, which, rather than welcoming its old student who had gone overseas to accumulate experience, skills and knowledge she was willing to share to improve her former institution, did whatever it could to push me away – mind you, in a very sly manner.

You see, mediocrity in Italy is the rule. Anybody who is brilliant but does not have the right surname and connection, in my country, is kept away from any minimally influential position, to minimize chances of causing changes to the status quo that throughout time has enriched the very few and impoverished the majority of Italians, where the few members of the élite enjoy success, money, glamour and the rest have to manage with an average monthly salary of 1000 euro. Keeping brilliant minds at distance is a way to avoid any social change, and force everybody to make a better – that is, not a mediocre – contribution to the life of the country. I represented a risk potential.

I may sit at conferences and shame the professor who, speaking of the Roma minorities, casually addressed them with words that were worldy known as racist. I may correct another professor who appeared to have forgotten that the international treaty she was mentioning was indeed a very important one, widely ratified and not “hardly ratified” as she said. Nobody likes to be challenged, in Italy. But I did anyways. Because I thought this may shake some spirits, cause some debate, and lead to improved research.

Oh, was I wrong! Challenge and debate are key in good academic institutions in the UK, where even an undergraduate students’ comments are heard and considered. I guess that, in my many years overseas, I had forgotten that lectures and conferences in Italy are not in any way meant to create knowledge and stimulate debate, but to celebrate the speakers.

My first year back at my old university was not so bad, after all. My supervisor asked me to teach a course on discrimination and human rights – very much my field of expertise. Students who enrolled for the course seemed to appreciate it, both for its contents and for my way of teaching, which stimulated their research and analysis skills.

Soon after the course ended, my supervisor warned me that I would not be allowed to teach that course anymore, as I had accidentally stepped in the field of the wife of an established professor, who claimed that there was any need for a course like mine, since hers already covered the same topic. Truth be told, it didn’t – but she had not bothered to check the syllabus and compared, something I had done on the other had.

I shrugged and moved on, decided to concentrate on my research and any other teaching opportunities that would come my way. I soon got in touch with another established professor, who, in a typical local fashion, had political ambitions, and eventually succeeded when the new regional government was elected a year ago and he was nominated a member of it. Needless to say, he still holds his academic job. He was running a research project that seemed interesting, and agreed that I could participate when I asked if I could write a chapter for his book. He even suggested I may teach a few classes during the international summer school in human rights he was organizing! Months later, when the summer school was soon to start, I made myself available, only to be told I was not needed.

Interestingly enough, I later received a phone call from a colleague (co-editor of the book the professor was putting together) who needed my help in putting together the material to teach a class on the right to cultural identity (my PhD and research topic and the subject of many of my publications). Of course, she never thought of suggesting the organizer of the school that I was perhaps better suited to teach that class. Instead, she just called and asked for my help. I felt generous, I helped her and passed her my notes (which had costed me years of research) – she was one of my few “friends” there.

I realise she was not when she did not even have the decency to change the phrasing. To thank me for the favor I did to her, when the book we both contributed to was finally published and for some mysterious reason my bio was not included among those of the authors, she told me I should not worry: if people reading the book were interested in finding out anything about me, they would find me through a google search. I had to fight my way to get the publisher to put together a file with my bio to add to the book.

These are just some of the frustrations I experienced while working as a research fellow. I was this close to completely lose my mental health. The mobbing I faced caused me depression, and I felt no joy for my achievements, that were only due to my hard and independent work. A job I had started because I felt stimulated and intrigued, because I wanted to make a difference, made me hate my life. So much so that when the funds of the fellowship expired, I packed my stuff, bought a ticket to Guatemala, and without even saying goodbye to anybody (not that they noticed) I went on a 6 months trip to Latin America.

I felt as happy as I had never been, and wanted to share my experiences. So, I soon started blogging about my travels, developing the blog I had started after a trip to Cuba []. My ambition? Inspiring others to take the big leap towards happiness and to travel more. Now, I work for myself. I am my own boss. I make less money, but I am healthy and happy and I wake up with a smile on my face, looking forward to my next project and my next adventure.

There is life beyond academia, and sometimes it can be so much better. TC mark

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