(And, via the same source, I'm happy to see that Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet, which was my favorite post-dissertation summer read, has been made into BBC movie. Meep! Even if Waters herself thinks the adaptation is a bit "mainstreamed.")
We got to talking about the things we always wanted to do, but put aside when we decided to go to grad school. She wanted to be an artist; I wanted to be a writer. Of all my friends here, she's perhaps the one who most understands why someone would voluntarily want to leave academia. We can talk to each other about the gnawing dissatisfaction, the sense of simply not being happy as an academic -- as well as the dissonance that comes when one is surrounded by people who assume that the only route to happiness is to be a tenured professor. Other people I know keep asking me if I'm having second thoughts about my decision to look elsewhere for jobs, or if I'd feel differently if I were guaranteed a shot at teaching in my field. The trouble with having fellow graduate students as one's main support network is that most of them have chosen the academic life and have a hard time imagining why someone wouldn't want it. (By contrast, my friend R., who decided against graduate school on the grounds that she was too restless to pursue the contemplative life, has no trouble imagining alternatives to academia.)
And yet. One of the games I occasionally play is "match the colleague with the postacademic career." A bunch of us in my program once filled out one of those "getting to know you" e-mail surveys (you know: answer questions like "What's your favorite smell?" and "What's the most important thing in life?", forward it to people you know, and so on). One of the questions was "If you could have any job, what would it be?" Five of us circulated our answers, but only one of us said "professor," and only at the end of a long list of other possibilities. Among our fantasy jobs were bed-and-breakfast owner, famous author, interpreter, flutist, opera singer, and computer programmer; my own contributions included cooking show host, book jacket designer, and international jewel thief. (The last one is a joke; I'm really quite law-abiding. I just like to imagine that I live a quietly glamorous life in the south of France and support myself by sneaking into millionaires' hotel rooms and stealing their gaudy diamond necklaces.)
So I've taken to asking people I know in my department: if you weren't an academic, what would you want to do? The results are intriguing. One of my advisers said that if he hadn't gotten tenure (he did), he would have opened a bookstore. A friend from my cohort wants to travel around the world interviewing people and writing articles for magazines. A woman I know who works on romance novels said that under ideal circumstances, she'd be writing romance novels herself. I suspect that quite a few of the people I know have thought about doing something else, even if they still think academia is the most desirable option.
I've also noticed that, for the most part, it's the friends who have considered other careers who don't try to talk me into staying in academia. Openness to the idea of nonacademic work for oneself, in other words, seems to correlate with acceptance of other people's choices of such work. The friends and acquaintances who are most wedded to the idea of an academic career are also the ones who ask "But why would you want to leave? Don't you think you'll change your mind again?" If I were more statistically inclined, I'd draw up a survey and circulate it as widely as possible, and then see if the correlation holds up. As it is, I think I'll just keep asking "What would you do if you weren't doing this?" and see what kinds of answers I get.