The other side

Anyone who reads Thesis Whisperer knows about the inevitable letdown that occurs when a student finishes their PhD.  Last week’s post by Lara Skelly about breaking up with her dissertation was particularly insightful regarding the post-dissertation condition. She describes the feelings of loss, the surprising inadequacies of having other people “being proud” of your accomplishments, and the fact that she now fills the time she used to spend working on her dissertation doing the dishes.  It might not be everyone’s experience, but she captured mine perfectly, thank you, Lara.

As I’ve established in previous posts, when it comes to predictable emotional challenges and transitional periods I try to limit the impact through planning. [The irony of this is just hitting me as I edit this post but oh well] Obviously I planned for my post-PhD letdown. I started talking with/educating my husband about it months in advance. I scheduled the weeks following my defense so tightly with conferences and speaking engagements that it looked like I was going on some sort of international victory tour (really it was just opportunity and the desire to keep busy). Finally, after I defended my dissertation I doggedly focused on the future,  specifically the postdoctoral fellowship I had been offered and had verbally accepted (contract contingent on a successful defense of course).

Unfortunately, you can’t plan for everything.  Two days before I was scheduled to sign my postdoc contract, I was called into an office and told that due to some rather sudden and sweeping reorganization occurring at Virginia Commonwealth University, my postdoc position no longer existed.  The job offer was unceremoniously rescinded. Furthermore, I was told that human resources had just notified leadership that my current job – a graduate assistantship – had automatically terminated after a specific number of days following my successful defense.

Not only had my beloved future job dissolved, but technically I was not employed at all. I had been coming to work without being employed (unbeknownst to anyone but human resources, apparently) for several days.

Just like that, it was all gone.  I walked back to my office where a copy of the contract was sitting on the corner of the desk, waiting to be signed.  I remember debating whether it should be shredded or at least torn up. At the time, it felt like a really important decision to make. I examined it for social security numbers and similar. I ran through scenarios of what might happen if an identity thief happened upon it. Finally I decided that quiet and gentle placement in the trash can under the desk was safe enough. In reality, carefully placing it – unfolded, but under several other discarded pdfs, in the bottom of the can – was all I had the heart to do.

[Side note: Calmer heads prevailed several days later and the university found a way to employ me until the end of the semester, but the damage had already been done].

I never really cared about the PhD as a diploma – I’ve written on that, too. I’m already a doctor.  To be honest, having more than one doctorate can be a little embarrassing, as if one terminal degree isn’t precious enough. Getting a PhD was always about learning new skills, and new ways of thinking.  It was about having experiences.  It was always about the work.

As much as I love to work, I have a complex relationship with employment. A paid job plays a significant role in my assessment of self worth and yet I voluntarily left a thriving surgical practice. I got a PhD in educational research because I love it, but I don’t have the personal mobility required of career academics. I just don’t. Finally, I am simultaneously under- and overqualified for most jobs (Don’t get it? Read Tod Massa’s very direct advice on applying for a job; the algorithms he describes prevents anyone from seeing my application for most positions, even the entry-level ones). In short, employment is an essential but tricky thing for me.

After my contract disappeared, the post-PhD letdown that I had worked so hard to prevent rolled in so quickly and completely that there were days when I didn’t even remember how I got to the office.  I was just there.  The grief was so thick it I couldn’t see through to the other side.

Friends.  Friends were essential. There were people everywhere offering support, hugs, and advice.  There were people who were patient, who politely ignored when I cried through a video conference meeting and in the elevator and on the bus (yes, that happened once…twice).  There was an advisor who spent more time looking for jobs for me than I did for myself – because I just couldn’t and I guess he knew that. There were people who found me work paid and unpaid. They called me up with what they had.

Experience. Previous experience was important too. While there were days that I could not see where I was or where I was going, I could see my past well enough. I’d gone through an even more difficult transition after I left medicine.  Therefore, even in my darkest moments in this post-PhD slump (and there were some very very dark moments), I knew that it would pass and everything would be ok as long as I kept moving.

My professional life went on. I traveled. I presented. I keynoted. I met. I wrote. I collaborated. I created. I networked. The three month period following the day my contract was rescinded was one of the richest, most exciting, most productive times of my (admittedly short but still…) academic career. I was numb for a lot of it, but I kept going because I knew that if I could pull it off, I would enjoy looking back on it later.

Change is hard, particularly when it is unwanted or unexpected.  It took a while, but things are looking better. I’m busy with all sorts of interesting work.  I have ideas for a new blog series, to be unveiled next week if all goes well. I’m learning new things. I love my family and my friends. I’m happy. Furthermore, I can look back on this past spring and say “Damn girl, look at what you DID!” And it was good. It is good.  I don’t have any real complaints and absolutely no regrets. What’s not to love about all of that?

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10 Comments Add yours

  1. That is some kind of good news right there. I had wondered how the re-org was rolling through the org. And it looks like people are surviving. I too got re-orged out of a position I held for 16 years in Ed Tech. And as luck would have it after the dust settled, I saw my old job posted and I applied for it and I got it. Sometimes the Org doesn’t know what it’s doing and admits defeat when it has to post your old position again (that’s my interpretation of it anyways). A network like yours will no doubt provide not just support but greater opportunities yet.

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  2. I have been where doors closed, and another always opened for me. Hang in there…

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  3. Laura Gogia says:

    Thanks Britt, you speak the truth. By June doors were already opening, including one at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia where I’m doing all sorts of new and interesting things. I meant it when I said things are good now :).

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  4. Maha Bali says:

    Hugs Laura. It takes a lot of guts and generosity to write what you’re writing here and in your next post. So many early career academics don’t fit the boxes and don’t know what’s waiting for them on the other side. These real stories of your experience are infinitely (?) more helpful, I think, than generic advice (which you mention in your other post). One day you’ll have distance from this and it will no longer define you (maybe you’re already there) but writing about it now when it’s still fresh? That’s worth doing and will be helpful for others. I hope those who can benefit from this will find it. Hugs again

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    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Thanks, Maha. Deciding when and what to share publicly was certainly something I thought about a lot. As a general rule, I tend to share experiences when I’m almost – but not completely – out of them. I like to be able to demonstrate that I have found a way out of whatever happens to be going on – I find it more helpful to others that way. I am out of the PhD slump for sure. This blog post put the final nail in the coffin. However, the transition to fully realizing a professional identity is more complex. The following post (the one I wrote last night) helped me verbalize (and by verbalize, I mean internalize and accept) that I will never be a traditional academic – and not just because of my family situation. I have a different sort of skill set and temperament than I think is required. I don’t think I would be happy, so why should I pine over that sort of glory? Why should I hold myself to those standards of success? The answer – clearly – is that I shouldn’t. And I also shouldn’t hold myself to the standards of my neighbors. And I shouldn’t hold myself to the standards of my in-laws and the Indian community. I am all of those and none, which means I’m going to have to carve out my own standards of success for myself. I like the concept of alt-academic, offered by one of the other commentors. It gives me an anchor – something to hold onto while I invent what that means for me. I’ll let you know how it goes. Hugs back Maha – we’ll talk soon I hope :).

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      1. Maha Bali says:

        While reading your post and over the past year I thought about how many of my friends whom I have met virtually are alt-academics of some sort. Not usually tenure-track, and many don’t have PhDs and all are having an impact on our field. Many who were tenure track no longer are (Lee, Jesse, more!) and it’s again back to following our own calling and criteria for success given our circumstances as well as our passions. And I totally understand the timing of sharing this publicly. It’s a good call. Thank you 🙂

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      2. Laura Gogia says:

        Which brings us back to digital platforms and their role in alt-academia…and why traditional academics are less likely to use/condone them.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve had this post open on my computer for several days as I thought of how to comment. I wanted to say there is raw truth here, but that wasn’t the right word. not heartfelt honesty – that’s not the right sentiment either. The authenticity of human endeavour. That’s what I’ve come up with. You have shared part of being human, devoting yourself completely to something, and allowing that blissful state of achievement and being caught up in the moment – as well as the unforeseen, unexpected, unplanned variables that go with life – in the now. You have an amazing way of being level-headed and able to reflect on things in a way that allows progress – for you and for others. Thank you for having the courage to write, and to share. -from one Laura to another.

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