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 The job offer was unceremoniously rescinded.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?