Wednesday, May 6, 2015
The PhD: What’s it Like to be ‘Finished’?
And yet, when submission day dawned, and I took possession of the bound thesis and scurried to the research office to send it on its journey to the examiners, I felt … nothing. Or at least, nothing beyond the profound fatigue that sets in after getting up at 5am to make it to the binders before the next month’s continuation fees take effect.
My viva, three months later, was routine, pleasant, and successful. And yet, immediately after being told I’d passed, I burst into tears (my poor examiner looked completely flummoxed by this - and kept repeating ‘no, you’ve passed, this is good news!’).
The next day passed in a blur of unstoppable crying, punctuated by barely-noticed congratulatory missives from friends and relatives. What happened? Why wasn’t I happy to have achieved all I had worked so hard for?
The mixed blessing of finishing the PhD
Six months later, I am beginning to come to terms with the fact that exiting the PhD is, in fact, a fairly significant life event in all sorts of ways. And, as with many other significant life events (marriage, children, and so on) they come with their own everyday traumas that accompany the joyous parts.
In the case of the PhD, in gaining those three letters, you also lose much of what has defined you over the past few years. The endless, grinding work (at least temporarily) abates and you rediscover what it is like to have a social life and see the outside world. But losing the status of being a student also impacts you in all kinds of mundane ways.
I have to remind myself that a student discount is no longer a perk applicable to me. My library and journal access and VPN login (mostly used, it must be admitted, to watch TV whilst on holiday) are gone. The several thousand emails I amassed have been hurriedly copied over to my personal account before my address disappears into the ether, although I dread to think how many unrecoverable passwords, linked to that account, I will encounter in future.
I feel as though I have been forcibly expelled from an academic community that sustained me for a long time. There have been other impacts, too: not uncommonly, I dropped a stone in weight in fairly short order after submitting and reverting to a non-biscuit based diet. These all add up to some individually minor, but collectively quite substantial, changes to my daily routine.
Dazed and confused
Publicly, at least, I think most newly-minted PhDs live up to the expectation that surrendering the PhD is an unconditional relief. But after a few pints, most I have spoken to have admitted to more mixed feelings.
Some of these feelings relate to the more mundane aspects of the process as an event: ‘handing it in was totally anticlimactic, I kept thinking I should be really relieved but mostly I was in a state of shock that it was actually over’ or ‘I found myself feeling really emotional after the viva, like I was grieving rather than happy’.
But a surprisingly large number of my (competent, successful) friends admitted that the PhD came wrapped up with a deep sense of inadequacy.
One said that he couldn’t bear to open the thesis at all because it made him feel sick. Another can’t face turning it into a book project because it reminds her of how miserable she was (she has instead been focusing on her postdoc, which she loves). A third, deep in the book project, says that even three years later she is struggling to knuckle down and finish it because of how stressful it is being immersed in something that makes her feel so insecure.
As for my part, I found myself distracted, fretful, and desperately avoiding finishing my (minor) corrections. This came to a head one evening in my kitchen with a full-blown breakdown followed by a trip to the psychologist, who related my symptoms to those of PTSD.
It gets better
I do not mean for any of the above to sound negative, and there is certainly a lot of truth in the ‘life gets better’ dictum I hung onto during the final, exhausting stages of the PhD.
Finishing the PhD opened up the chance to pursue my dream job in academia, to move countries, to wipe my debts, and to start afresh. I am much happier in my work life as a postdoc, and feel extremely lucky to be in my present position and unendingly grateful to all who supported me throughout the PhD in order to help me get here.
I am proud that I survived and turned out a piece of work that even on my worst days I can grudgingly see isn’t that bad. And the PhD taught me a series of life lessons in tenacity that have made me a more sympathetic, hardworking and resilient person.
Nonetheless, the process of completing and then moving beyond the PhD has left some lingering traumas that persist despite my altered circumstances, and which have led me to realise how profoundly the process of completing a PhD changes your life.
You need to carve out a whole new identity, often in a new career and environment, frequently devoid of many of the reference points (supervisor, fellow students) that defined the PhD experience.
So, if, in the aftermath, you find yourself feeling more confused and bewildered than overjoyed, you are not alone. After all, as an academic, you never stop learning.
I hope you found that post as thought provoking and moving as I did. Are you looking forward to the end of your PhD as a liberation - or do you fear it? Love to hear your stories in the comments.