A letter to my dissertation, after the break up

Dear PhD dissertation,

It’s been just over 2 months since you left my life. Two long months. I have been filling up the time with holidays and family and more recently work again. I’ve been busy but it’s a different sort of busy to the busy I was when you and I were still together. I find that, although I was relieved when I said goodbye to you, I miss you. But more than that, I think I miss the me I was when we were together.

Allow me to explain. Choosing to get involved with you was a big step for me.  I had to make a choice between a new field of higher education studies in which I was working and my previous field of research in women’s studies and politics. It was not an easy choice to make, but as I began to immerse myself in the theory of this new field, and in its practice, I found myself really enjoying the intellectual growth, the new colleagues and connections I found and I realised I had to find my way to you, and to the qualification you would earn me as well as the recognition and career opportunities you would bring me to. You represent the choice that I made.

Initially getting involved with you was difficult. You were so demanding – you wanted so much of my time, my headspace – I didn’t know how to give enough to you and to my work and to my husband and children. I felt frantic all the time, and after a year of getting nowhere fast I decided we needed to take a break from each other. I needed to find some kind of balance and I couldn’t stay attached to you and do that. The break lasted about 6 months. I just focused on work, and on my life at home. At first it was glorious – all the space in my head and in my diary, no pressure all the time to be reading and thinking and writing and Making Progress. But then I started to wonder if I had given up too soon. I slowly started reading and writing again, but on a new topic, a different focus to what I started with. I found myself writing a proposal, and enjoying it. I still felt a bit overwhelmed and frantic, but it was clear that, for the present anyway, we belonged together and I needed to get us back on track.

I realised that what I was finally starting to feel was the beginnings of a scholarly identity or sense of myself. I felt like a researcher, albeit a fledgling one. And that felt good. I wanted to know more, think more, write more – I wanted to grow intellectually, professionally, personally and I knew you and the people you brought me to would help me to achieve that goal. Grow I did. I am not the same person now, professionally or personally, that I was in 2010 starting out or drowning in 2011. In doing a PhD I found my way to sense of self and a scholarly identity that I quite like. I was part of a scholarly community of fellow PhD students and travellers who understood what I was going through both personally and intellectually, and I really enjoyed being ‘in’ with them. I enjoyed the status that came with the statement ‘I’m working on my PhD’. I got recognition and also some sympathy, and a bit of a free pass on some things at work. ‘We can’t ask S now, she’s doing her PhD. Let’s ask her to do X or Y next year rather’. It was pretty great on the whole, even though it came with all the tough stuff too.

And now, PhD dissertation, you are gone and so is all of that it seems. I feel relieved and bereft at the same time. I have all this time to do things now, yet I’m drifting, aimless. I send endless emails and reorganise my desk and file papers and go to meetings and talk to students and complete the more mundane tasks. Some of my work is not mundane at all but it feels mundane compared to the enormity and importance of working on you. You made me feel important and scholarly and smart, and now I feel duller, less colourful, full of doubt. I don’t know how well you have been received yet by the examiners. I am terrified of turning you into papers for journals lest people find my work pedestrian or uncritical or worse. What do I do now? I feel so lost without you, and without the community you brought me into contact with. There is a PhD-shaped hole in my life and I don’t know what to fill it with yet.

No one told me it would be like this. People have told me about missing their PhDs, but now, in missing you I wonder if what they miss is really this part of themselves that they find in this process of taking on and shaping their own doctoral identity. I will gain so much by having had this time with you, but there is also loss. I can’t be a PhD student anymore, and I cannot continue to live as much as I have in that question-mark-space. I feel that I am being asked to claim a firmer identity now, that of a Dr, which still feels alien,  and that I am being asked to know things I am still not sure I know.  I will get there, of course,  in time. But breaking up with you is turning out to be hard to do.

X

Post-PhD Drift

I have been wandering around for the last few weeks in a bit of a fug. I have been feelings all sorts of things – frustration, boredom, aimlessness, sadness, the Meh – and I have been a bit puzzled about this. Why do I feel this way? I show people my thesis in its beautiful ring-bound form – friends and colleagues who have been cheering me on – and they exclaim and hug me and I feel fabulous, and then I go back to my office or sit on my couch and feel all of these other things. After some deliberation I have diagnosed my problem and am working on a cure: I have Post-PhD Drift.

I started this year with a sense of relief – no more looming deadlines and panic and sleepless nights wondering about whether I am really doing a proper analysis of my data or something less than that. No more carrying this weight around with me everywhere, this thing that pulled me to my feet and off to my desk most of the times I sat down in front of the TV or with a book. But as my work year started – and bear in mind I am only about just over a month into it – the sense of relief started turning into something else. It turned into a new kind of anxiety. A ‘what-am-I-supposed-to-do-now?’ kind of anxiety.

Of course, I am still waiting for the reports from my examiners – I don’t have to do a Viva but I do have to engage with and respond to comments and requests for revisions from three examiners. This has compounded my anxiety enormously. But the anxiety will not necessarily disappear when the reports are in and the revisions or corrections are finished. It goes deeper than just waiting for feedback. I feel I have lost a piece of my self. I’m not a student anymore, but I’m not a Dr either. I feel I am in a strange sort of no-(wo)man’s-land. I know I have to move on and get going and write papers and submit abstracts for conferences but I just can’t seem to do that. My brain still feels a bit paralysed.

I think part of this paralysis is because I don’t know yet whether my work will be lauded or trashed. I don’t know if these examiners, all experts in my field, will applaud what I have done and suggest corrections that will make it even better or will hate it and ask me to revise it completely. So I can’t write papers yet because it is possible that my work is not good enough, that my thinking is not critical or analytical enough. (Yet.) Of course, I know my supervisor would never have let me submit if this was the case, but it is my fear all the same. I don’t really feel full ownership of these ideas yet. I feel hesitant and afraid to take the risk of telling people what I think in case they argue with me and I cannot argue back persuasively or knowledgeably. And I have written a whole thesis. 83246 words. I should be confident and persuasive and knowledgeable, at least about my own research. Yet, I am not quite there yet.

Part of this paralysis is also down to the Drift I have diagnosed. Working on, researching, writing a PhD dissertation is great for giving your life meaning and purpose. It’s a clear goal, and defined. There is a beginning and an end and usually the former is about three to five or so years before the latter. So, unless calamities and awfulness befall you, and I know this is true for many scholars, at some point you will finish. It’s not like that with a career, and that is what I am staring down the barrel of now. The rest of my career, whatever I may choose to make it. A career is longer, without a very clearly defined end, as many academics go on researching and publishing after retiring from formal academic life. Is this what I want my career to be? I know I can make changes as I go, and my interests will shift over time, but I have chosen academia. A life of the mind and research and also teaching. Some days I am not sure I’m really cut out for it.

I am not sure yet how to get over this drift. I went to a meeting with colleagues yesterday where we talked about a course we are designing, and I attended a book launch where colleagues talked eloquently about the research they had been doing. I felt, for the first time in a while, a renewed excitement about the research I am doing and what I can contribute into these intellectual spaces. Perhaps that is one way through this; to connect as much as I can with fellow scholars and researchers whose own research questions can spark off my own, and whose work can catalyse my own continued thinking and writing.

I will stop drifting, and my to-do lists will become more focused on my writing and less on emails and filling in forms in time. But for now, and perhaps until I graduate and am forced to confront and take on this new identity properly, I am likely to keep drifting, finding ways to keep my little boat at least pointing in the right sort of direction as I find my way in my new post-PhD career.

Post-submission blues

I am depressed. This may seem strange, given that I have just submitted my thesis and I am on holiday at last and free to watch hours of Downton Abbey while eating mince pies. But, I am. I am annoyed with everyone and everything, I am tired and grumpy, and I keep feeling like there is something serious and important that I am supposed to be doing that I am not doing.  I am not at my best right now. I have what I am referring to as ‘post-submission blues’.

I am not sure what to do about this. I am trying very hard to just relax and be on holiday and let my whole self recover from this long and tough work year. I am trying not to think too hard about the papers I have to write from the thesis in the new year, or the post-doc research I want and need to do. But it’s really tough not to be all about this research and my writing and work when it has been a huge part of my work life and personal life for so long.

I am also trying not to think too much about my examiners and whether they are reading my thesis and what they think about it, and what corrections they are going to recommend. I had a frantic dream last night about getting all my reports back before Christmas and then having to spend Christmas day finding missing references. It was horrible. My examiners were nice enough but I was so annoyed that I had left out so many references for books I don’t even remember reading.

What do people do when they finish their PhDs? How do they go back to normal, whatever normal is? Perhaps there is no going back to normal if normal is what you were before you undertook something as big and life-changing as a PhD. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but if you really want to pursue an academic career, a PhD is a huge thing – the swipe card that lets you in and out of the doors; the badge that buys you recognition and validation. It’s important. And it changes you. Not just as a researcher but personally.

I am not the same as I was when I started this journey in 2010. I have grown in lots of ways ways: as a reader, a thinker and a writer; I have grown as a mentor to others who are working on their own PhDs or MAs; and I have become a more recognised and valued colleague as my ability to contribute to research and practical projects has grown. This process of becoming someone my colleagues will refer to as Dr, with all that this connotes, has been one of many ups and downs for me personally, and it has not been an easy identity to get my head around.

Taking on a doctoral identity is a process in itself – half the time I am convinced that my PhD is awful and that I will be exposed for the imposter that I am, and the other half I think it’s probably good enough and that I have done well – ish. I think perhaps that I need to use this post-submission period to let myself be a bit down, and a bit bereft of this big part of my professional and personal life. I need to find a new normal – a new way of looking at myself, as capable of owning the title of Dr, so that when I cross that stage next year I am ready to take on this new professional identity with confidence and belief that I deserve it. Because actually, I think I really do. 🙂