Recovering from the PhD

A year or two ago, a colleague I adore and respect were chatting. At one point she expressed interest in how I have adapted to life post-PhD. I've been thinking about that question for a while. Over a year, actually. I don't know how well I have adapted. I used to think I was fully adapted. Wrong. Then I think I have not assimilated at all. Wrong. This is probably something that you can never tell until you are years out from the process. Right now, if I was an egg, I'd be soft boiled. 

In January, 2009, I started my online PhD process. Eight months later I was in Lubbock taking classes full time. December, 2011, I received my PhD. Fast, intense. As I prepared to graduate, I thought it would be easy to stay at 80% of that work pace when I went into Academia.

Wrong. Totally wrong. Oh so frigging wrong. The pace that I created has stuck with me. That is a metric by which I judge my success. And, frankly, that stinks.

Even though it's been nearly three years since I received my degree, I am still not working at that pace, that rate, that insane mind grind I once had. I used to feel like an idiot because I was not at that pace. Three years of that pace set it as a standard, a norm, in my emotional sense of self. When I am not consciously alert to a sense of timing, I find that my TTU-work rate settles in as my default expectation. I did it for three years, so why not now? Obviously I am lazy, slacking, if I can't do that now. If that was not enough, then in my delusional moments I would generate self-disparaging dialogue and inserting my self-doubt-shit-talk into the voices of my former faculty. While it was relatively easy to silence myself, putting doubts into the images of people I respected was harder to fight. I still fight it, but not as often.

What is professional identity? I hate to think it is material-based: publications, positions, grants. But that does seem to be the core. That's akin to judging our friends on the stuff that they own: what type of house, car, shoes they have. While I respect and understand the importance of evidence-driven evaluation, it seems pretty harmful to us if we evaluate or base our sense of professional identity upon material goals alone. <This is so sadly similar to K-12 high stakes testing...>

I can still make a long bullet-point list of all the things that I have not done. I am more than aware of most of my errors--and that includes my hubris and self-centeredness. That list gets longer every day, every week. If I have moments of weakness and want to pull at emotional scabs because--just because that's what we with self-doubt often do--I can center my highly trained skills of obsession, analysis, and reflection on just how sucky things could or might be. Doubt. Questioning. Core parts of identity building or self-bullying.

These are just some of the costs I have paid in shifting from a doctoral program to faculty. On the PhD range, there are some fences and some dogs and herders to keep you on the range and, in most cases, away from the wolves. On the faculty range, there are far fewer of these--in fact, the freedom from them is what makes tenure track so incredible. However, it is incredibly easy to wander off, to fall into a niche of distraction, to stray away from your initial goals, or to invest time in things that don't require it. However, the worst thing seems to be just wondering about it.

I used to think that I could intelligently discuss recovery from the PhD process. Two years out I know that I don't have much of a clue.

Egg image credit/source:

2 responses
Love this post, GZ. Thank you. Perhaps the open secret is that none of us have a clue: even those of us who survived. And those of us who mentor others in surviving. And those of us who write the occasional column or take the occasional call about surviving. Once in a while, I have a pang of survivor's guilt because every so often I see someone who reminds me of the one who died, or the others who withdrew before they finished. Or I think about what I'm doing and I wonder what they might have done. We're walking the life path, making the best judgments we can in the moment while the landscape changes around us and in us. That's what we're doing. We're not figuring it all out. At best we can offer others those strategies that helped us. And we can encourage them to experiment as they go on and adapt with their results. But we can't promise them they'll figure it all out. I think my own post-finish acclimation was delayed by an 18-month immigration gauntlet: Feels like I'm maybe only 5 months out of survival mode! But I'm still walking. And I'm grateful. Skype soon.
Keisha, Glad you enjoyed the post. Not having a clue is the other part of the binary, it seems, from what the PhD trained us to do/be: experts. Experts of what? That depends. Near as I can tell, it's about a way of thinking, working, and writing--a skill set. While we can articulate and list arrays of evidence to support claims of expertise in whatever areas, that often feels more like performance than engagement. Writing this piece has been quite helpful--cleans out some of the mental cobwebs. I've framed a few more pieces on a related thread. Hopefully that can work out some mental kinks and, maybe, provide something of use for others. At worst, it'll finally help me articulate some of my ongoing reflections, preserve them in some substance, and then allow me to move forward. gz