Recovering from the PhD: Part 3: What You Want is not What You Think You Want or Pursuing Respect that Already Exists

While there were a number of options during doctoral work, there were also a lot of fences. As faculty, the ranges are very open and few fences exist. We are free to rapidly take on far too much work. This piece offers no clear solutions or ideas; instead, it contemplates academic opportunities in a wandering way. 


I am a sucker for titles. I admit that. I am also a sucker for collegial respect. If I think some task, committee, or project will produce or drive respect in my direction, then I'm much more likely to take it on--even if it is not directly related to my own work, understanding, research, or materials. This is not new for me. Like many of us pursuing or with PhDs, we are opportunity hunters, chasers, and consumers.

Chasing Opportunities

Hunting opportunities is much more fun than actually capturing or eating it. Opportunities not captured are the sexy partner teasing you, the appetizing 1,200 calorie dessert tempting you, the overpriced airport store accessory calling to your credit card and cool sense because you are bored out of your skull and want a new sparkly of your very own. 

Opportunities are there. Thousands of them. Millions of them. And, sadly, I never learned how to say no very well. Seeing an opportunity almost always meant that I should pursue it--after all, you never know if there will be another one, right? Wrong. There will always be more.

Feeding this desire is, of course, the insecurity of, "They've got to be confused. They must have mistaken me for someone else, but I should take it before they realize their mistake." And so we take it, snatch it, before they realize the "mistake" they made. But they weren't making a mistake. They knew you, your skills, and that's why you got the opportunity. While I think they don't realize how much of a doofus I am, what is actually occurring is that I am undervaluing my work, my achievements at such a level and assume that peers could not possible be right in offering the gig, opening, whatever to me.

Hopping the Opportunity Train

This goes round and round. Not valuing my own skill set or work, I'm happy to hop onto the first train that goes by because it appears to offer meaning, affirmation, and value to me. Instead of waiting patiently for topics that interest me or are directly connected to my work.

What appears to be delightful or interesting, while intriguing, may actually have little use or relevance in the long term. It's akin to skimming an abstract, thinking the article may be related to your paper, and then--eight pages in--you realize "No, no. This is kinda interesting, but no. I don't have time for this." Sorry, friend, but when you volunteer or engage in things in academic structures it's a wee bit difficult to unvolunteer. You're there.

Impacts of Accepting Opportunities

The legacy of your volunteering will not be ignored, either. Others may likely raise your name to serve in other, similar positions when bodies and workers are needed. I have witnessed this occur to several colleagues. While most of us are interested in serving our community, in giving back to our departments or divisions, there is a point where sacrificing time for the division or department encroaches on our own individual work.

When you think you are stepping up to a task to garner collegial gratitude or respect, it's important to understand that while that respect or gratitude may be there--hopefully so because that would indicate civil colleagues--that respect or gratitude may well dissipate. Getting props or thanks every so often is cool, but it does not feed the mind or soul like working on something that you actually care about.

Determining where the line is, where there's balance between researching and working on content you care about versus giving time to perform for people whose opinions you care about, is a vital one to flesh out. Learning how to articulate the differences between those has been a major component of my work the past two years.

Drawing the line between what I want to do for ego versus what I want to do and enjoy doing. I am still working on that.

Image Credits:

Door image:

Train image:

Editing Note:
For some reason, this post was listed as being published in May, 2015. No idea how that happened. It took a couple tries, but now it is listed around the time when I wrote it: late May 2014. Apologies if the date is not correct.

Recovering from the PhD: Part 2: Caffeine and the PhD

Caffeine consumption has been a huge after effect from earning a PhD. This piece reflects on recovering from caffeine consumption's impacts.


Before entering doctoral work, I liked and drank much caffeine. During and after doctoral work, my caffeine consumption reached incredible depth, breadth, and extremes. Over the past two weeks, I've slashed consumption to one cup of coffee in the morning. Going through this process, I've reflected quite a bit about the impact that substance, specifically coffee, can have on professional performance, personal identity, and scholarly productivity. Most important, though, is caffeine's impact on my sense of well -being.


I love caffeine. Loved it as I have always loved my addictions. Addictions were fun, fulfilling, and branded to my sense of self and identity for years--until things went south, I crash banged in my relationships with others, and hurt people I care about. [Just to be clear: when I write "hurt" or "crash bang" I refer only to verbal interactions with others.] Verbal snaps. Lashing. Cheap shots. Reading kindness as a cutting comment. Ugh. Invariably, caffeine, sugar, and chocolate led me to that same place: synapses riding excitation eventually crashed and enabled my stupidity to take the helm. Then my inner tool wanted the helm. It took the helm. I don't like being a tool. From others' responses, they don't like that version of me either.

Since I've slashed my caffeine, I have been far less difficult. This I know.


Look closely at my post-defense picture in Lubbock and you'll see me holding a smoke in my hand. I wasn't supposed to be smoking. I'd quit--theoretically. When I was in Lubbock, though, I allowed myself the luxury of tobacco and huge quantities of caffeine. Extreme volumes of caffeine. Smoking was the "privilege" I'd earned for enduring having to live in Lubbock [that's another story]. Vices, like caffeine, in my experience invariably shifted from limited "rewards" for behavior to daily, regular usage. All that needed was a weak justification, and that enabled the pattern to start.

End Flashback

Smoking eventually puttered out--not by choice buy by necessity--while caffeine remained. Coffee, tea, soda. No matter what I was doing--reading, writing, applying for academic jobs or funding--caffeine sat in a cup, bottle, or mug next to me. When I was in a park, there was coffee. When I watched videos, there was soda. Rarely, if ever, was I without caffeine. It was my one remaining vice, and I embraced it completely.

In Fall 13, I took a stunningly stupid next step. I tested out energy drinks. A sip turned into a soak. That was an intense emotional experience. After ongoing consumption for several weeks, I stepped out and ricocheted emotionally for several more weeks. Even though I was back to just coffee and not the energy drinks, I still felt frantic and frayed. Several follow up tests later proved that yes, indeed, when I consume energy drinks my emotional responses and insecurity go on hyper-alert. It's like an internalized paranoid security state manned by a Master of Insecurity.

Entertaining and engaging it was. Fun it was not. 


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to like coffee for coffee, tea for tea, and soda for the different flavors. Now, sometimes, when I am considering a drink the flavor comes to mind. But, to be honest, the drinks are just about jacking up my synapses. Why? Because, in decades of experience with reading, writing, and caffeine, I have found that consuming caffeine often appeared to lead to thinking, reading, and writing breakthroughs.

  • Need an insight: drink another cup.
  • Want to read quickly: drink another cup.
  • Need to hybridize some Continental theorist with a daily materialist practice and sound sexy: drink another cup.

It's as if, subconsciously, I externalized my faith in my ability to perform smart, interesting, and unique thinking onto caffeine containing fluids. Oversimplified, perhaps, but that's my reading.

Prior to the past two weeks of caffeine downsizing:

1 97% of the time, I never sat down to write without coffee or soda.

2 If I'm feeling low, slow, or stupid, I go for coffee because I feel like it will make me smarter, sharper, or--at least--less dull.

3 Coffee is as integral to my self-image as a scholar, academic, research, and thinker as my glasses and word processor. I just can't "see" myself without coffee. I'm still struggling with it.

Caffeine & Academic Productivity

Caffeine is not just a thing. Caffeine is not just a substance. Caffeine was my totem for smart-thinking power. Caffeine significantly impacts my emotional and physical bodies. I long ignored these impacts in lieu of the perceived cultural capital that successful caffeine consumption would generate: publications, blogs, and writings.

When drinking coffee, caffeine helped me feel precious and special. Actual material production was about 15% of what I expected it to be based on how the coffee helped me feel. After years and years of feeling like I should be producing at level X, it's depressing to actually generate 1/12th of X. 

If I remove the caffeine and restore some accurate judgment, I realize sanely that I'll never produce at level X. That's cool, but it takes a while to adjust to that sense. Frankly, there's no point for me hating on myself for not accomplishing as much if/when my standards of what I need to accomplish were generated in caffeine intoxicated moments.

Caffeine & Professional Self-Image

When I felt like a dork or academic wanker/impostor and needed to feel peer-like, I consumed caffeine to boot me up to non-dork self-image status. That's what I told myself when I bought and consumed the caffeine. Might have even felt that way for several minutes. However, that false promise usually devolved into heightened states of insecurity where I felt like even more of an impostor than I did pre-coffee. Caffeine is a fuel that fires whatever's burning.

From what I can tell--anecdotally as well as from some research--lots of colleagues experience the impostor syndrome. Given the rates of caffeine consumption in academia, I am pretty sure I am not alone in experience the short-term-halo and the longer-term self-doubt-impost smack. 

The Problems of Caffeine Consumption

There's a problem: like most fun substances, stable, flat use results of coffee usually results in decreasing impacts. Thus, for a strong continued impact, increased consumption is needed. Like capitalism: must slowly, but surely increase intake. I was up to about three pots a day.

Problem two: once you escalate to a level and attempt to reduce your consumption, you face multiple pressures. Pressure one: the headaches that may result from cold turkey. Pressure two is more insidious: it's all the people around you who also consume caffeine and wonder, "Why are you quitting? It's just a cup." Friendly social pressure. I've pimped coffee to more colleagues than I can count. Not my proudest reflection. Pressure three, general cultural pressure: even when alone, trying to find decent non-caffeinated or non-sugary drinks can be a challenge. So it's often water that's left--unless you have planned ahead.

Problem three: externalizing actual skills and abilities onto caffeine devalues the work I've done and, frankly, contributes the impostor syndrome and insecurity. Then the caffeine just fuels that. By cutting caffeine and remaining productive, it proves that I actually have the skills and removes fuel for impostor/insecurity.

Sidebar: Emotional not Intellectual

Much of this may seem obvious, or, "Duh, yeah. How can you be so stupid?" Intellectually, I already knew almost everything I wrote above for years. It's not new. However, emotionally understanding the impacts that the above had on my world and the people in it is a completely different matter. Praxis is also a different matter. Knowing the above but continuing to consume huge quantities of caffeine proved that I did not know how to actively apply my knowledge--or that I lacked the will to do it. One of the critical points in making academic work and exercises valuable is in applying that understanding and demonstrating it.


If I am not able to apply my own skills to my own life, if I don't live my values, live my theory and philosophy, and control my own thinking, responses, and life, then what am I? An impostor. 

Autonomy. Self-regulation. Thoughtful application. These three things are what comprise my vision of an impressive and socially valuable academic. In my experience, caffeine corrodes all three by increasing dependence upon external forces, by fueling impulsive or thoughtless responses, and by focusing on potentials, could-bes, and the glamorous future instead of the writing-your-shit-down-now.

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: