Card received circa April 2011

This post is written by Maia Sauren, a PhD student at RMIT  who will be doing a series on life immediately post PhD

I submitted my thesis. About three weeks ago. I still don’t quite believe it.

Hate me yet? I would. Every time a friend submitted theirs, I wanted to kill them. Or die. On the up side, it’s really possible! Until it was almost over, I didn’t think so.

I’ve been enrolled for many years, and finishing took all my reserves. Working part-time just wasn’t working for me, so I took out a loan. I developed a mild social phobia – the idea of talking about something other than THIS CHAPTER made me panic. I transcended the full gamut of emotions and sublimated them all into mania. I ate my body weight in nutella. I co-opted someone into formatting and called in friends to read drafts. I took far too many stimulants; I’m still paying the sleep debt.

A week after submitting, the numbness started wearing off, and another week after that I was still having nightmares about all the things I might’ve got wrong.

Don’t listen now in case I jinx it, but I think it looks great. I’m really proud of what I’ve done.

Some time ago, a person whose work I respect took me out for a coffee. He said he was impressed by my presentations at the last couple of conferences we’d both been at. he told me that, in his opinion, I was ready to submit and that I shouldn’t let myself be held back by lack of confidence.

I was a bit stunned. I didn’t feel like I knew what I was talking about. It took me another two years before I agreed with him. I knew lots of about my research – that is, the application of the principles, but not enough about the theoretical basics. It’s only in the last couple of months that I started feeling like a baby expert in my field. I  found myself writing the literature review as a story full of facts, and when I sent it to my supervisor it came back with only a few minor corrections. That’s when I knew I’d made it.

I have amazing friends

And now… well, what now? I have months to wait before I hear back. Who am I? What do I want to do? And just what kind of a person  takes this long to finish a project? 

I’ve defined myself as a student for so long, I’m not quite sure where to go from here.  It’s a bit like being a teenager again – somewhere between full of potential and just plain awkward. I’m bright and overeducated, I could do a mountain of different things, but I’m not sure which direction to push. I keep reminding myself that I’ve held lots of interesting jobs already, and getting a fabulous education means I have in fact started a career. I’m going to a conference next week and it’s the first time in years I’ll be without a vague sense of guilt and inadequacy.

My thesis is on an engineering/science topic but I don’t want to be an engineer or a scientist. I’m wondering if doing a Ph.D. was worth it, given I don’t want to be an academic.

I’ve learned more than you’d care to ask about a lot of technical topics. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I’m capable of. I viscerally understand the value of sticking to my guns, of removing my attachment to areas I want to pursue when I can see they’re fruitless, and of doing the hard slog even when it sucks. I also know that I can finish a huge project, and what that takes.

I don’t regret my choices, but I do wonder if these are all things I could have learned in less painful, and perhaps more lucrative, ways – like, say, having a job. I’ve come to think of a Ph.D. as something a person might choose to do if they already know a lot about their topic, rather than starting out in their career. It seems silly to go through a trial by fire for what is, for now, very little reward. I don’t regret my choices, completing a Ph.D. has been closely tied to my self-esteem. But knowing what I do now, I’m not sure I’d choose the same path given my time again.

I expect I’ll have a different view in another five years.

So what am I doing with my time now? Besides catching up with all the people I’ve avoided for months, you mean?

I’m freelancing the kinds of small jobs I did before submitting, I’ve registered with a contracting agency in the vague area I want to work in, and I’m google-stalking the people at next week’s conference. I’ve also started setting up coffee meetings with people who do interesting work, where I ask about how their job happens, and how happy they are with all the bits of it. In other words, I’m doing what has been recommended right here on this blog: I’m doing my research on the next bit. My brain is automatically geared towards assimilating information and having deadlines, so I’m using that to my advantage.

In this post you see a picture of the card my future self sent to me, some time in April. I think she wanted to help me imagine life post PhD. If you’ll excuse me, I have to save the space time continuum by going to write that card now! If your future self wrote you a card right now, what would it say?

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