The nowwhere-everywhere place

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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43 thoughts on “The nowwhere-everywhere place

  1. Karenmca says:

    This is a great posting, Maia. I can relate to your “defining yourself as a student”, but now having to readjust. Life’s like that!

    I defined myself as a postgrad for several years, then had to redefine myself as someone who I thought would never have a doctorate. Then, strange to say, I had another go 25 years later, and had to go through the redefinition again, until finally I was able to readjust as someone who does indeed have a doctorate, but is still doing the same job she was doing all along! It sounds as though you were good and ready to submit, and I do hope it doesn’t take too long before you get the news you long for. What happens next for an Australian candidate?

    • ingermewburn says:

      On average it’s a 5 – 6 month wait for the examiner’s reports in Australia. The candidate then may have to make revisions – or can be asked to resubmit. It’s a funny time, because it’s quite awhile before you know. Not a sense of celebration like you might get at a viva – be we never did them because of the tyranny of distance – just not enough scholars in the area to invite! We’re all looking at this because, with technology, the ‘critical mass’ of scholars who we can easily have attend a viva is no longer really an issue.

    • maia says:

      Thanks Karen! Wow, 25 years is long time, you must have done some hard internal work.

      Do you think having the doctorate made a difference to your life?

  2. Char Psi Tutor Mentor says:

    Great read! I have not done my PhD and chucked in my Masters with 3 months to go (I was that angry and frustrated with the unethical behaviours in my School). My online biz as a higher ed Tutor:Mentor has given me opprotunity to work with many postgrad thesis students~ I’ve had 5 research proposal designs approved (the supervisors send postgrads to people like me for the ‘stats’ stuff)~ yet, I hold off in signing up again. I do my own biz research, and help students across all years with theirs, I enjoy getting on with what I am passionate about and skilled to do.

    However, the professional credibility that comes with PhD or Masters would help me encounter less bs from elitists who continue to put Research above Education, instead of on par.

    • @sauramaia says:

      I was often told to just get it over with, it’s just a piece of paper. I never managed to make that transition. My next post night be about all the different ways I reframed the thesis (not all were helpful). Thanks for the prompt.


      • Char Psi Tutor Mentor says:

        yes! this is so disturbing~ that it can be treated as a ‘hoop’, similar to learning for assessment that so many undergrads experience~ how do we become nations of practitioner-researchers if we are not encouraged and supported or many times, sups. not even socially modeling, Engagement with the Learning process. The value of curiosity, adventure into the unknown~ basic science! ~:-)

        I am now self-learning gamification theory (and the ethical constraints) to remind students of the excitement! that comes with a uni/college education~ it is magic that we can use our brains to investigate and create tools and to create change! we are heroes and adventurers exploring ourselves and the world around us. Our doubts are ogres, and sharks and dragons~ and quite a few academic staff too ~:-)

  3. Sarah jameson says:

    Thankyou Maia
    I am at the editor stage. I should celebrate all the stages I have reached so far as the last Thesis
    whisperer suggested. I am too mean to myself and too frightened to think I am celebrating prematurely and that I might jinx myself. So I think I will send myself a card to congratulate my foot weary milestones (its been 8 years part time). These would be good to look back upon and with a photo too. A bit like birthdays. We look back and go “did I look that young”? “Did I look that composed with all that stuff happening”?
    Yes self esteem has been my biggest epiphany. And yes I am asking questions at conferences and giving my name and research and yes people are coming up to me after with their card saying how interesting my work sounds and would I like to be involved in…. This would have been impossible 6 months ago but I relish now talking about my work because I really know what I am talking about.
    I have told my friends to start practicising the title Dr. before they talk to me… just for a few weeks to indulge me when I finish… those friends I have left that is and who can remember me!
    Many thanks

  4. Melissa Lovell says:

    Thanks for telling your story Maia. I’m some months off submission myself but am already having some of those ‘what next?’ and ‘was it worth it?’ sort of feelings. I guess this is a big transition in a lot of ways. Hope you get your examination reports back soon and can celebrate in style. 🙂

    • @sauramaia says:

      Thank you! Me too.

      I’m impressed that you’ve written it all and can now edit. I did mine in chunks, based on the experiments I ran.


  5. Amy Bohren says:

    Bravo Maia! Your post reflects what so many of us PhD students experience. The presumption that we want to be academics or work in our field really irks me. As you say, ‘trial by fire’ is a common experience, as many supervisors put their students through the academic initiation process. The unfortunate result is often that we want to run in the opposite direction. All the best to you in this important transition time – I hope you find a fulfilling career and enjoy the return of work-life balance!

    • maia says:

      I’m so reassured to hear so many people nodding along. PhD seems to be a fairly lonely experience, nice to have a have yardsticks.

  6. Aditya Barve Patkar says:

    Damn good …. you sum up what I felt before starting it, what I feel now, while in the middle of it and what I may in the next couple of years! … But before starting, i had a good job, and I quit because I wanted to study more… I still sometimes catch myself asking if I chose the right thing. … Thank you

  7. Ju says:

    What a privilege to read this! I’m not even a postgrad at this point. But as someone who’s entertaining with seriousness various postgrad study options I just marvel that even now I can still hear from people who are there and doing it. I read about how they did it, what came up and was difficult and marvel at the kind of awesomeness it takes to take something like this on – regardless if it ends up being right, or complete/uncomplete. In the last couple of weeks since I discovered this blog (via an academic friend in NZ) I’ve delighted in the sense of community, the warmth and connectedness that comes through this blog space. It’s the kind of thing that makes me look forward to whatever comes next for me study wise – and almost wish I was there right now.

  8. Ben says:

    Wow, great post. I can only imagine what submitting is like. I’m only a few months away now but it feels like a long time. I like how pro-active you are being about finding work and doing freelance stuff afterwards. What to do next is only a slight niggle at the moment as I have to focus on writing so much. However, the closer I get to the deadline, the stronger I feel that I need to decide what to do as a “non-student”. I hope I will be as proactive as you!

  9. @sauramaia says:

    Thanks for all the comments! I’m only accessing internets via phone right now, will reply properly tomorrow when I’m in front of a computer.

  10. Lucy says:

    Bloody brilliant, Maia! I feel so happy and proud and excited and large… you know… because of everything you achieved and learned by getting to the end of your PhD. I submitted my Honours several months ago, and was surprised how long it took to… well… I don’t know… to have energy available for new stuff, is I guess how I’d put it. But in the lull, the fallow time, a lot of other lovely things have sprouted and now I feel like there are some green tips-a-pushing up, and they are exciting and intimate.

    Thanks for sharing, and “bonne suite” …

    Lucy xo

    • maia says:

      Thanks Lucy. I’m so pleased the next lot of things are coming alive for you. I know what you mean about having energy available. I’ve had to start assuming that everything I do will take three times as long as I think. Well done on your Honours, such an epic effort (Lucy walked all 1000km of the Bibbulman track and wrote about the experience).

  11. Karenmca says:

    The difference it made, Maia? Well … I don’t want this to sound big-headed, but I finished my first degree believing I was capable of a doctorate. Got a masters but didn’t complete the doctorate, so had to readjust to the thought (at that time) that I’d never get one. Eventually, when the chance came up again, I seized it with both hands. Yes, I gained credibility, but it was as much credibility in my own eyes as in other people’s, because it was in a sense regaining my self-worth. Does that make any sense?

  12. Mere says:

    Thanks so much for this post Maia. I just submitted my thesis 2 weeks ago (after 5 1/2 years), and I’ve been plagued by nightmares that I have missed crucial points, or worse, that the examiners find sloppy typos. Last night I dreamt that my viva had an audience all of university students, and they would not stop talking! In reality though, I am proud of what I have done, despite the nervousness about the viva.
    So glad to read your feelings on submission– good to know that I am not alone 🙂

  13. Claudia Harflett says:

    Just submitted my PhD 2 months ago, and I think Im slowly getting out of the ‘excessive tea-drinking and pjs’ stage… Its very odd not having a proper to-do list with defined topics on it now, my to-do lists now read: 1) prepare for viva???? 2) Identify future research areas??? To me, life after the thesis sounds like a potential thesis topic!! Good to know Im not the only one :o)

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