Breaking up with your PhD is hard to do

This post is by Lara Skelly, who graduated about a year ago now

I graduated with a doctorate in April this year. “It must feel fantastic”, people say, “you must feel so free”, and “what’s next?”

Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t, and I have no idea what to do next.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 3.29.23 pmI’ve had a different relationship with my thesis than the norm. I absolutely loved it. I had a great topic that I was committed to, amazing supervisors, and it was a destination in itself.

I was (still am) a successful professional, and my doctorate won’t open any career doors for me. I had a story to tell, and that’s why I did it. I love the process of writing, of reading, of editing, of playing with the data. In fact, I loved it so much that in my acknowledgements I had to thank my romantic partner for never getting jealous of the attention and affection that my thesis was getting.

Finishing it has been like the worst break-up of my life.

I realised this when I told someone I had a PhD and the embarrassment I felt was akin to the embarrassment I felt when I first got divorced and had to correct folk on my title. All of a sudden, the focus of my existence, which I poured my time and attention into was gone. I used to spend my time learning, creating, contributing, and pushing the boundaries.

Now I spend my time doing the dishes. The let-down is almost indescribable.

I’ve spend months thinking about why I should feel so very different from the expected. It seems to a shift on how I construct meaning in my life. During the process, I found internal meaning. It was mine, in a way that nothing else was. There wasn’t a huge amount of outside validation.

After, this flipped. Suddenly I had a bunch of people who were very proud of me – which is lovely, don’t get me wrong – but they seem to have claimed something that was mine alone. The internal meaning vanished, and has been replaced with outside validation. And I’ve always found more meaning in the internal.

The question “what’s next” just intensifies that. It’s as if a PhD isn’t enough, that I need to give them more. But to me, my thesis was created with all the love I had, it is my master-piece and I feel that it is more enough.

So I blush whenever some-one calls me ‘doctor’. Not out of pleasure, but because I’m reminded of what I’ve lost. I haven’t been able to write with joy – every bit of writing feels like a betrayal to the magnum opus: a one-night-stand. Where my words used to fly across the page, I now write haltingly, stumbling, looking for inspiration that has all been used up.

I’m sure that, as with many things, it will improve with time. Having a doctorate is now a fact of my life. I can never go back to not having a doctorate. This is a reality that I’m sure will feel more comfortable one day. I’ll find myself again, and I’ll find other things that will ignite my passions.

But right now, there’s just dishes.

Can you relate to what Lara is saying? I know that many people who have finished remain readers of this blog (thank you!). Any advice to offer people who have finished?

Related posts

Finishing with perspective (and without finding Oz)

What’s it like being ‘finished’?

The Process

36 thoughts on “Breaking up with your PhD is hard to do

  1. I felt the same way after I graduated with my PhD. I asked myself “What’s next?” and wasn’t sure what to do. Fortunately, I worked my way through two different jobs before landing a position as an assistant professor at a small private university. I’m planning to write a possible eBook about my experience in the near future (or at least a blog post LOL).

  2. You could teach others to do what you have done, that is quite rewarding, sometimes? I finished my first book, but loved writing it so much I am renaming and rewriting it again, a bit nuts but hey, I know what you mean.

  3. Oh my gosh THANK YOU for writing this!!! also just finished in April, so I could relate to so much of what you said. My relationship wasn’t quite as harmonious with my project as yours, but I’m still incredibly proud of it. I resent it when people seem to take my accomplishment on as theirs.. yes, I had support, and I will always appreciate that..but it was me. In the difficult process of finishing, I found what I love, and I regained my health, and discovered a life that makes me happier than anything before. But… its not related to my thesis or education in anyway, and that is extremely distressing to everyone else. After my thesis, I’m building a new relationship with my life, not driven by guilt, or deadlines, or a project that fights me every step of the way. You were so right when you said, wasn’t doing a PhD good in itself? Why all the expectations now? Now when people say “Dr.”, I also feel the blush.. but its out of defensiveness, or guilt.. as though by not finding immediate work in my field, somehow I have failed on a more epic scale than if I simply hadn’t finished at all. And some days that makes me sad.. but then I go back to doing what I love 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing your story Lara. Like you, I loved being a PhD student. Sure, there were ups and downs along the way and times when I was very overwhelmed. Overall, however, it was a positive experience. I had the privilege of having a scholarship that allowed me to dedicate most of my time full-time for three years doing something I loved . I felt a “loss” too when I finished because all of a sudden it was back to reality. Where I live in western Canada, outside of academic institutions, having a PhD is not seen by most employers as an asset. Rather it often is a signal that a person is “too smart” and can’t relate to “real” people. As a private consultant I “spin” my education in a positive light but am cautious about when and where I use my title. Do I think I’ve failed because I don’t have a job in a university … absolutely not! Would I like a job at a university, you bet I would. No matter what path my life takes though, my five years as a PhD student will always be remembered fondly!

  5. “I was (still am) a successful professional, and my doctorate won’t open any career doors for me. I had a story to tell, and that’s why I did it. I love the process of writing, of reading, of editing, of playing with the data.”

    Hi Lara. So affirming to read your words. Thank you! I am currently in my final year (I hope) and am so pleased to read your article. Like you, I already have a career which I will return to and my doctorate sprang from my work not the other way round. Even my supervisors have asked me where I want to go next. I will be returning to the position I had before which was held open for me. However, nothing much will change, least of all my salary. I am often asked, especially by family, why I am doing this. It’s because, like you, I love to study, to write, to retreat into the spa-like pleasure of an academic retreat. And I have more than a passing interest in my topic, which I have been experimenting with in my career for several years. My doctorate is just making my results and findings official. Like you, I have been concerned about feeling let down when I complete in a few months time. What will I do with all that extra time? It is really helpful to read your article. All the best for your next steps. Anne

  6. This really resonates with me. I’m in the process of writing my dissertation and I love my topic and my committee. I am also a professional that does not require this credential to get ahead or be successful in my field. People often ask what I am going to do when I’m done and I stammer some sort of response but the truth is that I don’t and won’t be changing fields or jobs even and I feel foolish admitting that to anyone because it leads to the question, “why are you doing it then?” It’s for me, and I’m not sure why that doesn’t feel like enough.

  7. Great post. I am loving the experience of a PhD too. People would assume that was just first year enthusiasm but here I am in second year and feel the same way. I am always asked ‘what next’ and as I am also working as well, what it means for that. It means nothing, I see this as an end in itself and if it opens doors, great, if not, I already have a job I love which luckily is held for me and I did a Phd to expand my mind/skills (and because I love research and learning, which you don’t say to most people). It can be at times quite stressful, although that comes from competing with my outside responsibilities (kids) and I find any travel is a big deal. I find the ‘what will a PhD do for you?’ question to be similar to the questioning you receive at any ‘end of’, whether it be kindergarten, high school, university. Usually people outside of academia like certainty and to hear that studying is a vocational pursuit. I am lucky to have a scholarship and a supportive family, without which I couldn’t do it at all. Great to read similar thoughts.

  8. I can’t relate at all. Six years and 5 published papers in and now doing a rewrite of my thesis, I am so sick of the whole process and topic. I am on the other end of the continuum from you; I have a job and a full life and don’t have time for this anymore.

    I do completely feel your pain at the “what next” question. Isn’t getting a PhD enough? Those people are so silly; let’s see them do anything close to this tremendous achievement!

    • Hi Vickie – I kind of feel the same! I’m in the process of post-viva corrections (for re-submission and re-examination). I now feel that I have a job I enjoy (professional services within a University) and all I really want to do is finish the thesis and put it on a shelf! The whole process has taught me that I really don’t want to be an ‘academic’!!

  9. Great post! I loved it too – the whole thing. I am still in love with my topic. I have stayed on as an Honorary at the university and will keep researching and writing as long as I can. I was a mature age student, so even more mature now, three years out.

    I converted the thesis into an academic book and then rewrote as a mainstream book which has just come out here in Australia and will hit the rest of the world next year. I am currently doing an open source academic ebook and starting work on the next mainstream one. I’ll just keep researching and writing for ever. The beauty of post-PhD is that I can now direct my research to what I think I can get published and not be confined by dreading the examiners. The Honorary affiliation gives me the authority which is useful alongside the PhD. No money, but total academic freedom.

    I felt the letdown when I finished and the embarrassment with the title, but I am past that now and loving it! I wish the same for you.

    • Hi Lara, I am just starting out, and I really appreciate having read your story. I currently blog and write 750 words each day – on http://www.750words.com – so will try to ensure that I keep doing that when I have finished to keep writing, even though it will not be academic.

      Hi Lynne, it sounds as if you have found post-PhD structure – which seems to be important to prevent lostness after such a large body of work ends. How did you do that, if you don’t mind me asking?

      And would you mind sharing what your PhD was on, and what your books will be on?

  10. Pingback: How to make your PhD seem like a holiday | reflectedd

  11. Hi everyone. Thank you Lara, for a post that has really resonated with me.

    I’m close to finishing my PhD (end of 2016). I’m in my fourth year and also an older student, but have loved absolutely every minute of this journey. My topic remains interesting and relevant to me and I have a fantastic relationship with my supervisor/mentor. I love the thinking, the writing, the challenge and I even see the difficult bits as simply part of the greater journey. I’m not even finished yet and I’m already mourning being a PhD student. I keep asking myself, “What am I going to do with all those hours that I currently happily immerse myself in research?”

    I took my PhD on as way of validating myself and it’s done that in spades. Coming out of a difficult marriage and being in a more than mediocre career, I didn’t need the PhD to progress careerwise, but I certainly needed it personally. Of course people ask what I’ll do next because they know it’s been such a huge part of my life. It’s a question I ask myself, especially as I’m not working in an academic field, so I tell them that I will continue to write for journals, chapters, and maybe even a book. And I look forward to what the future brings. What I will miss though, is being part of the mainstream academic community. Maybe those doors will open too. Only time will tell …

  12. If your thesis was a story – something you wanted to tell – then I’d suggest you tell it again as a book so that it reaches a much wider readership than the thesis does. It means reworking the thesis – something that you may well enjoy doing as it allows you to use the reflections you’ve had since finishing it and to see it as other readers might. It offers the chance to update some of the ideas and information and add new references that you may have since come across. If it’s a story worth telling, then go for it. I did and it was a really good decision which has led to further book writing opportunities! Good Luck!

  13. Thank you, Lara. I can totally relate to your post. I finished my PhD last June. I, too, am a successful professional and my PhD does not directly impact my job. I found that working on the PhD while doing my job kept me focused and internally satisfied. I thought that completing the PhD would somehow open up new vistas for me. The only thing that opened was a void. I feel lost and unsatisfied in my work and really miss the intensity of the PhD life. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Hi Lara,

    Thank you for bringing the “dark” side of PhD into the light 🙂 Whenever I said I enjoyed being a student I felt I should be ashamed of that, but I did. I miss it a lot, mostly doing research I care about with the backing of a university–having access to resources and a supervisor who supports me as I stumble through question after question during the research process. I’ve been working on this PhD for SO long (7 calendar years, I took two off in the middle for the purposes of having children), that it took me a while to figure out who I am when I’m not “a PhD student”. I’ve finished a year ago, and I’m still not entirely sure what I want to do “when I grow up”. My only advice is, don’t let anyone rush you into the next thing. Take time to find yourself again and figure yourself out again. It’ll come eventually. Maybe take a course in the meantime 😉 Do feel free to contact me if you care to chat, I’d love to 🙂

  15. Another post successful defence individual saying that this is true for me. Indeed one of the reasons I got a transmission on my first viva was because I panicked over the bereavement.

    Very limited advice I can give almost a year after but I would say find a totally different big project; redesign your garden, run a half marathon, learn a new language. It will not fill the gap, but it provides a outflow for the excess energy and time as well as a partial focus.

    Oh I will start panicking if in a year’s time I am still in this limbo.

  16. I haven’t finished, so cannot relate in that particular way, but I certainly do hear you on having no specific career progression in mind but having, instead, the joy of just doing it. The structure, the thinking and learning, are the thing for me.

    It’s true that this does not seem to be adequate reason for most people / society. When asked what I do, the inevitable next question is “what will be next”? I often wonder myself if I shouldn’t have more of a plan or specific goal. There are very good, practical reasons for having one of those.

    The distinction you make between internal meaning and outside validation is powerful too. The only good reasons I can think of for undertaking any project, are either as a distillation of internal meaning or for some practical purpose one has (been lucky enough to have) identified.

    The struggles for me at the moment are all to do with finances and in driving myself to keep clarifying what my internal motivation is. I suppose, if I finish (!), I will find new ways to struggle.

    Thanks for an honest post from the ‘other side’. Wishing you well and joy in those dishes 🙂

  17. My PhD process was a complete rollercoaster, as I’m sure most are. I had a succession of amazing highs and almost crippling lows. The limbo I find myself in since I completed it is exacerbated by the fact I’m currently not working in academia (and am instead in a low-paid admin job, to keep the wolf from the door whilst I attempt to build up my publications portfolio). I go for days forgetting I am a doctor of English, which saddens me more than I realised. I feel like I have lost my identity, almost. Thank you for the post, it’s allowed me to describe my own feelings more coherently. 🙂

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  19. What a great conversation to wade into at this point of my PhD.

    I started in 2011 and am hoping to be complete by end of 2016. As others here have also said, this will likely do nothing for my career; I’m 49 and have been working in my field since 1992 and no longer seeking career-climbing/advancing opportunities. However, what the PhD journey did was rejuvenate me, providing an outlet for creative energy and validation of “internal meaning”. I hope it made me a better employee in my educator’s role. I know it has made me a better human!

    What comes next? Apart from a few months of just relishing having evenings and week-ends free to do anything, or nothing? The PhD has built a foundation for the next stage of my life as I anticipate retiring from my 9-5 gig in the next few years and moving onto whatever comes next. I like jengiejon’s advice to take on a new and unrelated project – maybe this will just allow me to have fun, but could also lead to what’s next in my life as I move into the second half 🙂

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  21. Thank you! Lovely to read something about the positives for those of us who actually enjoy our PhDs despite the hard work and obstacles. I just handed in my PhD last week and await the defense next month (Swedish system). Even if I have things lined up for the autumn and will be busy, it is not that easy to let go of a defining, demanding and oh, so interesting, life companion after (in my Swedish case) 4 years. I also have to end my project blog soon (www.offerringer.wordpress.com) – a bit sad, since it has been a really good way of not feeling alone about my work but keep connected with people around me and inform them about what I actually do. On the other hand, it is great to have this sudden freedom to do normal life stuff and time to think ahead: even if there are no certain opportunities waiting for me, I do hope it is only a matter of time before I get something relevant and interesting to do, whether as a researcher or in some other way within my field. In any case I am super happy I got to do this project. Thanks again for pointing to the intrinsic value and joy of doing this sort of research!

  22. This is exactly how I feel. I finished half a year ago and can’t bring myself to write anything new. My viva went brilliantly and feedback from supervisors and others on my work is great. People keep telling me that “I will get a job” if I keep presenting and writing like I did during my PhD. I have actually turned down interviews and even offers for jobs to be created for me because I’m a single parent and limited to where and when i can work.
    I also think that I invested so much effort and work and dug so deep emotionally and intellectually for my PhD that I don’t have a lot left in me. It sounds ridiculous but I’m not willing to throw myself into another project and dig as deep as that again unless the job suits me.

    That might not make sense to someone who hasn’t finished yet but hopefully some of you who are in a similar position will recognize my sentiments?

    Post-PhD life for me has been and is a massive disappointment. I’m sitting on the fence as to whether leave academia or not. currently

    • I enjoy reading stories like yours. I think we all have felt like this, and if not, we can certainly empathize with you. I’m working, but I’m not enjoying it. I enjoyed the act of obtaining the PhD but not the after effects. I went in to earning a PhD so that I could research. However, as I learned during my coursework, it’s just not that easy. If I truly want to research I must also teach. I don’t like this combination. I am not a teacher at heart. I want to research and write about it in hopes that someone somewhere benefits from my findings or ideas. I have so much passion for this type of work, yet, making a living doing this – well, not so easy.

  23. Pingback: Best Industry Transition Articles Of The Week For PhDs (October 9th, 2016) – phdcareeradvice

  24. I, as many of us, can 100% identify with this post. Even if you happened to land your dream job before or after you finished your doctorate, you can empathize with Lara.

    My dream has always been to research. I love research. I want to wake-up every morning and know that I am doing what I love. However, getting there is not easy. Solely researching, I have found, is not something that just appears. You can research for a nonprofit, but then are limited to projects that aren’t really your projects (it’s like an extended graduate assistantship that never ends).

    I just want to research, for a living. I don’t want to teach in a university, but it seems that research and teaching are in a formal relationship and teaching is the parent.

    I have not and will not give up on my dream of becoming a full-time researcher without the need to also teach, but until then…

  25. Pingback: Best Industry Transition Articles Of The Week For PhDs (October 9th, 2016) | Cheeky Scientist® | Industry Training For Intelligent People

  26. This is perfect! I worked on my Ed.D. for years. I poured time into the research and dissertation process, nearly giving up many times! I lost years while I edited, and edited, then re-edited! As I help people push through the dissertation process now, I always try to prepare them for the let down after the defense. Oddly enough, it doesn’t take long before you are asking, “What next?”

  27. I’m not sure why this post from last year popped up on a facebook link. Even so, feeling surprised at feeling a sense of disorientation and emptiness once the PhD process ends seems to be a common phenomenon. The post’s responses showed that many people thoroughly enjoyed the PhD experience whilst others found it utterly gruelling. It is fascinating to hear from the candidates who did it just for the love of telling their story and have been content to simply carry on as before. I personally looked forward to being able to escape the frugality of life on a scholarship, felt relief to have what felt at the time like a ‘life project’ examined successfully, and was not sorry to let go of the dubious status of being “a perpetual student”. That said, doing a PhD was a wonderful one-off experience. It allowed me to indulge myself in spending years focussed on one intellectual issue mostly of my own choosing. A scholarship gave me significant freedom from other distractions that generally come from full-time employment. It involved a satisfying personal journey where I developed enough self-discipline to avidly explore topics and discover knowledge at the same time as making the required progress. Thinking back on it now, I can see how it was disorienting to have all of those unique wonderful freedoms come to an end.

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