This post is by Dr Catherine Ayres, who completed her PhD in the School of Sociology at the ANU in 2016. She’s worked as a research training nerd at the ANU Research Skills and Training unit. This post was written at a bit of a low point. Cathy wants you to know that she is now happily on the working in research management at the ANU College of Law. She tweets from @catherinetayres.
Maybe you’ve heard of the ‘PhD cliff’. Dr Lauren McGrow wrote a brilliant piece on TW about strategies to get through the final dash to submission. I’ve done some of the things she suggested and I’m so glad I did, because it’s been the hardest, busiest, stressiest time in my life.
I didn’t run off the edge of the cliff. I jumped across the submission chasm, landed, and just kept sprinting. But now I’ve leapt the chasm, I’m looking back at the other side longingly.
It’s weird, but I miss my PhD already. I’m not alone here, so I want to introduce a bit of a contentious argument: sometimes submission sucks.
I submitted my PhD thesis just over two weeks ago, and I’m smack bang in the middle of what I’m calling ‘the submission blues’. I celebrated for about 15 minutes, then got back to the pile of work I had been putting off until after that sweet, sweet submission date.
I’m not trying to scare those of you pre-submission. I just wanted to balance out the conversation a little, which is overwhelmingly positive and perhaps doesn’t reflect some of the more difficult realities of (ostensibly) completing such a major phase of our lives.
Of course, submitting a doctoral thesis is a HUGE achievement that deserves celebration, but for me it’s also brought about some HUGE changes in my life that require some navigation:
Not being a student anymore
Ok, I know this is literally the WHOLE point of submitting. Submitting and being awarded your PhD means you’re all grown up, kid. But for those like me who have spent almost their entire lives in total institutions of education, this can really throw you. I can’t help thinking of newly released prison inmates who immediately rob a bank in order to get back into prison (yes, I have considered looking for opportunities to do another PhD).
When I meet people and get asked ‘what I do’, I have to stop myself saying “I’m a PhD student”. But I don’t yet know what else I am yet, so I don’t know what to say. In addition to being socially awkward, this kind of encounter generates a lot of anxiety around my uncertain future. Normally I’m all for uncertainty. Uncertainty can mean opportunities to learn cool new stuff and can give rise to exciting changes. But this kind of uncertainty feels like a big wave crashing on my head; the only thing I know for sure is I’m gonna have to swim somewhere.
Everything else catches up
Imagine you’re a juggler. But for three and a half years you’ve just been holding one big ball with both hands. Then one day you put that big ball down and try to juggle again. Because you’ve just been holding one ball for what feels like forever, you’ve forgotten how to juggle, and the multiple balls you threw in the air just fall down around you.
The PhD has been my top priority by a long way for three and a half years. So now that’s out of the way, priority numbers 2 – infinity all crowd in and clamour for attention all at once: the pile of essays that need marking; the loose administrative ends I’ve been ignoring; that book chapter that’s still in the ‘shitty draft’ stage; and the job applications. Oh, the job applications!
Having just completed a PhD, I’m tired. I’ve been working my butt off for a long time, so finding the energy to deal with all the aforementioned things that are catching up is extra hard. Hell, deciding what to make for dinner every night is extra hard
Overall, I really enjoyed my PhD, and I find myself reminiscing about the excitement of finally putting an idea together, smashing out a 20,000 word chapter in a couple of days (this actually happened once at a Thesis Boot Camp!) or printing out that first full draft, its heft surprisingly satisfying. This side of submitting? The excitement is pretty much confined to Friday night wine (ok, and Tuesday night wine).
I submitted my thesis. I should feel amazing! I should feel on top of the world, like doors are opening up everywhere and I just have to choose which one to walk through right now. But I don’t feel like that. So what is wrong with me?! Why am I not satisfied with this massive achievement? If this doesn’t make me happy, what will??
Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of my work, and I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back and do it all again. I just don’t have answers to all the problems I’ve outlined here yet.
I think with some more time and perspective those feelings of pride and satisfaction will overtake the more negative aspects I’ve talked about here. Just like the Valley of Shit, I’m sure it ends and leads to bigger and better things. I just wanted to say, sometimes submission sucks. But that’s ok. Let’s just be real about it. And let’s be kind to ourselves and each other about it.
What do you think?
How not to run off the PhD cliff