Post-Dissertation Blargh

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by Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar, Ph.D. (finally), English

It’s been about four months since I defended my dissertation and three months since I graduated with a Ph.D. from WMU. I fully expected to be living in a state of elation after the defense and walking across the stage, and thought that euphoria would last at least until summer. After all, I had been working toward graduation for 8 years, and had the Ph.D. in my sights since sometime during undergrad. I had reached the final fruition of my academic goals, and had been unburdened of writing, revising, editing, and researching the diss… I should be walking on air!

But now I find myself experiencing a funk for which I was completely unprepared. Instead of feeling finally relaxed, I’m increasingly anxious about jobs (exacerbated by a horrible job market for both academic and non-ac positions), money (hello, student loan payments), publications, and how to improve my chances on the market for next year. After years of managing my time and living with the pressure to read, write, and get the darn dissertation finished, my mind is going in a hundred directions, unsure of what to do now. Without classes or writing groups to attend, I feel disconnected from my fellow scholars. After only a few weeks, the excitement of being unburdened has worn off and now I’m faced with a bit of an identity crisis: I’m no longer a student, yet not a member of a new faculty. I’m stuck in “Ph.D. limbo-land,” a place between identities.

Fortunately, just a few minutes on the Google-machine assures me that I’m not the only one who feels like this (see blog entries on Portrait of a Supposed Scholar, Academic Cog, and Mathemagenic, and this PSA on YouTube). I’m afraid that we don’t really prepare ourselves (or our students) for the shift back into real life after years of working toward a degree. The common assumption for departments like mine is that we prepare for teaching or research jobs in academia, and begin in those positions several months after graduation OR we continue working as adjuncts at WMU or at other institutions. In each of these situations, there’s some continuity in our identities as scholars and as teachers. But what about our graduates who don’t secure these kinds of positions? What about the students who want to pursue alt-ac tracks, or who are unsuccessful in the academic job hunt? What becomes of us?

This is all related to larger issues of employment within and without the university, but my immediate concern is the experience of uncertainty, transition, and anxiety that comes with ending one’s tenure as a student. The experience of completing the largest research project you’ve ever undertaken, and moving slowly and unsurely (if you have no immediate career on the other side) into your new identity after graduation. For my entire life to this point, I’ve been a student… every degree and certification has led into and been preparation for the next, so I’ve never had any fear or uncertainty about the next phase of my life. It’s always been “back to the classroom,” or “back to the library.” And now, I might not see the classroom again… so what do I do? Where do I go? And who am I now that I’m not a student?

Alongside this quandary comes the (strong) possibility that I should have stopped thinking of myself as a student LONG ago. The moment I entered grad school, I should have started thinking of myself as a professional, and maybe this distinction has hindered my ability to be able to launch myself into a post-doctoral career. Well, live and learn…

I have no immediate answer or solution to these issues, no bullet-points of advice at the end of this blog post. What I want is for people to know that this feeling, this experience EXISTS. I’ve been lucky to be able to speak to Dr. Marianne Di Pierro, our Director of the Center for Graduate Research and Retention at WMU, who assured me that I’m not alone in feeling this way. (I’m also lucky that I’ve been able to find part-time work this semester, and that I have a wonderful spouse who DID manage to put his Ph.D. to good use and landed a teaching job. So there’s hope out there!) Still, I wonder how many students have dealt with this kind of post-dissertation funk / limbo / let-down, but lacking a continued connection to their university, they don’t know to whom to speak. It seems that students like me need to be better informed of prepared for the challenges and anxieties of this post-academic transition, and we need to know that counseling, support, and sympathetic mentors are there to help us through.

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2 thoughts on “Post-Dissertation Blargh

    Luke Chambers said:
    March 11, 2014 at 12:31 am

    Hey Ilse. Although I was only a master’s student and my thesis was no doubt less than a quarter of the work of a dissertation, I find myself in much the same position. With my final PhD rejection letter coming this very day, tides of depression, anxiety, and anger take their turns on me.

    Pat said:
    July 25, 2015 at 1:45 am

    I just finished my dissertation after being in the program for 8 years and all I got was a ho-hum reception at the defense and a diploma frame from my family! I was hoping to get a more enthusiastic reception from my committee after all of the thought and hard work I put into it. I also thought that I’d get something personal like a watch rather than a diploma frame… It’s a big let down after 8 years of super grueling work… Anyone else experience this?

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