By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
As we plan for May Commencement at The Graduate school—pictures of post-defense Ph.D.s with their dissertation committees are popping up in my Twitter feed—I’ve been reflecting on the psychology of finishing up.[Disclaimer: I am not a mental-health professional, so any information you glean from this post is about as medically valid as that dispensed from Lucy van Pelt’s 5-cent psychiatry booth.]
In particular, I keep thinking about an advising session I had a while back with a new Ph.D. just weeks after her defense. She was glad to be finished, but reported feeling demoralized by the dissertation defense. It’s not that her committee was difficult—they just didn’t seem that happy for her.
I suspect (and hope) that this dissertation committee was the exception to the norm, but I could easily imagine the scenario. For over-committed faculty, a dissertation defense can seem like one more checklist item on a busy Friday. Meanwhile, the new Ph.D. has every reason to expect a response commensurate to the successful culmination of 5-7 years of sacrifice and hard work.
This anecdote sticks with me, because it’s a good reminder that professional achievements bring their own challenges, and potentially some complicated emotions. For starters (as my advisee quickly discovered) there’s often a mismatch between how we imagine we’ll feel in crossing the finish line, and what actually happens (including how others react).
The ambivalence some new Ph.D.s feel in finishing up is summed up quite well in a 2015 post on The Thesis Whisperer, a blog for grad students. The anonymous writer (a postdoc) of “What’s it like to be ‘finished’?” reported peers who initially confronted feelings of numbness (“I don’t feel happy”), inadequacy (“My dissertation isn’t good enough”) and loss (“I’m not a graduate student anymore—who am I?”).
You can even miss writing your dissertation (“empty desk syndrome”). A project that has defined your everyday existence for over a year suddenly acquires a binding and a call number and disappears from your life (for now).
It would be tempting to interpret these reactions as one more sign that Ph.D. study in the humanities is inherently cruel. Yet consider that all major life transitions—both positive and negative—have the potential to mess with your brain for a spell. If, for example, you land on the tenure track and remain there, achieving tenure might bring on similar feelings of malaise. (If you don’t believe me, check out “Avoiding PTDS: Post-Tenure Depression Syndrome.”) And no matter what profession you follow, milestone achievements like getting a big promotion, committing to a life partner, or having a child can be exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure.
Am I trying to throw gloom on your graduation party? Of course not. Rather, accepting that you don’t have to feel perfect at every moment can make it easier for you to enjoy your accomplishments and transition more smoothly to what’s next. A few other bits of advice:
This may seem like a no-brainer, but a Ph.D. celebration doesn’t happen as easily or organically as it might for a B.A. graduate. The people with whom you bonded over the grad school experience may be finishing on different timetables, or (in a few cases) not finishing at all. Your family may not be around to help you celebrate. You may already have moved out of state (or abroad) and decided that traveling back to campus for hooding is too expensive or impractical.
You may even have decided that you’re past all that stuff, and that you don’t need a celebration. Perhaps reconsider. While walking across a stage in medieval polyester robes may not be your thing, reflect on what kind of celebration would be most meaningful for you, and whom you want to celebrate with. Do what you can to bring that about.
Be patient with yourself
You may be feeling exhilarated now, or so busy with relocation that you’ve not had time to stand still. Just know that wherever you’re headed next—whether to a faculty position, a postdoc, or a role beyond the academy—it may take some time to adjust to life post-grad school. You may have gotten pretty comfortable as a late-stage grad student. Perhaps you were one of the stars of your cohort, always ready to provide mentoring to early-stage students. As a postdoc or junior faculty member at another institution, you will likely face a whole new learning curve, including an assortment of challenges nobody ever talked to you about in grad school.
For those of you embarking on a career beyond the academy (or are seriously considering it), you are engaging in a profoundly transformative act. Indeed, you may never realize how thoroughly graduate training in the humanities can shape an identity (gradually, year after year) until you step away from it. The all-immersive practices of scholarship and teaching are difficult to compartmentalize, and we may find that membership in the academic guild can dictate not merely our research interests, but even particular food, leisure, or fashion preferences.
Academia provides deep comfort to people who’ve spent their entire adult lives there. For that very reason, choosing to leave may be one of the most challenging yet empowering things you ever do. Just as it took years to form an academic identity, it may take a while to form a new one.
Preserve and expand your network
While your dissertation adviser and a couple other key faculty members may remain on speed-dial for at least a few more years, it’s easy to let other relationships fall by the wayside. If you’ve not done so already, make a list of all the people who’ve mentored, inspired or encouraged you on the Ph.D. path. Reach out to those people, and at minimum let them know where you’re headed and how they can keep in touch with you. (Or, even better, say thank you.) The same network that sustained you through graduate school can continue to provide support and advice as you move on to the next stage. Don’t tackle this alone. Expanding your network should also be a priority—especially if you are exploring nonfaculty careers.
What to wear
Lastly, if you are participating in hooding, you may be torn about whether to pay hundreds of dollars for doctoral regalia. I won’t even touch this one. Just know that the last time I dusted off my robes, it was for my 9-year-old son to participate in a Harry Potter-themed birthday party. (If you see me at hooding this year with frosting on my sleeves, don’t ask.)