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Missing the Monkey: The Post-PhD Blues

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Intro: I have known Dr. Conor West, as a HDR student, a project collaborator and now we are lucky to have her as a UOW colleague at Learning, Teaching and Curriculum.  I love this honest account of her experience and feelings when finishing her PhD and working out what to do next. I think most readers will relate in some way…

Like many of us, the doctoral-shaped monkey on my back seemed to gain weight as the years of my PhD passed by. By the end, it was only my innate stubbornness and fear of disappointing others that kept us together.

I spent much of those four years riding waves of passionate curiosity and troughs of seething disappointment. Not that it mattered, as regardless of how I was feeling, my monkey always required something from me. Time away from it filled me with guilt. I convinced myself that a break could wait until the tables had been re-formatted, a new article annotated, or the next page of feedback was applied. Life happened in the space it left; I always gave my monkey the attention it screamed for. Until, unceremoniously, my monkey was gone.

Photo by MESSALA CIULLA from Pexels (license)

It was an ordinary Tuesday, working alone from home when I realised the monkey had run out of tasks to throw at me. I had suddenly found myself looking at a submit button, with my full dissertation attached to the box above it. I clicked submit almost as a reflex, akin to accepting terms and conditions. I messaged family and friends and posted about my almost-completion. In silence, I got up to wash the dishes and heard the ping of an automatic email from HDR administration with their congratulations and estimates for examiner feedback. It was all very underwhelming, as I knew my monkey would be back. 

In the temporary lull, it sunk in that my income had gone. Although I was tired, this was no time to rest. Budgets were created, and friendly, inquiring emails to university contacts were sent for the upcoming semester. I completed my teaching accreditation and went out into public schools like I had always planned to do after my undergraduate degree. The three casual jobs I pulled together were interesting, yet none of them fulfilled anything more than my bank account. The monkey returned: the examiners’ feedback was positive, and final changes were approved. The next graduation was eight months away, but I was Dr West from this point on. My supervisors suggested writing an article or two from my thesis in our final meeting together. I was done, so there would be no more meetings.

It occurred to me far too late that the monkey had never really returned since I had pressed that submit button. Without it, what was driving me each day? What did I want from my life now I had the freedom to choose? I had no energy or ideas to even begin to answer these questions. So, I just said ‘yes’ until I wanted to say ‘no’.

A whole nine months on, this left me with something resembling a sense of clarity. Despite enjoying working as a casual academic, I felt ready to say ‘no’ to the job insecurity. While I remained passionate about teaching, I felt ready to say ‘no’ to a career as a classroom teacher. After saying ‘no’ to everything I thought I had ever wanted, I began pursuing new avenues. This unknown was terrifying, but it was ultimately the sweetest possible reward for my years of hard work. Those years of saying ‘yes’ had shown me what I excelled at so that when my dream position unexpectedly arrived, I was ready, able and willing.

This clarity and self-confidence was my reward for persevering with my doctorate and for working through those murky years after completing it. Not finding a path to a post-doc or stable career made me question my worth. In those times, I thought the cloud of exhaustion and indifference surrounding me was due to my multiple jobs or the uncertainty of my future. With hindsight, I see that it was grief for the loss of what my doctorate could have been. It could have been a personally-gratifying contribution to an academic field I had admired, leading to an academic career with an international network of esteemed colleagues and mentors. Instead, my passion project was slowly whittled down to resemble other peoples’ goals. It still required the same level of dedication and effort, but it became something I did not recognise or understand. I spoke about it at conferences and entered it into research competitions as if perhaps strangers could tell me what this bizarre, all-consuming creature was.

Despite the question of what to do with the unrecognisable monkey on my back, my doctoral years were spent dealing with its day-to-day needs. This short-term focus provided a comfortable place to hide. I had no time to reflect on its presence until it was no longer there to feed me busywork. With no more distractions, I had no choice but to look at my doctoral journey and who I had become along the way. It took months for me to realise how much I had changed, for better and for worse. I found peers I could speak honestly to and found that my experience was not unique. With my new-found self-awareness, I began to process what I wanted next. I realised that the weightlessness that had been so unsettling at first, was actually allowing me to stand for the first time in years.

The metaphor of a journey is fairly ubiquitous when reflecting about gaining a doctorate, but nothing else quite captures the way it is both collectively, and yet uniquely, transformational. Not any one doctorate is the same, but through a mix of good and bad, graduating doctoral candidates always arrive at the same point. At my graduation and feeling indulgently melodramatic, I imagined this point looking like a rocky plateau, overlooking a wide and fertile valley at sunrise. The plateau was exposed and barren, like the later sections of the mountain I had chosen to climb behind me. We all know that some find an easy path through the mountain, while others never make it through. At the beginning, some are given experienced guides, others are given maps and a few are simply pointed in a vague direction. So much of the journey is out of our control, but through our wits, grit and a little luck, most make it to this place short-lived respite. There is so little time to enjoy this achievement that very few in the world gain. It has taken me years of reflection to finally appreciate that view and catch my breath. I still find it hard to believe that I have finally moved on to a gentler path of my own choosing – with not a monkey in sight.

Conor West

 

Thank you Conor for sharing your personal feelings and experience of the period post-PhD and navigating that tricky question of what to do next.  

If you are trying to work out your future career possibilities post-PhD, access free impartial advice from UOW Careers Central

Conor West was awarded her PhD from the University of Wollongong in October 2018. Her PhD research in the School of Education examined the career choice motivations and teaching dispositions of beginning teachers. She now works as an academic developer in Learning, Teaching & Curriculum at UOW using the skills gained during her PhD and time spent as a casual academic and casual teacher in Australia and Norway. Conor can be contacted on LinkedIn or via Twitter (@DrConorWest).

 

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