What I lost when I got my PhD

Kristen Burton had achieved her goals, yet had to grasp how profound the transition out of grad school could be

April 15, 2016
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The months following graduation proved more challenging than expected. Not because of my first attempt to take on the bewildering, crushing academic job market. And not because of the loss of purpose I once had while writing and editing my PhD dissertation, although those experiences were certainly part of the challenges that awaited me after my mentor placed the doctoral hood around my neck and after my official degree arrived in the mail.

I felt lost. Time passed, and the sense of feeling suspended between worlds persisted. It followed me as I took on the role of adjunct and lined up classes to teach at my (now) alma mater. It remained stuck at the edge of my mind as I scrolled through posts on social media. Spaces once filled with familiar topics about academia and teaching, carried on by familiar names and faces, became alien. My usual retorts or curious enquiries fell silent. I had no words to offer.

This shift confounded me. I felt a persistent sense of dread that I no longer knew who I was.

But that didn’t make sense. I had accomplished so much (or so I told myself). Friends and family passed along their congratulations and well wishes. Their kind words and excitement sat heavy like a rock deep in my core. I felt ashamed that I didn’t share in that sense of pride for what I did. I had earned a doctorate, and that alone is a challenging feat. Less than 2 per cent of the population in the US has done the same; and being a woman, I was part of the less than 1 per cent. Or so I was told.

I struggled to understand this sense of loss – to understand why, after finally achieving success, my world seemed so out of sorts. Nothing seemed clear until, months after the fact, I understood.

For seven and a half years, I was in two graduate programmes, in two different schools, in two different states. Goal-oriented and motivated by some undefined source of willpower, I devoted a portion of my life to earning two graduate degrees. For what purpose, I still struggle to know, but graduate school was more than what I did – it became who I was. It got under my skin. It changed the way I spoke. It changed the way I dressed and how I carried myself. It utterly redefined my very being.

And then it ended.

Why else would graduation and achieving the one goal I’d worked towards for the past several years have such a disconcerting effect? I didn’t simply graduate from a PhD programme, I lost an essential part of my identity.

It took me three months to realise that.

For years I’ve introduced myself as a graduate student. Doing so can carry so many different meanings, which I found to be a convenient means of explaining or excusing myself (why I didn’t have a full-time job, why I often bemoaned my economic standing, why I never had time to do ______ or to go to _____). I never completely understood how doing so, year after year, reshaped the way I thought of myself, or how I perceived of myself.

On social media outlets, especially Twitter, where I grew accustomed to conversing with an array of scholars – food and drink aficionados and other intriguing, sharp-witted people – it was as though I forgot what to say. I followed conversations but seemed to lack the ability to join. Even in day-to-day conversations and encounters, I felt like part of my personality was gone, evaporated into the ether, and I was little more than a spiritless automaton.

I suppose that is the danger of making a temporary identity such a fundamental part of your being. It is now clear to me why the lack of success on the academic market is so emotionally destructive to so many. It isn’t about the job that didn’t pan out. I wonder now if it is ever about the job. People can research, write and teach in many capacities outside the academy. No – it is about coming to terms with the fact that you have to separate yourself from an all-encompassing identity. You have to acknowledge that your hope of turning your graduate student identity into the different but still familiar assistant professor identity won’t happen. It is the realisation that you have to separate yourself from all that is recognisable and comfortable.

The realisation that it is time not just to do something else, but also to become someone else.

It took me three months to come to terms with this transition, and while there remains some creasing for the iron, I finally feel a sense of peace. I have new tasks and objectives now, offered in the form of full-time “alternative-academic” employment. I see new ways to apply the knowledge and skills gained over the past decade. I also recognise that I am more than a grad student. I am more than my PhD. I am not my degree, and neither are you. Knowledge and education can shape us in powerful ways, but in the end it is up to us to chart our own paths and remain our own advocates.

Only time will tell what challenges come next.

Kristen D. Burton holds a doctorate in transatlantic history from the University of Texas at Arlington and works as the student development specialist in the UTA Office of Graduate Studies. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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Reader's comments (1)

I really liked this article and it provides a novel perspective. I wonder whether accepting the transition was aided by finding a more permanent job, one which had its own identify? And whether, becoming a post-doc provides a way to prolong this transition and therefore delay the uncertainty (and/or the reality). As I read your article, it gives me another perspective on why post-docs can be so resistant/hesitant/scared to leave the traditional "academic route" and remain in a perpetual post-doc cycle for so long. When in the post-doc cycle long enough (and the average seems to be 5-7 years), one might actually have identified as a post-doc longer than as a graduate student. [And the post-doc temporary identify might be even more strongly held because for the first few years post-docs have to struggle to separate themselves from being regarded as a "student"]. I myself am trying to transition from a post-doc into "something else" and find it is more daunting at this stage than after graduating with my PhD. Likely because I have invested 4 additional years, post-graduation, defining myself as a "future academic", and am trying to come to terms with what life will be like "outside academia".

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