How I stripped away postdoc depression

September 20, 2002

Simon Francis found himself with a PhD in one hand, a toilet brush in the other - and no desire for academic life

A year ago, the sense of achievement that my doctorate had once given me had reached its nadir. I was still, 18 months after I'd submitted my thesis, a dole claimant and a cleaner. It did not feel right to be plunging my arm into toilet bowls for a living. At work, I could cover my annoyance only by cracking jokes about being the highest qualified cleaner in the country.

From the day I passed my PhD until now, my life has been like a long journey out of a hermit's cave and back into the social world. My physical and mental health had suffered during the last frenetic months of my thesis. I'd lost half a stone and I was still on Prozac. I had to restore my balance, I resolved, by making my life as un-academic as possible. All things mindless were my self-prescribed regimen. For weeks, my average day was made up of This Morning with Richard and Judy, followed by hours sitting in a cafe, then a sweaty workout in the gym, and finally home to watch lots more mindless telly. It was great.

But this idyllic slothfulness began to pall. Increasingly, I wanted to do something useful . I was also broke. Worst of all, the dole office had informed me that I was now "eligible" for the New Deal. I'd been warned that the New Deal was not about help - it was punishment for having been on the dole too long. My friend Harry, who had finished his PhD a year before me, had had to spend 13 weeks ironing clothes in a charity shop as part his New Deal "Intensive Work Experience".

So I had to go out and seek the rewards that were not, it was becoming apparent, going to come automatically as a result of my qualification. But first I had to deal with that most debilitating of symptoms of post-thesis life: a profound feeling of half-heartedness about everything - including lecturing. In fact, the thought of lecturing horrified me, evoking as it did memories of student life - a life I was damn sure I did not want to re-create. Nevertheless, I felt, I had to investigate it. A small voice inside told me that I might be suffering from prejudice.

I soon discovered the main barrier to full-time employment in academia: the research assessment exercise. Departments need to show the government that their lecturers publish a lot. You need at least three publications, I was told, to convince prospective employers that you will be a useful part of the team. But after a year pestering publishers with a synopsis of the book based on my PhD, I had had only one slight spark of interest.

So, misery persisted. However, over one week last summer, my world suddenly changed. On the Monday I met my friend and fellow cleaner, Tina. I'd spent so long controlling my mind, she counselled, that I now needed to "free it up" and get creative about my job search. On the Thursday, I was collared by my former PhD supervisor. A part-time lecturer was needed for an MSc environment course. The subject, I reasoned, was my specialism and it was postgraduate level. If ever I was going to try lecturing "just in case" I might enjoy it, there could not be a better opportunity. So I agreed.

As a result of that week, my time is now divided between part-time lecturing and what I call part-time "creative work".

I started lecturing last January. At first it was terrifying. On my first day, I was faced with a bunch of very bright, very keen students. I feared that I would be roasted alive, but I was surprised to find that they did not know much. Some time later, older lecturers told me I had made the standard misassumption of first-time lecturers: you do not realise how much you have learnt since you started your PhD - not just from formal study, but from life.

The biggest surprise, though, was that at no time has lecturing felt like doing a PhD. For a start, the other lecturers became chummy. Perhaps they had always been that way - but as a PhD student I had been unable to be chummy back. Now, the relationship between me and them just felt much less heavy. What has made my first stint as a lecturer best of all, though, has been my students, who are always polite and friendly.

To be sure, my first lecture was dire. Not trusting my knowledge or my nerves, I had written out everything so I could dictate it in class. Result: I droned for 90 minutes. A third of the students did not return for the next session. But after a few weeks, my anxiety began to disappear. Correspondingly, my ability to ad lib increased. It hit me recently that lecturing could be a wheeze. At its best, it is like having a deep, enjoyable conversation with old friends - except as a lecturer you get paid for it.

So now I do, wholeheartedly, want to lecture full time. But what of that "creative work"? I have applied for fun-sounding jobs or advertised in shop windows to do them. So far, I have been a stonemason, painter, builder, gardener and strippergram deliverer. Some of it has worked out financially, some has not - but it has all been enjoyable. It has helped me off the Prozac and now the future looks brighter.

My lingering gripe, though, is with the RAE. Somehow, I have to find the time and the inclination to write journal articles. These are unpaid, and I just do not feel like burning my brains out for nothing anymore. Mind you, I would write for free and at length about the stupidity of the RAE. The catharsis alone would make it worthwhile.

Simon Francis lectures in politics at the University of Bristol.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Reader's comments (1)

lol! I went through the similar depression for one and a half year after submitting my thesis. I am now starting to recover. its a dark place to be in.