Finishing a PhD is great, because you don’t have to DO IT anymore. On the other hand, there are reasons why it’s not so great. If you don’t have a job lined up to go into, and you’re not too sure as to what sort of job you actually want, finishing a PhD is a bit like being dropped off on a strange shore by a big ship, and then watching in horror as the big ship turns around and disappears, leaving you standing there alone (I paraphrase Barbara Sher. Read her book, ‘I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was’, if you’re feeling a bit like the big ship just took you all that way out to sea and then just turned right round and left you stranded).
‘The loss of a familiar way of life is one of the most difficult losses a person can experience’, writes Sher. For me, this rings very true. For three years of my life, I am a paid PhD student. I know my job: my job is to go to the library, read the relevant books, make notes in pencil on a bit of paper, and think; my job is to sit down at my laptop and write down some of the things I’ve learned, and think some more; my job is to discuss these things with my supervisor and set about turning these things into an idea, a first draft, a research question. I know where the cheap coffee machine is; I have a favourite locker in the library basement; I know how to get the books I want; the librarians and security guards smile at me; I know what I’m doing, I’m a professional; in a way, I’m in my element. And all the while, in the back of my mind, I know how the next electricity bill is going to be paid, and I know I can afford the rent – this month, and the next month, and the next, for three years.
There were good times to the PhD, especially prior to the creation of this blog. (I think I single-handedly ruined the good times by being too hard on myself; by letting myself ‘feel bad’ that I don’t earn much money, that I’m not good enough at my job; blab la bla; that this, or that. I ruined the good times when I let the voices of all the critical people I have ever known get under my skin and inside my head.) And even when times were not so good, there were, of course, good moments; that moment when you go into a library and you can smell the familiar scent of old books; the beauty of words, put together on a page; the coffee break in a quiet corner of your favourite coffee shop; the joy of getting something right; there were lots of odd moments of almost-happiness, in the big picture of stress and misery and beating-myself-up. There were good reasons why I did a PhD, and I didn’t quite manage to talk myself out of, or entirely annihilate, all of them. And perhaps the best bit, as with any job, was the sense that you have work to do and you know who you are. You get to say ‘I’m doing a PhD’ when people ask you at parties what you do for work. They might ask you what it’s about. You tell them. They sound very interested indeed. You are a person with an identity and a role in society. They’re all thinking, you’ve done very well for yourself.
I finished my PhD and I took two weeks off (partly to celebrate, partly to have time to clean my flat, and partly because I was ill, and every time I went out to celebrate I’d feel worse; then as soon as I felt better, there would be another occasion to celebrate and I would get ill again; on and on it went, in a vicious circle.)
Then I woke up one morning at the end of the two weeks and sat down to look for jobs (properly. I had sort of made looking-for-jobs movements in the two weeks of holiday, but nothing ‘real’). By four p.m. that day, I was feeling pretty depressed. (what is it about jobhunting that makes you feel like this?... I think I know what I did wrong: I got a bit click-happy and I clicked on far too many things, despite my goals for the day being 1) get info on suitable temp agency and 2) prepare CV to send to temp agency. Somehow, I ended up with loads of open tabs, spanning a ridiculous range of professions, including those I wanted/ hankered after only secretly/ had dreamt of when I was 16/ didn’t actually dare to do but was still looking at anyway/ didn’t want but felt I should apply for/ were recommended to me by a psychometric test I’d done, on the ‘Prospects’ careers website (some interesting recommendations, but I don’t think I want to retrain yet again, after all those PhD years, to start a career as an educational psychologist. They’re right, though, it does sound kind of up my street.)
So I’m not a PhD student anymore, I have decided that research is not my thing, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with that. There is a teaching post, somewhere in the universe, that a friend has mentioned to me, urging me to apply. Dear Irma Kurtz:* if I am terrible at research but an enthusiastic teacher (and I am, I am a pretty good teacher, and my students have even made a point of telling me so), should I bother applying for an academic job in my field, given that – let’s face it – the research is what they really care about, and it’s what they are going to ask about in the interview, and I am going to have to dig out that PhD and show it to people (noooooo…) and muster up a degree of enthusiasm about it. I really don’t want to. Dear Irma Kurtz, is there a future for me in academia, or should I just pack up the books and go off to live a simpler, happier life in some other walk of life?... The thought that there is a job out there that I should want, that I should try for, that I did my PhD for, but that I am not sure I want anymore, or would even be good at doing, is depressing me.
The other thing about jobhunting is that you realise, soon enough, that outside of the academe you are trained for nothing. You have no office experience. You do not have three years’ experience in stage management and you have not previously worked in post-production, and therefore the jobs that sound appealing are closed to you, and the ones you don’t particularly want but feel you could do (receptionist, office temp) will probably go to someone who has done them before.
And to top it all off, a voice in your head is going ‘gap on CV… gap on CV… big gap on CV…’ Because the way you’ve always done it before is to have something lined up immediately after the earlier thing ended. If a Masters course is ending on the 30th September, then I bloody well have some little lecturing job or other lined up for the first of October. I do not do the ‘gaps on CV’ thing, because the prospect is just too terrifying. Well, this time I have done it. I have a two-week (and a day)-long gap on my CV. I did this deliberately, because for once in my life I would like to sit down, think about what I like, and then look at what’s available, instead of just going for some ‘safe’ job straight away which then stops me from going after something I want. It’s kind of cool, this new way of doing it, but absolutely terrifying. Come back, big ship! Come back!...
I miss wandering around, being me, but having the security, in my head, of knowing: this is what I do, this is how much I will get paid every month, and this is the work I have to put in to be able to achieve this. I now wander round with no idea of where I will end up working next; ideas of what I’d like to do, yes, but no idea of how to get there, and how to make it a reality.
Then again, what am I saying?... Would I actually want to go back to where I was, and have a PhD to do?... No way. It was awful. I would not want to go back, and I would not do it all again. But I do miss having a steady job and something to do. I miss those three years of being paid to do a PhD, and especially the early years, before I talked myself out of liking it. I shall always remember them fondly.
I can tell you how it ends, this jobhunting malarkey: it always ends in the same way, with getting a job. Until then, I’ll try to have some good times on this shore. The day-and-a-half spent freaking out over the gap-on-CV was necessary, I think; feelings are real and they have to be processed somehow. Now: breathe, and start again.
* Irma Kurtz: agony aunt for Cosmo. She is wonderfully bossy and gives no-nonsense advice, and one day I WILL write to her.