Getting there: from PhD to post-doc state of mind

A friend who recently came through her viva confessed to me that she just felt really, really tired afterwards. I told her that was normal, and I warned her that it might take a while to shake off. And then I thought, why don’t I write something about this? The result is self-indulgent, to say the least, but I think it’s worth sharing for anyone who is feeling unsettled in the days, weeks, or months after their defence, especially if that person is unsure about whether they ‘belong’ in academia.

I was tired for most of last year. Writing made me more tired. Coming to terms with that was difficult, because I was used to writing a lot. Between 2011 and 2015, I wrote: an 80,000 word thesis, the same again in field notes, eight conference papers, a book chapter, three semi-articles, most of the posts that are on this blog, innumerable emails (not just admin, but actual correspondence with people), and pages upon pages of my own private reflections. Not to mention all the revised versions of my research proposal, funding applications, ethics review and progress reports, or the countless SFDs that I still haven’t had the heart to delete.

This isn’t boasting. (Actually, it’s triggering my Imposter Syndrome. Where are my journal publications? That thesis was definitely on the short side…) The point I’m trying to make is that writing was part of my routine. It was something that led somewhere. And, despite the occasional meltdowns, I liked doing it. It energised me. It’s not cool to admit this, and some people might question my ability to recollect the period in question accurately, but the last few months of the PhD were kind of brilliant. I was writing the thesis in chunks of 1000 to 2500 words a day, and sometimes I was ready to tear my own hair out, but when I had it in my stride, it felt awesome. I was breezing across the finish line (with the support of some wonderful people and a big ginger cat).

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Thanks, Mister Pinkerton!

 

Then it ended. Not all at once – my brain was mostly in gear for a few months after submission. But once I passed the viva, it was like something essential disappeared from the writing process. All the passion, all the inspiration which led me to treat writing as art rather than science, was suddenly gone. In my lower moments, I wondered whether writing was a gift of limited duration, and I had squandered it on a thesis (it’s not a joke, but feel free to laugh at how ridiculous it sounds). There’s a bit in To Kill A Mockingbird, when Scout says:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

That was how I felt about writing. For years, journaling was my way of making concrete thoughts emerge out of the haze. Now, however much I wrote, there was no way out of the haze. It was all drivel. Every now and then, something would begin to take shape, but the energy wasn’t there to sustain it. The proportions were all wrong. Things loomed oddly out of the fog, rising and shrinking. An attempted blog post would turn into a sketchy outline for a journal article. A trial article would turn into an a vague idea for a book. I even wrote an elaborate research proposal for something which should probably have just been a blog post. I couldn’t follow through with any of it. I was distracted, hesitant, unmoored. I went round and around in circles. I dabbled in different areas of theory. I choked.

Not that 2016 was a terrible year or anything (*cough*). I read fiction, avidly. I made good use out of a year long pass for the Berlin State Museums. I explored the city’s history, its gardens and its architecture. And, of course, I ended up spending the bulk of my time doing what I’ll loosely call community work. Part of me regretted not being able to write about those experiences as fully as I thought I should. But it was a relief to cross the symbolic threshold between research and activism. It opened up new perspectives on topics I had studied for years. It deepened my respect for the women I knew in Azerbaijan and Armenia, but it did not hasten my desire to return – on the contrary, thinking about them inspired me to keep responding to the crisis that was unfolding in front of me.

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Detail from the East Side Gallery (Berlin Wall remnant)

One of the reasons I didn’t drift away entirely from research was the fact that I had regular contact with Russian-speaking families at the refugee camp, predominantly from the Caucasus and the Roma community. It was hard to build up a relationship with them and not remember that there was more to my professional identity than met the eye. Following this came a rush of invitations to be involved in academic projects relating to the Caucasus, for which I was extremely grateful, though also surprised to receive (Imposter Syndrome strikes again). Finally, there came the financial pressure: either I was going to commit to finding full-time work in the community sector, or I was going to return to academic pursuits. When push came to shove, it wasn’t much of a choice.

It’s taken a few months to settle into the decision, and to adjust to yet another major change in circumstances. The future is…uncertain. How do I know I’m doing the right thing? Because I’m writing again. It’s harder than it used to be, and I still think I’m producing things that aren’t up to scratch. However, there are a few things keeping me going. The first is deadlines, for obvious reasons. The second is that my experiences over the last year have affected the way I think about research, and these changes make me feel happier about myself. And finally, it turns out that among the pages and pages of drivel that I wrote last year, there are a few which are maybe not so bad. So I’ve made a promise to salvage what I can, and it turns out that I’m enjoying it.

It’s hard to come up with non-generic advice for people who are trying to navigate a post-PhD transition. My past year would not have played out as it did without the combination of an EU passport and astonishingly poor financial sense (the latter being something I could afford to have, and therefore a privilege). I wouldn’t change it, but I don’t know if I would recommend it. On the other hand, “fake it ’til you make it” can only ever sound daunting and bleak. So my advice is, as far as practicable, focus on things you care about. Do whatever is meaningful. Search for new ideas and insights, and you’ll find words to describe them eventually. And exhale, because (unless you actually plagiarised your thesis or bribed the examiners) nobody is going to take your degree away.

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