I’d been told by other post-PhD students to expect a healthy dose of loss when I submitted my PhD in August this year. One described her feelings and reactions as that of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Another likened it to the grief of a lost loved one. I laughed them off, a little naively perhaps, imagining only the pop of champagne bottles and the amount of celebratory cake I’d devour when bound manuscripts were finally handed in. I was well and truly ready to see the back of my thesis after three and a half years and over two-dozen drafts.
Six months before submission date, I moved three hours away to a new city and sold my car, but despite the chaos of moving, I was on track with my PhD and only getting a little annoyed at non-PhD friends and family who kept asking, “so what do you plan to do when you’re finished?” My fellow PhD students would instead ask, “When’s your due date?” and, like any proud new soon-to-be parent, I’d gush all about my academic baby, but I did not really comprehend what it would be like after my thesis was set free into the world. The only thing I was looking forward to was reading books that had nothing to do with my field of research and I had a dusty pile stacked in reading preference all ready to go. That was the extent of my post-PhD plan, mostly because I couldn’t quite grasp a time when I wouldn’t be doing my PhD.
Then the big day finally arrived. There was some minor scrambling around as my proof reader took longer to get back to me and don’t even get me started on the issues with copyright, but I was fairly calm and collected. I’d organised to have the three copies of my manuscript printed and personally collected on the day of submission (as I had no trust in the postal system) at a printer near my university. I took two trains, caught a bus and walked a good twenty minutes to the printer in my nicest dress and a pair of stupidly fancy shoes as I was determined to submit in style. This was a huge moment and I was determined to make it special! Three and a half years had cumulated to this cardboard box full of thesis manuscripts and the poor boy next to me on the bus to the university experienced my proud mum routine with amusement.
I marched up to the Office of Graduate Studies. I handed over the box that contained the physically manifestation of the last three and a half years of my life. I had a blurry photo taken on my phone, I was awarded an empty photo frame with the university’s logo on the bottom, and I was ushered out again.
In total, it took about five minutes.
Anti-climatic doesn’t even begin to sum the experience up. I stood outside the building, my make-up smudged from the commute, my hair a windswept mess, and my arms empty. Instead of the joy I’d expected, I felt as if I’d just given up something precious and I was never going to get it back. I was in a strange headspace during the three-hour trip home. Something akin to shock, maybe. I was numb. Eventually I shook it off, telling myself that it was normal to feel like this - a kind of post-PhD blues. That it was only submission and I had to wait until I received my examiners’ feedback and found out if I’d even passed before I’d feel like celebrating.
Two months passed of reading books, catching up on television shows, and ignoring anything that had to do with my research. I read way too many Piled Higher and Deeper comics, but that wasn’t really any different from when I was doing my PhD. The question, “So what do you plan to do when you’re finished?” began to nag at me. My scholarship had long finished and I had some part time work as a student mentor and a casual academic at a nearby campus, but that wasn’t nearly enough to fill the space left by my PhD. The word ‘job’ became a bit of a taboo word in my household.
My feedback came back and gave me the boost I needed to face my thesis again, make any corrections and officially submit the final version. A friend’s fantastic mum made me a cake and we drunk an obscene amount of good wine.
I received the congratulatory email addressed to Dr Ferne Merrylees saying the final submission was a success a week a go and yet I still exist in that strange, numb limbo. I told myself the sense of accomplishment would really set in when I graduate six months from now, dressed in the fancy robes and wearing the official hat. My parents are flying up from out of state, my brother is driving five-hours to be there, and the public acknowledgment that I’ve achieved something meaningful will hopefully satisfy this current emptiness.
This grief I was warned about that has left me feeling adrift makes sense. We as PhD students dedicate a period of our lives exclusively to our theses. Social events take a back seat, family ends up on the periphery, and often we develop tunnel vision that excludes all else. We breathe our research, we dream our topics, we get our thrills from hunting down that elusive piece of evidence, and we regale anyone who is silly enough to sit still long enough about our arguments. For however many years we take to complete our PhDs, we have a goal that we’re intensely passionate about and when we reach our goal, it’s natural to feel lost. What now? The lingering period between submission and graduation doesn’t help and going from being mentally engaged and challenged all the time, to being incredibly bored is also a bit of a mind twist. Who am I if I’m not a PhD student? I can’t even get student transport fares anymore, which really hit the last nail in the coffin after being a student in some form or another for the last twenty-four years.
And then a close friend reminded me that I shouldn’t define my sense of self-worth through my PhD. It was just one adventure of many. I have grown so much from my experience as a PhD student. I’m more confident, resilient and wiser, and I’ve realised how much the people around me care for me through their support and love. I’ve been incredibly lucky to not only complete my PhD, but to even have the opportunity to start one. It’s still early days yet, and I’ve yet to find my dream job or decide exactly what I’m going to do now, yet I know it’s time for a new adventure and I’m excited.