Life Transitions and Post Grad School Blues

Madam Truly,

Long time reader, first time caller. I am a lady, in your words, Almost Finished With A PhD, and my old man is moving us to Portland for his job. Do you have any tips for having an adult life and navigating the end-of-grad-school crisis in your city?

I spent time in your city last in 2003, and have since lived in the quasi adult/grad school nerdhole and also had a kid. I feel rather uncool compared to the people I used to know, who are, in all due respect, troggin’ along just fine. How do I reencounter my friends and enemies from the old days with grace? How do I decide if I want to ditch academia and do something else?

A Serious Lady

This is a really weird time in your life and I commend you for approaching it thoughtfully and honestly! I can definitely speak to these issues, although not the part about the kid. However, I know some local readers who have kids and hopefully they will chime in with some thoughts in the comments.

Finishing grad school is both hugely relieving and kind of scary. It’s been so long, such a big thing in your life. It’s governed your schedule and the way you think about yourself. On the one hand, I found it to be wonderful to finally finish and no longer be tied to my institution. It was a refreshing novelty, to just be a person in the world, no longer having to sign into my school account every quarter to deal with registration or whatever. You will not miss stuff like this. Also, I assume you are in the humanities because you say nothing about having a job, so that means dissertation. Finishing a dissertation means you have WRITTEN AN ENTIRE BOOK. That is a huge accomplishment and you should feel awesome about it. Turning that thing in and getting the stamped piece of paper and having the lady at the registrar’s office call you “Dr. Truly” for the first time….that’s sweet stuff.

So, savor it! Feel proud! Have a party! Frame your PhD and have a ceremony! Bind a copy of your dissertation and stick it on your shelf! My undergrad advisor always says: “They can never take your PhD away from you,” and this is a cool thing to hold onto in the coming years when you may feel profoundly confused about what to do with your life. No matter what else happens, you jumped through kind of the ultimate hoop, for a non-scientist. Not many people do what you have done! CONGRATULATIONS.

So, but. Now what? Unfortunately these are dark times, and getting a job is hard. I imagine getting a job with a baby is harder still, although not so hard as it would have been 20 years ago. You don’t say in your letter, but are you actually on the job market right now? Or are you waiting until your baby is older? If you’re on the market right now, don’t become discouraged until three years have passed without you getting a job. You can idly think about your Plan B, but don’t let yourself get truly bummed unless 3 full years (with PhD in-hand) on the market pass. These days, that’s what it takes. Okay, now that’s out of the way.

If you’re waiting til your baby grows older, how long are you planning on waiting? There is definitely an expiration date on your PhD but no one will tell you exactly what that date is. At a certain point search committees are gonna be like “Wait, she got her PhD in 2012 but now it’s 2018 and she’s never had a job, WHAT’S WRONG WITH HER.” Sucks, but I believe this is true after talking to a lot of people. Unless you have spent the interim publishing tons of shit, then you’ve still got a chance. Same with adjuncting, which is what I’m doing right now–you can’t do it forever (unless you want to do it forever).

But that’s okay, right? That’s just life, normal life. There’s an expiration date on your ovaries, your hot tight bod, your eyes, your teeth, the milk in your fridge. You do have to make decisions and live with them, but that’s no biggie, that’s just what it means to be a human.

You ask several questions, so lets dig in to them separately:

1. Deciding about academia: What do you want? When you picture your Ideal Grownup Life, what do you picture? Make a list! Do you picture yourself with your fancy briefcase, sitting in your office with a window overlooking the quad, with your special pen and your big desktop computer the school bought for you, and students are coming in and respectfully calling you Doctor and asking for help formatting their weird essays about Pink Floyd? Or do you picture yourself working in a garden with tons of vegetables and goats and chickens and you’re wearing a big floppy hat and your child is tottering idyllically around in its childhood and you are beatifically watching it all every moment of the day? If you are like most people, your Ideal Grownup Life probably has elements of many different un-reconcilable Possible Lives (I just told you my main two, sans child: yours may be different). This is why list-making is crucial. Write down everything you would like your grownup life in terms of “career” to consist of, and then take a look at that list and see what’s what. You may find it is more heavily weighted toward one thing than the other. I can’t tell you how many times I had no idea how I really felt about something until I made a list. Do some pros and cons!

Academia Pros:
intellectually challenging, teaching is important social work, summer vacations, actually getting paid to do what you are trained to do, doing for money a lot of stuff you’d want to be doing anyway (reading, writing, talking, thinking)
Academia Cons:
sometimes thankless, students can be total buttheads, your society does not appreciate the work you do, it’s pretty low-paying, you have to move to some random town you don’t care about because that’s the only place you got a job, job interviews are AWFUL, AWFUL, AWFUL

Plan B Stuff:
Also make some lists about other stuff you might be into doing, for money. What other skills/experiences do you have? What other weird dreams have you had? My old man and I talk about starting a coffee shop/bar/venue/reading room if we fail at academia, and after talking about it for years I now feel like, sure, why not. “In THIS economy?” but seriously.
– going to library school
– starting a small business
– teaching high school instead of college (involves getting a teaching certificate, which is annoying)
– not getting any job but instead growing all your own food
– are there non-academic avenues that you can parlay your degree into? There have been many articles on the Chronicle about this, about Plan Bs that still use your degree. I have not found them helpful because they are rarely about the humanities, but still, you never know. I know a guy who made obscene amounts of money curating the Barnes & Noble classical music section on their website or something. Something you’d never think of, but that you are qualified to do because of this crazy body of knowledge you’ve amassed!
– copy-editing: thankless, but you make your own hours and are still sort of using your brain. You can edit people’s dissertations! I know someone who does this. His degree is in English but I assume anyone with a PhD could do this. Put up some ads
– Write a Great American Novel and become a millionaire

I’m also going to add an important addendum to your question about academia, which is: Continuing To Be An Academic Post-Grad School. Something I learned once I was done with my PhD is that you don’t get to just Be An Academic now that you’re not in school anymore. You have to keep doing work. You have to somehow find a new project to work on. This seems impossible, after the dissertation–you are like, “I will never have an idea again.”–but you have to! Especially if you aren’t teaching, you really need to continue Being An Academic in various ways, or else if you do decide to continue in the field you will feel totally behind and weird. You have to keep yourself oiled up and in practice; you have to learn how to stick to a schedule and deadlines, now that you have no adviser hectoring you. Honestly, this year of post-grad-school has done more to define me as a scholar to myself than all my 6 years of school. Because now you’re doing it on your own–not to pass a test or a defense, not to impress a scary professor, but because it’s Who You Are. Here are two things I did this year that helped me feel like a real academic (aside from teaching, which, obviously):

– I picked a really extreme hole in my knowledge and set myself the task of filling that hole. Did you somehow get through an entire English PhD without ever reading Faulkner? Or, I don’t know, are you a History PhD who has literally never learned a single thing about the Renaissance? Maybe you’ve somehow always avoided digging into whatever “theory” means in your discipline, because it’s boring and awful. Challenge yourself now! For me it was 21st century art music. I don’t know anything about it! So this became a new project. Researching! Reading! Taking notes! And now I know about it! You need something like this in your life.

– I found a new project. Maybe this is continuing your dissertation–adding chapters in preparation for publishing it, or else starting a new book that continues on the ideas of the first book–or maybe it is something completely unrelated. For me it is something completely unrelated, and it has been hugely awesome. I feel like I didn’t know how to describe myself as a scholar–my ideology, my beliefs about my discipline, how everything I do ties together, my teaching philosophy–until I started my new project. Then it was like it all came together. It was like “Oh my god, THIS is why I think scholarship is important! THIS is what I want to say to the world!” Plus you need a new project if you are going to be on the market. Everyone is going to want to know about this. In this coming year, if you think you might want to stay in academia, find a new project and research it and write an article. Just do it!

Oh god, one other advice: to continue feeling like an academic you could also start working on your job materials. They take forever to get together and it is hard and you will feel great if you get some of them in the can before actually going on the market.

Oh and very practically: you might look into adjuncting. PSU has this thing called Sophomore Inquiry that they always need adjuncts for, check it out on their website. See about teaching in the various CORE departments at Reed, LC, UP, community colleges, etc. Do some research on what you could teach, ask around, and then submit your adjunct letter, which is an email saying “Hey, here’s who I am, here’s the widest possible variety of classes I could teach, I’m in town, please keep me in mind for teaching opportunities,” and then you attach your CV. Adjuncting is actually a great thing to do at this point in your life because it gets you teaching experience outside of your home institution, which not only looks good on your CV (somebody felt you were competent enough to hire!) but is also tremendously good experience. And you make some money and get some experience but you DON’T have to do all the other time-consuming stuff involved in being a real faculty member (meetings, committees, advisees). Look into it!

Oh and of course you need to keep submitting abstracts to conferences and presenting at them whenever possible. Nobody likes doing this but it must be done.

Ok, as for the other stuff:

2. re-encountering your past in PortlandEncountering your past in your new present can be disturbing; it can shake your identity in weird ways because here are all these people who knew you Then, but they’re seeing you Now and those two versions are overlaid on one another. Perhaps since last you saw them you have drastically changed your diet; quit/started smoking; gained/lost a shitload of weight; had a kid e.g.; got a bunch of terrible tribal tattoos; changed your sexual orientation; etc. Or any number of more minor things. You may feel like, Who Am I, when confronted with all these metaphysical reminders of who you once were. Then again, you might not. I actually didn’t. I feel like I just slid easily right into my life here–a little bit of the old (friends, activities, jokes) and a little bit of the new (very different schedule, no longer playing in bands, etc.).

Encountering Friends:
Great! You say “hey, so nice to see you!” You make a plan for them to come over and meet your kid. You tell them how weird grad school was. You talk about your life, your Life Fears, your hopes, your dreams. Normal friend stuff. It is enjoyable to see one another grow up, as friends.

Encountering Enemies:
You say “hey, so nice to see you!” and then you do not make plans. Or perhaps encountering them now that you are both all grown up will make it different. Maybe something in you will loosen and you will be like “why did I think this person was such a big deal? S/he is just a person in the world, like me,” and maybe they will be thinking the same about you. And maybe even if you aren’t ever friends you will lose that need to identify them as enemies. This can be a cool thing about returning to your past as your Present Self. Sometimes you are able to encounter your Past Self and be like “Girl, what was your problem?” I like this feeling.

3. Having a Grownup Life in Portland: It’s easy! Rent is still sort of reasonable here. I am going to advise you to make another list. This one is more general than the first one. What should a grownup life consist of, REGARDLESS OF CAREER? This will be different for everyone but for example here are some of mine:
– house, not apartment
– nice pots and pans; nice knives
– gas stove
– domestic projects in addition to academic stuff (sourdough starter; garden; cooking projects; cleaning projects; reading books about hippie household projects to save the environment; grocery shopping; etc.)
– yard you can work in
– healthy life schedule (having a kid probably helps you with this)
– ?

Make your list, and then do the things on the list! One thing my old man and I have slowly realized is that you can basically have the life you want, even while you’re waiting for other stuff to happen. In fact, this is actually just what your entire life is going to be like–you’re never going to get to a point where you’re like “Well, I did it, I did everything on my list, now I can ‘just live my life.'” Never gonna happen! Realizing this has made me feel a lot more grounded and good about my life. I can build the life/lifestyle I want wherever I am, even if I’m also waiting to see if I will get a job and move away in a year, etc. So plant that garden! Start that kombucha fermenting!

Portland is a great place to have a grownup life. Farmers markets every which way! Weird things to probably take your kid to, to meet other grownup weirdos like you to make friends with! Amazing coffee! Lecture series and readings at Powells! Go meet all your favorite authors! For cheap date nights you get to go to the various pizza/beer second-run theaters. Ride your bike somewhere! Take a cooking class at New Seasons! Go on a tour of all the food carts! Lovelies 50/50 is full of screaming children until about 6:00, take your kid there and eat a pizza! Mississippi Pizza also has tons of childrens’ activities. Posie’s in Kenton is kid-friendly and has a whole toy room where you can dump your kid and listen to it scream from afar as I am doing right now because that is where I am. Parents here are insane–you will find tons of kid stuff to do that will make you feel awesome and like you have a community. Going to lectures and readings at the various schools and bookstores will make you feel like you are still an academic. Try to make connections with the various professors in town who work in your field! I haven’t actually done this but I should. Stay up to date on various talks happening at schools around town and go to them and ask questions and meet the person talking and be like “Oh hey I just got my PhD” and they will be like “great, lets publish an edited volume together!” or something, probably not, but maybe.

You can do it! Life is always uncertain. Make lists and be honest and really meditate and picture all your desires and all the possibilities and try to see if you can craft a life that gives you a little bit of everything you want. And give yourself the leeway to change your mind later.

God it’s packed in here, what on earth? Oh yeah, it’s fourth of July. GO USA

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One Response to Life Transitions and Post Grad School Blues

  1. Serious Lady says:

    Thank you Dr. Truly, for your excellent and thoughtful advice!

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