This is going to be a very honest post. I hope it resonates with people, but if not, at least I feel better about being open and truthful. I think we spend too much time thinking other people will criticize us, or look down on us, or we worry just in general about what people will say or do if we’re open about how hard life is sometimes. But life isn’t easy, and it’s not always good, and not talking about it when it gets bad does no one any favours. One of the things I learned during my PhD is that every hard situation and every bad thought I had, someone else had too. And there’s comfort in that.
I’ve talked about loneliness already, and about how difficult it can be to feel part of a community when you are a distance student, and how isolating it is even when you are on-campus, because you are doing your own project and you don’t necessary see people every day.
But afterwards can be lonely too. It doesn’t just end when you finish a PhD, though it can. I know people who are not lonely now that they’ve finished, and mostly that’s because they had a great support system already in place. I thought I did. I had friends and family and I’m back living within driving distance of nearly all of them. I thought that would be enough. But there is something about finishing a PhD that makes you different than others, and it will be brought home to you regularly. Every time you tell someone or mention your PhD to people who do not have one you will get the ‘wow’ reaction. And it doesn’t feed your ego (well, it might, but I have no ego to feed, I spend a lot of time still thinking I don’t deserve my PhD), but it does make you feel different. And not in a good way.
I get a lot of reactions from people of ‘I could never do that’, ‘you must be so smart’, ‘I’m impressed’, etc. None of these comments are particularly helpful to me or my psyche. But all of them make me feel different. Not above others, but separate from them, and that induces loneliness. The fact of the matter is that while doing my PhD I had a whole community of people around me who understood. Even if I didn’t see them every day (or even every week), they were there when I needed them. There were people who just got it. I don’t have that now. I still keep in touch with my department gang, but they’re a long way away and we talk even less now, and maybe that’s not a good thing. But we’re out in the world and supposed to be starting our careers and so continuing the ‘PhD community’ doesn’t seem to make sense. But it creates a sense of loneliness that I know others have felt. And when your career isn’t going well, it’s worse.
I thought living back amongst family would help, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t see them all that often. They have their own lives. My friends have their own lives, and those lives are very different from a post-PhD career trajectory. I go months without seeing them. It’s hard to organize anything because they have families and husbands and full-time careers. Those all come first for them, and that’s the way it should be. I hope those would come first for me if I ever have any of them.
But there’s a sense of isolation now that I’m done and dusted my PhD. Now that I’ve graduated. Now that starting a career is all that’s left (and it’s not going so swimmingly, let me tell you, not that I thought it would). I am struggling with a lot of things and feeling alone is high on the list. I volunteer and I see other people my age at work, but it’s not ‘friends’, and I find it hard to meet others, especially in the community I live (median age: about 45). I know I should get out and do more, but a lot of the ‘more’ takes money, which I don’t have, being unemployed right now.
But I get the sense that people don’t talk about this stage in life. It’s still taboo to have a conversation about life after university when you don’t have your dream job, or your dream house, or your dream family. But a lot more people these days don’t have those, and are 35 and struggling with their career and feeling alone. And if we talked about it, maybe people would feel less alone. And maybe there would be less of a stigma surrounding the fact that not everyone finishes college at 23, gets a career and a family and is set for life. A lot of people struggle for twenty years or more to have those things, and some never get them (and some never want them, I should point out) But the sooner we all talk about how ‘different’ things can be nowadays, the sooner people like me stop feeling like we’ve failed, because we aren’t set up in life, because we chose university over a relationship, or because we chose a career that isn’t easy, or whatever the reason (all of which are completely valid and okay!).
Anyway, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.