Two Years

I have mixed feels about today. Two years ago was my viva. It was bittersweet in a lot of ways. I was very glad when it was over, but at the same time, the whole experience really shook me.

I was jet lagged, hadn’t slept in 4 days, had a panic attack, and then got on a plane and flew 8 hours home only to go directly to a friend’s party. Needless to say, I slept the next week solid.

But what I didn’t know – and couldn’t know – at the time was what came after. What being ‘post-viva’ was like. It wasn’t as exciting as I thought. It was a lot of time explaining to people not in academia what a viva was, what it meant, what came after. It was a lot of months being very stressed about my job, and even more stressed (or disenchanted) about my corrections. I didn’t enjoy most of 2015 and most of the reasons are linked to my viva and finishing my PhD.

Afterwards is hard. It feels like something has been stolen from you, as much as it feels something has been given. Your brain doesn’t quite know what to do with itself ‘afterwards’. You mean I don’t have to read articles for 12 hours today? You mean I don’t have to write 5000 words before 9am when my advisor expects them? You mean I don’t have a class to prep for?

There feels like this vacuum.  And for a while afterwards, that vacuum was filled with corrections and final submission (and lots and lots of emailing for permissions). It was filled with a stressful job (but unlike PhD stress). And it was filled with an overwhelming sense of imposter syndrome, worse than I had ever experienced in 3.5 years of doing my PhD. I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I felt like they had surely made a mistake. I felt completely and utterly unprepared to be a ‘Doctor’.

People congratulate you, though they really don’t understand what they are congratulating you for. People say to you ‘must be great to be done!’ People ask a lot of ‘what’s next?’ until you are sick and tired of hearing it and get more and more creative in your responses (my best one was ‘I think I’ll run away to a cabin in the woods and write romance novels’*).

It kind of feels like the Twilight Zone. It feels like you’ve strayed over into another world. It feels like the last few years (or more) haven’t really happened.

It kind of still feels like that, two years on. I graduated a year ago. I have a pretty piece of paper and a picture framed on my wall. I still don’t completely believe it’s happened. And maybe that’s normal. Maybe it’s okay too, because it means I’ll never stop thinking about it. I’ll never stop remembering what I went through, and how hard it was, and that the paper is there to remind me what I accomplished.

*Still a possibility

Advertisements

Honesty

Here is where I’m at.

I’ve launched a new website, and am in the process of launching a new blog. As well, I am working towards getting a subscription going, with free and paid offers. And, you know, also working my self-employed day job. That doesn’t leave a lot of time.

I’ve been considering, over the last month, how to keep this blog going. Most of what I wanted to write has been written, and although I could expand on issues presented in these posts, I think there’s enough here to be helpful to people starting, doing, or finishing a PhD. And there are no lack of other resources on the Internet. I’m not sure how much more help I can be.

That’s not to say I’m deleting this. It will remain, at least for the foreseeable future. And I will continue to respond to comments, so if you have anything you’d like to ask, please feel free. And if you’d like to share the resource with others, please feel free.

But I know myself, and I know attempting to keep this going will result in something getting ignored (either this blog, or something else more vital to a paycheque). That’s being honest with myself. And being honest with yourself is an important skill. We always know we *want* to do better, but we can’t always do so. We can’t always get everything done. That’s okay. That’s human. But trying, missing, and then feeling bad about it is a vicious cycle. It is better to make time for what you know is important and what you know you can accomplish, than to try to overwhelm yourself.

So this is me, not overwhelming myself, and being honest. I’ve really enjoyed working on this resource for other PhD students. It’s helped me a lot, and I hope it’s helped some of you! Take care of yourselves, don’t feel too much guilt, and good luck.

 

Hello Readers

I do hope this post finds you well (though considering it’s the end of October, I know that actually means the new first years are realising what they’ve got themselves into, and everyone else is in a scramble for deadlines).

It’s been a crazy month for me, most of which has been in the last 5 days, and it’s not looking up before month’s end. These happen, but why they always happen when you are already busy is beyond my understanding! But we soldier on, because we must.

However, it means that Real Life is now consuming my Online Life, and as such I am taking a (hopefully) short break from this blog. I still have posts left I want to write (at least a few off the top of my head), but right now I can only do so much, and this is an ‘extra’.

I do hope any new readers will look back over the posts and find lots of useful information. And please feel free to share this blog with any new PhD students you know (or prospective students).

Good luck to all between now and Christmas.

Amy

Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving Monday up here in the North (you know, Canada). We celebrated yesterday, so today was like most Mondays, wherein I did a lot of work and exercised. And it was actually very satisfying to work on a day most people are off. Look at all the things I got done while other people were relaxing and eating turkey!

But one of the things I did not get done was a blog post. So you will have one later in the week (I hope), all about analysis chapters and how to show your data (the important part of the thesis, let’s be honest).

Dedication

This post could also be called ‘perseverance’. In terms of life, the both are often interchangeable, though their definitions are not. You need to be dedicated to do a PhD, but you need the perseverance to complete it.

But it can apply to any task in which you set out to accomplish, particularly one that has some level of difficulty.

I thought I was dedicated to my PhD. I thought that would be enough. That alone is not enough. You need it, yes, but being dedicated does not mean you don’t wake up some days and go ‘I can’t’ or that you lose incentive. Perseverance is the drive to keep going despite these occurrences. And it took me a while to find it.

It took me 800km across Spain, in fact. Which, in terms of perseverance, was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. And it was all that kept me going. The drive to just keep walking no matter how difficult or hard it was. When that carried me to the end, I knew I had it in me to finish the PhD, no matter how hard it seemed or how many days I thought ‘I can’t’.

I thought I had lost that perseverance, somewhere in the last year. Life hasn’t been particularly difficult, though I have not – I feel – lost my dedication to my craft. But I have not felt that I needed to persevere at any point. I’ve been content to be patient. And so, like any habit you don’t use very often, you start to wonder if perhaps you can still do it.

I can, apparently. Which is good to know!

Just for a few days, I tried my hand at something I knew would be difficult, but that I was determined to do. I knew determination alone might not be enough, and it wasn’t. I had to persevere despite being tired, despite pain, despite it being hard. I had to overcome that in order to do it. And I did. These small reminders of past struggles are no bad thing. They renew your belief in yourself.

So for all of you out there that are struggling. That are determined to do a PhD, but aren’t sure that determination is enough: it probably won’t be. But perseverance will, and you will find that, somehow and in some way. Just keep walking.

Mondays

It’s Monday, and I owe you a blog post.

Alas, it has been a rollercoaster for the last ten days and my emotions are simmering at interesting levels (either boil or off). It makes concentration rather difficult. In an effort to take some time, I ran off to a campground for a couple of days and managed to exhaust myself so much I’m still barely able to stay awake and I’ve been back for 24 hours (and slept for 9). Sometimes ‘getting away’ doesn’t always have the affect you hoped.

But I need to write something, and what better to write about (instead of the post on methodologies) than what to do when Real Life interferes with your PhD.

First, it’s okay to stop. Stop whatever you are doing and access the situation. Is the interruption something that will be a few days long? Or is it something that might seriously undermine the next year or more of your PhD? (Sick parent, pregnancy, severe illness, etc). How long the interruption will be has a big effect on how you should deal with that interruption.

I know people who seem – for some reason beyond comprehension – to believe that if they do not work every single weekday of their PhD life they are doing it wrong. I think we’ve had a lengthy conversation about work schedules already (see here and here), so please believe me when I say that if Real Life interferes for a week or two, just let it. Go deal with your RL issue and then get back to your PhD when you’re in the right frame of mind. A couple of weeks are not going to break you (or your thesis). And if it happens right before a deadline, immediately have a conversation with the people who set the deadline about changing it/moving it. Everyone in academia understands that there can be things that will interrupt research, but unless you are open about it, people are going to assume everything is fine.

If the break needs to be longer (for instance, if you were diagnosed with an illness that needed treatment or surgery), then be very upfront about this with your advisors. Talk to people. Tell them what is happening, what the expected outcome is, how long it might last. It is probably best to take either sick leave (if that’s an option for you) or a sabbatical (which will be an option if you’ve never taken one before). If you are a foreign student in a country, then you need to think about visa issues. Likely, you’ll have to return home because many countries don’t want you to stay if you aren’t a full-time current student, and sabbaticals mean you aren’t technically a student – but taking a break from being a student. Keep this in mind, but if this is the only reason you can’t take a sabbatical, you probably need to access how much time you are going to be away from your PhD. A couple of weeks is fine, a couple of months is going to be problematic. But don’t let that stop you taking the time. For whatever reason you need it.

I know people who have had to take time away, and they worry about ‘getting back to it’. If you are passionate enough to want to do a PhD, you’ll find that passion again, even after a time away. And, in fact, time away may actually help. As I’ve said, I took a short sabbatical from my own work, and it’s the only reason I was able to come back and finish the thesis. I needed that break for mental health reasons.

But whatever part of RL that interferes with your PhD, it’s all right. It happens. You aren’t a failure. You aren’t bad at this. You aren’t a sorry excuse for a PhD student. RL happens. We like to think it doesn’t, because we like to think that academia is RL for us, but being a student puts you slightly outside of the norm, and things do interfere with being a student in a different way than they would if – for instance – you were full-time employed as a professor. Then you can take grievance absences, sick days, sabbaticals, and it’s sanctioned. As PhDs, you fall somewhere outside this spectrum, and you have to realise that although that doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to the same sort of thing, you might have to come about it in a different way (take a break from your PhD, instead of a sabbatical, for example).

But a sick mother, or an illness of your own, or the death of a loved one back home are the most important thing. The PhD should come second when these things happen. Just like work would come second.

I am reminding myself of this because I have done absolutely no work in the last 10 days. And that’s okay. I feel guilty because it’s a default reaction, not because I actually should feel bad. I shouldn’t. I’m taking the time I need to and I’ll get back to work as soon as possible.

The Start of Something

Something happened to me at the end of April. I went for an interview where I figured I had a 50/50 chance of getting the job. That is really the best chance I feel I’ve ever had at a job. I didn’t get the job. It was the perfect job.

The next day I woke up and decided to reevaluate my life. Since 2008 I’ve been on the same path: education in museum studies, work experience in museum studies = job in museum studies. I knew it was time to make a decision. Continue along that same path, or try a new one. I don’t want a career change. I don’t want to leave museums. This is my passion and my life and I’m not ready to give that up. But it seemed clear to me that morning that something had to change.

And the only thing I could think to change was the jobs I was applying for. And since I had been applying for all jobs I had any sort of experience for, clearly that meant the next step was not applying for jobs. So I stopped. I haven’t applied for a job since the end of April and that was quite a while ago.

Instead, I decided to take May and reevaluate everything. What I wanted out of life, where I saw myself in ten years, how important (or not) money was, where I could live, how many hours of the day I was willing to work, whether I was willing to give up things (after already giving up a lot).

And, last month, I came to the conclusion that I want a lot. I don’t think I deserve a lot. I don’t think it’s my right to have a lot. But I want a lot. I’ve travelled the world, completed four university degrees, made friends across countries, studied languages, and seen some of the most beautiful places. And I want that to be my future too (with fewer university degrees). So how to get it?

In the UK, museum freelancing is common. Very common. A lot of people I know do it and did it before their PhDs. It’s how the industry has developed. And I figure, why not here? There are fewer and fewer jobs in this country, and more and more museum graduates. Something has to change. And I feel this is that change. This is where we need to go, if we’re going to keep closing museums, understaffing and underfunding them. This is the only place it can go.

So I am embarking on an adventure. Much like my PhD, I am unsure and terrified, but excited. It will take time. It will take work. But this is the right choice for me. This is the direction I realise I have always been working towards, without realising it. The pieces are all in place, now I just have to put the puzzle together. And I feel able to do that.

So as of June 1st, I am a freelancer and consultant for the museum industry.

Over the coming months, I have a website to create, a blog to set up, and a business plan to write. I am already making contacts and networking with potential clients. I feel good about this. It’s direction. It’s ’employment’. And it feels good.

Now, when people ask me ‘what are you up to? Have you found a job?’ I have an answer. It’s shocking how good that feels.

Networking

This post is timely, as I have a colleague from Mexico, who I attended school with in England, coming for a visit tomorrow. I’m going to show her Niagara Falls.

One of the most amazing things about attending school in a foreign country is that you aren’t the only foreigner. Others will be there for you to meet. You will instantly acquire a network (if small to start) of people with similar interests (same department) from countries that might very well be from around the world. My own department was diverse and wonderful in that way, and I have friends and colleagues from over a dozen countries.

But if you don’t have that, how do you build a network?

Networking is one of those catch-all phrases you hear everywhere these days. In departments, in business meetings, at conferences. Everyone seems to be talking about networking. It’s not new. It’s been around as long as people have been in business together, and maybe even before that. It’s making acquaintances with people you would not otherwise know, who share interests/passions/work and developing a relationship. Sometimes that relationship is quite basic and simple and perhaps you won’t contact each other for years. And on the other side of the equation are people you’ll end up working closely with.

No matter what field you are in, you’re going to have to network. It can be awful (says the introvert speaking), but it’s a necessary evil if you want to get anywhere in life. Many jobs these days are found through networking. Opportunities for freelancing, research, projects, grants, etc. all come through networks. They are the building grounds of careers and your ability to network will directly affect how far you get (and how fast you get there).

But it’s hard. Trust me, I know this. Networking does not come naturally to me. I am the type of person who stands in a corner at a conference and hopes no one will speak to her. I do not make small talk easily.

But I do it because I must. Because I’ve found projects, research, opportunities and even a PhD because of networking.

So how do you do it? Make colleagues with those in your department (students and staff). Go to conferences in your field and talk to people. Even if you only talk to a few people at a conference, or only do it via Twitter, it’s still networking that might help you one day. Try to meet other students at your university in slightly different research fields, but that connect with yours in some way, some how (and even if their research doesn’t, sometimes it’s helpful to know people outside your field – as I am discovering right now!) Try to take any opportunity to meet people that come your way.

And network online. Everyone is on LinkedIn and Twitter these days. These are staple networking sites. Everyone uses them for that. Follow people. Tweet people. Complete your LinkedIn profile. Join groups. Comment. Converse. Don’t stay in the background or you are left with whoever decides to come over and see why you’re hiding in the background. And that’s not going to be very many people and they might not be the sort that are useful to you.

It’s going to be difficult if you aren’t the extroverted, outgoing, meet-and-be-friendly type. But it’s part of academia and professional business these days. And it’s a skill that does get easier, in time, with practice.

‘Hi, my name is Dr Amy Hetherington, I have a PhD in Museum Studies and I’m a social media and marketing freelancer. What do you do?’

Transitioning

If you haven’t discovered, or aren’t following From PhD to Life, please stop reading this post and go there immediately. It’s hard to imagine that one single blog/person could put me on the right path, but Jennifer has, without even realising it. She has because she did it herself. She managed to transition and make a career and she did it simply by perseverance.

It’s a hard thing, to transition. You’ve been in academic for 3 years, at least, if you’re full-time PhD in the UK, but probably you’ve been in it longer. You’ve probably got an MA under your belt too. How do you leave it all? First, you decide if you need to. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you can make a career of the academic thing. If so, I wish you all the very best in the years ahead and I hope it is as wonderful in ten years as it is now (or more wonderful!)

If you’re already contemplating leaving academia, you’ll need to transition out of it. If you’ve had a professional job already in your field, it’ll be that much easier to transition back to it after you leave the academy, even if it isn’t the same job.

But for a large number of PhD graduates, the transition is new and absolutely terrifying. It’s so terrifying, I’ve basically been a deer in headlights for the last year and a half. And I’m tired of being frozen. And just like when I reached that ‘I’m over it’ moment of my PhD, and found the drive to finish, I’ve reached that ‘I’m over’ being scared part of transitioning. I just want to get on with it now. Despite the hard work. Despite the pain. Despite the uncertainty. I want to make this work. I want to transition fully.

[I’m trying really hard not to make Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. references guys, I really am.]

But how to transition? Baby steps. How did you learn to do anything in life? One step at a time; and if those steps are small, even better, because that will make them more doable.

Are you transitioning to freelance? To a full-time job? To a related aspect of academia? Figure out your path first. What is it you ultimately want to be doing? Than figure out how you think you can get there. That might not be your path, but it’s a place to start. If you can find people who have transitioned on a similar path, all the better, because they can tell you what worked and didn’t work for them. That isn’t a sudden roadmap to your future, but it’s good information to have, because it might be the path you end up taking yourself. And if it’s not, it’s good to know other people have forged their own way and made it.

You don’t have to have lofty goals. You don’t have to have a dream job in mind, but you need to figure out what will make you happy and safe. And that’s hard. Man, is it hard. But trust me, the day will come that you figure it out. And don’t be too worried about how far off that day is either.

People will constantly pressure you while you are transitioning to try things. To figure things out. To know things. But transitioning is about learning. It’s about steps. You can’t see the future anymore than the person asking those annoying questions can. So don’t bother answering. You’ll figure it out as you go, most of the time at least. And that’s okay. That’s life. We never have all the answers.

But have a direction, that’s all I’m saying. Have a goal, even if that’s just one goal of many to come. And go after it. Make it happen. But know that sometimes, it really does take that ‘I’m over it’ moment. And if that’s what it takes, and if this is the direction you really want to go, you’ll get there. On no one’s timeline but your own.

And that, really, is the road to happiness.

Post-Graduation

This strange and bizarre reality happens after you graduate. You’re done. DONE. It’s all over. They can’t take it away from you now (I tell myself this because the alternative is unthinkable). You are a PhD and you have a piece of paper and a hat (if you bought it) to prove it.

You are not, absolutely not, a student anymore. And herein lies the crux of the matter. Because no matter how bad it got during my PhD and no matter how many times I thought ‘the real world must be better than this’ I knew otherwise. I knew I had it good. And I miss it. And not with rose-tinted glasses either; I just plain miss all of it, and that includes the stress. At least I had something concrete to be stressed about.

Now I just stress about life in general.

But it’s a strange place to be, post-graduation. You are done. Many of your colleagues are probably finished too. You have other friends still doing it and now you are cheering them on from the ‘I finished – so can you!’ perspective. And you are either a) unemployed or b) lucky. If you are B, congrats, I’m exceedingly happy for you. If you’re A, you are probably also thinking ‘Maybe my PhD wasn’t so bad…’

Let me tell you, it wasn’t. Oh, trust me, I had months it was the Worst Thing I Have Ever Decided to Do and I regretted all my life choices. But now, on the flip side, and definitely in the A category, being a miserable PhD student is still better than being an unemployed PhD. Because at least I have something concrete to focus on: finish the PhD. Now my concrete has become the mythical: get a job. Because when people ask you ‘what do you do?’ you get to answer ‘I’m a PhD student!’ and they get excited. Now I answer ‘I’m working on a variety of things’ by which I mean job searching and making no money off trying to freelance. Generally, people get the message and stop asking. Some don’t. Then I come up with really impressive words for what I kind-of-sort-of-don’t-really-do. And they lose interest.

But hey, I have a PhD. A a LOT of people in the last months have said some version of ‘congratulations, that’s amazing’. And yes, that feels nice. For about .5 milliseconds until your brain reminds you that ‘yes, PhD: UNEMPLOYED’. But it’s weird, this post-graduation thing, because everyone around you who has not done a PhD thinks you have done the most amazing thing ever [WHICH YOU HAVE. Let me be clear, YOU HAVE.] And in your head, if you are the A person, all you hear is ‘if you can do that, why can’t you find a job?’ Because that’s what you ask yourself every single day.

If I did my PhD, and I have a shiny piece of paper to prove it, why am I still struggling with everything else in life?

Because. I promise you, others who have not done PhDs are struggling with life, and they don’t have a PhD on their wall to slightly console themselves with. But yes, most days, looking at that piece of paper fills me with no emotion whatsoever, except failure. Because yes, a PhD is a massive accomplishment, but if that’s all I do with the entire rest of my life….I’m going to have a problem.

So, things are changing. And this post is the first public step in that change. If academia is out (it is), and if no museum in this country wants to employ a PhD (or so it seems), then that leaves only one place to go.

I have always found it best to be my own boss. Hello consulting*, how are you?

*posts galore on this step-by-step process to come. And if you haven’t check out From PhD to Life yet, head right here. Because that’s been my biggest inspiration these last weeks, and if so many other people can do it, so can I.