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.

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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.

The Afterwards of the Thing

Perhaps you are one of those lucky ones that has a job, and you’re doing the PhD part-time, or by a distance. When you finish, you will still be employed. Or perhaps you’re even luckier and you will have a job offer by the time you complete, or be in the process of securing employment in your field.

If, more likely, you’re like the rest of us, well…welcome to the club. Luck doesn’t have much to do with it, although sometimes it seems like it has everything to do with it.

Unemployment sucks. Unemployment in your own field that you’ve dedicated so much time and effort to pursue, sucks even more. I get that.

Inevitably, if you have not secured a job by the time you viva, or at least by the time you’ve submitted your corrections, everyone you meet (even those you know but haven’t seen in a while) will ask ‘so have you found a job yet?’ As if, if you had, you wouldn’t have screamed the news from the heavens for all to hear.

It gets old very quickly. It’s very much like the ‘how is the PhD going?’ that everyone asks while you are a student. It’s the most hated question. We have no good answer, because our answer is about two thousand words long and involves things that no one who has not done a PhD can understand. And a gantt chart. Searching for a job post-PhD is like that. It comes with its own set of issues.

But let’s put that all aside for right now. I’ll get back to it later (much later).

Right now, if you are about to complete, or have just completed, or are looking really far ahead, I only want you to worry about one thing if you are facing unemployment.

This year you did a PhD. This year you finished a PhD. This year you are doing a PhD.

That’s A LOT. That’s HUGE. That’s an enormous achievement. Savour that for a moment, I’ll wait.

Now, every morning, savour that again. Don’t ever let yourself forget how BIG this is.

It is 2015. This year I got my doctorate. And that’s enough. That’s more than enough. 2016 will leave plenty of time for what comes next. But instead of feeling like I failed at the final hurdle, I’m going to end this year appreciating the fact that I won the race.

Adulting

We’ve all heard the word these days. It’s on funnies everywhere, usually involving animals in less than eager positions. Usually with their heads buried in various bits of furniture or looking like their own pet just died. [This is my favourite.]

So what is adulting? Well, it’s a nice made up word that basically denotes what happens when most adults try behaving like adults. You know, doing the boring stuff, like paying bills and working for a living. An excellent resource for those of us (i.e. all of us) who are rather bad at adulting at any given time is the Adulting Blog and the book that blog author Kelly Williams Brown published in 2013. Have a look, because chances are, you need help at adulting; everyone does at some point or another.

Adulting is a fun word that a lot of PhD students have gravitated towards in the last couple of years since it first started cropping up fairly regularly in memes, tweets and on Facebook. I know the first time I heard it I felt like ‘where have you been all my life?’ Suddenly, everything made sense. I had a word to describe all those moments when I felt like an abject failure, and what was more, that other people felt the same way!

The biggest part of a PhD that people find difficult to adjust to is the sense of being alone. I’ll post an entry about that at some point. I found, though, that one of the hardest parts about being on the journey ‘alone’, my own journey, was feeling so detached from all my friends around me who seemed to be fantastic at adulting. Here they were, having children, getting married, buying houses, holding full-time careers, and here I was, reading books, sitting in my PJs all day, eating take away, living in student accommodation, checking FB 20 times a day, etc. I felt like such an abject failure at adulting. And I felt like I was the only one going through that. Like everyone else around me had their life figured out.

They don’t. I’m not kidding; they don’t. And everyone else in your PhD department definitely doesn’t. You are not alone, even when you feel that way. Your supervisor has another student who is feeling just as alone and just as bad at adulting as you.

I am still bad at adulting, but most days I manage okay and really, that’s all that you need. You just need to be okay. I’m still not a great adult yet, having only just completed my PhD. I live at home right now, and I’ve only just gotten a job as of yesterday (and it’s short-term contract only), and I don’t pay bills, or have kids, or a partner. But this is my adulting, and that doesn’t make it any less adult than anyone else. Yes, having a family and working a full-time job has a lot of adulting issues to overcome. So does being unemployed, living at home, and trying to start a career after finishing the hardest thing in your life.

There are so many levels of adulting. No one’s is better than anyone else’s. And no one is really better at adulting than anyone else, they just like to think they are. We all have challenges in life, and those challenges are individual, just like your PhD is.

So my advice is, don’t worry about adulting until after you’ve finished your PhD. If you want to spend the day in your PJs and only write 20 words of your thesis, go ahead. I won’t judge you, because I’ve done it myself. And your friends who are all off adulting won’t judge you either, because they are SUPER impressed you are doing a PhD. And your supervisor’s other PhD students won’t judge you either, because they’re doing the same exact thing you are, in their own way.

Really, the only one judging your ability to adult is you. So stop it.