Post-PhD, Reflecting 6 months on

The Coronavirus / Covid-19 pandemic has given me some time to reflect on how I have ‘performed’, how ‘successful’ and ‘productive’ I have been in the time since I had a fully complete thesis and I have passed the viva (it is actually 7 months since I completed the viva).

Below are some reflections on the past 6 months of post-PhD life, and also a bit of a ‘photo-diary’ to lighten the mood beyond academia alone.

However, let’s start with saying I am sorely disappointed with myself. I had perhaps both unrealistic and na├»ve visions of what I could achieve after finishing a PhD; that included being a more ‘successful’ interdisciplinary academic where I could spend my evenings and weekends working on new papers (this has not happened). Instead, I have spent a lot of time away from my thesis – thinking of similar paths, collaborating both inside and outside of my research group, and adapting to the fourth relocation in one year (it’s very tiring).

Clearly, I have not been all that productive in producing academic journal papers (of which I have three mostly-complete first-drafts sitting sorry-looking and forlorn on my desktop at this moment). I know this is academic death; in that we must constantly publish. I don’t work like this – maybe I’m not cut out for academia? I like to spend time and think and then write — in fact I mainly massively overwrite and too complexly and then find it inadequate to boil it down, due to the loss in complexity — maybe that is a curse.

Reader, you may wonder why I am writing such a recollection of six months? This is both a personal way of dealing with a world which I did not construct and also one in which expectations for post-PhD life seem to neglect that life, well, is a thing beyond academia.

Let me first say something, I have a very nice (albeit fixed term) post-doc at the University of Bristol where I am given freedom and a very amenable, friendly boss. However, this has been somewhat a learning journey as I came from the School of Geography at Oxford where I had unlimited freedom and was not part of a research group. At Bristol I am in a Computer Science-based cyber security research group (which in terms of coordination, expectation, and ability to do what I want, no matter how much I wish it otherwise, is limited). Perhaps this is the difficulty of interdisciplinary work – one where expectations of disciplines will never match (and indeed does not reflect on any individual or group but is more structural). Disciplines are there for discipline, after all.

I have found James Todd’s article, “Experiencing and embodying anxiety in spaces of academia and social research” published in an excellent journal, Gender, Place & Culture to have been particularly soothing of late. As he says, “stories of emotion suppression, hidden guilt, and challenges to the idealised detached and always-already stable researcher have begun to resonate” in geography and beyond. In particular, as I have discussed with a close friend who is also an academic, that this is perhaps also twinned with the ‘awkward’ as a contributing factor to my unease. Those awkward conversations about how people slowly look at you, pass on a message, on how ‘that’ paper is going, and how it manifests into a perpetual low-level, and unsettling, form of anxiety.

This anxiety, which is often intertwined with a boredom of said anxiety, manifests itself in momentary floods of recollection, of seeing a paper published or a paper you’ve heard is forthcoming that either closely aligns or looks exactly like your thesis, of seeing the months (in this case, six) fly by. Or in seeing excellent colleagues on fixed term contracts not have contract extensions, or more so with research contracts, come to an end with nothing in front of them (amplified by universities currently imposing hiring restrictions or trying to create cash buffers due to the Coronavirus pandemic). I have recently had to pause Twitter partially due to this. This anxiety has not come with the recent pandemic, but amplifies what is already there. An anxiety that threatens to overspill.

This is one attempt to address, and encourage an evaporation of, the atmospherics of anxiety before it does overflow.

Of course, I do not have it as ‘bad’ as many (I am privileged to have an income, unlikely to be discriminated against, but I do have a split life with a partner hundreds of miles away). However, I find this looking down rather than up unhelpful – and this is something academia is especially bad at performing. That is, be grateful.

So, what is the purpose of this? I think it’s to let others know it is okay not to be productive all of the time. I have not been ‘unproductive’ but it has not been in the areas I expected. I have taken a fair bit of rest, as it’s what I needed mentally more than physically. Yes, I have not produced papers what I expected, I haven’t put in that book proposal, nor have I had that much ‘impact’. I have high expectations of myself, and wish to contribute. Sometimes, that isn’t always possible. And that is okay.

Whereas there’s been some good work on the wellbeing of PhD students (and this is only a start), I think there is little forewarning of what the immediate 6 months after your PhD looks like. The constant moving (if you can), the anxiety, the changing world, quick adaptation, and feelings of insecurity. I have found, anecdotally, that people have struggled most in the years after a PhD. Maybe that’s something we can help people prepare for, but ultimately it’s a systemic issue of short grants and competitive nature of such work that really does grind. And yes, I’m looking at you UKRI.

An addendum

I realise I may have painted a rather bleak picture of my six months, but as I said before I have been ‘productive’, just not in the ways I expected (and indeed portions of academia would expect me to be).

So here, I offer a few glimpses of the things I have done in picture form:

Leave to Supplicate Letter from Oxford is when you have officially completed the requirements for your degree (you can’t call yourself a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ or DPhil (Oxford’s PhD) till you graduate).
I was on holiday when I received my Leave to Supplicate
I got my thesis nicely bound, this was nice.
This is the best picture I had, as it was November and the rain was the heaviest I’ve ever seen it in Oxford. I look remarkably dry.
Participated in the #UCUStrikes – feels like a world away now!
I got some drinks and glassed gifted to me!
I have been able to actually feel settled and explore Bristol more!

I also had a nice Las Iguanas with a friend visiting Bristol, I don’t have a picture for this – but it was a strange day. One helping a woman into a hotel – I frequently think how she is doing.

I have been able to catch up with friends properly now I’m back in the UK!
I also have been able to read fiction again – this book was especially good!
I also made a lasagne, just because I thought it tasted good, and I don’t know how else to round off this blog post…

One of the main things to remember though, is that I have wonderful people around me. I thank you for that.

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