I’ve been doing a lot of navel gazing lately, professionally speaking of course, because June is a month of anniversaries for me. Most recently, June marks one year since walking out of my PhD viva and being called Doctor. It marks five years since finishing my undergraduate program. It marks ten years since my last day in high school. And it marks my twenty eighth birthday. Navel gazing has been rife. I have a mounting concern that I will never be a real adult.
With that being said, I feel like it’s a good time to take stock of my career, particularly as I was recently reminded of how hard it is for final year PhD students to see anything other than the doom and gloom that surrounds you in that period of your life. So this is my attempt to show you that one day you’ll feel good again.
Earlier this month I was supposed to be converting some slides for our MOOC when I was sucked into the ThesisWhisperer blog, taken there by a link and then unable to keep clicking through the stories. It reminded me just how awful I felt when I was finishing up. I felt defeated, utterly, and handing over the thesis was nothing like the victory I thought it would be when I started.
I was sick. I handed in my PhD thesis covered in chicken pox blisters (unbelievably, the third time I’d had the infection). In the six months that ran up to my submission date I had been constantly ill with sore throats, migraines and repeated colds. My insomnia had never been so bad, I cried in our work’s canteen, and I was so ready to walk away from the office and never return.
Except I was back the next week because I’d scored a three week contract. Despite my conviction that I was out, I couldn’t turn down the money. That led to a month’s contract. Then a three month contract, then a six month contract, and now I have guaranteed paycheques up until the end of March.
The Valley of Shit
The ThesisWhisperer blog talks about the Valley of Shit, and I can remember my valley vividly. It lasted from roughly December 2012 – May 2013 when I handed in.
I’m a competitive person. I like to be the best, and I’d work for nothing if people told me I was wonderful (please don’t tell my HR department). My PhD was the first time I’d ever had to confront the fact I wasn’t the best. My PhD made me confront the fact that not only was I not the best, I wasn’t even in the top percentiles. That was a hard, hard lesson to learn.
Approximately a month before I submitted, my PhD’s key paper was rejected from a journal because of one reviewer’s comments (the worst paper they’d ever read, they couldn’t believe my coauthors had deigned to put their name on it). I cried in the cafeteria in front of my bemused supervisor. She told me I’d need to develop thicker skin, which seemed absolutely impossible.
This month another paper of mine was rejected from a journal (although the comments I admit were much more positive and it was rejected from a very well respected journal that was a bit of a long shot). It barely registered on my radar.
I think this is a big part of the Valley of Shit. Everything feels like the end of the world. I remember being on the phone to my mother and asking her if she would still love me when I failed. Which is ludicrous, of course, but still something I felt I needed to ask. So, yes, the Valley of Shit exists. I clearly lost all perspective in this period of my life.
The Plateaus of Okay
My viva was a long and arduous one that resulted in remarkably few corrections, at least from my point of view. A few months after I’d submitted my corrections and the University’s Senate agreed I could be awarded the degree of PhD, I got my six month contract extension.
One morning I was in the shower, washing my hair, and I felt a distinct sense of unease. It took a moment but I realised what was unnerving me: I had nothing to worry about. For so long I’d been thinking of the PhD and finally there was nothing to be fretting over. What could I think about instead?
I think I ended up reading the shampoo bottle. It took a while to relearn the art of the shower daydream.
It takes a long time to adjust to being on the Plateau of Okay. There are little things, like not wanting to take all your holiday days because you want to be invaluable. There are big things, like fretting over the fact I still don’t have a postdoc and I’m moving further away from research and into education instead. The thing about the Plateau is that you have the space to remember how to cope with these challenges.
Just before Christmas I was offered an interview for a job that I didn’t really want. The interview was at an inconvenient time and in an inconvenient place. But it was a full time, permanent position and with a higher salary than I’m on right now. After some deliberation I declined the interview, and felt sick for the rest of the day.
In the Plateau you start to make your choices based on what you want, rather than what you’re frightened of. And that in itself is terrifying. I’ve turned down a few jobs and interviews because they’re not quite what I want, and I still wonder if that was the right thing to do. I’ve also been turned down for jobs I thought were perfect for me, and that is what the pub and your friends are for. In the Plateau, it’s not about losing the fear, but recognising you have choices again. You’re no longer trudging endlessly, you can go in any direction.
It’s pretty intoxicating.
The Peaks of Happiness
This month I won some project money (a small amount, certainly no postdoc, but still). I have enjoyed what I’ve been doing thoroughly. I’ve booked a holiday with all those holiday days I didn’t use last year. And I got my longest contract extension yet.
When I was reading the ThesisWhisperer I realised I was at the Peak of Happiness. All the things that upset me about academia are obstacles to deal with in a few months time (like the next contract extension, my lack of paper output this year, how I’m supposed to do grown up things like buy a house or a pet when I don’t know where I’ll be next year . . .) I was feeling truly elated.
This time last year I could not have believed that I would be this happy.
A peak means there must be another valley further on. The very fact that I know I’ll need another contract extension, that there are still grants that need to be won, and that if I want to leave those parts of my life behind I’ll have to sacrifice the parts of academia I love. You can’t just stay on the peaks of life, but you can hope the plateaus keep climbing, which is what I have decided to do. I’m not afraid of the deep dark valleys right now, because they inevitably end. As the poet said, this too shall pass.
But most importantly of all, in a few months time I’ll be going to my high school class’s ten year reunion. I guess I could introduce myself as a pet psychiatrist.