Recently, I completed my PhD studies in the EDIT lab, wrote my thesis, had my viva, and entered into a transcendental state of holistic wellbeing (or three of those four).
Now I’m coming to terms with life in the real world*
*Reality is a subjective concept. Postdoc life totally counts as real. Your experience may vary.
The completion of a PhD is an interesting experience. The vagaries, stress, and coffee-driven writing sessions that comprise a thesis. The realisation that you need to actually know your thesis for the viva. The gradual realisation that you do, in fact, know your thesis for the viva. The viva itself, which somehow manages to be petrifying and enjoyable at the same time.
(If I have one piece of advice for those approaching their viva it is this – get your supervisors to pick good examiners, and enjoy yourself. Two pieces of advice. Good examiners, enjoy yourself and remember why you did what you did. Three pieces… NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!)
But this piece is not about the PhD. Oh no. This piece is about the true, existential terror of what comes after.
The real world. Or in my case, post-doctoral life. As soon as the sense of elation after finishing the PhD ends, and once the hangover has abated, there comes the realisation that all of a sudden there are no more ‘end-points’. Those exams you studied for in school? There’s no finals for being a real scientist™ (or alternatively, every day is finals day – this is not yet clear to me). That big book you just wrote? You need never write a book again, although you should probably read a few. For someone whose life has been somewhat focussed on those milestones, it can be a little disorientating to suddenly step out that metaphorical front door and see the sky vanishing into a horizon-less haze.
So – how to survive? Here’s my top 5 tips. Bear in mind I have just completed this bit of life myself, so the tips may be awful. Maybe check back in 5 years, see if they were worth following.
1. Have a plan for immediately afterwards, that involves doing something you enjoy. “Nothing” is a perfectly acceptable form of something in this instance.
The end of your PhD is one of those rare times when you might legitimately disappear off the face of the earth for a few weeks and just RELAX. Your obligations should be minimal, you’ve probably built up some funds in the preceding weeks, and dammit, you’ve earned it!
Full disclosure – I only partly did this.
2. Have a plan for the bit after that. This one should involve people giving you money, and needs to be enacted during your PhD. This should probably have been number 1 actually.
Perhaps the biggest system shock that comes from finishing the PhD is that the endless trickle of fundage that was keeping you in Pot Noodles and Mac chargers stops happening. This is a bit of an issue, because Mac chargers break super-easily, and you will need to replace it pretty soon.
So, make a plan. Enjoying working where you are? Still cool things to be done there? Someone has some money for you to do things (mostly for them?) Stay where you are, then. I (effectively) did, and I’m enjoying it no end. Want a new challenge? Find someone who is doing cool stuff and wants to give you money to do their cool stuff, and go and work for them. Guess what – it doesn’t have to be academia. Bit of a genius and awesome networker? Good for you. Maybe you should write a fellowship. These ones are good, and I’m sure there are others.
3. Have another plan for the next next bit. (Yes, there are a lot of plans. I miss structure.)
One of the great (and scary) things about science is you’ve got to be looking for progress. Some people (see Awesome Networkers above) do move onto bigger and better things immediately. But it doesn’t have to be right away. I view this as an apprenticeship. I learnt a massive amount in my PhD, but I didn’t think I learnt everything I needed, or everything I could learn from my mentors. So I’m hanging around for a bit, and learning more. But, progress should always be at the back of your mind. By next year, I want to have established some independence, whether through funding of my own, or striking out to continue the whole learning thing elsewhere (see People Doing Cool Stuff above).
Don’t know where to look for the next bit? Ask. Ask mentors. Ask the less harried-looking senior people above you, who will either be young and have done it before, or very old and will have amazing stories. Or ask the internet – Twitter is an evil time-sucking contraption (and you can hear me explain why at @Joni_Coleman), but it’s a great place to find out if your academic crush is hiring.
4. If you’re still in science, publish your thesis. Even if you’re not still in science, publish your thesis.
It’s a tale well told, but publications are the academic currency. Your examiners hopefully read your thesis. It is unlikely anyone else ever will. Sorry. Publish the papers, though, and you have your entries into the next stage. And it’s morally right – even if you’ve left science, you should ensure your thesis is at least going to be available somewhere for people to read. Science needs the work you did to be out there so people know you did it. (now come, Dobbin, back to your high stable).
5. Make sure you’re having fun
Because, although it feels like it sometimes, work isn’t life. It felt like it when you were writing your PhD, and in the battles to come it will probably feel like it again. But it isn’t. And life’s too short not to enjoy it.