It’s another January, and another few weeks of quiet time at the office. As the first days of the work year tick by, most of the university is happily at the coast ensconced in board games and slathered in sunscreen. This year, it seems like it’s not just the season for switching off the email but also for big changes.
In the last month, I’ve had several friends submit PhD theses. A couple of others are furiously writing the last few thesis sections in the hope of submitting before imminently moving overseas for postdocs. Meanwhile, a few postdoc friends are moving onto new academic jobs elsewhere, or are making a bigger jump and embracing a research pathway outside of academia. Exciting times!
Unfortunately, a few other friends are in various stages of the awful and uncertain post-PhD limbo that we are so unprepared to face. For them, the anti-climactic act of submitting the thesis is long over but examiners reports aren’t yet back.
Hence, they find themselves no longer a student but no longer anything else. The exhaustion of PhD writing has been replaced by uncertainty about future work, worry about a lack of skills and a heavy guilt that it should be a happy and relaxing time.
When I submitted my thesis a few years back, I was unprepared for the six months or so that followed. I was tired and financially stretched. I got sick, and then I got sick again, and again. I was still saddled with writing papers that I could hardly bear to look at. As the months seeped by and my thesis remained snarled with examiners, I was worried about how it would be received.
After a decade of university education, I was suddenly an adult child – living in a share house and grateful to my mum for the gift of extra money now and then. I hadn’t thought about short-term work or of long-term career ambitions. What was the point of the years of hard work? More than anything, I felt foolish. My world had fragmented and nothing would possibly come of my PhD.
It’s hard to see my talented and hard-working academic friends experiencing their own post-PhD purgatory. One particular friend received a cruel Christmas gift of an avalanche of job rejections. Despite an enviable set of skills and experiences, the many long days of application writing amounted to nothing. It turns out that even ostensibly “entry-level” short-term jobs require years of proven experience.
It’s hard to watch friends feel increasingly disempowered by the process, and of course, far more crushing to experience this first-hand. Many recent PhD graduates and postdocs are hard working, skilled and eager to make a positive contribution to their field, their university or to society. Many rapidly come to feel that they have little capacity to do so.
Several now express an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. They are embarrassed to be in situations of under-employment and after so many job rejections are embarrassed to have their resumes and selection criteria read by selection committees.
In time, these accomplished new or soon-to-be graduates will succeed. Eventually a savvy supervisor will see potential beyond a lack of proven experience and will take a chance that will be handsomely rewarded with a capable and driven new employee.
In the meantime, summoning patience is a herculean task. Patience is hard at the best of times, and more so when you are feeling tired, uncertain and increasingly discouraged by a tough job market.
Having breached this gulf between post-PhD stagnation and a postdoc, it seems disingenuous to counsel my friends to be patient. Instead of offering any kind of patronising advice, I’m taking an even more self-important approach and ask my academic friends to trust me.
It takes great fortitude not to be dissuaded by our volatile and uncertain industry. The transition from post-PhD to meaningful employment simply seems insurmountable. But if you saw yourselves as I do, you would see that you will not just contribute, but you will thrive. You all have uniquely enviable skills that will be recognised, and a verve that will guarantee excellence wherever it is applied. Trust me!