There is plenty of advice out there for those undertaking PhDs, preparing for vivas, and publishing doctoral work – challenging tasks that push many to breaking point. But what happens in the months and years after one is ‘doctored’ is a much more complicated matter. All the warnings of post-project depression and harrowing tales of postdoctoral purgatory force us to hold on to our theses, and related specialism, as if it were a life raft or parachute – our only hope for survival.
It’s publish or perish, in this job market, and academic publishing starts with the often awkward and laborious translation of the dissertation into a book manuscript, and/or a series of articles and book chapters. Such a task can feel counterintuitive to those recovering from submission and viva-related stress, when burying the cursed thing deep underground seems a much better option. Instead, we are told to quickly capitalise on the work we have done in those intensive years of study – presenting our work at conferences and refining our specialist USP, until we are so sick of if that we forget what interested us about it in the first place.
I realise this is not everyone’s experience, and that many go on to cherish and learn from their thesis for years after finishing. But I’d like to make a case for why you don’t have to feel forever chained to your unpublished tome, making use of every last footnote and establishing yourself as an expert in something that may have caught and held your attention for only a short time. Such intense loyalty to a single project is not required in other industries and professions, and should arise from genuine interest, not a sense of obligation. Nevertheless, it is generally thought unadvisable and somewhat taboo to lose momentum or change direction at an early postdoctoral stage, unless one plans to leave academia altogether. I’d like to boldly suggest that we should be able to have it both ways.
Here are a few reasons why diversifying your interests can make you a better and happier professional, in whatever line(s) of work you choose. According to Gestalt psychology, it is our ability to create a ‘global’ or whole perception that transcends singular events and experiences, allowing us to cope with the fragmented and chaotic world around us. From this perspective, the thesis is just one thing among many, related to but certainly not constitutive of our worldview or achievements to date.
- Writing a PhD is an achievement in itself. It’s difficult, takes a long time, and demands more of your personal and professional life than most regular jobs. For those reasons, feel good about finishing and try to ignore pressure to ‘make something of it’ as soon as possible. I know a lot of people who regret publishing their thesis soon after graduating, and others who benefited from waiting for their ideas to gestate and their thinking to mature. Personally, I think it’s better to wait, and to relish a little in what you have done already, before taking the next steps (in whatever direction).
- Versatility is advantageous. Deciding not to pursue an opportunity or line of enquiry because it doesn’t fall within the remit of your specialism is short sighted and deprives you of fresh experiences. Discard the thesis blinkers and see the world anew – along with new ways of engaging with it. Being able to think and write responsively is an important and valuable skill and outlet for expression, and it can be much more inspiring that rearticulating the same content over and over in slightly different ways. You’ll also miss out on exciting collaborations with people who know a lot about other things, whom you might mutually benefit from talking to or working with.
- PhD skills really are transferable. Over the course of 3 to 4 years you have not only amassed knowledge but also learned how to teach yourself, to manage time and information, and most of all, to write. I remember seeing smoke coming off my rapidly typing fingers in the final weeks of writing up. I may have been hallucinating at that point, but I have no doubt that I broke through some kind of barrier in terms of getting complex thoughts out of my head and into words with amazing speed and clarity. This skill has stayed with me, albeit without the smoke effects, and as a freelance writer it has held me in good stead. The same goes for thinking laterally, synthesising and critically contextualising.
- Mega projects are not for everyone. The oft talked about ‘post-thesis breakdown’ is largely the result of having lost purpose or direction – life goes back to normal in the absence of a completely unnatural thesis schedule (typically involving long hours, poor diet choices and lapses in personal hygiene). There’s something strangely addictive about a monomaniacal, all encompassing focus, but make no mistake – this is not the path to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. And, there’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t want to jump straight into the next one, or even feel like one book-sized project in this lifetime is enough.
- You can still be interested in the world. By the time they finish, most people have accepted that their thesis is not a ground-breaking magnum opus, and that their eyes (inspiration) proved bigger than their stomachs (capability). This can make you feel like a very small fish in a subsidiary pool, with the few things that you officially know about having been explored more expertly by others. Fear not. The ‘success’ of a thesis (dubious criteria in any case) is by no means a measure for your capacity to be a cultural commentator and has no bearing on your ability to say something insightful about the complex and remarkable things happening in the world around us. If you have something to say, don’t worry about whether or not you’re qualified to say it. Draw on your diversified vocabulary, analytic scope and sharp eye for detail to articulate something truly compelling.
- You can be a specialist and other things too. Just because you may have advertently or inadvertently pigeonholed yourself by writing a thesis, doesn’t mean you can’t break out of your specialism now and then (or fly the coop for good, if you feel so inclined). It’s always refreshing to see academics trying their hand at less familiar content or working in an entirely different way. Side projects are fun, and if you play your cards right they can be lucrative too. You are a professional observer, thinker, researcher and writer, at the very least. And that’s quite a lot, actually.