Following on from our recent blogposts on whether a PhD student is an ECR and exploring what a portfolio career can be, I’m delighted to introduce our new social media correspondent Sarah Wayland, with her debut blogpost for jobs.ac.uk.
I have recently passed the first anniversary of my graduation, a day that had been many years in the making from Masters (Research), an upgrade to PhD candidate, a University medal and an invitation to present the student address of my graduating year. A merging together of sleeplessness, adrenalin and disbelief…had I really ‘made it?’ The story I told that day, as 400 faces looked on in the sweltering heat of regional Armidale, spoke of the meandering journey both literally and metaphorically that I would take as an external student, seven hours drive from my campus, and the decision to engage in lifelong learning as a gift to myself and to my children. I wanted them to see that remaining curious, following a path that isn’t embraced by many and demonstrating the confidence to step away from a very safe public service position as a Social Work manager could all pay off.
I felt that I was on my way to what would come next.
I belong to a small Facebook group of PhD and ECR parents: we share the excruciating lows that academia affords us and the small wins when a paper is reviewed nicely. We share how we juggle cranky three year olds, partners who don’t ‘get’ what we are studying and the supervisors who back us over and over again. The gap that we experience appears to present itself in that liminal space between the end of the PhD and the beginning of the ECR journey. It’s a space where we have to identify the niche area we have chosen to explore in the PhD process and then learn to navigate the broader research space in an attempt to find where we ‘fit’. There was a moment, for me, where I felt invincible in that post-graduation glow. So much of the PhD journey had been focused on an end goal, and now, almost a year later, I’m beginning to wonder how I could have prepared better for post-PhD life. The science of goal setting tells us that neurologically our brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have, that if we become so focused on a goal like securing a postdoc position, being employed in a research capacity or exploring the teaching world of academia, that when we don’t achieve these things we feel an acute sense of loss as if we actually had achieved the goal in the first place and then lost it. That’s how I feel some days, where the life I thought that would come post-PhD has to be grieved for the one I find myself muddling through.
The transition, for me, from PhD to post-PhD life has been a cacophony of wins and close wins (hey, I’m trying to be strengths based about it all). A rollercoaster that rivals even my darkest times in the PhD journey. A year on, I’ve worked out a few ways to manage the messy but fun ECR life:
- Firstly, embrace the fact that the ego boost of completing a PhD places you at the top of the pile momentarily. People gush over you, you marvel at your own capacity to complete the thesis, you check in for a flight and madly text every person you’ve ever met, exclaiming ‘they called me Dr!’ (This may or may not have happened to me). But the come down means that you must acknowledge that being an early career researcher places you at the bottom again, a baby researcher and you have to be open to the learning process again.
- Apply for positions – big and small – this becomes a key part of your working week. Apply for the things that catch your eye, ask people their thoughts, refine and then refine again your capacity to speak about your research expertise while being flexible enough to demonstrate how you can fit somewhere outside of the University you completed your PhD with. Acknowledge that this is hard, the rug of familiarity is quickly pulled from underneath you.
- Take any opportunities to publish – your own research, your new research, and your conference talks, book reviews, whatever. You will only learn to stretch the academic writing muscle if you keep on writing.
- Network, network, network. Finding a sponsor or even a potential connection for your proposed project is essential – the PhD forces you into a hermit-like experience so crawl back out, get some sun and get on with it.
- Admit to your limitations – my partner and I have four children, all scattered between primary and high school in Sydney Australia. We can’t simply pick up and move where the jobs are. I had to accept that career wise these are the ‘trapped’ years. It helped me manage that sense of longing for far away locations or working alongside Brene Brown. I’m holding these over until later.
When you get knocked back (and you will, believe me, more than you thought was possible), sit with it. I cry, I swear, I wonder what the point of the PhD was at least once a month but the days where I get a win, where I find new ways to apply my research expertise or where I catch myself enjoying post-PhD life are key to that first year out. Perhaps whispering to myself in that final year before submission ‘you will have to begin, again after this’ might have paved the way for the career I’m still learning to embrace. Maybe take the time to whisper that to yourself like I should have.
We look forward to hearing more from Dr Sarah Wayland on this blog in the future! What tips would you offer to early career researchers who are caught in a post-PhD transitional space?