Having started my PhD in September 2014 and spending the last 5 years growing and nurturing it, I thought the day I received an email to say I passed would be a momentous occasion. I expected a great sense of accomplishment, feelings of elation, potentially a fanfare and you know what, I had them – well for a couple of days anyway…..
Three days later and it was very much business as normal. I returned to my same job, in the same office and realised that actually, nothing had changed (except my email signature which now read Dr Emily Oliver, PhD). Those initial feelings of achievement and exhilaration had faded, and, in all honesty, I felt feelings of loss and somewhat bewilderment with the mindboggling question of what do I do now? Previously, I was working for dementia UK and doing a PhD, now I just work for Dementia UK. I finished my day job and then just came home. There was no need to turn on my laptop and write until late into the night, no need to check my university email to see if my supervisors had sent anything over and no need to tweet every milestone along the way. What there was, was a cavernous void.
The days following and this hollow hole seemed to be getting deeper. I began questioning my whole career pathway, wondering whether I should go into academia and research or focus on my clinical skills. I began to feel as though I was no longer progressing towards the job I wanted, feeling somewhat stagnant and questioning what employers would see in me. I felt an overwhelming need to continue learning and developing and immediately started seeking out any opportunities I could. I began applying for ethics committee roles, scholarships, conferences, advisory panel roles, journal reviews and even considered applying to be a local councillor! I started looking for new jobs and dismissing more senior roles, thinking I would never be shortlisted. I was worrying about my links with the university and I was scared that my supervisors were no longer there for advice and guidance. I was concerned that all the relationships I had built through networking had somehow vanished and that I was no longer seen as someone they should affiliate with. I was, in all honesty, lost.
After a couple of weeks of what can only be described as frenetic soul searching, I decided to open up about my feelings to my supervisors and my colleagues at work. Turns out a problem shared, really is a problem halved and I was so glad to hear that these feelings were completely normal following the end of a PhD. Hearing about their career pathways and receiving advice on what to do and not to do, helped me to see what a great position I was in. My career opportunities, both in and out of academia were ample and I didn’t need to know exactly where I was going or need to be exactly where I wanted, as this was just the beginning of my journey. In the early days of my doctoral study, I remember reading articles about post-phd students who had said that a PhD really is just the start, I remember thinking how can that be possible? I would have a doctorate; I would be taking on the world! Fast forward 5 years and oh my goodness weren’t they right? A Doctorate is absolutely your first step into academia and research and really is a training programme to prepare you for your future career.
So, my first tip for a post-PhD world is…. relax. These confusing feelings of loss, bewilderment and stagnation are normal but it’s so important not to forget everything you have learnt and the vast amount of skills you have developed. Trust in the timings of things, continue to scope out new opportunities but be selective in what you put your efforts into. Think about the role you want and seek development opportunities to get you there. Time is precious and it’s too easy to become overwhelmed with lots of different projects that aren’t really going to progress your career, so be picky with what you focus on.
Having a close relationship with my supervisors and colleagues who were further in their career was also really beneficial. My advice would be to find people that inspire you and people who are in roles that you may like to be in one day. Ask them how they got to where they are and what steps they took following the end of their PhD. This should help you to think about what your next steps will look like.
Another piece of advice is not to forget about the last 3-5 years of work. I think sometimes we are so busy looking ahead, that we forget all we have done. Continue to network, to attend conferences and to write papers about your findings – people want to hear about them! We have all heard it so many times, but publications really are the best way to disseminate your work and get your name out there. Don’t lose the writing momentum, block out space in your diary each week to focus on those articles, blog posts and abstracts, as these will form the steppingstones to post-doctoral work.
All that being said, take some time and be easy on yourself. There is a wealth of literature out there that talks about the terrible work/life balance in academia and as newly qualified doctoral researchers, we should be setting new precedents with regards to this. Enjoy those weekends, evenings and lie-ins spent away from your laptop, enjoy watching the television or being at the pub without the writing guilt and spend time with friends and family, as I am sure they will have missed you in the last few months leading up to submission.
Revel in the fact that you now have a doctorate and can be somewhat fussy about what you focus your efforts into it. Reflect on this fantastic achievement and take pride in your now wide skill set, that can be used to apply for a multitude of jobs. It may not feel like it at first but the world, as they say, is your oyster!
Dr Emily Oliver is a Consultant Admiral Nurse working for Dementia UK. Emily recently completed her NIHR Clinical Academic Doctorate at the University of Southampton, in which the focus was relational care for people with dementia in acute hospital wards.