A.D. (After Dissertation): How to have a life
A motivational truism says that the most dangerous time is when you’ve reached a goal. This may be why many doctoral candidates experience Post-Parting Depression (PPD). Consciously and unconsciously, you’ve been pushing so hard for so long. Preoccupied with the intensity and innumerable details of the work itself, you may have lost sight of the larger purpose of the dissertation and degree. After graduation, you no longer have to spend every moment (after eating) on the dissertation.
Most clients I’ve helped in my dissertation editing and coaching practice experience this void. For a year or usually more, they say, they’ve wished for nothing but to finish the durn thing. Now that they have . . . somehow, and with shock, they miss it—and get depressed.
If you’ve finally finished and want to avoid PPD, try one of these strategies. They can help you make the transition to what may approximate a normal life again and resume your career.
Whether you decide on a big bash or a quiet dinner with some special people, take the time to celebrate. You deserve it! Others close to you, who may have lived through the ordeal, will want to celebrate with you. Let them. And enjoy it.
Take a Break
You deserve this too! Your break can be a day a few, a week, a few weeks. Some new doctors go on long-postponed vacations with their families. Others catch up on the (excusably) neglected essentials: cleaning the house, the refrigerator, the car, your desk. Visiting relatives. Loading up on paper goods at the local discount warehouse. Liberating the dining room table and surrounding floor from all the books, articles, note cards, and old takeout cartons.
Set a Date and Revisit Your Dream
Decide on the day or date you’ll resume reminding yourself. Don’t take too long or you’ll lose your momentum. The secret now is to remind yourself why you chased the doctorate in the first place: perfect position, perfect business, perfect office, perfect clients, perfect colleagues, perfect compensation . . . .
Even do a paragraph or two on what your perfect position will look like: type of institution or business, colleagues, clients (if applicable), schedule, activities you love, how you’ll apply what you learned from the dissertation. Such journaling helps you refine your dream and even bring it about.
Make a List: Academia
Next, make a master list of what you need to do now to reach that dream. Granted, this is another project, but now you’re practiced in breaking it down the steps and mowing them down.
For example, many of us get doctorates to go into or stay and advance in academia. A helpful and still timely book is Kelsky’s (2015) The Professor Is In.
So now, instead of mining the literature reviews, mine the Internet for universities and colleges you’re interested in. Spruce up your vita. Draft introductory letters to prospective department chairs or administrators. Subscribe to the newsletters of associations in your field—they often have listings of job openings. Plan to attend several professional conferences; most have employment prospects sections and informal gatherings. These are great places to meet ‘n greet—and get leads.
Ask your chair and committee members (don’t forget former professors) for leads. Set up appointments and interviews to impress them with your knowledge and passion. Request letters of recommendation. Talk to current faculty members or employees at your desired institutions. Notify everyone else you know and tell them you’re interested. Talk to colleagues you know who are teaching. As a start, consider part-time campus or online adjuncting.
Make a List: Consulting
Or to start your own business, often consulting, look at the websites of others in the field and contact them. If you approach them right and offer cross-referrals, they won’t see you as competition. (I maintain contact with several other editors, and we each specialize in different aspects of editing and send potential clients to each other.) Create your own website or hire an expert (they can save you a lot of time and grief). Draft a letter describing your services and even ask a colleague or two for feedback. Look at all your contacts to send this letter to.
Make a List: The Article
And of course, start thinking about that article that’s lurking in your dissertation. Publication is still the road to academic advancement and can enhance your standing as a consultant. You deserve recognition as well as additional benefits from all you’ve invested.
Your chair or a committee member may have already suggested publication, so, make a little plan for working on your article. Sometimes joining a writing group is beneficial. See Michael Harris’s (2017) reasons for joining an academic writing group and a good (and often entertaining) introductory book by Paul J. Silva (2014). Also see the highly recommended book by Wendy L. Belcher (2019), Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks. And browse in Textbook and Academic Authors blog Abstract for pieces on article writing.
Depending on your career goals and the length of your master list, choose the targets and actions that make the most sense. If one of your doctorate goals is promotion in your present company or institution, you won’t need much time for job-hunting or resume sprucing. But you may want to concentrate on your article. If your postdoc goal is establishing an online business, you’ll want to devote more of your time to the steps to get it off the virtual ground.
Look At Your “Later List”
When, at the start of the dissertation, my doctoral candidates come to the bald realization that the work will consume them for a year or more, I advise them to make a “Later List.” Maybe you’ve got one too, in a file or your head. The list assuages you about all the projects and events and chores you’ve wanted to do (or should), and know you won’t get to for many months. The Later List is a convenient compendium for getting all those nags out of your head.
Now, though, A.D., you may have the relative “leisure” and psychological space to peek at (or write down) your Later List. When you look at it, you’ll easily see whether your priorities and desires have changed. Maybe you already gave away your old gym clothes or no longer feel the need to write your memoir. Maybe new priorities have surfaced.
When Lucas, a client who had just graduated, looked up from his pdfs of dissertation support articles, he realized his three kids were suddenly teenagers. At the top of his Later List, he wrote, “Now: Spend more time with them!” Other clients have resumed weekly dates with their families, poetry writing, bookshelf building, volunteering, camping, aesthetic welding.
Postdissertation, though, guard against feeling you must mow down the whole Later List in a frenzy of doing. As you may already know, the sun always rises and to-do lists never end. We’re also supposed to enjoy our activities (at least some of them). If you haven’t already, add some purely fun things you’ve deprived yourself of for so long to your Later List—a fancy lunch with a friend, poking around the new fakequaint mall, cheering at drag races, splurging on four first-run movies in succession at the multiplex and munching incessantly from one of those huge horrible popcorn buckets.
So . . .
Award of your doctorate is a huge achievement. Especially to avoid PPD, take the time to celebrate yourself and rejuvenate. Then reacquaint yourself with your doctoral dreams and most meaningful or fun activities. And make choices that feel good. Bask in your doctorhood and look forward to your new present and your life A.D.
Belcher, W. L. (2019). Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press.
Harris, M. (2017, June 19). Five Advantages to Write More With a Writing Group.
Kelsky, K. (2015). The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. Three Rivers Press.
Silvia, P. J. (2014). Write It Up: Practical Strategies for Writing and Publishing Journal Articles. APA LifeTools.
© 2023 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 700 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com