After the viva/defence – then what?


There is no return to normal. There is no going back to what there was before. You have to find new ways of going on. I could be talking about the pandemic here. Yes indeed. But I’m not. I’m actually talking about life post thesis.

I wrote something a long time ago about the post PhD slump. It’s a real thing. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it is very common. The initial elation of finally reaching your doctoral goal is followed by an almighty anti-climax. Oh no. This is not what you expected.

Working out how to deal with the thesis shaped hole in your life takes time. I recently re-found some helpful writing about post thesis life and I thought it was worth passing on. It comes from Maria Piantanida and Noreen Garman‘s book The qualitative dissertation: a guide for students and faculty (2008). Piantanida and Garman describe the entire PhD process as “cycles of deliberation”. And they see the period following the viva/defence as a distinct cycle, which has its own specific issues and work. They list the challenges of finding the way forward post PhD as:

  1. Rebalancing personal life. Getting the research and the dissertation done and dusted will have caused “unrecognised realignments … in relationships, responsibilities, priorities and the structuring of daily and weekly routines” they say. The person who finishes the thesis is not the same as the person who started. Not only older, and probably poorer, they are also likely to be somewhat unsettled. But the people who have offered long -term support now want things to change. So it is important, Piantanida and Garman suggest, to spend during time reflecting on what incremental adjustments were made to everyday life, to think about what is possible and desirable going forward, and to negotiate with those closest to you. This is, they write, “One of life’s rare opportunities to deliberately assess and rebalance one’s priorities, interests and needs.
  2. Coping with career changes. Many people hope that a doctorate will allow them to change their jobs and/or locations. For those people who gave up permanent work in order to do the doctorate or who are looking for their first “real job”, doctorate in hand, this is an anxious time. Precarity rules both inside and outside the academy, and it may take quite a while to land a position. It is important to find a support group – they can help you cope with job-search disequilibrium as well as provide helpful advice and even mentoring.( Social media is now a good place to find such groups.)
  3. Coping with the perceptions of others. Some people do a doctorate while in permanent work. They are often surprised by the response of their co-workers to their completion – some may not recognise the doctorate as a significant achievement, others may change their patterns of interaction in response to someone they now view as an “expert”. Friends and family members, while proud, may also have ambivalent attitudes to interactions with you as doctor. Confronting such attitudes often needs delicate but assertive handling.
  4. Dealing with institutional relationships. Piantanida and Garman discuss this institutional as part of dealing with the perceptions of others. I have listed it here as a separate issue, as I know the question of whether to call yourself Dr – changing social media, bank accounts and the like – is often vexed. Scholars do not agree on whether, when and how we ought to use our academic titles if at all; this tends to be an individual decision. However when the Dr is sometimes ignored it may signal a gendered, raced response – witness the “discussion” about the current FLOTUS’ academic title. Again, an assertive response is required.
  5. Internalising a new identity as scholar/doctor. The journey from student to authoritative scholar does not stop at doctoral graduation – it generally does not stop at all but is rolled into post PhD life, where-ever and whatever that is. Piantanida and Garman suggest that completing a doctorate can be transformative, but claiming the identity of scholar may require refocussing a research agenda, developing a publication plan, and finding new contexts and groups to support reflection, deliberation and development. This all takes time. The newly doctored need to be prepared for “slogging around in new experiential puddles” while their new sense of self and direction becomes clear.

But these five post viva/defence consequences can all be anticipated and planned for, and the rewards make visible and celebrated. I would add that universities generally might do much more to help their graduated doctoral researchers. I’ve written before about doctoral after-care and I could say more. But that’s another blog post. In the meantime, I’ll just say that if you are nearing the end of the doctorate, or are indeed in the post viva/defence cycle, I hope that Piantanida and Granma’s five point list makes sense to you, and lets you know that feelings of disorientation, and it all being a bit of a let down at the end, are common. After all, there are potential good things in sight.

According to Piantanida and Garman, the doctorate is “rich with possibilities – the possibility of discovering one’s own scholarly self, the possibility of adding one’s own voice to evolving research and the possibility of forging one’s own unique legacy through scholarly deliberation.” The period immediately after the viva/defence has been done can be a potentially important time for moving these possibilities forward.