Breaking up with your PhD is hard to do



I graduated with a doctorate in April this year. “It must feel fantastic”, people say, “you must feel so free”, and “what’s next?”

Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t, and I have no idea what to do next.

I’ve had a different relationship with my thesis than the norm. I absolutely loved it. I had a great topic that I was committed to, amazing supervisors, and it was a destination in itself.

I was (still am) a successful professional, and my doctorate won’t open any career doors for me. I had a story to tell, and that’s why I did it. I love the process of writing, of reading, of editing, of playing with the data. In fact, I loved it so much that in my acknowledgements I had to thank my romantic partner for never getting jealous of the attention and affection that my thesis was getting.

Finishing it has been like the worst break-up of my life.

I realised this when I told someone I had a PhD and the embarrassment I felt was akin to the embarrassment I felt when I first got divorced and had to correct folk on my title. All of a sudden, the focus of my existence, which I poured my time and attention into was gone. I used to spend my time learning, creating, contributing, and pushing the boundaries.

Now I spend my time doing the dishes. The let-down is almost indescribable.

I’ve spend months thinking about why I should feel so very different from the expected. It seems to a shift on how I construct meaning in my life. During the process, I found internal meaning. It was mine, in a way that nothing else was. There wasn’t a huge amount of outside validation.

After, this flipped. Suddenly I had a bunch of people who were very proud of me – which is lovely, don’t get me wrong – but they seem to have claimed something that was mine alone. The internal meaning vanished, and has been replaced with outside validation. And I’ve always found more meaning in the internal.

The question “what’s next” just intensifies that. It’s as if a PhD isn’t enough, that I need to give them more. But to me, my thesis was created with all the love I had, it is my master-piece and I feel that it is more enough.

So I blush whenever some-one calls me ‘doctor’. Not out of pleasure, but because I’m reminded of what I’ve lost. I haven’t been able to write with joy – every bit of writing feels like a betrayal to the magnum opus: a one-night-stand. Where my words used to fly across the page, I now write haltingly, stumbling, looking for inspiration that has all been used up.

I’m sure that, as with many things, it will improve with time. Having a doctorate is now a fact of my life. I can never go back to not having a doctorate. This is a reality that I’m sure will feel more comfortable one day. I’ll find myself again, and I’ll find other things that will ignite my passions.

But right now, there’s just dishes.