The fall semester is grinding slowly to a halt. If you told me on the first day of classes how this semester would proceed (family ups and downs, moving our whole life, moving the kids from one school to another, and working through more student support than I ever have) I would not have believed you. That’s not entirely true. I would have believed you, because why should I be immune from stress or upheaval? And the stress and upheaval I’ve experienced has been in service of good things happening in my life or helping others push through challenges in their lives.
But as classes finally end, I wanted to catalogue a few reflections on this first semester out of graduate school. Like anyone in training for a future job, as a graduate student I was anxious to be finished with my dissertation and other requirements. I knew that navigating the labor market would be challenging and I knew that there would be different kinds of expectations for me as a newly-minted PhD. Being finished with the graduate school phase of my professional life does not mean that the challenge of work is over. It is just beginning.
Here is what I have figured out (and mostly come to terms with):
1. Being finished with my graduate work is liberating and scary. After many months (years, really) of planning, writing and seeking approval, I (mostly) control what happens in my professional life. I feel free to do what I want with my writing days and my writing agenda. That kind of autonomy is exciting. At the same time, I am still working through a fair amount of apprehension and confidence in my academic research and writing. That part is scary.
2. Teaching is quite possibly THE BEST LEARNING. Though this is my first year out of graduate school, it is my fourth year in the classroom. And in teaching an introductory course and a capstone course, I am learning something from my students every day about content, process, research and writing. I have always known that I stand to learn from my students but somehow during this semester I have learned more than I could have anticipated that informs my philosophy around teaching, researching and writing.
3. Being done with graduate school WILL NOT clear up any confusion your friends and family had about the work you do. If you thought no one understand what you did for work when you were a graduate student, prepare for complete confusion over what you do now that you’re a professor or some other professional. Teaching requires no less time that it did during graduate school and now you have the grand task of transforming that dissertation research into something fit for publishing. Plus if you’re fortunate to be employed, you’re acclimating to your new institution. You could be acclimating to a short-term job (like I am) and also in the throes of a job search (which I have to do to protect my bank account). Your family and friends will be relieved that you’re not a student any more, they’ll enjoy calling you Dr., and they still won’t understand what you do all day.
4. Unless you’re a robot scholar, ready to churn out pub after pub after pub, it will be hard to believe you found any time to write your dissertation even six months before. I was fortunate to carve out 16 hours a week to write my dissertation over the course of last academic year. That’s what I had to work with, so I had to be focused and productive. Towards the end of the project, the dissertation overtook everything. In May, when I posted my dissertation to my institution’s online repository, I embargoed the document until November thinking that would be enough time for me to get one chapter out under review. November is already over and I have only just dusted off a draft I finished in August.
5. Life happens and you won’t be prepared and you’ll wish you did things differently in graduate school. I am NOT one to wish I had done things differently. Graduate school was full of its own ups and downs. I can’t go back now and change the fact that I never followed through on that qualitative project. I can’t go back and push to send out another publication. I have to feel good about what I’ve got and work towards getting better.
I didn’t expect an easy semester, so I shouldn’t be surprised that it was tumultuous. I did the very best work I could do under the circumstances. Sometimes my work was visible to others and sometimes it wasn’t. I have to keep reminding myself, that when it comes to your professional life, it’s often about the long game. Instead of getting caught up in the short game, I’m pushing ahead.