Fears of a post-PhD future

I was reading an article published last year by Jennifer Polk, a life/career coach who helps graduate students and recent grads find their direction either in or out of academia. I felt lifted by her words, and she got me evaluating my own experiences, to think about how and why I’ve developed this anxiety and dread about my studies.

For so long, I’ve only been able to consider ‘success’ in academic terms. I made the decision to pursue graduate studies in the third year of my undergraduate degree, ten years ago now. Since then, I’ve done many of the ‘right’ things: I started presenting at conferences while still in undergrad; I published in an undergrad journal and edited/published one for my own school before graduating; I went to do my MA and continued that trend. After paying off some debts, I re-entered grad school to start the PhD, with all the excitement that you’d think went along with that.

I have a fascinating topic about which I’m passionate, and even if I’m not as well versed in things like critical theory (I blame my Rankean training in undergrad and the MA), I’m developing my own understanding of the past, and have quality thoughts. I’ve had successful research trips, received an international research grant, presented at my first professional conference where I received excellent feedback, I’ve been networking and am on the radar of a couple of big stars in my field, and now I’m writing the Diss. I feel like I’ve done many things ‘right’ – but then I think of the future, and the realization that NONE of that necessarily matters post-graduation *terrifies* me.

Why? It’s scary because academia, being a professor, is ALL I’ve thought about doing for the past decade. It’s what I’ve told all my family, friends, etc. I would do with my life. Everyone in my life who isn’t in academia understands that PhD = becoming a professor. How do I face them if and when I need to “admit” to not succeeding in that pursuit–especially when it very well has little to do with my actual abilities or intellect? If I told them I knew the risks were high and the likelihood of a job low since the day I entered the program, but did so anyway, does this mean that my fears, or indeed-future potential realities-are my own fault?

Would it change if I told them that I pursued my degree because I am passionate about the past, and about learning in general? That I love what I do? Would it matter if I said I wanted a PhD for its own sake (and still do), regardless of a future in academia? What if I said that doing this degree has helped me grow personally in ways I couldn’t imagine before? That the process has taught me more about myself than anything I’ve done previously? What if I told them that I’ve spent the first 12 years of my adult life doing something that made me happy, excited me, and stimulated me?

I have this fear, perhaps irrational, that in the end, somehow, I’ll still feel/be made to feel a failure, that I’ve wasted my time, unless I can learn to change the parameters of ‘success’. I think it’s important to consider a few things:

–I’ve spent 12 years of my life learning, discussing, sharing and teaching things that I find fascinating and valuable.
–I’ve learned a second language
–I’ve developed a writing and communication style that is unique to me
–I’ve discovered what makes me strong, and where I’d like to be stronger
–I’ve dealt with personal hardships and came out of them walking tall.
–I’ve been able to act as a mentor to friends, colleagues and students
–I’ve received international recognition for my accomplishments
–I’ve traveled, and lived in Germany for a year of my life (all together)
–I’ve met amazing, intelligent and inspiring people
–I’ve developed research, organization, planning, management, teaching, and life skills that can be transferred to any career or life path
–Through all that, I’ve maintained a (mostly) healthy lifestyle, supported myself, managed a clean, safe household, and developed amazing friendships.

Those are not ‘little’ things, nor are they things I can or should easily dismiss. These were difficult things to accomplish or achieve, and perhaps the reason I so easily discount them sometimes is because I feel I should somehow be ashamed of them lest I come across as arrogant or conceited. It’s difficult to admit that you’re proud of things, but sometimes perhaps it’s important to try. Sure, it’s difficult to prioritize these accomplishments over my concerns about what I’ll do after graduation, but if I can learn to focus on them, I might just be able to find the path that best suits me–and be happy following it.


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