In May I celebrated the first anniversary of my graduate school graduation. My first year has been a year marked with introspection, transformation, challenges, and triumphs. I have learned so much about myself as a person and academic, although much of my life has remained constant. Recently, when I was asked to share advice on dissertation writing with a group of doctoral students, I began to think about the prevalence of information about surviving doctoral programs and dissertation writing. Yet, very few people have shared advice on how to survive life after graduate school. Perhaps this is because the experiences beyond graduate programs are incredibly diverse – some disciplines lead to postdocs, others lead to the professoriate – or administrative positions, in light of current realities. In other words, it is difficult to generalize. Despite this, I think there are lessons in my own experience that can be generalized to other recovering graduate students.
Lesson 1: There will be times when you will miss dissertation writing. When I was writing my dissertation, I developed focus and discipline, which made it easy for me to say "no" to almost anything that did not help me finish my dissertation. Other than work and an occasional conference presentation, I focused completely on my dissertation for 10 months. Although I struggled at times with my writing, I found solace in the fact that it was something I could manage, to an extent. In this year since my graduation, I have found it much more difficult to find that focus in my scholarship. Perhaps some of this has to do with the push and pull of my personal life and life as an academic. While I try to take advantage of the many wonderful professional opportunities I have had over the last year, I still struggle to prioritize these while balancing my desire to have a life (more on this later). I don’t think I ever want to write another dissertation, but there have been times when I have missed the way that experience kept me clearly directed.
Lesson 2: Life happened while you were in graduate school. In my case, social media and Twilight happened while I was in graduate school. I am embarrassed to admit that I still do not have a Facebook page. I know; I might be the lone person in the world, or at least the only person willing to admit this in public. While I was in graduate school and learning how to focus completely on work and research, I lived in a suspended reality, as I call it. I knew that life was happening all around me – trends were emerging and dying; friends and family members were clearly enjoying life. I’m not seeking pity; going to graduate school is a privilege, but there were and are things that I missed. Although I am easing back into life and popular culture, I have found this to be a real challenge. Even a year after finishing my graduate program, I still feel guilty spending time watching marathons of "America’s Next Top Model" and "Project Runway."
Lesson 3: You can’t go back, but you can make sure you go forward. In my life, I actually did go back; after graduation I returned to my administrative position. This is the same position I worked in, full-time, before and during graduate school. Although for many of my colleagues finishing a graduate degree means job searching or receiving a promotion, I believed it was important to return to my institution and continue to work in my current position because the faculty, staff, and administration (and many students) had done so much to support me. Although I went back, I have realized that as much I enjoy my work and appreciate the chance to use my research and scholarship, I do have to push myself forward and seek opportunities to publish, present, and mentor graduate students (more about this later). Recently, when a former professor of mine asked me why I was trying to publish so many articles, I was prompted to think about why I really was pursuing scholarship with such vigor. Besides being the thing that people do, even some administrative people like me, I think it helps me move forward as a scholar and academic.
Lesson 4: Writing about and presenting on your dissertation study is not as easy as it appears. After the last lesson, you may think that I have published countless articles based on my dissertation study. The reality is that I have written a few articles and I have a few more forthcoming; only one has been accepted for publication in a scholarly journal, a few brief articles have been published in practitioner-based publications, and one article was rejected on a second read. I have also had an opportunity to make a number of conference presentations using my dissertation study and data, but all in all, I have learned that what I thought would be very easy is much more difficult than I ever imagined. While the process of researching, writing, and defending a dissertation creates experts, carving up a dissertation study into several papers and presentations for different audiences (even other experts in my discipline and field), can be incredibly challenging. Last June, following a short vacation, I began working on several short articles and presentation proposals. At first, I was able to write with incredible ease. Then, I began to struggle with finding effective ways to present my findings to different audiences. The real low point for me came when I received a set of evaluations from a presentation I had made at a national conference earlier this year. One participant wrote, “I’ve seen you present this information before and it was better then.” Although I had tried to present different aspects of my study and findings that I had not previously presented on, apparently I had failed to make the presentation different enough.
Lesson 5: Mentorship and support are still important. Dissertation writing can be an isolating experience. When I was writing my dissertation, I wrote regularly on my own, but I quickly learned that mentorship from my adviser and committee members and support from peers and other colleagues were instrumental in my success. Once a month I participated in writing sessions, dubbed WriteOn!, which involved other graduate students and faculty writing at someone’s house, generally for about 8 hours on a Saturday. Although we were all writing on our own, the idea that three, four, five, or more other people were writing at that time created a sense of accountability and support. Since finishing my program, I have participated in many of these monthly writing sessions. At first, the doctoral students asked me why I would continue to participate, even after finishing my dissertation, but now there are a number of other recent graduates who take part in the sessions. It is through my involvement in WriteOn! that I have had an opportunity to informally mentor several of the current students in my graduate program. Although my continued involvement in WriteOn! was originally selfish – I was hoping to write several articles – the unintended mentorship and support that have developed have become increasingly important. Monthly writing sessions continue to provide me with an opportunity to focus on my writing, but these session have also allowed me to “pay forward” some of the guidance and support that was instrumental in my ability to complete my graduate program.
Lesson 6: There is always more to learn. Yes, even after graduate school, there is more to learn. The last year has been characterized by highs and lows. While the process of earning my graduate degree was invigorating, humbling, and transformational; facing rejection, making the transition back to the “real world,” and continuing to grow and evolve as a professional have also been important. I consider myself to be a recovering graduate student; a status that I no longer use as an excuse, not even when someone asks me why I have never seen "Lost." Rather, I am proud to still be in touch with my experiences as a graduate student, and most of all, I am proud to still be learning about life and myself as a person and academic. As I conclude my first year, I have no idea what the next year will bring, but I am happy to make the transition from my first year.
Stephanie M. Foote is director of the Academic Success Center and First-Year Experience at the University of South Carolina at Aiken.