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When you begin your doctoral journey, one day keeps you going: the day someone calls you “Doctor” for the first time. Defending your dissertation, while incredibly stress inducing, is an exciting event, because it means you have finally reached the finish line. All the blood, sweat and tears (both literal and figurative) were worth the joy you get to experience once it’s all over.
But what no one ever warns you is that, once you come down from your champagne-soaked high, the fact that it actually is all over will hit you like a ton of bricks. Of course, you’ll love being Dr. _____ (insert last name here), but you’ll also wake up one day and realize that you have no idea who that person is. And as ludicrous as it may sound to those who have never experienced it, you will actually begin to grieve your life as a student.
During my program, not only did being a student become part of my identity, it became the only part of me that I acknowledged. I no longer knew what it meant to be a daughter, a friend, a sister or even a person -- at least not outside the academy. And no, this wasn’t something I did on purpose. I woke up one day, and my name was no longer Angel. It was, “Hi, my name is Angel, I’m in the inequality in education Ph.D. program and my research interests are centered on the experiences of Black and brown students with racial microaggressions at historically white institutions.” All said in one breath, without hesitation. That was because, during the Ph.D. process, you are no longer a person. You are a program, a year and a dissertation topic. It’s your temporary inmate ID until your dissertation committee releases you from academic prison. And although I hated that in the beginning, I eventually embraced it -- unknowingly yet wholeheartedly.
So because being a student became who and what I was, when I woke up as something else, I didn’t know what to do. Not only had I become well versed in the art of being a student, I had worked my butt off to figure it out. I battled impostor syndrome, ANOVA and the infamous Chapter 2 to get to the other side, but the grass definitely didn’t seem greener. Being called “Dr. Jones” sounded great, but it wasn’t able to drown out the “So, now what?” that constantly rang in my head.
And to make matters worse, I wasn’t the only person asking myself that question. In the most well-intentioned way possible, everyone around me also wanted to know. And while I completely understood their curiosity, it only added to me feeling lost.
How could I possibly think about what was next when I was still grieving what was? And as a first-generation student, my accomplishment meant even more to the people around me, so I battled my depression in silence because I didn’t want to ruin their joy and sense of pride. I also couldn’t yet talk to my friends that I had gone through the process with, because I was the first to finish and complaining about my feelings felt selfish and inconsiderate.
So when I wasn’t dealing with feelings of grief and sadness, I was struggling with guilt and shame. And I can assure you, none of it was in the brochure or the student handbook. I had no idea it was coming, and I paid the price for it.
Tackling the Problem
Before providing suggestions on how to prepare for the inevitable, I have to address the ways in which the academy contributes to the mental and emotional turmoil that students experience both before and after they complete their degrees. First, professors need to stop perpetuating the cycle of trauma by breaking down students with the goal of rebuilding them. Just because you were hazed during your doctoral process doesn’t mean you have to haze the next generation. Not only is this not beneficial academically, but it’s also harmful psychologically. Students wouldn’t have to struggle with a personal and academic identity crisis if they weren’t constantly caused to question who they were. This selfish behavior speaks more to the unaddressed insecurity of the professor than the capabilities of the student.
Second, it is important for universities to teach students that it is possible to develop their researcher identity without sacrificing the rest of themselves. For example, I always felt that parts of me weren’t “appropriate” in academic spaces, such as being an activist or a poet, yet I was eventually able to see that not only did I not have to discard those aspects of my identity, but I could also actually use them to make my research more impactful. While the academy may claim to value originality, its current practices reveal a desire for conformity and compliance.
As a result, students are left grappling with academic Stockholm syndrome that causes them to believe that they are incapable of surviving outside the four walls of their institution. Sending unequipped students to navigate potentially harmful terrain is irresponsible, especially when the challenges are foreseeable.
We know they may struggle with transitioning from student to scholar. We know that a successful dissertation defense won’t suddenly cure them of impostor syndrome. We also know that the academy, especially for marginalized scholars, will not suddenly embrace them because they have added letters to the end of their name. Equipping students to conduct meaningful research is important, but we also need to prepare them for the mental and emotional impact of their experiences.
What I Wish I’d Known
Even on my most optimistic days, I know academe won’t change overnight, so, in the meantime, I want to share the things I wish I had known. First, know who you were before the program and whom you want to be when you finish, aside from having “Doctor” added to your name. When coaching my students, I often tell them to remember their “why”: the reason they started the program to begin with. That said, the “why” is irrelevant if you lose the “who” in the process.
Second, please know that your dissertation does not define you. Your self-worth is not measured in participants, pages or citations. Not only will you survive the process, but you will continue to succeed once it’s over.
Third, know that you don’t have to have the rest of your life figured out the day after you defend. No one, other than maybe yourself, expects you to wake up on day two and suddenly have all the answers. As a matter of fact, even the most senior scholars will tell you that they still have moments of uncertainty. So instead of beating yourself up for not knowing what’s next, take some time to breathe and reacquaint yourself with who you are. You held your breath for several years, and now it’s time to give yourself permission to exhale.
Last, reflect on what you want. Too often, we get so swept up in the expectations of the academy that we don’t take the time to make the distinction between what we want to do and what we’re expected to do. Figuring this out, and being firm in your decision, will save you a lot of heartache down the road.