I thought there would be a parade…Life after doctoral study

After nearly five years of hard work, frustration, setbacks, and anxiety, I completed the final requirement to earning my PhD by defending my dissertation in July 2014. The moment I had been simultaneously anticipating and dreading played out in less than an hour as I confidently presented my research and addressed questions from my committee and the attendees. Beyond the obvious realization that the journey was over, I was struck by how solitary the experience truly was at that moment; what had consumed my life for several years transpired while life went on for others and my achievement was mine alone. I suppose I thought that life would pause for everyone and there would be a parade in my honor. Unfortunately, there was no parade (not even balloons) and I was now faced with moving on and identifying new opportunities and learning experiences.

For me, the primary attraction of pursuing a doctoral degree in psychology was its versatility and utility in work settings outside of academe. In 2009, approximately one in five recent psychology doctoral recipients was working in a non-academic or non-direct human service position. As one of those individuals neither pursuing an academic job nor a career requiring postdoctoral training for licensure, there was an abruptness to the end of graduate study and entry to the professional world inspired anxiety demanding the development of skills to manage the transition. With fewer  psychology tenure-track positions available and growing breadth of options for non-academic careers, my story and experience is one most likely shared by other recent psychology doctorate recipients. Here are my top 5 recommendations for transition from doctoral study to career:

Talk it out and reconnect

The transition from being a student into the real world was difficult; I missed the interactions with colleagues in my cohort and I felt their absence. It was time to reconnect with my husband who was my patient cheerleader throughout the journey and converse about topics other than MANOVA, t-tests, correlations, and gender roles. I was honest with my therapist about the sadness I was feeling and how I was struggling with direction. Having these feelings acknowledged meant a great deal and helped me to identify solutions.

Find a new challenge

How to keep my mind active? I played the piano and oboe as a child so the interest in music was there, so why not try the violin? I signed up for lessons at the local arts academy and rediscovered my childhood (in addition to the shame I felt when I didn’t practice enough).

Rediscover old pleasures

I’ve always been a voracious reader, but doctoral studies and work left no time for pleasure reading; there was no such thing as a break while writing a dissertation. A number of titles had accumulated over five years and I dove in (and purchased some new ones) and I’ll confess: There’s no shame in catching up on young adult literature.

Professional development

Since I was already in my career and formal postdoc opportunities and licensure were not required, I sought out ways to utilize my expertise and knowledge. Thankfully, I was invited to serve on a review panel for fellowship applicants. Interacting with colleagues from other scientific disciplines and learning about exciting research from others afforded me a surprising avenue for networking. I’m excited to be returning for another year.

Repair yourself

Stress, poor eating habits (mac and cheese), lack of exercise, and wine resulted in gaining 15 pounds as a doctoral student. I used the time to make adjustments to my lifestyle and reengage in physical activity that I enjoyed: running, spinning, and swimming. The weight came off and I felt stronger and prepared to move forward.

I know that I can’t be the only one who struggled with the transition from graduate study to real life.

What kinds of strategies did you find helpful after you completed your postdoctoral study?

About the Author

Daniel Michalski, PhD
Daniel’s diverse experiences as a workforce/pipeline researcher and accreditation policy analyst uniquely position him to share his perspectives on psychology education and training. Having presented at regional and national conferences, as well as at invited lectures, Daniel intends to contribute regularly to this blog and participate in an ongoing conversation about the leading issues within the discipline and profession. He earned his Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, a Master of Public Administration from the University of Colorado Denver, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Economics from the University of Colorado at Boulder. When not satisfying his hedonistic professional and academic curiosities, Daniel is happiest in the bright sun; either a Florida beach or a Colorado ski slope.