From PhD to Here: Towards a Life outside of Academia

This May will mark my second #withaphd anniversary, and with it, the second year since I began to move away from academia and towards some kind of postac life with a PhD that has nothing to do with teaching or academic research. While I still currently work as an adjunct instructor, much as changed since the day I crossed the stage to pick up that diploma.

For one, I am no longer in that immobilizing period that is often called post-dissertation slump or post-dissertation blues. I am at home with myself in the space I am now, and I am comfortable talking about why I am leaving academia. Moreover, behind the scenes, I have been working on a business that (fingers crossed) I hope to launch this spring (when I get there, I promise to write about it).

In this blog post, I want to share some tips and tools that have helped me over the past couple years as I have transitioned from uncertainty towards a spirit of exploration and potential. I learned many of these tips from others that came before me, and I write in spirit of helping all those who might where I was a couple years ago.

1) Post-dissertation anxiety and uncertainty may feel isolating, but it’s common. Talking to others can make you feel less alone.

I think for many of us (certainly me!) the post-dissertation anxiety hits long before the dissertation is done, as we contemplate what could possibly come next after this gigantic, energy draining, project is done. It doesn’t help that faculty, advisors, and some students within our community have a set of research/faculty expectations about what we should be doing as soon as we graduate. Even before I had graduated, I found it helpful to connect with others who had already crossed that threshold and were working through these challenges. I sought out advice from alumni in my department. I chatted and learned from friends (including Smart Women Write co-author Tanya) who had charted their own paths. I also read blogs by authors – some anonymous, some not – who were willing to open up about their own doubts.

2) Try connecting to an online community

Over the past couple years I have found Twitter to be an especially useful space for connecting to other PhDs who, like me, are interested in some kind of alt-ac or post-ac career. On twitter, I have met people finishing their degrees, people in that transitional period like me, adjuncts, career coaches, writers, journalists, public historians and public scientists, art critics…the list goes on and on. Many write on blogs. Some have developed other means to share their experiences.

If you are less familiar with the twitter landscape, a good place to start is to try the hashtags #withaphd #altac or #postac. Every other Monday, Lisa Munro co-leads an online chat on a specific topic using the #withaphd hashtag. If you are on the fence about what you are doing and just want to connect to other scholars online, you might be interested in the #scholarsunday hashtag started by Raul Pacheco-Vega with the explicit goal of developing an online community of scholars. Another helpful starting point? Career coach Jen Polk (who founded the #withaphd chat) runs a blog that includes interviews of PhDs in all kinds of careers (many of those interviewed are also on twitter). Recently, a trio of scientists with the handles @ @ and @ started the podcast Recovering Academic about their transition out of academia (you don’t have to be a scientist to find this engaging and useful!)

3) Consider low-cost online conferences/workshops to see if your post-dissertation blues are burn out or something else.

A month or so after graduation, I signed up for an online feminist scholarship workshop at the online digital humanities hub HASTAC to try to workshop an old paper of mine that I had thought about turning into an article. It was free, I met some other scholars, I received feedback ,and I was able to work on helping others improve their work. This was insightful for me. Through the experience, I realized I liked editing others’ work more than my own project. I also realized that it wasn’t writing so much as academic writing – with its particular conventions and culture – that I didn’t like. If you are on the fence about what to do next, an online conference like this one might be a useful tool for you too.

4) If you are adjuncting to make ends meet while you figure out what to do next, consider trying to find ways to minimize your workload.

Ever since I realized that I definitely don’t want to be an academic, I’ve been making steps to reduce the stress load of adjunct teaching. This began with the simple act of telling myself that this is just a job that will pay me the same no matter how much work I put into it. I’m not suggesting a person should slack slack off. But for me, anyway, I have found that this cleared-eyed approach has helped me to keep my priorities in check.

Other ways of reducing work have included streamlining my email communications -that terrible time suck that can zap my energy. Following a colleague’s lead, I include a section on my syllabi where I state up front that I a) don’t necessarily check email on weekends; and b) need at least 24 hours to respond. I have also worked long enough at my university that I could request that they assign me courses I have taught before. Not possible for everyone I realize, but it’s worth a try!

5) Try things out! Experiment! And think of failures as learning experiences.

HASTAC is only one example of a project that I have tried over the past couple years. Another is a blog called The Art and Place Blog that I co-created with a colleague in urban studies over a year and a half ago. The project didn’t work out, but I learned a lot about writing and collaboration from the project. Last year, I also briefly tried my hand at career coaching, and discovered that wasn’t quite right for me. Heck, this blog is an experiment. So is the blog I co-created with my brother about my rural upbringing.

Academic culture tends to celebrate expertise more than growth. That can be terribly immobilizing right after you finish that dissertation and have to start something new. This spirit of “try” has been crucial for my “academic recovery,” as it were. When I adopt this attitude of “just try” I worry less about perfection.


As I have been writing out this post, I realize that these tips are just a start. There’s so much I could say, for example, about the value of seeking friendships outside the PhD bubble and learning through them. There’s MUCH to be said about self care too. But to return to my first point, the good news is that there’s a great community of PhDs out there to find all kinds of useful discussions on these topics and more.  I am grateful to all who have written rants, reflections, and triumphs; who have opened up about their concerns and their doubts; who have sat with me over coffee or drinks as we commiserate….and dream and plan. Thank you all you wonderful people out there #withaphds.

Finally, in that spirit of learning and growth, I hope you’ll share any tips or resources in the comments here! Thanks!

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