Life after defense

Finishing a PhD is not easy: a truism if ever there was one.

I started grad school on September 6th, 2006 (2455 days ago), defended on February 13th (105 days ago), submitted on May 10th (18 days ago) and graduated on May 20th (8 days ago.)  When people talk about how hard it is to finish a PhD, many of them mean in terms of time – I’ve been in school for my entire life (barring those first pre-ambulatory years) and in grad school for fully a quarter of my life.  It’s a long, at times grueling process.

I don’t have word or page counts for everything I’ve written in the last seven years, though I’m sure the numbers are also staggeringly high.  When I finally put together my dissertation pdf, I was amazed that it was over 200 pages long.  I didn’t remember writing 200 pages, but there it was, seven years’ worth of thinking, (somewhat) neatly arranged in 283 pages of text.  This is another one of the ways in which finishing might be seen to be difficult, producing a book-length manuscript, and particularly producing a book-length manuscript for the first time might be considered by many to be a difficult undertaking.

Both of these senses of not-easyness certainly felt true to me, but for the past few months, when I’ve talked about finishing being difficult, I’ve meant something else entirely – and something that I think we don’t talk about very much.  Because the whole graduate school experiences culminates in that final defense/submission/hooding, there’s very little conversation about what it means to put behind you – however briefly – a project that’s defined your life for the better part of 5 or 6 or 7 or 8 or more years.  There’s very little conversation about how difficult it is to leave a formative intellectual community – a community of scholars, but also of friends and conspirators and supporters.  And there’s very little conversation about what seems to be – from an informal survey of my friends and mentors – of how to grapple with loving a project, but kind of hating the form that the dissertation took, if only because it’s really only after we’ve finished this iteration that we can see the changes we want to make for the book.

All of this is, of course, tempered by pride at being finished, by the post-defense “oh my gosh I get to sign things PhD” and (hopefully) but the giddy apprehension of starting a new job, but between my defense and now, I’ve often found myself thinking that a kind of post-grad school support structure would be a good idea, and that frank discussions about what it means to launch ourselves into the world – for many of us, for the first time – as non-students, wouldn’t undermine all of that joy one bit, but would make the leaving a little less bitter and a bit more sweet.

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