The final suggestion I offered in the previous post in this series was that graduate students should not expect to be overjoyed when their dissertation is finished, but I said nothing about what graduate students can expect after they’ve finished their dissertation. So what is post-dissertation life like?
In the short term, you’ll probably feel some sense of relief. From recent PhDs I have spoken to, this feeling is pretty common. It’s not just that you’re freed from the burden of dissertation work – though that’s obviously part of the story – but rather that you’re freed from the burden of graduate school. Think for a moment about how many hoops you have to jump through to get a PhD: course requirements, teaching assignments, comprehensive examinations, a language requirement, the dissertation, and perhaps more. You have some flexibility with regard to how you meet some of these requirements, but it’s often fairly limited. As a teaching assistant, for instance, you are unlikely to have much input in assigned readings or methods of assessment that are used in the class; the professor will usually make those judgments without your input. As another example, you don’t have much (if any) say in what graduate courses are offered each term, and in smaller programs, course offerings could be fairly limited.
It’s a safe bet that some of these requirements won’t seem so burdensome, since you’re likely to enjoy fulfilling some of them, but after toiling away at them for the better part of a decade, you will be ready to be done with them. The first day you wake up and realize you have no graduate school requirements on the agenda can bring a sense of relaxation that hasn’t been felt in a long time.
That being said, do not expect the semester after your defense to be easy, assuming that you’re pursuing long-term academic employment. Most people end up in a temporary position for their first job, so there’s not a ton of time to relax before you’re back to polishing job applications and trying to add to your CV. Some experience a post-dissertation slump, often as a result of no longer having a grand project that demands their attention and provides structure to their priorities. Even if that doesn’t happen to you, it’s safe to say that your workload won’t significantly lighten after the dissertation concludes. In some respects (e.g., increased teaching responsibilities), your first position will likely require more work than what you were required to do as a graduate student.
Nevertheless, even without feeling overjoyed at the completion of your dissertation or being freed from the labors of academic life, completing the dissertation still provides a persistent source of gratification over time. Most of the good feelings associated with academic achievements do not come from immediate euphoria or the ongoing process of their completion. (This is true even in cases where portions of that process are enjoyable: I generally like writing, but this enjoyment is easily overwhelmed by tedium when addressing a revise-and-resubmit verdict or preparing a manuscript for submission to its third or fourth venue.) Instead, the satisfaction that comes from most academic achievements is a stable, gradually accumulating sense of accomplishment. The dissertation, so far as I can tell, is not an exception to this rule.
You’re not likely to feel much different after you graduate, but the change sinks in over time. It’s the little things – a new line in the email signature, a different kind of respect from other members in the profession, or that odd feeling when a student calls you “Dr.” and you realize it’s no longer inaccurate. The PhD is also the kind of achievement that can never be taken away. Even if your life drifts away from philosophy – into another profession, for instance – you’ll still be a doctor and still have seen that project to completion.
Missing out on that feeling – that sense of being done – is the main reason I regard ABD attrition as such a tragedy. Perhaps I’m just too much of a completionist, but leaving projects unfinished bothers me tremendously, even when they’re projects that I don’t enjoy a whole lot. My hope is that this series provides a little guidance for those who may struggle to get their dissertations done, so that they don’t later have to wonder how they might have finished it or how doing so might have altered their life plans. Perhaps it also helps to know that there are some meaningful rewards (independent of employment prospects) awaiting at the end.
In any case, if you’ve read through the entire series to this point, then you’ve probably done enough reflecting on how to finish your dissertation. You know what you need to do. Now go get it done.