On Not Being a PhD Student Anymore

I’ve got a (relatively long-term in the world of academia) grown up job; hoorah! After my PhD finished I had a 6 month contract working as a Research Assistant, that contract ended just before Christmas meaning I could head off on my Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship travels. Now I’m back in the UK and looking at career steps that are hopefully a bit more stable.

I’ve been working as a Research Fellow for a month now, and I’ve had a few friends who are in the final stages of beavering away at their PhDs ask what it’s like to not be a student. Personally I hadn’t really put much thought into it before anyone had asked – probably because I’m working with the same (wonderful) team as I was before, and I have been focussing on learning how to my job and getting back into some semblance of normal life after a few months gallivanting across time zones.. Anyway, I figured it was time to reflect on how things have changed (or not) since leaving finally student life behind at the age of 26.

Image from Cristina Vanko’s 100 Days of Adulting project

First up, I’d just like to confirm that the rumours are true; there is life after a PhD, and it is entirely possible to not be a student.

 

When you’re in the thick of it, it can feel overwhelming and never-ending, but it does come to an end and you absolutely can graduate. Lots of people have done it before you, and people will do it after you; but it takes grit and resilience. I’ve spoken before about my hope of staying in academic research, and for now at least, that’s going well – my current contract will keep me in employment until 2021.

The main difference between my role now and my role as a Research Assistant, is that I’m now leading a project rather than supporting other researchers across lots of different ones. In that sense it feels a lot like when I was doing the PhD; I have a main project to focus on, and then a few little ones bubbling away in the background. If I’m honest, I much prefer that set up than Research Assistant life – I found working across lots of different things without leading any of them quite difficult, I felt like I lacked focus because my work was so varied. Now my days are still varied, but not too varied if you know what I mean? The work is substantial enough for me to get my teeth into, but there’s also some nice bits of what I think of as ‘snack-y’ work for me to do to keep me on my toes.

I think the only real difference between working in an actual grown up job and being a PhD student, is that people seem to take you a bit more seriously (I’m cringing just typing that, but I think it’s true… eeeek!). When I say ‘people’ I don’t mean my colleagues at work, I mean everyone else. I’ve shed the badge of student that I’ve carried around with me for so long, and it feels like people now view me as a ‘Researcher’ because I work for a University. My own perception was that I was a Researcher when I was doing my PhD, but maybe that’s not normal? I don’t know.
The best example of this was when my partner was updating our details for council tax recently. He asked what my job title was, and I said Research Fellow, and he did a sort of double take and said ‘seriously, I thought you were a Researcher?’. I explained that when someone asks me what I do, ‘Researcher’ is what I use – it’s more descriptive, and the ‘Fellow’ literally adds nothing but jargon and a weird air of self-importance. The response I got to that? ‘Yea, but Research Fellow sounds so much more of a big deal, like woah, you’re a Research Fellow, that’s pretty cool.’

Anna Borges / BuzzFeed / Via buzzfeed.com

It’s weird how a job title can make people think differently of you, more often than not they take you more seriously as soon as you no longer reply ‘student’, and that’s felt very strange to me over the past few weeks. I still feel like a giant baby, I am still outraged when I’m expected to pay bills on a regular basis (I’m only half joking; seriously, it’s relentless – every month?!), and I still call my Mum when something of note happens because I’m largely clueless as to how to deal with things that grown ups do (see the point above where my partner was dealing with the council tax..).

Adulting is hard, and not having the safety net of the student title takes away a whole lot of leeway when it comes to screwing up and not knowing stuff (I have no proof of that, that’s just my perception). Now it feels like people think I know shit when in actual fact I feel like I know less than I ever have? Anyway, I’m going to end this post now before I continue to waffle on about how growing up is an absolute con. Please tell me I’m not alone here?!

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