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Congratulations, You Are a Doctor! Now What?

Earning a doctoral degree can be immediately exhilarating, but new graduates should expect to go through a short recovery process.

You have finally done the big “IT”! You pushed through the years of hard work, the self-doubt, the angst, and the exhaustion to finally be at the end of the journey. You are now a Doctor! Your family is proud, your friends are proud and you are grinning ear to ear (or as much as you can grin after the adrenal gland twitching subsides from your Doctoral Defense). But nonetheless, you made it. Welcome to the less-than-one percent.

The world is ready to embrace you and your new shiny degree with unlimited options, faith, and hero parades as you dance through the door of any organization lucky enough to have caught your attention. You are the new Muse on the block and you will be showered with untold riches for your journey. You don’t have to say, “Hire me!” – Baby, they’ll be throwing the jobs at you!

How we all wish that was true! But it’s not. Not even close. Here is what really happens:

  1. Doctoral degree completed.
  2. Graduation ceremony (if you can afford to attend it).
  3. Student Loan bills arrive before your printed Dissertation.
  4. You look around and realize that life kept moving while you were on this journey and you have missed a lot.
  5. You realized you have a lot of free time and your mind gets antsy.
  6. The projection/depression/void cycle starts and you burn bridges.
  7. You wonder if it was all worth it.
  8. You find your power and you soar!

Nobody warns you of the reality of all the emotional fall out of the post-Doctoral process. That is, until now. I am here to share, help, and provide direction for your next journey. You are welcome.

Just as I was approaching the finishing date of my Doctoral degree, a Doctoral friend gave me some wise words, “Heidi, the first six months are difficult. You will be exhausted, anxious, and sort of lost. It is okay. Just do not make any big or rash decisions.” Of course I was delighted, if not a bit fearful, to get a view from the other side. And, being me, I thought I would have this nipped in 30 days flat. No six months for this Doctor – I was special! Oh how wrong I was!

Strategic plan: Steps one through four

Of the items listed above, one through four hit me like the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and it was a train. Like clockwork, the completion, ceremony, student loans, and life check-in all came within the first week. There was no time to gather thoughts or reflect. While I had been working so intently on the goal, the other side of that objective had been busy with its own agenda and it was time to face it head on. I did but with a bit of irritation. I, after all, wanted to feel special just a bit longer. Sorry, said the world, life goes on.

Recovery: Steps five through eight

Numbers five through eight come once steps one through four are taken care of. Hopefully they come sooner rather than later so that they can be worked through. Let me describe the process.

In number five, you have the wake-up call that comes from the completion of a project. You suddenly realize how singularly focused you had become on The Dissertation. It is your friend, your enemy, your love-interest, and now you’ve parted ways. You were, at one point, convinced it would change the world and you put your heart and soul into it. However, by chapters four and five you (most likely) just wanted it done. That is okay. That is normal. It is part of the process but now you have all this time on your hands. What to do?

If you have not maintained a professional presence in your field, now is the time to get moving. Use your energy to re-establish your networks, publications, speaking engagements, etc. Put yourself out there as the Doctor that you are and do not hold back. A lot of no’s have to happen before any yes’s will come your way and no one will be throwing themselves on your doorstep if they do not know you live there. Advertise yourself.

In number six I speak directly to the emotions of the post-Doctoral experience: projection, depression, and emptiness. Becoming a Doctor is a wonderful benchmark and worth the highs of the celebration, however it is also a lot like losing someone and may bring to light the stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance are all part of the graduation process. While some may experience only a few of these, others run the gauntlet, and sometimes many laps.

What is crucial to keep it mind during this highly emotional time is not to burn bridges: particularly with those who assisted you in the process. As you find yourself with a lot of time on your hands, and you are in the stages of grief, it is easy to point fingers rather than recognize that what you are experiencing is all part of the journey. Sit tight with yourself and keep your emotions in check. People helped because they believed in you and they will continue to help you through the transition process if you let them. Let them.

Step seven brings you closer to the tipping point of your journey. As you question whether it was all worth it, look around and do some serious life introspection work. Make the before and after charts and see the patterns, skill sets, abilities you have gained during this journey. Validate yourself to yourself. You will find it was indeed worth it. Own it. Roll around in the grass a bit, giggle, then get up and find a place to be useful. Go there.

A quick interjection is needed at this point. One of the greatest bits of advice I have ever received was this: Do not promise people the universe. Promise them one star but deliver three. They will think you are a genius and follow you anywhere. Thank you, Doctor Yolanda Gayol for that (and you thought I wasn’t listening). If you have not been delivering stars to your network (as you should have been while in the program, but that is another topic) now is the time to commit. Shine. Deliver. Grow.

Finally, in step eight you will find your power and you will grow. As you grow and make contributions to your chosen field, you will find some interesting things begin to happen. The pain of the process, the uncertainty of the aftermath, and the rewards of the future become manageable, minimized, and tangible – in that order. It all gets real.

No one talks about the after time of the Doctoral process. No one really seems to know, and if they do, they are not sharing. It is as if there is a secret club, handshake, or jacket that you have to be aware of before you get the inside peek. I think that is silly and horribly counter-productive. So I am providing you with a back stage guest pass to your immediate future as a Doctor… shine on!

Peace and good choices.

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