Published on 2012/10/29

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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Readers Comments

Phil Jackson 2012/10/29 at 10:00 am

Words of support for PhDs out there greatly appreciated. I think this article points to a more fundamental question though. I see academics struggling to find jobs, struggling to put their PhDs to good use, and I wonder: Is doing a doctorate a waste of time? Is it becoming irrelevant? Some would argue that without industry experience, a PhD is meaningless. Others would say that our current PhD programs aren’t teaching the right kind of skills that translate to the real world…not every doctorate-holder wants to or should have to be a lecturer, and their education should set them up for other opportunities. I have a friend with a PhD in English Literature who told me: a Master’s degree is useful, and will give you a boost in a hiring process…but a PhD is a disadvantage. It gives the impression that you are out of touch. I wonder if this is a problem or a question that other PhD holders struggle with?

Rhonda White 2012/10/29 at 2:10 pm

Not all PhDs are just straight paths to academia– increasingly all over the world, there are exciting PhD programs emerging in various fields that prepare students for not just publishing papers, but working, entering the world of high level research, and contributing to real, concrete challenges going on in the world. Of course, that’s not to say that there is not a place for pure academia; I think that is it of the utmost importance that a society guard the right to education for education’s sake, and the miniscule percentage of the population that wants to pursue that right all the way to their doctorate– the “academics” of our world– should be allowed and encouraged to do so.

Simon Quattlebaum 2012/10/29 at 4:43 pm

A very timely article that leads to timeless discussions regarding the after-doctorate proces! As a doctoral student in the research phase just before writing the final two chapters, I do understand the process some may choose to g through. I say ‘choose’ because if one pursued a doctorate as badge or simply to be able to hang a shingle, the process of which you speak is inherent. Hence, it’s important one maintains a connection to the real world through enjoying family, friends, creating new connections and hanging with those with like minds (among other positive situations. One’s maturity level has a lot to do with how one perceives the end of a doctoral journey! As an mature adult, I knew what I was getting into before taking the leap.
I could go on and on!

In short, it’s a great article that conjured up some great thought and consideration for me and others with whom I will share this article!

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/10/29 at 4:51 pm

Thanks for the feedback, Phil Jackson. The part of your comment that resonated with me most was, “…a PhD is a disadvantage. It gives the impression you are out of touch.”

I have to wonder to whom it gives that impression?

In the corporate world skills are valued to make other people money and I think that’s where the Master’s Degree comes in strong. They are specialists in specific topics and hence ‘income generators’ for their employers. Master’s are knowledge consumers. However, I usually see PhD’s as ‘game changers’ who are knowledge creators and therefore have this inner drive to create something that is new and usable by the corporate sector.

I would have to ask if you see those who are highly educated at a disadvantage because of the divergence in their self-proclaimed fields and subsequent choices of employment execution…

Keep it coming!

Dr. Heidi Maston

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/10/29 at 4:56 pm

Excellent point, Rhonda White!

“Society gaurd the right to education for education’s sake.”

This is the crossroads I find myself at when I am writing and speaking on technology and the corporate/university dance. Which one is feeding the other?

I see technology companies driving their product right down the throat of the university folks and being quite vocal about ‘the next best cure for what is wrong with education.’ Then I see the university trying to keep its head about the financial waterline and cater to the corporate world by attempting to tailor their students to the ‘next best thing’ in corporate demand.

In the midst of all this, both sides are complaining about eachother. It’s like 7th grade all over again.

So where does the purist academic stand? What is the motivation for one to be education for education’s sake? Is it a dwindling nuace in this new era of competition? Can it be saved?


Dr. Heidi Maston

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/10/29 at 5:01 pm

Thanks, Simon Quattlebaum, for your ‘in the trenches report!’

I would like to say that most of the new Doctors I’ve encountered have the level of self-actualized maturity you do. Really… I’d be all over that in a heartbeat. However, I’d say the numbers are more in the 60 no/ 40 yes category. Connection to ones network seems to be the strongest impact of success post graduation. I’ve seen recent grads just blow up their networks and launch verbal grenades to the people who just helped them through the maze. I’ve also seen recent grads who went belly down. The most impressive ones where those who celebrated, had their ducks in a row and danced with the people who taught them the beat. It’s, as you say, a choice.

What is your Dissertation topic?

Dr. Heidi Maston

Simon Quattlebaum 2012/10/30 at 9:09 am

Thanks for your response Dr. Maston! (It has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it). Fortunately, I am almost at the start of my research which talks about evaluating professional development with. The field of education. As a teacher, I find that evaluating professional development doesn’t go far enough to assist teachers in finding their learning styles, discuss the theory of age and sages of adult education nor seriously evaluate the effect the lack of serious evaluation has on learners in the classroom.

Regarding the bhe low up of bridges, it would appear that would be the last situation one would like to find themselves! But I would be niece in thinking that it does not occurr. Yet, it would appear important at the doctoral level where one would focus ore on networks and keeping their backgrounds McLean of ‘soot and ash’, I.e., not burning their bridges….

Tanks again for moving this discussion to the front! For certain, it has brought light to something I’d never even considered!

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/10/30 at 10:22 am

Thanks Simon!

I think your final sentence speaks volumes: “…brought to light something I’d never even considered.”

When I starting poking around on this ‘hunch’ (as I often do… curious creature that I am) I was a bit shocked that the feedback was the same. Nearly everybody had ‘this story.’ Then I stopped poking and began getting serious with a bigger stick. Yep… there was a trend developing so I went with it. A few months later, here we are.

It is something no one talks about because, as I’ve discovered, there seems to be this isolationistic type of shame involved with being a Dr. and not having it all sorted out – immediately, from day one, and in top form. But, as a very popular program likes to champion: Knowing you have a problem is half the battle.

Dr. Heidi Maston

Sam Miller 2012/11/14 at 7:26 pm

Dear Dr. Maston,
Thank you for your wise and valuable article. I recently finished my Ph.D. In Clinical Psychology and am happily engaged in my post doc and prep for licensure exams. Viva lifelong learning!
Sam Miller, Ph.D, Th.D.

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