It took a while to get over the PhD. So many years of focus and a sense of purpose. When it came to an end, I wasn't prepared for the vacuum. Sure, some had said there would be an anti-climax and even a lull and this was understandable, but I had no idea just how severe the fall would be. It made sense that an adjustment would be needed, but it all seemed to be abstract until it had to be felt and experienced. That could only happen when it had come to an end.
Thinking back, undoubtably, it was an experience of many contradictions. Certainly, towards the end, there is a strong and all-encompassing urge to complete the project. It seems to be an absurd duration of time to work on a single project and this is amplified when doing it as a part-time candidate. Anyone who has undertaken a PhD will undoubtably relate to the feelings of frustration at being asked by everyone in their life: 'so when are you going to finish...?', or, 'what is it about?'. You just want to escape these questions! To be free. But essentially, the process is one of growth, however incremental. Early on in the journey, one of the reasons I justified doing a PhD was to establish a framework that would allow me to continue to learn and to challenge myself. Certainly, it was this, and the learning touched ways that I could not have anticipated. Absolutely, one of the most profound elements of the journey was the way that it challenged the underpinnings of knowledge itself. In my own case, this meant a reassessment of all notions of knowledge, relations of knowledge to power and apparent certainty.
At this point, it has been a journey of privilege, and one that has been taken alongside the grace of so many generous people, especially my supervisors, the participants of the project, and the support network, both formally and informally who were there and who, probably without even realising it, were often the essential links that meant just being able to continue.
The reality of it was that it was an eight-year project and one that had become all consuming. On top of the project itself, there was trying to hold down a full-time job, caring responsibilities and to balance out the intense cognitive demand, an obsession with cycling (with over 80,000 kilometers riden, or a kilometer per word). The load eventuated into something that seemed like it was ordinary and could go on indefinitely. It became normalised and routine and perhaps if I had not stopped, I could still be moving at that level. The truth is, I did stop and looked around, and had some space to consider what was next. That was about the time when it all began to unravel.
At first, there was the incredible elation at having made it to the end. Then came the realisation that it was not really the end of anything, but only the beginning, or at least merely a part of a journey of becoming a researcher. In fact, what it really meant for me was the end of having an identity. You see, while I was doing a PhD, I could say to myself and others, 'I'm a PhD candidate'. That was what I was. I had a definite purpose and identity. Maybe this sounds trivial, but there was a sense of assurance in feeling that I was at least involved in something that could be easily identified as beneficial and potentially worthwhile. It might have seemed crazy to take on this level of study while working full time, but I was doing it, and the jury was out until I finished it at least. What I did not realise until the end was that without a definite career or role that was strongly connected to my research at the end, the completion of my studies also meant the end of an identity and with this the termination of a sense of purpose.
This ending was not the whole story. It was compounded by the acute sense and personal impression of my work being utterly futile and its outcome being so muted and meaningless. It was as it seemed, the complete realisation of the fact that I did not belong in this world of the researcher. It was the untainted actualisation of the imposter. Rather than the sense of not belonging dissipating when I completed my work, it became amplified and total. What was the point of it all? So many years devoted to a project and this was all that I found? It seemed so insignificant and that it could mean nothing of importance to anyone. I was ashamed for my participants, who had invested their time and given me their trust. What I had found seemed to have no potential meaning or relevance for them. In reality, it had taken so long to produce the findings, that the world had moved on, changed and they were no longer important. This was a big blow and made me feel ashamed of the work. Keeping going with my day job and its routine was torturous. It had nothing to do with my research and it was incredibly hard to concentrate and find meaning in work that was so abstract, bureaucratic and diffuse.
Who knows if everyone that has done a PhD feels this way? Perhaps not. Maybe it is folly to admit it and so many seem to go on to seem so invincible and wonderful: chest beating and bragging on social media about how fantastic their achievements are. Am I envious of them? Not so much. It's more like a feeling of shame that I didn't have what it took and really just ended up on the side-lines. But really this is also just a feeling and symptomatic of my insecurity and general sense of a lack of worthiness. I'm mentioning it now because maybe I'm not the only one who has felt this way at this stage of the journey. Hopefully it will pass. Maybe it might be of some solace to someone else who discovers this post? Possibly, I'll find a way out of this hole and things might feel worthwhile again?
What it ultimately meant for me was sickness, depression and grinding to a complete and utter halt. I have barely been able to continue with my day job as it became a battle to concentrate and focus on things that seemed to be so trivial and meaningless. My feelings seemed to become actualised in what eventuated in the worst bout of physical illness I have ever experienced. Multiple weeks of crippling fatigue, where working and even the things I have loved and enjoyed became impossible. This has all coincided with an external reality of bizarre circumstances. Bush fires, floods, a pandemic all unravelling around us here in Australia, but all connected in global significance. It seems that we are as never before on the brink of momentous events and falling inwards towards a bad end, and one that we are all powerless to avoid. This is the moment at the end of a journey, but really, the journey continues. There are certainly traces of a feeling that this is being too harsh on myself. The passage of a PhD is also about learning the craft of research, and understanding that the formation of knowledge is a rigorous and labour-intensive process; that the grand visions we all had at the start of study, sometimes do not eventuate into monumental findings. This is the reality and it probably requires some humility to accept this and be grateful for being able to be part of a process that has resulted in making even a humble contribution to knowledge.