Life After the PhD?

Well, I’ve finally done it.  I’m now a PhD, having successfully defended my dissertation on Monday.  I am glad that the process is over.  It has been a long haul.  As long as I remember, I have always wanted to be a doctor.  I even remember back in high school thinking about how I could theoretically do it by the time I was in my mid-20s.  Now that I have actually done it, I am only ten years off schedule.

Yesterday was mostly a hangover for me (go figure).  In those moments of precious clarity between the cotton-y haze, I thought about what I need to do next.  There are, of course, minor revisions: spelling mistakes and the like.  There’s a post-doc I want to apply for.  There are articles that I have been sitting on for years now that I can focus my attention on.  There’s always the inevitable list of household renovations that I have been avoiding for as long as we have lived in this house.  There’s a lot to do.  There’s also nothing left to do.

As I was thinking about this, a memory flashed back to me.

After high school, I decided to take a year off to make some money and then come back to schooling without going into remarkable amounts of debt.  The summer went by and then the day before school was to start for public school kids across the city, I suddenly had a wave of anxiety wash over me.  I remember walking to my old elementary school and sitting on the swings, looking down the hill at the then locked doors that I had passed through as a child in grade six.  That next day was the first day since I could remember being me that I would not be going to school.  Pushing the swing side to side, I remember becoming more and more uncomfortable.  School, I knew, was where I should be, but I had decided to… what?  Work?  In a job I was sure to hate? Knowing that people didn’t respect me, didn’t take me seriously, didn’t think that what I had to say mattered?  I thought I knew so much, but no one would care about what I knew or was capable of because, “Hey, you didn’t even go to university…”  I stayed on that swing until the stars came out and then dragged my feet back home, not even bothering to look up.

Unsurprisingly, I started to attend university classes almost immediately after.  I couldn’t live without the structure of school in my life.

These psychic structures, these ideological systems of interpellation, these modes of dressage – like the school system and the university classroom – they are insidious and invisible.  Like the stars, they are always there.  These structures are within me, a part of me.  I have always been in school in some sense.  If I count the years up, I have been in the system somewhere around 30 years of my life, (depending on where you start counting.)  Now, instead of learning, I teach.

When someone asked me at the party after defending what I would do next, the funny thing is that I thought of more schooling.  I want to become a Dharma teacher at some point.  I’d love to explore art history and Roman history more in-depth.  I want to learn more, explore more, help others more.  At this point, the structure of school has tied together two things for me: learning more about the world and helping others to do the same.

Last night, I even dreamt about what MA or PhD I would start thinking about next.  Classical Studies –  Looking at the way Cicero eschewed the use of torture?  Feminist Criticism – dealing with rape culture?  Art History – what about the representations of Lucrece throughout the ages?  Or, (most likely), Dharma school, where I can learn more about strengthening and deepening my practice as a Buddhist?

Of course, none of these are likely to happen immediately, if ever.  After all, I don’t need to go into formal schooling to explore them because, in that I am anything, I am the result of education.  It is built into me, like my DNA.  The education system, however, is also built (in part) out of me.  The psychic structures of education are within me, invisible, but I am within the system of education, also invisible.

Those stars that I couldn’t even raise my head to look at when I walked home that night in 1993 are invisible most of the time, (or at least, flooded out by the presumptuousness of a rather run of the mill yellow star).  Last night, when I went out for a walk and was blasted by the memory of being unable to go to school, I caught a glimpse of the first star of the evening.  (OK, it was probably Venus or Mars, but for the sake of poetry, I’m calling it a star.)  This time, I didn’t look down.

I know nothing.  I know that I know nothing.  It’s more than Socrates, though.  I am nothing… in the best possible way.  I am built out of the stars and every so often you get to see that.

Anyhow, enough of this rambling.  It is probably time that I actually did something on that list of things to do around the house… like those cupboard doors.


2 thoughts on “Life After the PhD?

  1. Andrew,

    I am going through this same rattling experience myself! The end of education and the beginning of …work…life??! Of course, this is an absurd understanding of how life unfolds! So clean, and neatly divided. I completed my Bachelor of Education this spring at Western, and am now thrown into the ugly, unforgiving teaching job market. Without the structure of school in my life, I am having a hard time deciding which direction to go. The tricky part is focusing my efforts; achieving that fine balance between doing everything and nothing! Should I be taking that job abroad, putting travel on hold to pursue an opportunity here in my hometown, distributing my tutoring business cards to every school within a 50 kilometer radius,try to become fluent in french to up my chances at a teaching position, or work as a bartender forever?

    Too many directions and too many uncertainties. This is life outside of school. haha! For now, I am going to write my way through this existential crisis, and hope that meaningful opportunities drift my way.

    Good luck with the cupboards and all of your post-education endeavors.



  2. Good to hear from you again! I have to admit, when I'm faced with all of these possibilities and all of these great choices, I always end up thinking of the story Jean-Paul Sartre told about one of his former students. During the Second World War, he was approached by the student who asked him, “I'm the only one left in my family to take care of my ailing grandmother, but I want to join the Resistance and help free France. I don't know what is best to do.”

    Sartre's reply was to just choose. Any which way forward. Talk about existential crises! Even refusing to choose is a kind of a choice. It's hardly helpful for making any decisions, but it is always what comes to mind.

    The good thing is that after so many years of living within the structured, organized system of the education system, you and I have both internalized a work ethic and approach to the world that is (hopefully) going to see us succeed in no matter what we choose. I always figure that one should do what makes a good story at the end of your life, but not so crazy a story as one would end up on Jerry Springer.

    Life outside of school can be terrifying. It can be a delight. Always have a lot of irons in the fire and see what comes out of it. At least, that is what I'm trying to do myself. Say “Yes” to almost anything and see where it goes.


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