Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Challenges Ahead

Goodbye!  This is the last posting on this blog, which fortunately for me has a happy ending.  This post is written in two parts.  The first part was written about a week after I submitted my final deposit.  The second part was written over a week afterwards.  Between these posts, I took my last summer vacation of 2014, which helped clear my head of mostly the negative/depressing feelings.

Part One

A couple of weeks remain before I officially earn my PhD, so that is why I continue writing on this blog.  The university gave me a couple of days to feel relieved and happy to have my dissertation done before they sent me an email about my upcoming student loans.  This immediately switched my state of mind from personal and professional growth to business transaction and customer service.  For a brief period, I was totally turned off by the higher education system of the United States.  There really is a dollar amount attached to the worth of a PhD, I said to myself.

That said, the real worth of the PhD should begin to show itself over the next few years of my life.  I need to find a perspective that balances my positive beliefs about the worth education and higher education with my negative beliefs about why the bill is so high.  I am currently working in a community college, so the stark differences between the community college experience and the university experience are more apparent now to me than before, not to mention their perceived worth.

The last chapter of The Qualitative Dissertation (2009) by Piantanida and Garman discusses a few reasons why people tend to get depressed after completing their dissertation.  Although I may have a slight touch of depression, I am processing a lot of negative emotion.  I think it stems from the isolating experience throughout most of the process.  I had to cancel my social life for the past five years and many of my friends have moved on.  Many of my friends don't live near me anyway, so it's easy to let the friendship dissolve.  I would like to get them back, but I have a very small group of friends and colleagues here.  It makes more sense to grow friends nearby, but Iowa City is a city of mostly transients.  However, I have been a transient all of my adult life because of my career as an English language teacher.  It feels a bit like karma in that I now get to feel what it's like when friends leave me when it used to be me leaving friends.

As I write this, I hear the tiniest violin playing sad songs for me.  I got what I came for--a PhD.  And I got to research what I was interested in, which is an experience some graduate students do not get to have.  More thankfully, my dissertation actually grew my interest in my specific research area.  I have to do something about it.  I cannot just abandon it.  Can I?  I understand why some people walk away from the dissertation--it did not meet their expectations or they lost their interest somewhere along the process.  But that's not me.

Besides the degree, what is more valuable:  the product of your research, the experience as primary investigator in your own research project, the gained expertise in one very specific thing, the thirst for gaining expertise in other (related?) very specific things, the confidence that you can do research,  or the gained skills in working with multiple entities within a university?  All of the above, right?  I don't want to abandon, neglect, or forget my research interest.  And perhaps that is the heart of the matter--FEAR.  I am afraid that all this work will be for naught only because I am uncertain of the future like all other human beings.  The cliche is that the uncertainty of the future excites the youth and it scares the adults.  I need to embrace that excitement of the future that I had prior to entering the PhD program.  Perhaps that's the saddest biggest change in me.  This is not the peak.  I refuse to accept that it is all downhill from here.

Part Two

Whoa!  Those last two paragraphs were a bit cathartic in writing, but it took a few days for the feeling of catharsis to actually occur.  I don't have that feeling of loss anymore.  The dissertation is still with me and I intend to use it as guiding light towards my next couple of publications.

After returning from my vacation after I wrote part one, I realized that I had to take the pressure off myself to do work as intensely as I have in the past few years.  My colleagues with PhDs at my current place of employment stated that I need to give myself a big break than I planned to give myself.  My original plan was this: 1) take one week off from thinking about anything to do with research and my research interests, and 2) take one month off before composing a scholarly journal.  Many of my colleagues said I should double or triple that time off.

Another issue is that I encountered is that I felt like I was forcing myself to relax and forcing new "fun" routines during the first week or two to distract myself from the end of the dissertation process.  When I was unable to relax or have fun, my anxiety grew because I thought I had what some say is PHD--permanent head damage.  Yes, it's a nice coincidence to receive PHD at the same time as one's PhD.  However, I believe the P in PHD is wrong.

To the very few, if any, who will have similar circumstances I had leading up to, during, and immediately after the final deposit of their dissertation, I recommend the following:

  1. Take a vacation about a day or two after your final deposit is accepted, and that vacation should last as long as financially possible.  If you are poor like many of us, then I would recommend a minimum of 1 week.  I took 4 days, but I felt like I was emotionally checked out at work for at least 3 days, where it would have been helpful if I were physically checked out as well.
  2. Don't evaluate yourself in terms of a researcher.  I don't have a deadline for when this is supposed to end.  I seek advice on this myself.  
  3. Don't anticipate how this PhD will affect your current and future jobs for at least a few months.
  4. Enjoy everything you have except the PhD and your "education:"  your family, your home, your friends, your neighborhood, the opportunity to do nothing.
I'm the rare type that hates procrastinating, so the opportunity to do nothing was difficult for me to get used to.  Usually when I do nothing, I fear that I'm putting off something that I should not.  This is directly tied to the second half of my childhood upbringing.  In response to that stage in my life, I hope that my PhD provides evidence that I am not lazy.

Challenges Ahead

This blog post was titled according to part one.  And one of the challenges ahead is/was dealing with my own psyche.  The other challenges I see and foresee have to do with raising my family with my new student loan debt and how to best put my PhD and research skills to use in my current and future jobs.  I don't have the pressure to publish or perish yet, but I'm not sure if this is helpful or hurtful to avoid giving myself that pressure from now through a time I find myself there.

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