It was roughly this time last year when I was coming to the very end of my time as a PhD student, I was waiting for my viva examination that was due in a week’s time. This period of time as a PhD student is difficult to put into words, and only people who have experienced it will know what I’m getting at. I had mixed emotions of excitement combined with an overall sense of just being fed up wanting to get this thing out of my life.
Before you know it your viva will come and go, you’ll have your corrections done, and you’ll be the happiest person alive having completed this huge achievement of a PhD and being able to use that Dr title? Right? That’s what I thought and that’s why I felt so excited to finish. The thing is, that overwhelming feeling of joy didn’t hit me when I thought it would. I suddenly realised that my PhD was such a big a part of my life. Your PhD is your baby and ultimately it becomes your purpose in life. Although that seems like an obvious statement to make, it’s not something you realise when you’re in the middle of it all. So when I had my PhD done and dusted I suddenly realised what had been the main purpose of my life for the past 3 years had now gone. I remember reading a quote that I related to so much. The 20th Century American writer, Robert Byrne said, “The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” Now there is more to life than your work, and your purpose in life can come from your loved ones, your family and friends, but I soon realised how important that work aspect of my life was.
So the time will come for you to move onto your next experience, to find your next purpose in life. For me this came with the headache of deciding whether to stay in academia or to go onto something outside of that academic bubble. I went back and forth weighing up the pros and cons of both options. Ultimately, the opportunities that are available at the time of finishing your PhD will largely influence your decision, if you find yourself in the same situation. So when the opportunity for me to join the University of Limerick as a postdoctoral researcher on the Active School Flag came about, my decision was made, and staying in academia was the best option for me.
Active School Flag is a Department of Education and Skills initiative supported by Healthy Ireland. The Active School Flag is awarded to schools that strive to achieve a physically educated and physically active school community. I am involved in the feasibility phase of this initiative in the post-primary school setting. This was a great next step for me having completed a PhD in the development and evaluation of school-based physical activity interventions in England.
I had found a new purpose in life, I was busy moving to a new country and fulfilling the responsibilities which came with that postdoctoral position. The excitement of all of this gave me that feeling of accomplishment that I was expecting to happen immediately after my viva examination. Instead, it came about 3 months later as I began the next chapter of my career.
So, what is life like as a postdoctoral researcher compared to life as a PhD student? Well, the main difference is the increased responsibility which comes with that more senior role. You will become the person that PhD students come to for advice and that part of your role is a great responsibility. Also, it is no longer all about you. You are now part of a team producing research, so your data sheets need to make sense not only to you anymore, they need to make sense to everyone!
Finishing your PhD can be a confusing time and you may not feel as amazing as how you thought you would. Based on my own experiences, the best piece of advice I can give is to take your time in choosing your next chapter and ensure that it is one that is right for you. You learn so much when completing a PhD, not just about the research topic you focus on, but so many other life skills. If you don’t get that overwhelming amazing feeling after finishing, know that it will come and your PhD will always be one of your greatest learning curves in life.
Sarah Taylor is a postdoctoral researcher on the Healthy Ireland Demonstration Project. Contact Sarah on firstname.lastname@example.org