The end is hard.

It was the last year of my PhD and suddenly, all my plans were overturned. I had previously felt stable, pretty sure that I would pursue a job at a teaching and learning center after I graduated and try and stay close to Michigan, where my husband had a job and my family lived. It was December, and I was getting ready to defend in April or May, and then a sequence of things happened very quickly.

My husband lost his job. My teaching assignment was changed, and my easy teaching assignment suddenly became 3x the workload. After a few weeks, my husband got a new job, which was a great relief in a lot of ways, but was several states away. He started traveling every other week, and it soon became clear that what we thought might be a temporary job was quickly becoming a multiyear, if not longer, situation. 

So, all of the sudden, my job search ceased to be "anywhere, doing anything in Michigan" or even "starting a large scale, nationwide search for a perfect job across the country" turned into "find a job in a town you don't know and readjust everything you thought was coming in the same four months that you finish your dissertation, get ready to defend it, work 30 hours a week and teach an upper level class as instructor of record". 

What I had planned to be a semester of networking became a semester of survival. And at the root of it, I was deeply uncomfortable with the loss of my plans for the future. I had a plan, a storyline that I would follow, and even if it was written in broad strokes, it gave me great comfort until I lost it. And, like so many grad students at the end of their degrees, not a person around could give me an ounce of certainty that things would work out. 

In fact, I very quickly came to resent anyone who told me things would work out. Because how could they know? I resented the people who implied that I should go on the market and force my family to relocate no matter where I got an academic job, if I got an academic job somewhere. I resented the people that assured me that there were plenty of jobs and they'd be easy to get, even in a city where I didn't know anyone and didn't have a network. I basically was cranky for six months at everyone who even mentioned certainty, because nothing was certain and empty platitudes didn't help.

Here are the things that did help, in case they help you:

  • Remembering that it was normal to feel stress, anxiety, and worry because even though grad school was hard, it was certain and the rules were clear (most of the time.) The future was not certain, and the rules were not at all clear, and it was normal and healthy to feel that way.

  • Trying to show grace to people who were trying to soothe me as best as they could. People are trying to help, and even if I didn't find it helpful, that didn't mean that their intention was to remind me of everything that would be hard in the future. 

  • Having a goal that was not at all related to grad school or future careers. I worked really hard to get a certain sequence of yoga poses into my daily practice, and it felt amazing to have a goal that was just for me. 

  • Knowing what my bottom line was. It was scary and uncomfortable to have conversations about finances and future things, but not having them was worse. So I made a list of bottom lines, what things I couldn't compromise on in terms of the future. I knew how far I was willing to drive for a job, how long our family could afford to be without my income, what kinds of jobs I was willing to take. It wasn't my ideal future to be temping six months after I defended, but it was one that was right for me, and right for our family. There's no shame in taking care of yourself however you need to, or in agreeing to short term situations in order to get yourself space to make something else happen. 

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The PhD is hard. The finish line is even harder. There are no default careers anymore. There's no single path that we all take. So if it feels scary, that's because it is. I hope that you can find the space to process that, and then take steps to empower yourself to face it. Because it is your life, and you deserve to honor the hard work of the degree by using it to make the life that you can live and feel comfortable in.