Failures of Imagination, Post-PhD Edition

If you’ve ever talked to anyone with a PhD who expected to get an academic job and didn’t, you’ve likely heard someone talk about their giant, crushing sense of failure. When you’ve invested years of your life and thousands of dollars to obtain a PhD, feeling unable to find gainful employment in your field feels devastating. One minute you’re at the top of your game with a PhD and a glorious career in front of you. And then next you’re unemployed and struggling to cope with crippling feelings of failure.

I’ve struggled with waves of feelings of professional failure for the last few years. I finally know with certainty that it wasn’t me who failed as an academic, but rather that a decaying neoliberal institution failed me. 

I’ve been thinking about professional failure as I’ve moved away from academia and towards some unknown and uncertain future. I’m starting to embrace the flip side of being a failed academic: I’m an incredible success now in a lot of areas of my life. I’ve got a business that’s expanding, a great network of friends and colleagues, I get to live where I want and pretty much do what I want. Life is nice.

If I’ve failed at anything, it’s been that I failed to think big enough about what my life could look like after my PhD. For many years, my feelings of failure loomed large because my definition of success was so small it could have fit in a thimble. I honestly believed that I couldn’t do anything else with my fancy education and considerable skills. I felt like I’d literally painted myself into a professional corner so small that escape was impossible.

Here’s what they don’t tell you: when you’ve painted yourself into a corner, paint eventually dries. Once that wet paint dries, you can walk on it and put your considerable problems-solving skills to work figuring out some new directions.

Your new route to success, however, involves navigating some exceedingly low points first. You have to surrender to the feeling of grief that comes with total identity loss when you decide, willingly or unwillingly, that you’re leaving academia. There’s no way around it. You can’t outrun it or out think it. You just have to feel it until your heart and soul come to rest with your new reality. 

Once you’ve grieved thoroughly (and there’s never any timetable on that), you may be wondering WTF to do next. If you’re just starting out with leaving academia, you may think that research and teaching are your only viable job skills. [This is never true, but it feels like it.] You may have no idea what else you could possible be even marginally good at, much less be able to envision being a smashing professional success at something other than an academic position. It’s okay not to know all of the answers yet.

If I’ve learned anything about my post-PhD life, it’s this: it’s only as big as you imagine it to be. As a wise person in my life asked me at precisely the right moment: “Have you ever considered that academia might be to small for you?” 

You start by imagining the biggest and most joyful life possible. 

You may not be able to immediately identify what now brings joy when you’re crushed under feelings of failure. Sometimes nothing feels good or right. This is where your imagination comes in. You’re going to have to imagine what might be joyful.

For many of us, our imaginations are rusty from disuse and you might have a hard time getting your imagination working again. For all of its big ideas, academia doesn’t really help people think big in professional ways or push the boundaries of what’s possible in your professional life. [A friend wryly notes that PhDs are great critical thinkers about everything but their professional possibilities.] You have to throw out any and all assumptions about what might be possible, reasonable, acceptable, cost-effective, evidence-based, logical, rational, or realistic. Your thinking needs to be unleashed in all of those ways that academia discourages people from thinking. 

In the beginning, I was convinced that I would have to accept some really low wage and boring job because I couldn’t imagine that there were interesting things to think about outside of the university.  If you imagine that the only thing you can do is work at an unsatisfying, uninteresting, and poorly compensated non-academic job that has nothing to do with your skills, that’s probably what’s going to happen. [No this isn’t some woo woo endorsement of The Secret, but if you can’t imagine a big, full, interesting, colorful, and challenging life, how will you possibly get there?] Imagination is the spark that gets us moving in the right direction.

What’s the biggest dream you can dream? Even if your dream seems vague or sparks just the tiniest bit joy, it’s okay. Your vision will get clearer as you go. I’d only encourage you to keep pushing the boundaries of your dream past what you believe is possible.

My failure of imagination in my post-PhD life wasn’t just limited to professional possibilities either. I also failed to think big enough about money. I was so used to hearing stories of people with PhDs struggling, living in poverty, and being homeless that I genuinely couldn’t even picture that I might be able to make serious money in my post-PhD life. I assumed that I was doomed to poverty in that romantic starving academic kind of way. [You know all the jokes about PhDs serving fries. Har har.] 

Many academic people struggle with money anxiety because money feels like a dirty product of exploitative capitalist-neoliberal systems that we abhor, but because lack of money reflects our deep fears that our work and knowledge aren’t really worth all that much. We’re also often hostage to the idea that our work is a labor of love impossible to quantify in monetary terms. (If you really really love your work, you’ll do it for pennies, amirite?) There’s also the romance of the starving academic. We’re trained as graduate students to accept that working for poverty wages is just how we do. And we all know those adjuncts who love what they do so much that they’re willing to be homeless for the opportunity to exhaust themselves to essentially teach college students for a pittance. [If you’re adjuncting, I’m not hating on you—people have their reasons for wanting to adjunct. I do, however, find that many struggle with valuing themselves and their work sufficiently.]

Here’s the other thing about imagining your new life. You have to take some action. As academic people, we’re often so much more comfortable thinking about solutions rather than acting on those solutions. Sure, you get some great ideas while brainstorming, but then you’ve got to start taking ACTION which at times can paralyze people with terror. Taking action is scary, but if you’re committed to making real changes and reinventing your life, you’re going to have to get very comfortable feeling uncomfortable all the time. When you take action, you’re overcoming your learned helplessness. It is surprising how opportunities open up once you start doing things rather than just thinking about doing them. Routes to your dream might open up that you hadn’t even considered.

This isn’t to say that it will be absolutely smooth sailing or that you’ll find your dream job immediately. Like any creative process, it takes some struggle and quite a bit of bumping into the furniture while trying to find the light switch in the dark. The important thing is to keep dreaming big and taking small steps forward every day.

The impossible just takes a little bit longer and all that.