Post-Dissertation Blues (Pacifica-Style)

One of my cohort defended his dissertation the other day. Out of my cohort group, that makes three of us (including me). But my cohort extends farther. I’ve adopted all of my Pacifica friends as “my cohort.” We may not have gone on the journey at the same time, but we nonetheless went on very similar journeys. I could say, we went on the same journey together.

During the process of dissertation formulation, everyone is quick to describe “dissertation monsters,” or little bits of life that get in the way of writing the dissertation. These range from feelings of inadequacy (“Why am I even torturing myself with this. NO ONE is going to care!) to life changes (divorce, death, move, etc.). They also encourage us to build a system for dealing with these dissertation monsters. Talk to your friends, take some time off from the dissertation… blah blah blah. Those of us on the other side of the dissertation can tell stories of how we almost quit because of our Dissertation Monsters, and we can stand with pride next to our diplomas and our pretty copy of our dissertation and say, “We did it.”

But then there’s that unspoken bit that they didn’t prepare us for. The Other Side of the Dissertation. The, “I completed my dissertation, I owe a quarter of a million dollars in student loans, I can’t get a job. Now what?” The Post-Dissertation Blues.

I think I’ve said it before, but Pacifica Graduate Institute isn’t like other graduate programs. It’s not a degree mill. The academic work we do during the program works us as much as we work through it. Something within our shadows is activated, and how we deal with this shadow flavors our approach to the program. For me, it was the money thing, and I hear the same concern echoed among many of my peers. It does make us feel like Atlas or even Sysiphus to come out of this program, stare at the mountain of debt, and try to figure out how to pay it off (or at least down).

It’s because of this level of self-work, however, that we actually have a Post-Dissertation post-partum period. Our dissertations aren’t just about analyzing Jung or Campbell and getting a degree. We pick topics that aren’t only interesting, but near and dear to our hearts, often dealing with as much autobiography as academic research.

Disclaimer: I do know there are people who graduate and hit the ground running into academic work. Power to them. Seriously. My hat is off to you.

My dissertation is about Disneyland, but it really is about so much more than that. It’s about identifying the mythology that has ordered my entire perspective. It’s about defending why I don’t subscribe to traditional approaches to myth and academia, and helping to explain why others share my perspective.

By the time I started writing my dissertation, I was running on fumes. I had a year off between undergraduate and grad school, and maybe a semester between my Master’s program and Pacifica (a semester spent getting into and ready for Pacifica). So from the start of that Master’s program in October 2004 until the end of coursework in August 2010, I had been functioning solely as a graduate student. THAT IS SIX YEARS. Three of those years were spent at Pacifica, being worked on and massaged by a variety of world mythologies, and they were, hands down, three of the most intense years of my life. Much of my cohort can’t share in the timeline of graduate student, but most of them can share in agreement that the three years of Pacifica work are three of the most intense years of our lives. Is it the vibe of Pacifica? The content? The faculty? The contrast between one week of intense class followed by three weeks of intense loneliness? It’s all of that. And I’m not going to say that those of us who made it to the end are any stronger or better than those that don’t. It’s more that what we are seeking is something that only Pacifica can provide. It’s that the myth of Pacifica (and yes, there is a very strong one) is the myth we need. Those who don’t make it all of the way through the program are looking for another myth. My hat goes off to those friends as well, and for those who are still on their search, I wish you well.

It’s because of the Pacifica myth we stay through until the bitter end (of course work, the dissertation is another matter). And it’s because of the Pacifica myth that we can go to an event on campus, such as a friend’s dissertation defense, and feel a brief surge of revitalized energy. But it’s also because of the Pacifica myth that we leave the program SO VERY EXHAUSTED. For those who aren’t Pacifica people, I can only sum it up this way: You know that kind of really intense dream? You know, that kind that keeps you engaged for a period of time, shocks you awake, and affects your mood for the rest of the coming day? Like that episode of Friends where Phoebe was mad at Joey for the entire episode, only to remember that she was mad at him because of something he did in a dream. Pacifica is like that, every day, for THREE FREAKING YEARS. Now, think of how exhausting it is to wake up from those dreams. Perhaps you are mentally refreshed, but your body isn’t. Pacifica is like that, every day, for THREE FREAKING YEARS. And then you have to write your dissertation.

And this is where I laugh loudly to myself. It’s a wonder that any of us do finish.

But then we do, and we’re exhausted, sad, depressed. Now what? We can’t find jobs. Our degrees are too weird and Academia, the path that most of us set out to achieve, isn’t hiring. (This, sadly, isn’t a problem with the larger model of Academia, not just with Pacifica folks.) Our families, who have suffered while we did this work, are on edge, wanting our attention or our active contributions again. Our friends, those few who still speak to us (because they understand the difficulties of going through grad school), are only willing to be so patient while we whine about how there are no jobs, how we need to make money to pay our loans, and so on. They tell us, “buck up and get a job already!” without considering the hit that we all take to our resumes by the life change of going through this work. Our old jobs or professions no longer want us. Without considering how few jobs there are, or that it can take upwards of a year or more to get a phone call. I just received a couple rejection letters from applications I put in before I started working on my dissertation. Our loan creditors send us statements that ask for four digits worth of repayment, and are only willing to negotiate so much.

And in the middle of all this? We’re supposed to publish, but we can’t even write a sentence. Think of how many blog posts I’ve made since finishing my dissertation. The few that I’ve made are difficult enough without having to think about articles and books.

So, to my Pacifi-peeps who are going through these Blues: it’s ok. Most of us go through it. Let’s share our tears together.

To my Pacifi-peeps who are getting near the end: don’t try to fight it. One of the often used images at Pacifica is that of the Underworld. You may think that your coursework is the Underworld. You may think that writing your dissertation is the Underworld. In truth, it’s this period after completion that is the Underworld, and guess what? We have to be here. We have to work through the last little bit of Pacifica to emerge.

To our families and friends: I know it sucks. We already asked for 5+ years of your time, but now we have to ask for more. We need your support now more than ever, otherwise the work we did is for naught.

We are phoenixes. We are burnt up from the work and research. We can only emerge from the ashes when we are meant to emerge from the ashes. I defended in May 2012, and I’m still struggling. I know that I’m not alone, and that does make it a little easier.

Please share your experience Post-Dissertation in the comments, whether you had the Blues or not, or even whether or not you went to Pacifica. I would love to hear your story, and I think more grad students and post-grad scholars need to know that it’s not always possible to walk into the Academic Publish-or-Perish world. I would also like to hear what you did to solve some of the life stressors (such as lack of employment) and what directions that helped move you.

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2 thoughts on “Post-Dissertation Blues (Pacifica-Style)

  1. I must thank you for your words. I have been wondering what in the heck is wrong with me. I have finished writing and am waiting to defend. Something about me is just not quite right. I was searching for answers to these feelings and I am glad to find your post.

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