Life after PhD

To continue my tradition of trying out all the Commonwealth countries, since my last post I have moved to the UK and begun a postdoc at the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. The UK is far nicer than Australians will lead you to believe – there are indeed sunny days, and gorgeous coastline, and great wildlife. None of these things are quite at Australian levels, but there are other things that at least partially make up for it. Like central heating, and the absence of huntsman spiders.

My PhD is now completely wrapped up, and I can officially use the title Dr., so I get very excited about filling in forms. For my postdoc I’m continuing to study interactions between Antarctic ice shelves and the ocean, but using a different ocean model (MITgcm), and focusing on a specific region (the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea). This project includes some ice-sheet/ocean coupling, which I’m enormously, ridiculously excited about.

A postdoc is far more relaxing than a PhD, and far less existential. I know I’m only a few months in, but many of my colleagues hold a similar opinion. At last, there is no monolithic Thesis that everything is building up to, no pressure for all your research threads to converge into a coherent narrative before your scholarship runs out, no need to justify your continued existence (“how long have you been here, again?”) There is just a period of time for which your postdoc is funded, and you do as much science as you can during that time. You have more confidence in your own abilities, since you’ve done vaguely similar things before, and everyone else seems to take you more seriously too.

Much has been written on the mental health risks of doing a PhD, both in the scientific literature and in the media. I won’t pretend to be an alarming example of this, because many students have a much, much harder time than I did. But I did operate under elevated stress during the last year and a half of my PhD, and I noticed the effect this had on my life. Regular exercise was very effective in keeping my spirits up, but it didn’t really help the insomnia.

Here’s the pleasantly surprising bit: these effects appear to go away when you finish your PhD. I don’t know what else I expected – that I would be scarred for life? All I know is that I’ve slept well nearly every night since the day I submitted my thesis. And when I look at my giant list of things to do with my model, I don’t feel overwhelmed. I just feel excited.


4 thoughts on “Life after PhD

  1. So glad to hear your news. My family (and I for a year when I was much much younger) spent years in Cambridge (father is PW if you’re curious) and we loved it. Of course, since then central heating has become normal, and the rolling blackouts of the 70s are gone. Gorgeous countryside, great biking. If you can, do go to the King’s College Chapel Christmas Carols (it was -5C when we went). Listening to those ethereal voices (from not so ethereal choirboys, no doubt) and the fading rib vaulting as the sun goes down are a memory that will last a lifetime. Don’t worry, my family and I are nonbelievers and your beliefs are not intruded on, except by the nature of the words. There is the music, and I’d guess a good sense of beauty/numen does no harm to anyone!

    I learned to punt too.

  2. I just discovered your blog buried deep within my browser bookmarks and have clicked on for the first time in years. When I first visited your blog it was brand new and I think you were still in high school??! Congratulations on keeping the blog going for so long and for the successful rise through academia!

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