The post-doctoral black hole

A PhD for many of us comes at the end of a long journey. I for one, viewed it as the pinnacle of achievements. Something that had seen out of reach for so long, but symbolised a huge accomplishment when I finally got through the viva and I was told, yes, you’ve passed!

While it was a long journey and it was indeed a huge achievement, the trouble with the way I viewed the PhD was, that once I finished it, it felt like I was at the end of the journey, I should be at my destination.

But all that met me at the end of my journey was a ‘black hole’ and no clear understanding or directions of how to get out of it!

As an autistic individual I actively seek structure and predictability, I love the academic life because there is a timetable to everything. There are routines everyone must follow and there are people that you speak to regularly that are monitoring your progress and continuously helping you move forward. During the 3 years of my PhD, I had a focus that took up all my time, and a timetable that I followed to make sure I finished within the expected period of study. I was in my element. But the day after my viva, that all went away. My focus was gone, my structure was gone, the people I had to speak to was gone. And all that was left was a disappearing sense of achievement and a confusion of what happens next.

What soon became apparent was a PhD is not the end of a journey, but merely another stepping stone. But a stepping stone to where?

Like a lot of autistic people, a lack of structure significantly affects my mental health. So faced with this, I instinctively began searching for something that would give my life structure and direction. As a teacher, before returning to university to complete my postgraduate studies, I knew I wanted to combine my teaching qualifications with my research interests. So, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in academia. But, and it’s a big but, I had no idea what this means, what this looks like and how one goes about getting such a job. It’s almost like academics are part of a secret society that only the select few are invited to join. And they’re so secretive they don’t even tell you what they do before you join! This is a significant hurdle!

How do you apply to do something, when you don’t know what it is you’re applying to do?

I’ve seen a few jobs advertised, the most recent stated it was an assistant professor in the school of Education. Great I thought, this is my area, this is what I want. But, in most settings the school of education covers many areas. So how do I know it’s in the area I want? With the vagueness of the advert, how do I know what would be expected of me once in role? And how do I know I have the necessary skills to make me a candidate they’d even consider? Like many autistic people that are diagnosed later in life, therefore having a number of years of experiences relating to feeling inadequate or deviant in some way, I have very low self-confidence. Which when paired with low mood (from the lack of structure in my life), results in a feeling of being lost in the world, alongside increasing feelings that I don’t have the necessary skills to achieve or find my way out. So even if I did have the skills an employer was looking for, the more time goes on, the more unlikely I am to believe in myself enough to put myself forward.

The answer to this problem is not straight forward and I’m not going to pretend to be able to solve the problem

Because let’s face it, if I could solve the problem, it wouldn’t be a problem! But, for me, the key thing that is needed in my ‘black-hole’ is a light! A light shone on the role of an academic; what do they do? Where are jobs advertised? What skills do I need to be considered for a role? But even more than this is someone to hold the ‘light’. The supportive structure of the supervisors in a PhD, for an autistic academic, is something we need to reflect upon, specifically on how such a structure can be used more generally to mentor us onto our next steps. Someone we trust (not someone we’ve never met, in an office we’ve never been to), to help us find the answers, that may be out there, but we don’t know where to look. And someone to say, “you are good enough” and that “we believe in you” because this may not be something we can do for ourselves.