Who am I if I am not a student?
I have been thinking a lot lately about identity. These thoughts are largely a result of a shift from being a PhD researcher to being a Postdoctoral researcher. Although the difference is subtle, my experience with finishing the Phd and transitioning to a ReAl WoRld JoB has had a strange effect on my sense of self. And – to be clear, as a postdoctoral researcher who still has mentors and is in the same department as where I did my PhD – the extent to which I am actually in the real world is minimal.
I am, however, no longer a student.
*One of* the reasons I was able to do a PhD is because ‘school’ has always been a strength of mine. After 2 or 3 degrees (assuming if you are reading this you are also in academia), your skills as a student are likely to be well developed. But once you finish, it can be hard to find your other strengths. It is difficult to connect your other identities with your abilities as a person, and when it comes to workplace identities, it can be hard to reconcile this loss.
As a result of this, I realized that no one prepared me for a change in identity from the PhD to an academic (or any other) role. In trying to substantiate my credentials and understand Who I Am, I have not properly confronted the loss of my identity as a student…
What is an identity?
Our identities are built upon the attributes, qualities, skills, and expressions that make us who we are. Your identity is how you think about yourself and the way you are viewed by the world. They can be formed by our groups, our relationships, or our personal values. We don't always have a choice over our identities; someone might choose to associate you with something that you do not consider to be vital to your sense of self. Identities are fluid. They are malleable.
so, what is my identity? I am an exercise enthusiast, a wine lover, a daughter, a friend, a girlfriend, a little sister. I am overly passionate about very trivial things, I am a vegan, I am a competitor, a lover of all things Iron Man and Shirley Temple... and for as long as I can remember, I have been a student.
I've done 4 years of undergrad (Guelph Ontario, pictured below), 1 year for my MSc in Organizational Psychology (Leeds UK), and 3 years and 3 months for my PhD (yes, I was quick, more on that another day). That makes over 8 years of higher education and doesn't include high school. That means I have been in education for my entire adult life. I finished my PhD in February of 2020 (3 months ago), and sometimes I feel that I was unprepared to lose that part of my identity.
Who am I, if I'm not a student? Who are we when formal education ends?
To start, I am a postdoctoral researcher. These positions are rare and competitive. I found out I got the position roughly 6 months before I submitted my final thesis. I was incredibly fortunate during my PhD to have had a number of supportive role models, and one incredibly supportive supervisor. On more than one occasion, she put my name forward for jobs, research projects, and other CV building opportunities. There is absolutely no doubt that I would not be in my current role without her - and I don't mean this to be a sappy thank you note - but rather want to raise it as a point of my own privilege, my good fortune, and her hard work. Not everyone connects with a mentor during their PhD and that does not mean you are a bad academic.
Moving on to the point of this post, people often prepare you for the final steps of the PhD - the long nights, the hours and hours of typing and stress. They tell you about the difficulty of the job market, about how politically charged academia can be, and about life beyond the academy. You will get some who have experienced great hardship, others who love to throw around the word ‘bureaucracy’ or ‘casualization’ even if, to be honest, some people don’t know what that is supposed to mean (me. I’m some people.)
Nobody told me how it would feel to lose my 'I am a student' conversation piece.
No one told me that I might feel a tinge of sadness when I lost my Spotify student discount (and no, it wasn't just about the money). I realized that there had been some deeper connection between who I think I am as a whole and my role as a postgraduate student.
How do you lose your identity?
Losing part of your identity isn’t an easy to identify or define process. It can happen suddenly because of a traumatic event or life change. We have all heard of an ‘identity crisis,’ often drawing on images of a middle-aged man driving a bright red sports car. But there’s more to it – and generally, a loss of workplace related identity can happen more slowly.
It might even take a while to notice this loss, as it did in my case. I found myself uncomfortable with certain emails, overly stressed, and feeling this sense of emptiness. I wasn’t sad – I wasn’t suffering from a form of COVID-19 depression. I was simply missing something. It was like I had to keep looking over my shoulder to ask am I forgetting something?
When I really sat down to think about it, I realized that finishing the PhD had not brought on the sense of euphoria I was expecting. It had caused me to be at odds with my normal daily actions and what was now expected of me. I had grown accustom to receiving input from supervisors, to having a fall back to why I hadn’t accomplished more. I had been given leniency, direct expectations, and was entirely responsible for my own output. From Student to Professional: what changes?
When I talk about student life, I am not referring to the bars, pubs, or late nights hanging out at your friends’ dorm decorated with fairy lights and using an empty Gin bottle as a flower vase. That is a different student life than the one I experienced, and certainly different to the majority of PhD students.
Student life, to me, is about the consistent effort towards something that is your own. Now that I've finished, I worry that I am not doing enough. I am used to late nights, to always having something I *should* be working on. I am used to submitting papers and having another one waiting for me. I'm used to receiving grades for my work: a direct reflection of my effort. Worked hard? 85%. Wrote it last minute? 60%.
With an actual job, where I’m on salary and have a contract and a pension fund (???), there's a palpable shift into the unknown - no one is handing out grades for my effort. I either get an ‘okay thanks’ email or nothing at all. I am in control of my career and there are no longer metrics for me to know (relatively immediately) if my effort is rewarded. There are no report cards in the real world.
Increasingly, I am realizing how much I relied on my student identity as a shield for mistakes and errors. Don't like my ideas? Well, I'm just a student. Think I should be doing more with my life? Oh, don't be concerned. - I am a student. Eating popcorn for dinner? Totally acceptable, I'm still a student.
I have also realized how much of my self-worth was placed on how good of a student I was. My entire life, I used my education as a symbol of my intelligence – to let people know that I was academically achieving. I harnessed the opportunities (and privilege) given to me and strengthened my skills as a student. Now that I am graduating from my final degree – it is taking some digging to find out what am I actually good at?
As I have been gently guided into the real world (I am still a postdoc, after all). I am starting to recognize how important my student status was to my identity.
If you are reading this, you’re likely either a student or an early career researcher. Consider this your warning – a message for the future:
When you finish the PhD, you are not a student anymore, and you likely never will be again.
Read it again and if you can, start to strengthen your awareness and connection to other parts of what makes you who you are.
From a research-based view, this loss of identity is likely to cause some incongruities between your sense of self and your self-esteem. I’m fortunate in that I have a research job and therefore have been able to acclimatize to the change, but many won’t have that luxury.
If you are a recent graduate or are graduating soon – you might find that your sense of self-worth becomes a bit wobbly once your student card expires and you start getting “Hello Alumni!” emails from your institution. You might find that you are putting more energy into making sure that others see you in a positive light. As you try to fill the gap that your identity change has created, you might feel pressure to put ‘a best self forward’ and receive that external validation (recognize that I did not say your best self, but rather a best self, meaning that you might be who you are not before you find out who you are).
In academia, however, that validation is difficult to achieve. Especially now, where many institutions have hiring freezes and the future is looking uncertain.
It is possible that this hasn’t happened to you. Perhaps you finished the PhD or another piece of work and felt that sense of accomplishment; perhaps being a student was never a large part of who you are (this is possibly the case if you identified more strongly as something else, perhaps a mother or a teacher). However, if you’re feeling that sense of ‘what now’ – it’s important to bring awareness to your changing identity.
Acknowledging that you have lost part of your student self is an important step. I haven’t yet figured out what the next step is – but I do know that once I realized I actually missed my student identity, and that it was weighing on me – things got easier. This is why they have large parting events like graduation ceremonies. It is important to feel that sense of closure.
A few weeks ago I realized I was still in a few student social media groups, and that the struggles they were posting about were no longer my struggles, and it made me think about this entire concept of student identity and loss. Since then, I’ve actively been carving out room for other identities, shifting and wiggling them inside my brain to fill the gap that 'I am a student' left behind.
Importantly, although I am no longer officially a student (as Spotify informed me..) I can still learn. I can still attend webinars, read, and apply that knowledge. While I continue to battle with my new identities, I am also starting to enjoy them.
My opinions and views are no longer ‘that of a student’ but that of a full fledged human being (not that students aren’t people, but sometimes it felt that way). When people ask for my insight, it isn’t to humour me – it’s because I can add value (again, I’m sure we added value as students, even if it didn’t feel like it). I am also now supervising students – meaning that I am, in a small way, wrapped up in someone else’s identity formation. That, I’ve realized, is well worth the extra £4.99 I now pay to Spotify.
If you are struggling with an identity change or have an upcoming graduation, or life event, remind yourself that you are the sum of many identities – not just one – and you are in control of who you are. As always, though, if you are experiencing something that feels different to the above, or that is more intense - don’t be afraid to speak to someone. Post-graduation depression is very real and it is always worth seeing a specialist if you are concerned.
Thanks for reading – and good luck!
When researching for this post, I incidentally came across a similar post by Professor Kerrie Unsworth, who happens to be a colleague and a role model at the University of Leeds. She wrote a blog post recently titled "Who am I if I'm not at work?" that focuses on the changes in her working life and identity as a result of COVID-19. Although there are similarities in our posts, the two of them offer very different perspectives. There are differences in how and why our identities changed, with mine being a relatively normal fact of life (we all grow up and stop being students) and hers being more of a battle between her mental and physical self as a professional 'at work but not AT work' due to COVID-19. She also offers a more research-based and psychological perspective on identities. I encourage you to read her blog.