Emily Dale, Ph.D.

Lecturer, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona

Congratulations! You’ve graduated with your M.A. or Ph.D. and are now entering the world of Academia! I recently did the same thing. I earned my PhD in May 2016 from the University of Nevada, Reno in Anthropology with an emphasis in Historical Archaeology. The week after I graduated, I got an offer for a Lecturer position at Northern Arizona University in the Anthropology Department. After a year in the new position, I can look back and see where transitioning from student to faculty member went more smoothly and where the rough patches almost got the best of me. So, to help you, here’s some advice. We’ll start with the depressing.

First, PTDD (Post-Thesis Depression Disorder) is completely real. Not in a clinical, it’s in the DSM sense of real, but it exists and it gets quite a few of us. I spent the first week or so after handing in my final draft of my dissertation depressed. I should have been relieved! Years of work had finally paid off, and I had compiled everything into 500 pages I was quite proud of. I didn’t feel like getting out of bed or talking to people. I found myself in my advisor’s office crying, but without being able to explain why. A search of the Chronicle of Higher Ed Forums for “depression” led to me a several-page long thread of people expressing the same feelings after successfully submitting or defending their thesis or dissertation or graduating. I wasn’t alone. I talked with friends and colleagues and found others who felt the same. Everyone said similar things—instead of relief, there was a sense of pointlessness. A “what do I do now?” As master’s and doctoral students, we expend so much of our energy on our projects that when we’re done, that sense of purpose disappears. I had a fellowship that year, which prevented me from taking another job. I had no grading, no classes to attend, no lectures to prepare. I was suddenly left with nothing to do. I was lucky in that my PTDD only lasted about a week before my dissertation defense, job applications, packing, moving, summer school, and other obligations lifted me out. For others I’ve talked to, those feelings of depression lasted weeks or even months. But they were perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

Second, there are no tenure-track jobs. Don’t listen to people who assure you that getting a Ph.D. means a secure job is out there waiting for you. The market crash meant fewer older faculty retired, and higher education is increasingly considered as a business transaction, which means universities, colleges, and community colleges are hiring more and more lecturers and adjunct professors. I don’t regret my Ph.D., but I am fully aware of the fact that I will likely never get a tenure-track position, not because I’m not good enough, but simply because those jobs are going the way of the Neanderthal (or Colonoware for you historical archaeologists). So, be flexible. If you want to teach, that’s great! But you may need to take a lecturer position with no possibility for promotion and a 4/4 teaching load. Or a series of adjunct positions at a variety of schools. I was lucky/smart in my graduate career as I was able to teach undergrad classes as a Graduate Assistant and picked up extra classes at a local community college. When I left grad school, I knew I loved teaching and wanted to teach. If you want to do research, that’s great, too! But be adaptive. Figure out what your program does well or doesn’t have and adapt to that. You might not be able to work at your dream site, so find a new one. Basically, know your strengths and weaknesses, build a basic skill set in teaching and archaeology and build off of that. In a world where stable jobs are hard to come by, you have to make yourself indispensable to your university one way or another so you are the one who gets hired back. 

Now, for the good. No matter where you get a job, whether it’s near where you went to school or across the country, there are pros and cons to be aware of. I taught locally, as I said, but ended up getting a job in another state, so I’ve experienced both sides.

Let’s say you end up staying close to your university, maybe at the same institution. This comes with the upside of having an established support system of friends, family, and colleagues who know you and you can rely on. You probably already know the student body and their needs and unique quirks, so reusing old classes or creating new ones will be easier. On the flip side, so many of those people you already know will likely remember you as “Emily, the Grad Student.” Transitioning to Dr. So-and-So can be hard. You’re surrounded by former teachers and friends who haven’t yet graduated, but you have a new status, and remembering that comes with a bigger dose of imposter syndrome if you’re surrounded by the same people.

Now, let’s say you move elsewhere. Here, you’ll have to build a brand new support system—make new friends and figure out department dynamics and politics. The student body can be completely different. I went from a larger institution in Nevada to a much smaller one in Arizona, meaning the students in my new classes were more often first generation or struggled in high school. This is not a judgement on either sets of students I taught, but I did have to completely rewrite some of my syllabi and lessons to better help my new students succeed. On the other hand, I came in to NAU as Dr. Emily Dale. No one questioned my new status, so feeling like a real professor was much easier, and I feel like less of a phony as a result.

If I leave you with anything, it’s this: if you are struggling in any way, with PTDD, the job market, faculty responsibilities, life in general, anything, take advantage of the mental health services offered by your institution. Most offer some form of free or discounted therapy or counseling, wellness programs, or other services aimed at keeping their faculty happy, healthy, and sane. You cannot take care of your research, students, or other professional responsibilities if you do not take care of yourself first.