On Graduating and the Loss of Identity

The months following graduation proved more challenging than expected. Not because of my first attempt to take on the bewildering, crushing academic job market. Also not because of the loss of purpose I once had while writing and editing my dissertation. Those experiences were certainly part of the challenges that awaited me after my mentor placed the doctoral hood around my neck and after my official diploma arrived in the mail.

I felt lost. Time passed, and the sense of feeling suspended between worlds persisted. It followed me as I took on the role of adjunct and lined up classes to teach at my (now) alma mater. It remained stuck at the edge of my mind as I scrolled through posts on social media. Spaces once filled with familiar topics about academia and teaching, carried on by familiar names and faces, became alien. My usual retorts or curious inquiries fell silent. I had no words to offer.

This shift confounded me. I felt a persistent sense of dread that I no longer knew who I was.

But that didn’t make sense. I accomplished so much (so I told myself). Friends and family passed along their congratulations and well wishes. Their kind words and excitement sat heavy like a rock deep in my core. I felt ashamed I didn’t share in that sense of pride for what I did. I earned a doctorate, and that alone is a challenging feat. Less than 2% of the population in the United States has done the same, and being a woman, I was part of the less-than one percent. Or so I was told.

I struggled to understand this sense of loss – to understand why, after finally achieving success, my world seemed so out of sorts. Nothing seemed clear until, months after the fact, I understood.

For seven and a half years, I was in two graduate programs, in two different schools, in two different states. Goal-oriented and motivated by some undefined source of willpower, I devoted a portion of my life to earning two graduate degrees. For what purpose, I still struggle to know, but graduate school was more than what I did – it became who I was. It got under my skin. It changed the way I spoke. It changed the way I dressed and how I carried myself. It utterly redefined my very being.

And then it ended.

Why else would graduation and achieving the one goal I’ve worked toward for the past several years have such a disconcerting effect? I didn’t simply graduate from a PhD program, I lost an essential part of my identity.

It took me three months to realize that.

For years I’ve introduced myself as a graduate student. Doing so can carry so many different meanings, which I found to be a convenient means of explaining or excusing myself (why I didn’t have a full-time job, why I often bemoaned my economic standing, why I never had time to do ______ or go to _____). I never completely understood how doing so, year after year, reshaped the way I thought of myself, or how I perceived of myself.

On social media outlets, especially Twitter, where I grew accustomed to conversing with an array of scholars – food and drink aficionados, and other intriguing, sharp-witted people – it was as though I forgot what to say. I followed conversations but seemed to lack the ability to join. Even in day-to-day conversations and encounters, I felt like part of my personality was gone, evaporated into the ether, and I was little more than a spiritless automaton.

I suppose that is the danger of making a temporary identity such a fundamental part of your being. It is now clear to me why the lack of success on the academic market is so emotionally destructive to so many. It isn’t about the job that didn’t pan out. I wonder now if it is ever about the job. People can research, write, and teach in many capacities outside of the academy. No – it is about coming to terms that you have to separate yourself from an all-encompassing identity. You have to acknowledge that your hope of turning your graduate student identity into the different, but still familiar assistant professor identity won’t happen. It is the realization you have to separate yourself from all that is recognizable and comfortable.

The realization that it is time not just to do something else, but to become someone else.

It took me three months to come to terms with this transition, and while there remains some creasing for the iron, I finally feel a sense of peace. I have new tasks and objectives now, offered in the form of full-time, “alternative-academic” employment. I see new ways to apply the knowledge and skills gained over the past decade. I also recognize that I am more than a grad student. I am more than my PhD. I am not my degree, and neither are you. Knowledge and education can shape us in powerful ways, but in the end it is up to us to chart our own paths and remain our own advocates.

Only time will tell what challenges come next.


7 thoughts on “On Graduating and the Loss of Identity

  1. Very well written. I’m graduating with my masters next May after going straight from undergrad to grad school. I am so over and done with academia so I haven’t experienced the same thing in terms of hoping for an academic job. However, the “grad student identity crisis” is so real and it’s certainly not something people talk about. I’m curious what job are you currently in? Is it in your desired field as in related to your degree?


    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It’s a shockingly powerful, the way that being a grad student takes over aspects of your life. You’re right – no one gives you a heads up about how difficult it can be to shake that off. I was lucky to land a job in the Office of Graduate Studies at UTA, and I am very excited about the work I am doing there. I work with graduate students to help them complete their programs and land on their feet after graduation (primarily in helping them find employment). The transition to this new job has helped bring much of what I wrote about to light in my mind. Plus, it has showed me there is so much more to learn than what we tackle in our graduate programs.

      Good luck to you as you finish your degree! I went straight through as well. The grind of it can drain you, but hang in there.


  2. Aunt Lyn

    Oh. My. Gosh. I heard your grandma Carolyn talking in your blog. She would have explained that to you exactly the way you said it. She would have said the exact same thing: it’s time for a new challenge. I remember thinking ” what will she do when she graduates? She won’t know how to act’ lol! And sure enough, here you are. BUT you are so much more than you realise! And you are facing these new challenges with strength! And with a great companion by your side!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rachael

    you say it took you three months to make the transition. It’s been almost a year for me and not sure I’ve wrapped my head around that person I envisioned would emerge after graduating. (that was a bad sentence but you get the point.)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much for writing this post. Your post confirms my thoughts – graduating from my PhD at the end of 2015, I am in a similar situation and have only just begun to realise how much my identity was tied up with my studies. I too feel lost and also struggle to share in the sense of pride and accomplishment I should be able to enjoy after completing such a challenging piece of work.

    As a UK student, I spent 4 years completing my PhD and have come out of the process a very different person to the one who started the course. I’m not entirely convinced how much I have improved/developed during that time as I suffered a huge loss in confidence about half-way through my studies, but I do know that I need to figure out who I am post-phd. Your words go someway in helping me work these things out.


  5. Great post Kristen. The sense of being between worlds and of none of them is something I can relate to. I’m still a resident of Adjunctia, which makes the transition next to impossible. Studying for a PhD is a temporary state of affairs, and teaching as an adjunct is an indefinite series of temporary states. Each ends with the same questions and hopes about future academic jobs as the PhD did. Without any intention of sounding bitter, it’s very good you were able to find a better position than teaching as an adjunct. My advice to any new PhD grad would be to look outside of academia first, because the longer you teach, the more difficult it can be to move away from academia. Most likely it will be a necessary move at some point. PhD-grad me would probably not have listened to older, wiser me, though. 😉


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