By: Luke Kirwan |

Getting to the end of your doctorate is a fantastic experience. It’s the goal you’ve worked towards for 3+ years. Somewhere along the line you’ve probably thought about the post-PhD world, but the doctorate is all-consuming and thinking about a time where you’ve finished your studies can almost seem like a pipe-dream. In the last few months there’s both the pressure to submit combined with the added pressure of sourcing some form of paid employment. Personally, I never intended on going into academia, so was spared the roll call of detailed applications for competitive post-docs, and was looking forward to the more balanced 9-5 lifestyle outside of academia. However, the transition from spending nearly twelve years in third level education to a more regular working environment was not something I even considered as a potential challenge.


I was fortunate to secure a job a week before submitting, but this made the transition hectic to say the least! On the 23rd of December I was correcting first year essays in Ireland, by the 4th of January I was working in a library in Austria. On top of the house hunting, the language barrier, and general hassle of moving countries and starting a new job, I had a viva to prepare for. There was very little time spent adapting to my new lifestyle. The first two months were a blur of leases, bank accounts, IKEA, and preparing for the viva. In retrospect this was actually an advantage. Rather than obsessing over every detail of the thesis I had to focus on the overall content and general arguments. This is a good way to approach your viva, but I doubt it would have been possible if I had more than a few hours a week to prepare. The viva went well, I flew back to Austria, and faced a world where I was no longer a student!


Doctoral studies consume your life. When you’re not researching or writing there’s the guilt. On top of all this a large proportion of your social life probably revolves around your department, other students and academics. Because of this, there were unexpected adjustments. Namely what do people do on weekends or public holidays aside from feeling guilty about not writing or discussing some obscure aspect of their discipline?

Explain to me again what a holiday is?

Once my PhD was finally put to bed I found myself with a monumental amount of free time and I was unsure what to do. It sounds like a pathetic complaint, but the final year of a PhD is packed with writing, teaching, and the occasional panic attack. There are very few  ‘down’ periods where you can just relax. It took me a while to rediscover what I actually would like to do with my free time. I was able to read for pleasure, without throwing a critical eye over the text, an unbelievable luxury! Hiking in the Alps is fun, ice skating is painful, wine hiking (Weinwandertag) around Austrian Heurigen is the greatest of all! There’s a slow process of adjusting to work that doesn’t cause a nagging sense of guilt when you take time off, and one that doesn’t insist on following you home at night.

Work environment

A PhD teaches you quite useful transferable skills. A strong ability to work on your own initiative, a great deal of discipline, and (sometimes!) effective time management. These are all invaluable in a work place. However, as you are essentially your own boss, if you see a problem you fix it and move on. There is little discussion or reliance on input from others. Within a PhD  the pressure is largely self-imposed. No matter how tedious or frustrating portions of your work are you have a vested interested in its completion. However, in a traditional work environment there are multiple competing interests that must be completed, even if you see them as mundane, or unnecessary. This lack of control is common in most workplaces, but after several years as a doctoral student it can be quite shocking to lose so much control over your daily routine. But of course this is the price you pay for a regular pay check.

I’m how old now?

A PhD is a serious commitment, and once you emerge it can seem like you’re 5-6 years behind your contemporaries. I was delighted at buying and owning my own couch, proof that I was a real adult! At the same time, friends are getting married, having children, buying houses and are many years into their careers. The first year out of studies involves a certain degree of catching up. After your doctorate you probably have loans rather than the savings your peers have built up. You’re beginning to outline what shape you would like your career to take while your peers are sketching the fine details. It took me time to feel like I was fully engaged in the adult world, and in many respects it felt like I was making up for lost time. I enjoyed my PhD, but it also dominated the last half of my twenties .

It takes time

It takes about a year to adjust. You’ve spent a large portion of your young adulthood measuring yourself against professors, other PhD students and there’s a tendency towards self-depreciation that doesn’t work in the real world. Skills you take for granted as a basic part of your discipline are valuable and you need to be able to identify and sell them to a potential workplace. Thinking back on my PhD is tinged with nostalgia. You’ll look back with longing at the flexibility of a PhD, and forget that you actually avoided holidays or normal working hours to continue working on your thesis. Self-imposed pressure is the worst-and your free time was spent thinking CONSTANTLY about your thesis. I’d happily do it again, but there is a sense of loss now. There are many benefits to going out into the real world, but it is hard to imagine anything being as fulfilling as when you finally see your printed thesis for the first time.

Luke Kirwan was a PhD student at University Cork College (UCC), but he has since escaped PhD life and currently works as an Open Access Manager with IIASA in Austria. You can find him on twitter @Luke_kirwan.

Main Image: © Michael Zapf, flickr; Image 1:; Image 2: Pixaby; Image 3: : Jorge Charm – PhD comics: