Do you ever stop feeling like a student?

Katie Wheat in graduation gown
Katie Wheat

Katie Wheat recently graduated with a PhD in Psychology from University of York and now works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University. She is currently using brain imaging and magnetic brain stimulation methods to explore aspects of how the brain recognises written words.

Katie has also recently been involved in co-organising the #ECRchat hashtag, in order to bring early career researchers together on Twitter. You can find her on Twitter as KL_Wheat.

An earlier version of the post originally appeared on Katie’s personal blog, Life After Thesis. Her ORCID is 0000-0002-7320-6013

Since submitting my thesis in January 2012 and starting my first postdoc in February, there has been a long period of adjustment. I think there are many reasons for this, and I am interested in connecting with other researchers to see if they have had (or are having) similar experiences. Some days I think I know what it is to be a postdoc and other days I am transported back to day one of my PhD. I have found limited advice surrounding the transition from student to independent researcher, and some days I wonder if I will ever stop feeling like a student.

It doesn’t help that the line between PhD student and postdoc is naturally fuzzy: (in my case) step 1 – submit thesis, step 2 – defend thesis, step 3 – submit final copy, step 4 – receive confirmation of award, step 5 – graduate. I started my postdoc before my graduation (the day I actually became a doctor), so for a while I felt like a bit of an imposter, and that they might still take away my PhD and kick me out of my job (see these great posts by Athene Donald and Scicurious for more on ‘imposter syndrome’). This feeling has eased a little now I have formally graduated, but I am still pondering the slow and gradual transition to independent researcher.

Another contributing factor is that I moved departments and countries to take up my postdoc (as I’m sure many people do). I don’t regret this decision at all and I am enjoying the new learning opportunities that I am being exposed to, however, beginning my postdoc didn’t feel much like a promotion when I was going back to asking the simplest of questions. After spending four years in the same department (during my Masters and PhD), the move to a new place did undermine my confidence to start with. It doesn’t help that many of my colleagues speak to each other in Dutch or German (which I don’t speak), so it can be hard to get to know people and to join in with small talk. A few months on and I am starting to feel a bit more at home in my new department, but I do still sometimes feel like the PhD students around me are racing ahead.

When I originally posted this article, I had quite lot of feedback surrounding the idea that being a scientist, a researcher, and an academic is a continual learning process, and that we should all expect these new learning opportunities and embrace them. I do agree with this – as I think anyone who wants to pursue a career in academia probably would – and in response I would say that new opportunities for learning on their own do not pose a problem; more of a challenge to be embraced. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has made the transition from PhD student feel so difficult for me. I think each small change and challenge becomes so much more overwhelming when they are combined.

The role of a postdoctoral researcher also comes with a new level of independence and responsibility compared to that of a PhD student, and while a certain level of independence can be liberating, it can also be quite daunting. The change from very close supervision to very absent supervision contributes to this feeling a lot. Furthermore, as a PhD student it felt like there was a constant safety-net in place, both via my direct supervisor and via the support network of my department. Although each PhD is unique, it felt to me like everyone around me passed roughly the same milestones, and went through similar experiences. Naturally, career paths and experiences become more diverse with each rung of the academic ladder, so that as a postdoc there is much more freedom and much less expectation that a certain path must be followed. This can be a very positive thing, but I do find it difficult not knowing where I will go next (or how I should get there), which takes me back to the feeling of uncertainty that I had towards the end of my PhD journey.

Finally, I have also found another source of information and reassurance since I first wrote about this topic (to complement the many great resources that I spoke of last time, such as Biggerbrains, The Postdocs Forum, and of course, The Research Whisperer). Although it previously seemed like there was a lack of solidarity between postdocs (compared to PhD students), I was gladly proved wrong. I had wondered if there was an internal or external expectation that we should have figured it all out by now or a feeling of competition between postdocs that stopped them coming together to support each other. It seems that I just needed to reach out and find them. While searching for an existing group, I came across a few other people tweeting about needing a ‘#PhDchat for postdocs’. It seemed like there was some interest in a group for people who have moved beyond the PhD stage, but still need the kind of support provided by #PhDchat. So, we have now created a weekly chat on Twitter where postdocs and other early career researchers (or anyone interested in academic career issues) can come together to share advice and resources. At the time of writing, this chat is still very new, but it seems to have the potential to grow and at the very least it seems like I am not the only one who has been looking out for this kind of community and support. So, if you have also been feeling somewhat uncertain in your new ‘postdoc shoes’ or during any phase of your academic career, I would encourage you to join us at #ECRchat and share your experiences.

Some of the points I have raised are specific to my circumstances, but did you experience any similar (or different) problems during the transition from PhD student to postdoc? Do you think there is more we can do as a community to support each other along the academic career path? If you would like to share your own experiences or advice, please do so via the comments below.


  1. YES! yes you stop feeling like a student. I finished in May 2012 and am currently “between jobs” (teaching starts in January). some time of doing nothing cured me from feeling like a student. (and contact to other researchers who treated me like a colleague instead of a slave)


    • i’ve never really been a postdoc. prior to graduating i got a few offers from companies which are active in research, so i went straight into the industry. i don’t really enjoy the idea of being a postdoc because u gotta work from 9-5. i mean, i’m innately nocturnal so that’s gonna be kinda hard.

      i do enjoy being a student. i mean, when u’re a student and u screw up, ppl would just say “oh, he’s still learning..” but when u’re NOT a student, they’d ask “how could u overlook something like that? geez!”.

      i still study part time. i mean, the unie is practically one of the few places in this world where u can have a real intellectual exchange without being perceived as a snob. plus, attending an intellectually stimulating lecture is like watching supernatural on 3D. LoL


      • @Pikir Kool. Thanks for your comment. I think many postdocs might disgree with the idea that we work 9-5. We may be contracted to work those hours, but I think most people probably find themselves taking work home on evenings and weekends at least some of the time.
        It’s interesting that your path has been quite different. Perhaps you will have similar a challenge of separating your student identity from your work identity?


    • Thanks for your comment. I am pleased to hear that your time off seems to have broken the cycle. Will you be teaching in higher education? If so, I would be interested in seeing whether this time off buffers you against the feeling of fuzziness between student and employee.
      I recently started teaching at Bachelors and Masters level, which has been a huge help in combating this feeling for me.


  2. The huge difference between being a student and being a postdoc is that as a postdoc, you are getting paid. So that means there is time you are meant to be working and time that you are not! Time that is actually your own!

    Interesting that you were worried about starting before your actual graduation day. Like many, I started after submitting my thesis, but with graduation still a year away (due to the time taken for examiners to get back to me, then for the inevitable minor revisions to be made and accepted by the committee, and then waiting around for the next graduation ceremony). I know several more started postdocs before they even submitted! I had that option, but worried that I’d never actually finish if I did that.


    • Thank you, that’s great advice! The time management issue wasn’t so troubling when I first wrote this post, but since then I have taken on a lot of new responsibilities and have found myself taking work home with me quite often. I think it will take some time before I recover from the bad PhD student habits of working any and all hours. My plan is to save these extra hours up and spend them on a well-earned long weekend back home.

      It is funny that graduation made a huge difference to how I felt as a postdoc. Even after all of the confirmations that my PhD was/would be awarded, somehow only putting on that ridiculous hat really made it real for me. I think I would have found it even more difficult if I had started before my thesis had even been examined. I would definitely have worried about not finishing if I had tried to start my next job before submission!


  3. Your supervision experience is also interesting. As a PhD student, I was very much on my own. My supervisor went overseas for a month the day before I started, and that set the tone for the rest of my time there. As a postdoc, I joined an active team and had weekly meetings with my supervisor and others in the group. I learnt from my postdoc supervisor all the things I should have learnt during my PhD. I guess my point is that supervisiion quality and support are probably more individual experiences than really being a step-change between PhD and postdoc.


    • I agree, supervision is a very individual experience, that is probably different even for students under the same supervisor. My PhD supervisor liked to be very involved and was usually in the office just a few doors away from mine. We worked very closely together for the four years of my Masters and PhD. I think I would have found it very difficult if I had been in a situation like yours.

      My experience at Maastricht has been a bit more complicated, because the person I came to work with is no longer working. This change in situation was initially very difficult, but now things are much better. My new supervisor has a very active lab and we have weekly lab meetings as well as individual supervision meetings. Many of the things I was struggling with, such as being more involved in the department and developing my publication plan, are things working to improve together.


  4. Speaking from my own experience, the transition is actually easier when you move to a new department/university to continue your career post-PhD. I was offered a temporary lectureship at my existing institution a few weeks after submitting my thesis. I stayed for another two years, working as a full time staff member in the same department where I completed my BA and PhD. I was (and remain) very grateful for the opportunity to kick-start my academic career and I wasn’t treated badly by any means, but for me, it made the post-PhD transition into academia very difficult. I still felt like a student, rather than a colleague, and both myself and other junior/temporary staff who had also joined the department (coming from outside) at the same time as I did noticed that I was treated differently by the older, more permanent staff members, many of whom obviously still viewed me a student too, and treated me accordingly, which further undermined my confidence. I only started feeling like a ‘proper academic’ two years later, when I moved to a post at a different university – there I joined as a ‘new colleague’ rather than as an ‘ex-student’ – and right from the start there was a marked difference in the way my new colleagues regarded me as a result. Good luck at Maastricht!


    • Thank you for your comment. It’s very interesting to hear that you found the transition easier once you moved away from your PhD department. I can see how more senior colleagues might find it difficult to see you as a peer rather than still a student, and how that would make your position as a newly qualified academic even more difficult.
      I do wonder if your experience would have been different if you had moved straight into the post at a new university. Perhaps your initial false-start meant that second time around you already had the attitude that you deserved to be there and this was reflected in your colleagues’ attitudes towards you? Either way, I find it very reassuring to hear that other people also needed a bit of time to settle into their new role, and that confidence will grow with time.


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