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  • Writer's pictureCharlene Holkenbrink-Monk

Life After the PhD

Updated: May 5

I initially started this website a year ago when I felt as if I was drowning, struggling to find out what my next steps would be and focusing on a dissertation proposal. It had a few names, but all boiled down to finding joy. I successfully defended that proposal in August 2022 and then defended my dissertation on March 20, 2023. And quite honestly, not much has changed since then. While this website was intended for me to merge together the various parts of my identity - aspiring photographer, writer, lover of travel, academic, and researcher - I couldn't really figure out what my niche is. Ironically, a year later now, I think my niche is not having a niche, life after the phd, and that's intentional, at least at this point. I recently took a road trip from San Diego, CA to central Illinois with my children. It was just under 2,000 miles, and a road trip we are familiar with. But there was something different, and the longer I drove, the more I reflected on how the wheels moved me forward, leaving so much behind. While I know realistically I need to have a research focus, I am done with being forced into a box. That is something I am leaving behind.

Sun setting in side mirror of car on road
My image of sunsetting in side mirror

Academic research is riddled with conversations around innovation and novel ideas, and while I get the need for that to an extent, what about the marvel of everyday life? Or the opportunities for true change if we refused to silo ourselves? I also understand the importance of becoming an "expert" in a particular field, but I think in some ways we become so hyperfocused on our need to prove ourselves in academia that we forget about the beauty of "simplicity." Though, it is pretty cool seeing my name on Google Scholar for my research, Disruption, Dissent, and Dialogue: YPAR as a Pedagogical and Institutional Tool. Heh.

Picture of dissertation research of disruption, dissent, and dialogue by Charlene Holkenbrink-Monk
Google Scholar citation of my dissertation

I have felt a bit of an existential dread since finishing, which I guess makes sense. Education has been my focus for some time now - well, 30 years of my life aside from a few breaks here and there to explore being a massage therapist (though that was still schooling,) having kids, or navigating health issues. And now... what? I find myself asking that a lot. Don't get me wrong - I love teaching, I love research, and I love writing, but do I want to battle the tenure-track ladder in academia? Do I want to feel as if I have to stay quiet in times of injustice to avoid a reduced workload or rejection of a promotion?

Woman holding diploma cover for PhD graduation
SDSU graduation ceremony receiving my PhD

It's been exhausting seeing the realities of faculty life. I have been faculty for 6 years now, working as an adjunct or lecturer at various institutions. I love teaching and I love my students. There is something exciting about lesson planning and then seeing the "ah-ha" moments my students have. I would love to be able to make a major transformative change in education, which is why I am still passionate about my work at The Dignified Learning Project. But so often a lot of the things I see are just so full of gimmicks, and that's depressing.

So, I guess a lot of what I'm getting at with this is that life is a mess and a PhD took a lot from me. It was well worth it, as I mentioned in a previous post, and I am proud of the work that I did. I love the friends I've met, and I am excited by much of the work I see people do, but it did take a lot of exploring outside of a niche away from me. And this website, these posts, and my social media are going to defy that - I'm going to write about life after the PhD journey, which includes critical education thoughts still, but also travel, my photography, parenting, and how not having a niche is so important to me. I'm done keeping elements of my identity in a silo - they all make me, me.

Mounds and hills with green grass and stairs
Cahokia Mounds in Illinois

On the road trip, I spontaneously stopped at the Cahokia Mounds. This place was amazing and reminded me so much of why I love studying history and traveling. For me, traveling is so much more than the "fun" that goes with it, but experiencing culture, beauty, and history. It also reminds me of why I do want to continue with the field of education, teaching true history, real histories, and lesser-known histories that do not align with colonized perspectives. For instance, the Cahokia people were the largest pre-Columbian settlement above Mexico. The narrative was that the Cahokia people were not thriving after 1350, but there has been research highlighting the idea of a civilization being lost is more of a myth. Thinking about the indigeneity of Southern Illinois is important when we understand the context of today's demographic and popular industries. Pretending this history didn't exist, which actually was not so long ago, does a disservice to the people before and currently in Illinois. Being able to take a quick detour reminded me of how I merge these parts of my identity together, and why I cannot force myself into a silo for much longer.

North spore pink oyster mushroom kit
Pink oyster mushroom kit

On that note, I'm going to get back to tending this pink oyster mushroom kit I'm working on with my daughter because, well, mycology is absolutely not my niche, but to hell with the niches at this point.

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