A State of Transition

Shifting from the end of your PhD to the beginning of an early career researcher path can be disconcerting and make you feel lost. Jenny Mak proposes a two-part process to navigate this transitional period.

There comes a time near the end of your PhD when you might find yourself in a state of transition. This is when you’re finishing the research project that you’ve worked on for the last 3-4 years, preparing it for submission. Simultaneously, if you’re hoping to stay in academia, this is also when you’re trying to get new projects off the ground—writing a journal article, creating a postdoctoral and/or book proposal—and applying for fellowships or even assistant lectureships (in the UK context), all in the hope of getting a more permanent position.

This period can feel disconcerting. It’s not uncommon to hear fellow PhDs commenting on how weird it feels: to not be done with your PhD thesis, but already being expected to produce a clear and concise postdoctoral project proposal, just in time for the various deadlines of prestigious fellowships and academic jobs. How might we navigate this transition? I’ve found the two-part process below to be helpful.

Part #1: Recognise your dual identities and be adept at shifting between the two

The first part works at the level of a mindset shift. Instead of being just a PhD student, you now also need to begin re-envisioning yourself as an early career researcher. In another post, I’ve discussed the benefits of making this mindset shift earlier. But at this point, since you’re applying for postdoctoral jobs, this is a material reality.

This mindset shift matters because this affects the way you write and present your postdoctoral proposals, cover letters, and resumes. You want to sound confident when proposing a new project and yourself as qualified for the role—effectively as someone who already has his/her PhD! So harness the power of your imagination and embody this sense of an early career researcher.

Don’t forget, however, that you’re also not officially done with your PhD. There’s still the viva, (possibly) corrections, and a range of administrative procedures to go through before you get that “Dr”. So, formally, you’re still a PhD student and it’s important to stay focused on the tasks you need to do to make sure you get your doctorate.

By recognising your dual identities of a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher, you can learn to shift accordingly to each context, stay flexible, while also ensuring that you’re achieving your goals in both roles.

Part #2: Find a Planning System that works for you

The second part deals with the practical aspect of achieving your goals in both roles. With two roles come two sets of tasks, where you not only have the different deadlines that come with finishing up your PhD, but also those that accompany the various academic positions you’re applying for.

Having an effective organisational system helps to capture all the tasks you need to do and track your progress. There are many options out there, from apps like Trello and Asana to simple software like Excel, or paper planners. I use a combination of Google Calendar (for reminders of job application deadlines) and the Bullet Journal Method (to keep track of tasks on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis). Having an effective planning system ultimately allows you to have a bird’s eye view of all the essential tasks that you need to do and ensures that you accomplish them on time so that you don’t miss out on important responsibilities and opportunities.

This two-part process will hopefully help you feel more grounded as you’re shifting between these two identities. It’s about knowing what you’re aiming for all at the same time and taking concrete action on them. Keeping track of your progress will also allow you to see that you’re achieving your goals in both respects. It’ll assure you’re moving forward, with purpose and direction, and not feel lost or confused in a transitory period.


Have you found the transition between finishing up your PhD and applying for postdoctoral positions a challenging experience? What are your strategies for dealing with this transition? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below.


Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at the embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.


Cover image: change-arrows-clouds-sky-direction-948024 / geralt-9301 / CC0 1.0

Image 1: Book pictured here is “101 Essays That Will Change Your Life” by Brianna Wiest / thoughtcatalog / CC0 1.0

Image 2: a journal and a marker / esteejanssens / CC0 1.0

2 thoughts on “A State of Transition

  1. This has always been a struggle for me. It’s hard to get out of that student mode sometimes. Great post, and I like the bullet journal/planner idea. I’m still trying to find a planner system that works for me. Maybe I’ll try that.

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