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  • Destenie Nock

What Has the First Year After your PhD been Like?

Updated: May 20, 2020

Question: After 10 years in school working towards all those degrees what has the first year on the job been like?

Answer: The first year after my PhD has been...memorable. Looking back I got married, started a new job, went to Ghana, lost a bunch of grants, and something else....oh yeah COVID dropped a nuclear bomb obliterating any sense of normalcy in the world.

May 7, 2020

By Destenie Nock


Since 2009 I spent 10 years in university working towards 4 degrees. It has been one year since I walked across the stage and graduated with my PhD officially becoming Dr. Nock. Being stuck in a perpetual work from home situation seems like a good time for a life update and a little reflecting. One year ago I graduated May 2019 from the University of Massachusetts with a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. Since then it has been a whirlwind of activity and life changes.

In a nutshell, since becoming Dr. Nock I got married, hosted an electricity stakeholder workshop in Ghana, moved to Pittsburgh, started my Postdoctoral Fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University, hired 3 PhD students, wrote or co-authored 12 grant proposals (2 are pending and 10 rejected...tough year). Oh, and I almost forgot....COVID-19 dropped a nuclear bomb in the middle of spring semester, blowing up any sense of normalcy and halting the world in its tracks. This has been a memorable year to say the least. With that being said let's take a deeper look at how the year post-PhD is going.

Lets start with the good stuff.

Dr. Baker and Dr. Nock at UMass Graduation

In May 2019 I graduated with my PHD. Sometimes I still can't believe this happened. I am the first one in my family to get a PhD. To all of the first generation college and PhD students, I know your families are probably driving you crazy, like mine was but it will be worth it. Don't let the questions of "why are you still in school?" get you down. Sitting in the auditorium with my advisor (Dr. Erin Baker) was totally worth the struggle.

In June 2019 I got married to Martin, my rock for the last 5 years. We met in undergrad and have been doing a long distance relationship since 2014. Planning a wedding for 180 people during the last year of my PhD and on a graduate student salary was tough.

A Superhero Wedding on a Grad Student Budget

I found my dress at a bridal thrift store for $100 and the ceremony was at a fire house. We were lucky to have friends would were willing to contribute to the big day (making deserts, one friend bought me a bouquet, family friends catered and DJ-ed, etc), and a mother who helped me plan. We made the wedding unique by having "Mr. & Dr." throughout our wedding as opposed to "Mr. & Mrs."

In August 2019 I flew to Accra, Ghana to host an electricity stakeholder workshop. This work built on a paper I published which incorporated equality objectives into electricity system optimization models. In the workshop the SEN-Africa team brought together stakeholders from academic, power companies, utilities, and local chiefs to discuss challenges in reaching the universal access target. Some of the big things we found were that the main concerns were reliability and costs. Stakeholders stressed that electricity development should be focused on more than lighting. One chief stated that he wanted electricity to make him money, not just take it out of his pocket.

Now let's look at the good but stressful stuff.

Moving to Pittsburgh and starting the job at Carnegie Mellon has been stressful but overall I love it. Reasons I love my job include, but are not limited to:

  1. I like working in energy. - As a postdoctoral fellow and soon to be professor I am able to continue working in energy systems (recent papers on equality modeling in sub-Saharan Africa and US sustainability analysis). I have also been able to expand this to looking at issues in the food sector, specifically in the energy-food nexus (more to come soon).

  2. I have great mentors. - They are willing to share their personal experiences with grant writing, recruiting students, and faculty life adjustment.

  3. Due to my departments foresight I was able to start as a postdoctoral fellow. - When I graduated I wanted to go straight into being a faculty member. The main reason for this was that my husband would not move to me unless I could ensure living in a place for more than 3 years. The department offered me both a postdoctoral fellowship and the tenure-track assistant professorship at the same time. Not teaching classes has given me time to connect with colleagues, write grants and adjust from student to advisor.

  4. I love Pittsburgh because although it is a city, it has a lot of trees. I grew up in a small town of 1,400 people. If you know rural Maryland then you will understand why trees, outdoors, and green spaces are so important to me.

  5. I have always wanted to be a teacher. I love working with students so I think I was pre-determined to love this job.

Pittsburgh is a city of Parks, Bridges, and Steelers

No matter how much you love something too much of it is bound to stress you out. Reasons for stress in the first year while at Carnegie include:

  1. Rejection sucks at all levels. I have written or been a co-author on 12 grant proposals and 10 have been rejected thus far. Of the 12, there are 2 proposals still pending. At this point I feel like the odds are not in my favor. At one point I was pretty down about it, and one of my mentors mentioned that the foundations I have been applying to are pretty hard to get. Looking forward I have decided to focus more on the government grants and hope for the best.

  2. I don't want to let my students down in both teaching and research. This is self imposed stress because I love working with students and that makes me feel intense pressure to not let anyone down. My goal has been to view the whole student as opposed to just the researcher. Using this I have been recognizing how my students' experiences are different from my own and using that to adjust how I mentor each of them.

  3. I may have spread myself a little thin. I am co-advising 4 students and working with 2 undergrads. I have definitely gotten better at time management because of the different projects. It is like working on 4 dissertations at once.

  4. I was working 12-14 hour days when my ideal is 8-10. To reclaim the balance in my life I reviewed and redefined my definition of work-life balance as seen in the blog post titled "Work Life Balance: What Does it Really Look Like?"

During my first month in a meeting with the interim Dean he said "remember it is a marathon not a sprint." I have been using this to slow down and find the balance in life. Then in a separate discussion with a colleague, about how I felt I was spreading myself too thin he said, "Remember you only have a finite amount of heartbeats in this world. You should spend them where you think they will count the most." After he said this I realized that half of the proposals I didn't get were ones where my heart wasn't truly in it. So the lesson from all of this was to start saying no to writing and leading proposals where I know my heart won't be in the work.

Still smiling under my Black Panther Mask

Now for the oh my goodness what the heck is happening...

Just when I was getting the hang of things coronavirus (aka COVID-19) hit the I really need to say more? I think anyone reading this blog will understand the life altering impact of this. For the first time in the history of the world everyone is experiencing the exact same thing at the exact same about a bonding experience. COVID-19 has not only put people at risk but highlighted and exacerbated the social inequalities that already existed. Coping with this has been tough, but I am sure my struggle is nothing compared to the essential workers who have to go into work, and those on the job market....Be strong!

How are you coping with the "oh my goodness what the heck is happening"?

COVID-19 has lead me to take a look back and really think about work-life balance. To be honest as a super extroverted people person who was forced to quarantine I have been struggling. Working from home is never something I wanted to do. These four things helped me get out of the COVID depression I was experiencing during parts of March when all of this was happening.

  1. I admitted to myself that I was not OK and I talked to someone. I believe in preventative maintenance as the best way to avoid personal crises. Since the start of the job I have been talking to a therapist once a month about random things. After COVID hit we started talking every other week.

  2. Reading/Listening to more books for free using the Libby app. Libby lets you connect to your local library and rent books for free. I love this app, and how I can get lost in a story as I listen to the audio version on my walks. I used to read tons of fantasy novels as a child, and now I remember why. Two book series that really got my mind off of COVID and that were long enough to ensure lasting entertainment were Harry Potter, and Crazy Rich Asians. A book that really helped me career wise was The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

  3. I started doing more Zoom and video happy hours to reconnect with people. Thank goodness for technology.

  4. Started trying to appreciate the little things in life and went back to doing things I love that don't involve technology. With so many video conferences the last thing I want to do after work is go watch TV. Being from rural Maryland I love the outdoors so when it is warm enough after work or on the weekend I will take a walk or set up my hammock to social distance in the park.

"Remember you only have a finite amount of heartbeats in this world. You should spend them where you think they will count the most." - EPP Colleague

In summary the first year as Dr. Nock on the other side of the PhD has been...memorable. I could have never imagined so many life changing events would happen in one year. I am happy I got married, and career wise I am grateful to have wonderful colleagues and collaborators. I am bummed about all of the grant rejections, but that is the name of the game. I have decided to follow Dory's advice and just keep writing....preferably from a hammock.

Dory's Advice to living a good life

Thanks for reading. To keep up to date on blog posts, subscribe below, or follow me on Twitter @DestenieNock.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock is a Presidential Post-Doctoal Fellow in the Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department and and Adjunct Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2020 this will transfer to a tenure-track Assistant Professor position in EPP and CEE at Carnegie Mellon. Her work is focused on using optimization and decision analysis to enhance sustainability and equality of energy systems. She holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. She is the creator of the PhD-ing It Blog site which posts articles about graduate and undergraduate advice, and research updates in energy and sustainability. In her free time she enjoys going to the park, painting, and cooking with friends.

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