The Post-PhD Blues

The day was finally here. I was done. I had done all the checks, the proofs, and I couldn’t face reading my thesis any more. It had taken three and a half years, eleven studies, and 2,233 participants. I was done. I logged onto my university’s submission page, attached a PDF of my thesis, and then clicked submit.

There is nothing quite as anticlimactic as attaching a PDF to an online submission form. I was ready to celebrate but I felt more like a deflated balloon. But it was the next few weeks that really shocked me. I was sad, but also too tired to be sad. I felt empty. I slept for too many hours at night and I was exhausted during the day. I found it hard to focus and had no motivation to do anything. I couldn’t read, didn’t want to write, and just wanted to get away from everything. However, I had many many assignments I needed to mark before I could really be free. Plus, there is an expectation that immediately after you submit, you continue to work to further your experience, publish more papers, and network to find a job.

Those six weeks after handing in my thesis were very tough. I had heard of people feeling like this during a PhD, but after handing it in? I thought I was weird. But then I looked it up. Some call it the “PhD Comedown“, the “Post-PhD blues“, or “Post-Dissertation slump“.

So, I decided to go to twitter and conduct an informal poll. This was my tweet:

Did you experience post-PhD blues? Or a “PhD hangover”? I found it difficult to read or focus on anything (like grading that needed to be done) and sleeping too much but still being tired. What did you experience post-Phd?

518 people voted in the poll, with 82% of them voting for “Yes”.

It was a relief to know that this post-PhD deflation was a very normal feeling. I noticed some themes or patterns in the comments on that post (bear with me, I’m not a qualitative person but I’m giving it a go):

Suddenly having no direction:

“…Going from having the PhD as a goal, to no clear future, was tough” 

“I passed my viva at the beginning of the month and have since felt totally lost! Before then it had been “I’ll sort my life out after the viva” but now it’s over and I’m (shrugging girl emoji) I hated so much of my PhD but now I really miss it!”

Having been goal-oriented for so long, with a single end point in mind, it was very tough suddenly losing that singular focus.

Having to be a real adult, all on your own:

“I had a mild panic attack when I got to my new office and realized my advisor wasn’t there anymore to tell me what to do. In fact, no one was telling me anything. I didn’t know where to start.”

I have spent so long identifying as a “student” or “PhD candidate,” it became my identity. “I think X, but I may be wrong, I’m only a student”. I was using the concept of “student” to offer me protection in case I made a mistake.

Phantom “I should be writing guilt”:

“Phantom PhD syndrome!!! (When you still feel this sense of anxiety that PhD work still needs doing – even though you’re finished!)”

“I was part of a support group during my PhD and every single one of us went through it after completing our degrees. It was hard to get my brain out of the “I should be writing” pattern”

Although the last few months felt like a sprint to the finish line, overall I had been nursing this PhD for a long time. From the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to sleep at night (and sometimes in my dreams), the PhD was always occupying mental space. I guess it will take time for that part of my mind to be repurposed for something else. Perhaps “I should be applying for jobs” guilt instead?

I’ve found many blog posts discussing this topic if you want to dig deeper:

So, this was yet another blog post about my experiences with this emotional journey. Have you experienced this? Does anyone have any interesting data on this? Please share in the comments. We need to turn these anecdotes into data.

– Alessa Teunisse

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