How to Handle the Post Ph.D. Blues
For some of us the high that comes from a significant achievement can be followed by a period of feeling melancholy, or in some cases even malaise. It is not uncommon for new Ph.D. candidates to feel lost and empty. They struggle to find the motivation they once had after achieving such a herculean accomplishment. This has been well-documented in people completing marathons, for example. Months (or sometimes even years) of vigorous training leading up to a single athletic event… and then it is over leaving the runner feeling empty.
This phenomenon appears to be quite common among recent Ph.D. students as well. Some call it the post-dissertation slump; others refer to it more medically as post-dissertation stress disorder or post-dissertation depression. However, it is not our intent here to make the experience sound pathological; many students deal with some (unexpected) negative feelings after they have been hooded. One might describe it as being another part of the academic journey. Nonetheless, there is no harm in finding good ways to mitigate this down period, especially if it is effecting your well-being.
You have spent years on your coursework: managing your time, reading a barrage of articles (some of them interesting, while others… not so much), devoting all your energy to this worthy pursuit. Your sense of self can often become intertwined with the pursuit of a Ph.D. Accordingly, when that trajectory is no longer there, a sense of being lost is only natural. When you finally achieve your big goal, the feeling of ‘so what now?’ sneaks into your psyche.
Many students report experiencing a void after graduation. They can also feel insecure after graduation, especially if professional pursuits are not in the imminent future. The truth is academic life can sometimes be slightly removed from ‘reality’. Some struggle to make the transition out of academic life becoming somewhat paralyzed about what to do next. During your Ph.D. studies, the endgame is clear. Although some doubts would creep in occasionally, you usually feel dedicated and disciplined to see it through to the end. When the work is done, however, you are face with an entirely different road map. There is a lot of uncertainty and, sometimes, anxiety connected with a future unknown. The ‘unknown’ can pertain to different areas of life, such as future employment, finances, relocation, transforming the Ph.D. into something tangible, etc.
What should you do if you suddenly experience post dissertation depression and feel disheartened about things that used to excite you? Here are some things to keep in mind:
- First of all, remember that what you are feeling is natural; it will pass.
- You are not the only one experiencing a post dissertation low. Try to talk about it with other recent Ph.D. graduates or people working in academia. The likelihood is that they have experienced something similar at some point in their careers and will be able to relate/empathize.
- Focus on the exciting new opportunities that are ahead of you. You might have been oblivious to some of them in the past because you were so occupied with finalizing your dissertation. Find joy in discovering them now that you have more time.
- Revisit areas of your life you neglected while you were busy studying. This can may include engaging in some very un-academic activities/indulgences. Whatever works for you (as long as it is not inherently harmful) can bring some balance back into your life.
- Try to plan out your future career path. Consider all possibilities, without prejudice, and decide if you will continue in academia or maybe move on to industry. Be creative when thinking about different work positions and be open about trying new things… a lot of doors just opened, but you need to find them. Enjoy the quest!
- Even if you do not feel very motivated now, work on getting your Ph.D. material published, either in the form of journal articles or as a book. Publications can signal to your future employer (especially if you want a job in academia) that you will be an asset to their department.
Do not forget that you have just emerged from (likely) a very stressful period of your life. It is okay to allow some time to recover and recuperate, psychologically and physically. You have already showed what you are made of by graduating and there are other great things out there that will get you to engage with the same enthusiasm, if you simply take the time to seek and find them.