What's going on here?
September 16, 2011 7:59 PM   Subscribe

Confused, lost and looking for suggestions to get back on track.

I finished a doctorate very, very recently. For years I'd go to work, think of work while walking, talking to people, doing dishes, doing laundry and chores, sleeping and waking up. I feel messed up now. I can't make decisions properly. I am not even talking career decisions. It can be as simple as deciding what to eat for dinner. I have no motivation nor an idea what to do with my life and myself. What the hell is the purpose of life? I don't know. For years I had a goal to look forward to and I never really planned any for afterwards. I cannot believe I have a few more decades to live like this.
To make matters worse, I am single and the very few friends I have right now will be moving away very soon. I feel so lost and...alone. I think it will truly hit me when my friends leave in a few months. While I have mostly been alone by choice for most of my life...something seems terribly missing. I am not sure if its a companion, a goal, or fun? I don't even know how to have "fun" anymore. Is it possible to even relearn that?

Is this normal? Is this burn-out? Will having fun *fix* me for good? Is it normal to feel this way post-phd? I am looking for serious, non-generic answers. I would especially love to hear from folks who have been down that road after a major life-event.
posted by xm to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You need to learn to fish.
posted by sanka at 8:09 PM on September 16, 2011

Some let-down after a huge, years-long project isn't a big surprise. My advice is to treat it like grief: take care of the basics, keep physically active and eat as well as you can, and let time pass.

Learning to fish isn't a bad idea in the meantime, though.
posted by nat at 8:16 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you think it's possible that you may be depressed?
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 8:17 PM on September 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

Is this normal? Is this burn-out? Will having fun *fix* me for good? Is it normal to feel this way post-phd?

Totally normal. What I did post-phd was take a lot of time off. I traveled, submitted a few short publications to conferences and coordinated my travel around them, threw parties, and had a part time job that paid my rent while I made lackadaisical progress applying for jobs.

Catch up with those friends you haven't seen much while doing thesis, go to the gym more often now that you have more free time, finally follow through on those weekend trips to other cities you promised old classmates you'd visit them in, and leisurely apply for postdocs or other research jobs. Your head will clear.

Will you ever get "fixed" for good? No, no one is ever fixed for good, PhD or not. You're always going to be confronting new challenges, but you can overcome the one in front of you, rest assured.
posted by deanc at 8:28 PM on September 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

A lot of people feel exactly the way you do following their undergraduate degree, believe it or not. Or after several years of long term travelling. Or after they sell or close their business. Or after their kids leave home.

Basically: the way you feel is pretty normal for someone who just finished something that was all-encompassing. You will move past this, but you need to make an effort. A good first step is to just not worry about what the right thing is for the long run, and just start doing SOMETHING. Get some kinda job (ANY JOB) so that you can discover if you want to keep doing that, do something else, or discover what parts of that job you want to amplify or reduce in your next choice. Or join a sports league. Or take a non-academic course. It's amazing what a difference just PICKING SOMETHING can do. It changes your framework, jolts you out of the aimlessness, gives you something to have an opinion about.

(because this is the AskMeFi we all know and love, lots of people will suggest that you're depressed and should see a therapist. I think that you don't sound depressed, but that if you wallow, and don't take an active role in your life - even if its just to say 'yes, i will take this vegetarian cooking class' - that that could be the path you end up going down. Make proactive choices now, to try and avoid feeling totally aimless and helpless later.)
posted by Kololo at 8:29 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's happened me multiple times, but I'm still stunned each time at how deflated and even morose I am after finishing a big project -- even if (actually especially if) it was a success. My wiring may not be exactly the same as yours, but I certainly can relate.

My recommendations include: Create and stick to a routine. Make sure it includes time outside every single day (I got a surprising amount of pleasure and motivation out of wearing a pedometer, fwiw), as well as at least one opportunity to interact, face-to-face, with someone in real life, even if it's just the newsstand guy. Identify tasks that you want to do ("broccoli"- and "dessert"-type tasks alike) and create deadlines for yourself on a calendar. The fact that you have an upcoming move should make that part easy. Be sure to shower and put on "normal" clothes every morning. Feed yourself well. Sleep eight hours a night. And learning to fish sounds like truly great advice.

Basically, there's a lot of "fake it 'til you make it" in this approach -- a way to bridge the time from one I Know Exactly What I'm Doing phase to the next -- and you need to fill the time with more than just your thoughts.
posted by argonauta at 8:31 PM on September 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I didn't experience this post-dissertation, but I had a job that I started before I finished my diss.

Put yourself back into your work. That's what we do! Turn those diss chapters around into pubs. Start working on your next grant.

Are you moving for a postdoc or TT job? Don't stress, you'll have a new environment soon.

While you're still on campus, get thee to student health services. You sound depressed.
posted by k8t at 8:32 PM on September 16, 2011

When I finished my Masters it took me a few weeks to shift my focus to anything else. After the super intense drive needed to complete the thesis defense, I was numb to anything else. I just needed to give myself some time to decompress, and then I was able to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. It was a pretty weird feeling, though - not really caring about anything after I passed the defense.

My suggestion is to give yourself some time. This was a huge milestone; you have every right to come down slowly.
posted by blurker at 8:38 PM on September 16, 2011

I think it might be time to consider getting a dog. Walking your dog daily gets you out of the house and it's an easy way to meet people. Caring for another being's needs gets you out of your own head. And it sounds like you could use some unconditional love. And some fur.
posted by carmicha at 8:55 PM on September 16, 2011

You lucky bastard. Lots of stuff still to come. Give yourself a break. There's a giant world out there. This is burnout. You'll get through it!
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:59 PM on September 16, 2011

Is there a swimming hole in your vicinity? If so, grab a six pack of tall-boys and go there. Swim around for a while, offer people beers if they want them (while saving some for yourself, of course). After that, go eat a nice meal at a divey but good restaurant. Keep reminding yourself that you're going to be just fine. It's only normal to run a race and then be surprised that there's no more running to do, so don't be worried about that. Enjoy some little things this weekend. The work-week is always waiting.
posted by Gilbert at 9:01 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is this normal? Is this burn-out?

Yes. Yes.

Learn to fish, buy some comic books, find a bar you like, ride a bike someplace, find a career. In that order.

Find someone to talk to if that doesn't help - no shame if it's a therapist. Serious, no shame at all.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:37 PM on September 16, 2011

Hi xm,
I finally joined metafilter specifically to answer your question, lo these many years ago. And here we are again... I'm still just a few steps ahead of you and can give you a very unvarnished perspective:
1. You have to find your next step. I don't know what you're doing right now, or whether you've set up post-docs or anything, but you have to at least FIND it. That doesn't mean land it, although it would be best, but the vacuum in your thinking right now is the absence of futurity, of "what's next" after the immediate experiments or milestones. Without that forward-looking great hazy/rosy looking future the current world seems a bit dire and hopeless. I can only suggest that without knowing/fantasizing about the future, depressive thoughts can easily dominate you.
2. This may well be depression, or more likely burn-out. But it is relatively mild and easily overcome by fishing, or other diverting activities that remind you that you can do more in the world, and have more to offer the world than a Ph.D. thesis that your parents will read the abstract of and then throw their hands up. The world that you have been denying is there, waiting for your interaction. The major problem I've found is that the world seems to be increasingly sucky, which can only be mitigated by pleasant futurity-based thoughts... for that see point one... and then fix the global economy.
3. Overarching, and a bit of a catch-22, is that you must approach the world-to-come (post-doc etc) as the way you want to be seen in it. Yes you're just now coming up from the suckhole of the doctorate, but seriously the whole world isn't like that, it doesn't know or it doesn't care. You simply must project the way you want to be, not who you are now, into the actions you're taking for the next step. You must remind yourself of the fantasy of yourself and try to fulfill that as much as possible. The tough self-love says: The doctorate is over, there's no excuses now for making yourself more miserable than is absolutely necessary.

In short, what it seems you're missing is a goal, in abstract, that keeps your brain churning, and occupies you through the day, you need to go find the next goal, so as to keep those well-honed gears going.
Also, fishing.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:58 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, when you throw yourself heart and soul into a project, and then the project ends, it's disorienting as fuck.

I think of it as "post show letdown" because that's the first name I heard for it, back when I was a wee little high school theater nerd. However awesome the show is, however much fun you have putting it on, sooner or later it ends and you need to figure out something else to do with all your time and energy and love. In fact it's especially hard when the show goes well and you go out with a bang, because then you get adjusted to the joy of doing something really well — and replacing that intense, immediate hands-on joy with the vague satisfaction of looking back on a job well done is a pretty brutal blow.

Now that I'm in grad school it hits me any time I finish up a research project or a presentation. Same thing. "Oh man, I get it now! It all makes sense! The data all fits, and it's all so clear, and.... wait, that means it's finished. Crap. Time to put it down. Just when it was getting really fun, too."

The good news is, it's not a permanent state. You relax and rest up for a bit, and then you find some new project to pour yourself into and it starts getting fun again.
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:34 PM on September 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went through this in the months between finishing my PhD and starting my first job (which I already had been hired for before defending). I know it's almost cliche by now, but exercise helped tremendously. It was Georgia in the summer, so I did a lot of Wii exercising, but still it gave me a thing to do and after years of squeezing in doing nice things for myself, it was nice to feel like my big accomplishments of the day were exercising and cooking a good dinner, I also took on contract work editing journal articles for non-native English speakers. It was nice to use my skills while absolutely positively not even looking at my dissertation. And the money wasn't bad, either.

3 months later, when I started my job , that badness was gone and I have been able to throw myself into it and no longer feel that awfulness lingering from grad school. My dissertation chapters still aren't published, though, and I'm still not quite where I can work on that, yet.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:34 AM on September 17, 2011

I work with PhD students right at the end of their process, proof-reading their theses. They all do this. Then they get a new postdoc or another job, or move back to their home country and start back at their old job - and all is fine.

For what it's worth, just as they are all amazed when I get their document and email back saying "now, go to sleep for 48 hours, then start eating properly again and exercising" and they thought it was only them, and that I'm psychic, everyone also thinks they're the only one to go through this. I guess it's kept quiet, like the indignities of childbirth or something!

Good luck! You'll get there! Soon you'll be sending your proof-reader articles and getting on with your life!
posted by LyzzyBee at 7:34 AM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

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