How long did it take you to "get over" your PhD?
September 1, 2016 11:08 AM   Subscribe

I submitted my PhD in February, and graduated in May and I'm still experiencing emotional aftereffects of the whole process. I've discussed it with Dr friends of mine, who said it took them up to one or two years to feel normal again! MeFites with PhDs, what were your experiences with post submission emotions?

It took me an extra year to finish my PhD. I experienced a burnout, relationship break-up, two months of homelessness, sporting injuries and just general misery phase around the end of year three for about six months. Following this, I got back to work, but really experienced a lot of anxiety, especially during the write-up phase. The write-up phase was about 4-6 months of high stress, working everyday towards the final three months and I think my body just got used to the high levels of anxiety and stress hormones running through it. I feel higher levels of anxiety and stress now than I ever did before I began the write-up phase.

I'm now working on a short post-doc contract at my university, whilst I pursue other opportunities outside of academia. I have a solid idea of where I want to go, and things are moving forward and I am getting interviews. My papers are getting published, I am getting lots of good feedback. I have a wonderful relationship, I live in a lovely house, I have lovely friends, sports injuries have gone and I exercise regularly.

So why do I feel so fragile? Right now I am attending a conference and I just feel vulnerable and off-kilter. The closest I can get to how I feel is when you have had nasty scare - someone has jumped out at you, or you have nearly stepped out in front of car but someone pulled you back at the last minute - and you know that everything is OK but you just feel shaken up and that you need to get somewhere safe and on your own before you burst into tears. I wouldn't say I feel down or depressed. My baseline, underneath emotion is one of general happiness, but I am experiencing a big emotional upheaval. I am definitely more up and down on a daily/weekly timeframe than I was pre-PhD. I have this haunting thought in the background that my PhD was a failure - even though it really wasn't! I have published papers, and the defense went really really well!

I talked to my friends in the field, and one said he was miserable after his PhD, and just had this "Was that it?" feeling. A second told me that her health was affected massively. She gained weight that she hasn't lost, developed a skin problem and only now is she getting back to herself again a year or two later. A third told me mood management was the most difficult part of his PhD, and he has had several bouts of depression post submission. It makes me wonder why we all out ourselves through this!

I have three real questions really:
1. Have other people experienced post PhD (or anything comparative) blues/anxiety/emotional upheaval? How did you feel and how long did it last?
2. What is it about the PhD process that really gets to people in this way?
3. Any tips/advice on managing how I am feeling?
posted by Nilehorse to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
1. Absolutely. Graduate school was a set of one awful experience after the other on a lot of fronts. But I also met my husband, made some great friends, had a wonderful mentor who taught me so much about what is still important to me to this day, got married and finished the damn dissertation, so it was balanced out.

2. Graduate school attracts people who are driven and a touch neurotic. Academia attracts the same group of people. The latter is in charge of your future, to a large extent, and molehills become mountains very, very quickly (at least in my experience). It is a grueling, self-paced process that ultimately in kind of entirely in the hands of other people.

3. I found that re-emerging in the real world started resetting my sites quickly. I'm in a clinical field, and so had to do an internship and a post doc. One of my first rotations on internship, my supervisor took a look at me one day and said "You just can't take positive feedback at all! We are setting that as a goal for you this rotation. You will listen to the well-deserved positive feedback about your own good work and you won't ask what you're doing wrong." It was a lightbulb moment for me. I'd heard so much negative feedback over the course of my grad work, that I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. That helped. I found a job I loved, started taking more time to do the things I'd always liked doing and that feeling on guard all the time started to fade. I still had dissertation anxiety dreams for a year or so, but it got so much better.
posted by goggie at 11:16 AM on September 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

It doesn't have to reach the "disorder" stage for post-traumatic stress to affect your life.

You may want to start with a workbook and decide after that if you want to pursue some professional coaching for strategies you can use to additionally reduce/manage your symptoms. You don't have to just wait for it to get better on its own.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:22 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not PhD but many friends talk about a post-partum depression when they can't do more for the fact they could have added X or edited down Y and Z. But if you really ask, most of these folks really admit to having done a PhD out of someone else's behest, or as a life choice since played out and considered over except for a very small number of employed academics who now have to focus on getting funding for more projects. Finding funding for the next project is a great way to develop new brainwork.
posted by parmanparman at 11:30 AM on September 1, 2016

I could have written this question in 2014 - I hear you.

I tend to run anxious/depressed. By the time I finished my PhD, I had become completely disillusioned with academia and I just. wanted. out.

I have three real questions really:
1. Have other people experienced post PhD (or anything comparative) blues/anxiety/emotional upheaval? How did you feel and how long did it last?

Yes!!!!!! When I defended, my cat was dying (she was in the hospital 3 hours away and died less than a week after I got home) and doctors had found a tumor on my Dad's kidney (he had to have surgery) so the LAST thing I wanted to think about was my defense. I was a mess going into the defense, a mess the day of, and a mess after.

It took me a year to "get over" having completed my PhD. I felt like I had been thrown from a hurricane, and I didn't know which direction I was facing. THIS IS SO NORMAL.

I also started doubting my accomplishments RIGHT AWAY, as in:
1. oh they just waved me through because I'm pathetic
2. oh they just wanted to make room for another body in the department
3. oh those were all low-ball questions because they must think I'm dumb
4. oh no one cares about this degree anyway

And the debt... THE DEBT that you now have to deal with (or at least I did).

I was working a job that wasn't fulfilling, and also not in my field, so there was that added "my degree is worthless" value.

I look back on grad school now as being stressful-but-also-the-best-years-of-my-life, and my degree as "a mistake I made that took 8 years" (I know others don't see it that way... but for now I do)

TBH I'm just glad I got out of there.

2. What is it about the PhD process that really gets to people in this way?

I've read about Olympians experiencing the same thing when they return home. Some kind of post-accomplishment depression with the added anxiety of my body telling me "I need to be doing something" (because that's what my degree felt like for so many years). I'm sure people that retire also experience something similar: it's just the loss of a former life. It's not insignificant, and it's not the huge RELIEF everyone thinks it's going to be right away. You need time to adjust.

3. Any tips/advice on managing how I am feeling?

Keep a diary to keep track of your thoughts. Eventually this WILL pass and give way to something that feels more "real" and "routine" because you're in the process of establishing it now.

Now, when I think about my dissertation, or I hear about others writing their thesis and defending or going to grad school... I think to myself: "Whew: Glad I survived that place." and the anger and disillusionment is slowly being replaced by the fond memories I have of the people I met during those years.

Hey: go easy on yourself. A PhD is nothing to sniff at. You don't know how you're going to contextualize it until you put a bit of distance and history between you and your defense.

best wishes and CONGRATULATIONS! You no longer have that sinking, sickening feeling of "that outstanding huge thing you have to do"

And don't push yourself to start something huge and big just yet: you've just been thrown from the hurricane.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:09 PM on September 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, something I've noticed is that only the women I've spoken to felt this way after their defense. All my male colleagues (and my husband) had no problems with adjusting.

I don't know if it has anything to do with gender (I suspect that it does, for my own reasons) but this is what I've seen.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 12:12 PM on September 1, 2016 [5 favorites]

Congratulations! Honestly, congrats on all you've accomplished and in face of so many obstacles. One thing that I realized is that not only is the PhD program difficult enough, but life itself and all its stresses keeps going on--unfortunately it doesn't pause while you're writing your dissertation. And that is just so much to take on and can leave scars, figuratively. I have many friends who found a therapist or counselor post-PhD. I found some recent post-PhDers who work outside of academia like me and we chat occasionally which helps me a lot.

Working outside of academia also helped me. I work a 9-5 schedule and have evenings to do things I like without guilt- reading for fun, volunteering with kids. It's taken a year and a half for me to adjust to this new way of living--and I think it's reasonable to take time for this. I have different priorities now, a different way of building an identity and myself. There's new freedoms (I don't need my advisors approval on anything anymore woo) and new goals. So I'd say try to slowly explore new things that you want to do.

I'll also note that I couldn't celebrate my PhD for awhile. I asked people not to throw me a party and my graduation wasn't a huge deal. I just felt naseaus about the idea. But now, I recently acquired a Dr. inevitability mug and I love having it.
posted by inevitability at 12:48 PM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

i don't remember any need to get over anything, honestly. maybe this is support for Dressed to Kill's hypothesis.
posted by andrewcooke at 1:01 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Not quite the same, but for our reintegration session they said it takes about 1 month to reintegrate for every 2 months abroad (this two years of service abroad means 1 year of reintegration stateside, which I've found to be true from various stints abroad)
posted by raccoon409 at 1:13 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, absolutely. One of my committee members even warned me about this (we're both women, interestingly). In a way, four years later, it's still happening. I think for her, and for me, when you've spent your entire life in school, always working towards a goal, to the point where it consumes all of your mental and emotional and physical energy at the end, and then it's suddenly gone, makes you reevaluate your life. For me, who is no longer in an academic setting, it's getting used to finding another way to set goals, finding a sense of achievement internally instead of externally, and figuring out what I want my life to look like.
posted by umwhat at 1:31 PM on September 1, 2016

If anyone wants more of my "theories" about the gendered answer to this question, feel free to memail me, lol!
posted by Dressed to Kill at 1:33 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

(That is to say; at our reintegration session before leaving Peace Corps)
posted by raccoon409 at 1:39 PM on September 1, 2016

One of my labmates and I still joke about the post-PhD recovery process. She did a post-doc with an advisor who literally seems to specialize in rehabilitating great scientists who were destroyed by grad school. I immediately got a faculty job and had other things to distract me. We didn't see each other again for 3 years, and by then we were both doing much better.

And yet. At the same conference where I saw her, I saw a friend from grad school whose advisor had been on my committee and was someone who I had always hoped to be a mentor to me and who never ever was. And this guy simply said "Oh, everyone knows he doesn't work well with women.".

And that moment was it. I felt the release. So many of the bad things and the bad feelings were not my fault. Nobody warned me that two of my chosen committee members simply didn't like women and would never work well with them. Even after my defense, which was miserable, I still thought that everything that was wrong was my fault and that I deserved the way I had been treated. And suddenly, at that moment in a brewpub in Portland, I knew it wasn't my fault. And that began the real recovery.

I'm submitting my packet for promotion tomorrow. Putting it together made me realize I'm awesome and I've done amazing things over the past 5 years. And nobody from grad school deserves the credit for that. I did all that in spite of them.

tl;dr: You will feel better. It will take time and distance. The vast majority of the worst things that are weighing on you right now were not your fault. You are Dr. Nilehorse now! Fuck all the nonsense it took to get there.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:53 PM on September 1, 2016 [14 favorites]

About two years to feel normal again. Six until I was really psychologically back to being the happy, well adjusted person I was before I started. And my phd process wasn't even unusually traumatic.
posted by lollusc at 4:48 PM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think we're learning that academia isn't really good for mental health -- irrespective of gender -- and the external pressures of the contemporary university (plus the internal pressures that we hold ourselves to) makes what you're describing rather common. The first couple chapters of The Slow Professor might be relevant here.
posted by .kobayashi. at 7:40 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Your situation sounds relatively similar to mine (I went through a nasty breakup right before the intense final year and had quite a bit of drama leading up to my defense). I was quite depressed for the first year of my postdoc, then dove headfirst into a new hobby, which helped re-direct my energy, I guess. It took me five years to really get past the burnout and start getting excited about generating new ideas in my field again. Thankfully, I was able to fake it and be relatively successful during that period anyway. I am still bitter sometimes, when I go back to the old campus and stuff. And going to conferences or reading unkind reviews can bring back impostor syndrome pretty bad. But it does get better.
posted by karbonokapi at 8:24 PM on September 1, 2016

I'm on the exact same timeline as you and having a similar reaction (and it sounds like you've had a lot more upheaval in your life recently than I have, so congrats on getting through that!). So I can't really offer much advice, but I guess it's one more data point that it's a "normal" reaction. Feel free to me-mail me if you want to commiserate.
posted by randomnity at 9:23 PM on September 1, 2016

I'm one year out from law school. I went part-time while working full time. In the four years I was in school:
1) my girlfriend I lived with cheated on me three times, I briefly but spectacularly relapsed after four years of sobriety, dumped girlfriend, practically had to force her to move out;
2) I was diagnosed bipolar, but only after a hypomanic period that lasted for months, two trips to the ER, and nearly killing myself;
3) moved, started a relationship again, was diagnosed with ADHD, quit the job that was literally killing me;
4) volunteered 10-20 hours a week, worked at my old job, got a new job in an unrelated field, moved, my car was totaled when I was hit on my driver's side by a car that ran a red a week before the bar exam.

So yor experience resonates with me, yes. I don't feel normal yet. I LOVE my job but I do feel like an imposter, and after four years of never really having down time I can't seem to work anything shorter than a 10 hour day. I can't get much more than 5-6 hours of sleep per night. Other self-care - cooking, cleaning, working out, eating - seems like "pick one per week." Didn't hang out with friends at all for a year but I'm getting back into it.

I feel like I have an entirely new life, like I broke through a wall and I have all of the things I was carrying but everything's new and stress-free but I'm still so wound up. I'm wondering how I'm no longer able to manage cooking and cleaning and reading a book in the evening when I could 7 years ago, or why now that I have all the time in the world my brain can't find the 'off' switch.

I have nothing to offer you but empathy and thanks for posting something that I haven't really been able to articulate.
posted by good lorneing at 9:26 PM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

To be honest I think you'll start to feel normal again when you start a postdoc at a new Institute with a new project. For me, it was so liberating and invigorating to get a fresh start somewhere new and separate from where I completed my grueling PhD.
posted by emd3737 at 1:08 AM on September 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

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