Elizabeth Rodwell

Freelance Researcher and Writer, Anthropology Lecturer at University of Houston-Downtown

Surviving the Post-Dissertation Slump

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Image: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

“Post-dissertation stress disorder” and “post-dissertation depression” are real things. A friend introduced those terms to me when I was trying to find an explanation for my lack of productivity after finishing my Ph.D. Turns out, I wasn't alone in experiencing a slump. As one blogger wrote of post-dissertation life: “If you are work- and project-driven, the adjustment takes time.”

People who successfully complete dissertations are a disciplined cross section of the population. We are capable of working independently, sticking to self-imposed deadlines, and focusing on the big picture. We may have thrown ourselves into the study of best writing practices, kept a strict schedule, formed writing accountability groups, and workshopped parts of our dissertation during the process. We are not people who have trouble staying on task and self-motivating.

So when the blues hit – when well-meaning refrains of “Congratulations, Doctor!” result in a cringe rather than a smile – what is going on?

As newly minted Ph.D.s know, we're not supposed to be any less driven simply because we've graduated. If anything, the hustle is supposed to begin anew. But as one tenured professor said to me: “These days very few students can hope to line up [an academic] job while A.B.D.” That means most are graduating without the assurance of an income, while often needing to relocate. And if the recent graduates I know are any indication, many find themselves at a crossroads:

  • Should they even pursue an academic career?
  • What if a romantic partner can't move? (It's probably not necessary to mention that during the long Ph.D. slog, many of us find significant others in our university's region, or find that our partners become entrenched in their local careers.)
  • What about the professional and financial advantages of that secondary option – the industry job? And what if they want to leave academia but can’t because their research is overspecialized and they have no relevant work history?

Sounds like a recipe for potential immobilization, eh?

Those of us mulling over an academic career know what we’ve supposed to be doing after finishing our doctorates. We’re supposed to be turning parts of the dissertation into publishable chapters, teaching courses, and otherwise filling holes in our CVs. But if you are questioning about your career path at all, these tasks can seem more than just typically daunting: They can seem pointless.

Dissertation writing provides us with a concrete goal, an end point toward which we can strive. But it’s not just a deadline, it’s a degree. And although many dissertation writers have crises of purpose while writing, those of us who finish are often surprised to find that the crisis occurs more acutely after we have been hooded. This has to do with the end point not really being much of an end point, but an intended beginning. But where to next?

Further, many new Ph.D.s have a host of suggested dissertation revisions sitting in their in boxes. A problem with post-defense workflow is that there are so many things the new doctor can or should be working on that it can become overwhelming. “Turn chapter into an article” is a vague and big task. Revisions may come back at a time when you are uncertain whether a rewrite is even worth the trouble. And should you attempt to draft a book proposal based on your diss? All of those considerations can lead to a kind of paralysis – common enough that services like Unstuck exist to help.

So you and I are not alone in experiencing stress, depression, or ennui after defending. One recent graduate told me that her successful defense led to daily panic attacks; she had no idea what she wanted to do with the degree after having romanticized academic life for so long. Another colleague who received her Ph.D two years ago agreed: “I couldn't imagine doing anything else. But all of a sudden the idea of carrying on the way I had been – pushing myself to write and revise – filled with me dread.” She wound up leaving academia for a lucrative industry job. “I think some academics think that it's only those who lack the talent to stay who wind up leaving,” she said. “So I tortured myself over the decision, and became stressed to the point where I couldn't work.”

Blog entries abound on this topic, as Ph.D.s pour out their hearts about their post-dissertation funk, its origin, and duration. As to its source, Ilse Schweitzer VanDonkelaar astutely summarized: “After years of managing my time and living with the pressure to read, write, and get the darn dissertation finished, my mind is going in a hundred directions, unsure of what to do now.” One assistant professor recalled: “I had a 'So what?' kind of feeling about the successful defense – the culmination of what I'd spent the last five years pursuing, and the last two years directly working on.”

Yet another new Ph.D. told me she experienced impostor syndrome for the first time after she felt that her defense was easier than it should have been. That, combined with a difficult move, led her to experience paralyzing anxiety – even with a job lined up.

Among the Ph.D.s I spoke with, rehashing their defense was surprisingly common, with feelings ranging from disappointment to self-critique to sadness.

Having worked so hard for so long on one thing, our identity inevitably begins to revolve around it. And it can be hard for those outside of academia to understand the extent to which our personal sense of self can be wrapped up in the dissertation and the relevant professional context. Thus, finishing – even in the case of a “to be continued” saga of future revisions and an uncertain job market – can be experienced as a profound loss of professional and personal purpose.

If you're feeling disoriented, bereft, and stuck, know that it's exceedingly common. And it will pass (or you will need to find a good therapist), as you sort out your future work trajectory– and perhaps consider exciting new options you might not have been open to before.

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