the post PhD slump

So you’ve finished the PhD. You’ve had the exam and the results are in. You’ve made the few corrections that were needed, and they’ve been signed off. You’ve printed out the final version of the thesis, had it bound and lodged it in the university repository. You’ve made the companion PDF and submitted that too. You’ve changed your email signature to reflect your new status. You’ve done it. You’re a doctor.

You ought to feel elated – but you don’t. Sure, there was the immediate celebration once the results were known. The champagne. The congratulatory emails. The hugs and handshakes from friends and family. But that didn’t last long, and now it seems that things just go on as if nothing had changed. What an anti-climax… You ought to be feeling great – but you don’t. The thought of going back to the Big Book to extract a few journal articles fills you with dread. You’re over it. Really over it.

Now of course, not everyone experiences the post PhD slump. But enough people do to make the slump a recognisable phenomenon. And when you think about it, it’s hardly surprising …

You’ve lived with the PhD for years. It’s taken up a huge amount of your headspace and an enormous quantum of emotional energy. It’s been exhilarating, terrifying and bewildering in equal measure. And as for the last last few months – well, it was all about getting the text done. The thesis was all-consuming and you had to put your life on hold just so it would get finished in time – not to mention summoning up the sheer will power that was required for that very last push. All the dreary but essential proofreading and formatting just had to get done.

The truth is that, after the examination and the lodging of the thesis in the library, you have a thesis-sized-hole in your life. There’s nothing where there used to be a big long term task. You now have to learn a new way of managing your time, what writing and reading you do and how you manage your intellectual activity. But you also have to manage the sometimes-sadness of being finished. You know now that the PhD was a unique period, and that you probably won’t have the same disciplined structure again, the same time to read and write, the same intense conversations with another scholar about your research. That’s a change, but also maybe a loss.

And it’s that peculiar combination of not having the thesis to worry about, finding out how to continue being a scholar in different circumstances, not having the doctoral structures to work with, and that diffuse sense of sadness that produces the post PhD slump.

You have to allow yourself to feel a bit deflated, but at the same time take charge of the process of what-happens-next. The thing to do is to allow yourself to feel the loss. Feel sad – and know that you’re not alone in this. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. So grieve, but also write a publishing plan. Go to some conferences. Establish some new networks through social media. Find some people in the same boat as you. Look for funding to continue your research, following up some of the questions that arose at the end of your study…

But do, really do understand that this moment of leaving-behind and moving-on is not something that only happened to you. Many of us have been there. We recognize the symptoms. We’ve come out the other side of the thesis-sized-hole, and you will too.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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17 Responses to the post PhD slump

  1. lizit13 says:

    I wonder if the nature and length of the PhD slump also relates to whatever we do next. For some folk, there is a job – either the one that has been balanced part-time with the doctorate, or a new post possibly in a new location, for others there is job hunting and the ups and downs thereof, for others there may be real uncertainty as the PhD was never a step on the career ladder. Speaking personally, finishing my PhD coincided with relocation and retirement. After a year spent sorting the house out, the slump really hit. I am having to work hard to differentiate the wants and oughts in building/maintaining a network and doing some writing while at the same time knowing my main focus needs to be on what kind of retirement I want. (Perhaps another aspect of the PhD experience being different for the more mature PGR?)

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    • pat thomson says:

      Yes Im sure thats right. Thanks for posting this. Im sure other mature age Drs experience the same thing.

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    • Jane S says:

      I’m another mature PGR ~ and people WILL keep on asking me, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ i.e., the doctorate (if one ever reaches that happy day!) I don’t know the answer yet, but *not* being an academic careerist actually gives you freedom. You can do your PhD for love of the subject area, plus it doesn’t ‘arf teach you self-regulation as well as how to construct an argument, write clearly and *think* ~ collateral benefits.
      Exhilarating highs and doom-laden lows are part of PhD thesis research, but I would not have missed the all-encompassing nature of it for anything.
      Albeit family and friends will be glad when it’s over. As someone remarked, “You seem to have been doing that PhD for years.”
      Yes, I have. Living with it for so long makes for a pretty big gap to fill. When it’s done I guess I’ll experience a sort of ’empty nest syndrome.’ But something will come along. It always does. After all, hopefully, you end up as something of a specialist in your field. You never know where this may lead …

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      • Shubhashnee Subryan says:

        I am also a mature PGR who embarked on this journey to keep my mind occupied to escape the realities of my husband’s illness. I encountered the same reaction from some people, while others, especially younger women feel that I am a role model for them. Now that I am approaching the end as I am editing my thesis the question of what is next? Does arise but like you, I feel that the collateral fallout of doing a PhD opens many doors. I would find a way to fill this gap.

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  2. Thanks for this timely blog, Pat! I’m in post PhD slump and seriously affected by the end of the line blues. My poor hubby has had to deal with tears and tantrums as I contemplate continuing a career that never actually needed the degree in the first place. I’m in that terrible limbo land that so many other academics find themselves in: no permanent job, and all teaching throughout semester and no pay for 26 weeks a year. It’s hard to feel positive about future research when there’s no prospect of being employed to do it! Grief has been my constant companion for a month now, but I know I’ll get through it.

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  3. pat thomson says:

    Im sure that the slump is much, much worse if there are the other hideous HE issues to contend with. Thank you for posting.

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  4. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    Hi Pat. Thanks for the post.

    I am in the start of my 3rd year and sometimes I, as many in such stage I suppose, think about the (after I finish, then what..!).
    Personally, I think I shall have a low intensity of PhD slump for two reasons: 1) I already have a job waiting for me (it is part of the contract I have with my sponsoring university) 2) and some how related I guess, I am going back to an academic environment characterised immensely with teaching-oriented strategies rather than research-oriented ones and when I started my path toward this PhD I sort of knew the broad lines I wanted to pursue when, hopefully!, I finish.

    * lizit13’s comment made a lot of sense.

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  5. Karina Quinn says:

    I’m there, in the hole, telling myself not to dig any deeper. Today I went and sat in the sun and wrote a page for my new project. Just a page, but it helped. On Sunday I went for a swim with my wintery lungs. Yesterday, therapy. I am in grief. I LOVED doing my PhD. This, this afterwards bit, is absolutely doing my head in. Thank you for the post Pat.

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  6. Emily Nelson says:

    You said this post was coming Pat and I giggled my way through it (I’m sure the wine helped!). I’m in the post-PhD slump but have said yes to two writing jobs that AGAIN see me writing up to Xmas Day! However, as my husband said “at least you’re not writing THAT (PhD) anymore”. Yes indeed! My slump involves missing intense chats with my supervisor almost daily, being cut off from the library databases and working out what to do with all that down-time when there’s nothing on telly! Not to mention what next??

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  7. SheriO says:

    Thanks for writing this post Pat. The metaphor that comes to my mind is that completing the PhD is like driving a car off a cliff, to have it crash and burn and then see the driver emerge charred in the wreckage and fumes. It’s like a drug. The completer gets really high in putting it all together and what goes up must come down. The feelings are so intense as the work devours the worker, such that ordinary activities like a swim become foreign. The hero’s journey makes doctoral-type work the stuff of docu-drama or so I argued in my last post on the work of Tim Jenison to paint his own Vermeer, using an optical device that he believed Vermeer may have used. Jenison like the first two commenters is older and gave himself over to his quest completely for more than 5 years for the sheer sake of it. He wasn’t in a PhD program but he did have an acute let down at the completion of his project.

    Here is a subject for study. What are the typical emotional responses to the big hole in the PhD completer’s life? What are the differences between older completers and younger completers? How might a doctoral program better prepare researchers for the transition from the program? Would tapering the cut-offs from library data bases and university resources assist in making the transition? How might family and friends or support groups be brought in to understand and ease the transition? Ex-communicated academic anonymous groups anyone?

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  8. pat thomson says:

    Yes I think this is a potential research project! Or indeed, ironically, a PhD…

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  9. This is not motivating me to finish – I would LOVE to be done!

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  11. I completed my PhD in 2004; it was an amazing feeling to have finally achieved it, and I did not miss the work! However, what I did find almost depressing was the realization that the PhD itself was not enough to pursue an academic career. One is still expected to jump through more and more hoops (e.g., postdoctoral fellowship, publications, grants, tenure). If you want to stay in academia, the need to prove yourself never seems to end.

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  12. Richard says:

    Perhaps it was because I spent sooooooo long writing it that when it was over, I really never looked back. It’s been one fantastic day (of not writing that thing) after the next. Others here had mentioned difficulties that follow such as no job or the realization that you didn’t need a PhD for your dream job. I know I’m fortunate to be (very happily) employed at a high school with only papers to mark and everyone around me calling me “Doc” ….. a constant reminder of the hard work that paid off!

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