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.