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Post-PhD depression is very real!

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Post-PhD depression is very real!

The journey to get there is tough. The journey through is treacherous. Walking across that stage and having the hood descend over your head… priceless!

What we don’t talk about enough is the struggle bus that comes after graduation. During the journey there are many feelings of excitement, regret, unworthiness, loneliness, defeat, triumph, and the second wind (similar to what runners experience on long runs). Being called Dr. does not prevent these same feelings from rearing their ugly heads again and again in the post-PhD haze.

Graduation is exciting! You made it! It paid off! Then there is this weird haze where time passes as you re-enter the human existence. Because you have worked so hard for years before graduation, the year after graduation is spent reintroducing yourself to your friends, family, and co-workers. Once the haze wears off, the depression can set in.

  • What’s next?
  • When are you going to publish? You only have three years before your research is out of date!
  • When are you taking a new job?
  • What are you going to do with all your free time?

The truth is, you have spent years in a process, I swear, designed to break the human spirit. What’s next? Getting my shit together!

Publishing is the last thing on your mind, as serious imposter syndrome may have set in and you are terrified to reopen your dataset for fear of finding all the mistakes… then what?

A new job is a true goal for some, but for others this journey has not been about finding a new job.

And let me tell you about free time! All that free time is now spent catching up on all you missed while you were up to your eyeballs in research (kids, spouses, partners, friends, families, community engagements, self-care, personal health… you get the picture).

For me, I barely got into my program. I was the only leadership doc student in the technology, leadership and innovation program. My program was not a cohort program (pluses and minuses there). I was often one of two domestic students in my classes (grateful for that eye-opening experience). I was often the only one who worked full-time as well as went to school full-time. I met very few mothers, let alone mothers of young children (mine was 13 months old when I started) in my program. I was in courses with people who were building robots to fight fires when buildings became too dangerous for human fire fighters, and students trying desperately to discover better methods of growing wheat to help fight hunger in sub-Saharan Africa… you get the picture… I was there to study burnout. Spend years like this and it takes a toll on you.

Re-entry into the human existence is hard and takes a while. I had a similar experience when my son was born – the lack of control on time and energy, the serious lack of sleep, and the poor health habits that can form out of a necessity to simply survive. It takes a couple years, literally, to regain your focus, your strength, your schedule, and your time.

First, you over compensate for being “gone” so much to complete school. Then the pendulum slowly settles in the middle and you start to feel like a human again. Then you get to begin the work, addressing the imposter syndrome.

This may seem a bit extreme but trust me, some level of this exists for many doc students post-graduation, whether they tell you about it or not. However, knowing about it can help those headed in the same direction to prepare and feel normal as they process their post-PhD depression. You are not alone!

Dr. Anne Stark (@StarkAnneR) is the Director, Residence Life and Education at the University of Central Florida. This story was published on April 6, 2018, on Dr. Stark's blog (available here), and has been republished here with her permission. 

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Published on: May 07, 2019


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