How to Move Past Post-Dissertation Depression
Some people experience a mourning period after earning their doctorates. What to expect and how to cope.
Like many Ph.D.s who crossed the finish line at the height of Covid-19, I defended my dissertation on Zoom. Nearly a year later, I visited my former department to pick up my mail. I passed by the thesis room, where I would have defended in person. I stood at the threshold where colleagues would have been waiting to celebrate. I walked down the hallway where one of my committee members would have introduced me to passersby as “Doctor.” I took in these spaces through welling eyes until I reached the same stall in the same restroom I had gone to for seven years, and cried over the seafoam green tiles. In that moment, I realized that the emotion I felt most strongly about my Ph.D. was grief.
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Like many Ph.D.s who crossed the finish line at the height of Covid-19, I defended my dissertation on Zoom. Nearly a year later, I visited my former department to pick up my mail. I passed by the thesis room where I would have defended in person. I stood at the threshold where colleagues would have been waiting to celebrate. I walked down the hallway where one of my committee members would have introduced me to passersby as “Doctor.” I took in these spaces through welling eyes until I reached the same stall in the same restroom I had used for seven years, and cried over the seafoam-green tiles. In that moment, I realized that the emotion I felt most strongly about my Ph.D. was grief.
I am not alone. When I put out a call on #AcademicTwitter to ask if other new Ph.D.s had felt this same sense of mourning, the responses were telling. People used words like “empty” and “numb.” As Brittany Tomin, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Regina, in Canada, put it: “All of a sudden it was over — no drinks afterward, no celebrations … a bit like a phantom limb.”
I was fortunate to have a circle of support in and outside my Ph.D. program. Many people did not, and found themselves isolated and alone, facing a dismal academic job market. Some described being suddenly left without health insurance or income. Some returned to jobs they’d held before or during graduate school, which felt like a “regression.” And some found alternative career paths.
Yet amid so much trauma, we’ve also seen remarkable strength and resilience. How Ph.D.s have persisted is the story I want to tell here. And it’s not just a pandemic story. Because — while post-dissertation depression seems more intense in recent years — it was a feature of doctoral training long before Covid. I interviewed 30 Ph.D.s, collecting stories from folks who graduated as recently as June and as long ago as last century. I also spoke with a therapist and a psychologist who work with doctoral students, and career advisers who mentor Ph.D.s.
Among the Ph.D.s I interviewed were some who had faced joblessness and poverty after graduating, which brought on varying levels of anxiety and depression. Olivia Snow remembered being treated with “utter disrespect” while working as a part-time instructor. She had to supplement her low adjunct wages with sex work and recalled that “my fellow dominatrixes were far more supportive than my fellow adjuncts, and my clients more respectful than any of my tenure-track colleagues — and they actually value my expertise.” Three years later, she landed on her feet with a full-time fellowship at the University of California at Los Angeles in critical sex-work studies.
Many of the people I interviewed reported that their doctorate did not feel as “real” as they had expected. “‘What was it all for?’ is still a question for me two years later,” said a postdoctoral fellow in Georgia.
For Gloria Novovic, a postdoctoral fellow in international development at the University of Ottawa, in Canada, the period after her defense was an “identity crisis.” In an interview, she likened the cognitive dissonance of straddling the academic and nonacademic worlds to Cervantes’s Don Quixote: “You’re a Ph.D. student, so you know who you are. You should be writing, so you know what you should be doing. Your colleagues are a part of what you’re doing, so you have a community of like-minded people. These references give you meaning and value that aren’t just in your head. You’re not facing all the windmills on your own. You’re in a system that makes some sense. Then you finish, and that shifts.”
Trouble is, a lot of knowledge on the other side of the Ph.D. simply isn’t passed down. “The recalibration and self-exploration that many go through after their Ph.D.s is not openly discussed, so many are taken by surprise,” Novovic said. “None of the structures or broader systems in place are set up for you. It becomes harder to find new references in terms of your direction, understanding how close or far you are from reaching your objectives, or communicating any of those markers to [nonacademic] outsiders in a way that makes sense.”
To gain perspective on post-dissertation mourning, I turned to some experts who regularly treat graduate students. “You’re giving your whole life to something for a long time, and then all of a sudden it’s done,” said a Boston-based therapist I interviewed. “It’s abrupt. When preparing for a defense, you’re not in a headspace to prepare for what comes after it.”
A psychologist in New York told me that the period immediately following the dissertation is shaped by the process of writing it. This psychologist has seen cases of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt among students who took longer than usual to complete the degree or who endured a stressful and lonely process. They may come out the other side with the same feelings of impostor syndrome and low self-esteem that they had in graduate school.
Kate Belknap, who earned her Ed.D. from Colorado Mesa University in May, pinpointed for me when the scope of the accomplishment hit her: “I was writing Chapter 5, one paragraph away from the end, and knew exactly what I wanted to say in my head, and I just broke down. I realized the enormity of what I had done, and what had gone on for the past few years. The defense itself felt anticlimactic. I walked out as ‘Dr. Belknap,’ but I’m still the same person. Once my students started calling me ‘Dr. Belknap,’ and I realized I no longer had to correct them, then that felt pretty cool.”
The sheer amount of effort and time it takes to complete a doctorate lends itself to feeling “creative burnout,” writes Francesca Young Kaufman, who earned a doctorate in cultural studies at the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland, taught as a lecture for five years, and now runs a career-coaching practice in which she works with Ph.D.s and other clients on burnout and stress management.
Some people I spoke with shared their burnout and trauma symptoms, such as getting anxiety attacks before presentations or feeling a wave of nausea when opening a Word document. Such reactions to daily work life are, as one doctoral graduate of a European campus of a British university put it, “very inconvenient in the workplace.”
How to Overcome Your Post-Defense Blues
If it feels a little unfair to have to confront so many personal and professional challenges on the heels of such a major academic achievement — well, it is. But there are resources on how to put your Ph.D. to work, and plenty of former academics on the other side ready to help recent graduates. The folks I interviewed offered an array of coping strategies.
Take time to enjoy this milestone. “I do think it’s important to celebrate,” said Addie Tsai, a lecturer in creative writing at the College of William & Mary. “It’s very common for these moments to feel complex, sad, and anticlimactic. … The most important advice I can give is to let the dissertation sit for a minute. Don’t feel you need to immediately do anything with it.”
The New York psychologist I interviewed had similar advice: “It is a common occurrence to feel a slump after a major accomplishment, where your whole identity is in jeopardy (your work is out of your control after publishing a book, for example). Trust that your work will find its audience in the right time and the right place.”
Cultivate a support network in whatever form works for you. Nabila Hijazi, a teaching assistant professor of writing at George Washington University, lost her mother within a month of her doctoral defense. She encouraged graduate students to “find a source of support and positivity, and attach yourself to it.” For her, the source became closer relationships with her siblings and stronger faith practices. “These dreams will be realized in one way or another,” she said. “Easier said than done, but have faith that it’s going to come.”
Bernadette (bird) Bowen, a visiting assistant professor of media, journalism, and film at Miami University, in Ohio, earned their Ph.D. 2022 and emerged from the experience with better work/life boundaries and more confidence in their neuroqueer, nonbinary identity. “You need to acknowledge that your life is more important” than work, Bowen said. “You need to be able to take care of yourself, and corporatized education will not do that for you.” They said they found a community on neuroqueer TikTok to create content and process things with, and grow into their own skin.
“In grad school, the focus is so much on outcomes, deliverables, and results that it’s hard to spend time growing and developing relationships,” said the Boston therapist I interviewed. Ph.D.s can find balance “by having other hobbies and communities outside of the Ph.D. Something to provide loose structure … can help, especially when transitioning out of a regimented, laser-focused timeline.”
Rediscover your own best advocate. All of the kernels of advice I heard for healing and recovery touch on ways to regain a semblance of self and community. I didn’t understand just how important that was until I interviewed Karen Kelsky, a former tenured professor who quit academe and created The Professor Is In, a company that offers advice and career counseling on academic and postacademic career options. Doctoral training, she said, is “defined by external validation, and only academic accomplishments are legitimate. If you don’t get a job, the entire edifice crumbles.” You are so focused on external markers, you get separated from that internal voice that advocates for your own interests. The damage of pursuing training for a career that is out of reach “is not just to your finances and bottom line,” Kelsky said. “The damage is to your soul because you have become divorced from your internal motivations. You can’t hear your own internal voice, the self-protective one.”
Many of us “signed up for this” exploitation, knowing that the job market is grueling and hoping to be the exception. Environmental conditions — decades of adjunctification and governmental disinvestment — are the biggest external factors, but that doesn’t explain why, nevertheless, we have worked so hard to be exceptional within this unchanged system. We have been indoctrinated through decades of schooling to believe external validations (e.g., high grades, an “accepted” article, a tenure-track job) are the only legitimate ones.
Reversing that mind-set, reconnecting with your own personal markers of success, requires unlearning.
How do you tune in again to that inner voice? Many of the Ph.D.s I spoke with emphasized the important role of community, family, or friendship in healing. They discovered a new pet project or research question, joined a club, picked up an old hobby. I baked cakes, exercised my creative mind by playing with the frosting, and cut up slices to share with my neighbors. Not only did that hobby help me feel more connected with my neighborhood and my 3-year-old, who likes to bake with me, but the precision and creativity it required also inspired me to be more deliberate and intentional with my professional pursuits and connections.
Academe could do a lot more for its graduates shut out of faculty work. I’d like to take a moment to imagine what institutional support could look like, in a more compassionate world, for Ph.D.s who are no longer academically affiliated. Instead of leaving people mourning their lost connections, universities could build stronger alumni networks for Ph.D.s and integrate alumni from varied career paths into campus professional-development programming for grad students (and, ideally, pay people honorariums for speaking about their experiences). They also could, for an extended period of time, grant graduate alumni access to library databases and to campus health and wellness centers. Scholarly associations could do far more to welcome independent scholars at conferences, offering discounted fees and encouraging a variety of presentation formats beyond reading from academic papers.
How else can we build a transformed space for ourselves on the other side of the doctorate — a space where Ph.D.s in nonfaculty careers can still pursue teaching and research? Some models are already out there: The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research provides public courses and programs in the humanities and social sciences, the Hikma Collective helps scholars build new audiences, and Olio offers courses taught by academics to the public, to name a few. Think of all we could accomplish if there were more ways for Ph.D.s of all professions to collaborate, and if we — some of the best-educated people in the world — banded together to lead change.