When I submitted my thesis, I was hit by post-submission blues, which I was already aware of. What I didn’t expect was that the cloud didn’t lift with completion and graduation. I pretended otherwise, but the moments of genuine excitement and happiness were fleeting. I felt confused and ashamed, compounding my emotions.
Wondering if anyone else had ever felt this way, I Googled it. It turns out that I’m not alone in experiencing post-PhD depression and it is a lot more common than I thought.
Alarmingly, I had never heard of it.
This post shines some light on post-PhD depression so that we can better prepare PhD candidates for life during and after completion and provide the best support that we can to graduates.
The PhD journey changes people
Even if your experience was overwhelmingly positive, a PhD changes people by virtue of its length and nature. Completion can trigger reflection on your experience. It takes time to understand and accept how you’ve changed; this can be confronting and surface as an identity crisis.
Sacrifices made might be a source of pride, grief, or both. You may struggle with poorer mental and/or physical health. Catching up with ‘normal life’ can be nice but also a constant reminder of what you missed.
Processing the emotional and mental impact of a PhD can be particularly confronting for those who faced trauma during their PhD (whether coincidentally and/or because of it). Candidates might have turned to coping mechanisms that have become unhealth, in hindsight. When life suddenly changes due to completion, trauma can surface, as can the reality of the mechanisms used to cope.
There’s a lot of good-byes
For most people, the lifestyle, environment, and relationships that are part of the PhD journey change significantly or come to an end along with the PhD itself. The loss of things you loved can be intense and overwhelming. It can take time to grieve and let go.
The future is uncertain
PhD candidates who submit and graduate are often asked, ‘What next?’.
The post-doctoral job market is highly competitive, and non-academic career pathways can be difficult to establish. Graduates – even if they know what they want to do next – can struggle to find a suitable position, especially if they are part of a marginalised group and/or are primary caregivers.
There can be a range of internal and external pressures shaping decisions. Graduates might apply for particular roles purely because they feel that is what is expected of them. They might suffer from imposter syndrome, and question whether their success was deserved, and whether they are capable of continuing to succeed (‘maybe I just got lucky’). Others might feel trapped in a particular pathway due to their life circumstances.
What can help
It can really help to know you’re not alone! Acknowledge and accept what you feel: your feelings are valid.
Be gentle with yourself. Adjusting to life post-PhD takes time and that’s ok. It can help to do other things that you enjoy, like hobbies and making the most of relationships with family and friends. Engage in ways that feel safe and are less triggering. Set goals to help give you the buzz of completing things but be aware that it’s normal to be underwhelmed by these when compared to a PhD thesis.
When you can, reflect on what you enjoyed most throughout your PhD and investigate how you can continue to do that. Perhaps you loved data analysis, writing, interviewing participants, or tutoring students. These are all skills which are used in other career pathways, such as business analytics and teaching – the specifics might be different, but the process is the same.
There will be a range of opportunities that might be available to you which aren’t immediately obvious – so don’t be afraid to ask people, from your personal and academic circles, to point them out.
Of course, that can all be easier said than done. Consider talking about what you are going through with trusted family and friends and seeking professional help where appropriate. It’s ok to ask for support.
How to help someone else struggling with post-PhD depression
It’s nice to congratulate people when they submit and complete their degree but be mindful that they might not be feeling excited. Allow this to inform how you interact with people throughout their PhD journey.
For example, consider avoiding directly asking what they’re doing next, as this can be triggering (even if well-intentioned). Instead, consider asking, ‘What are you looking forward to next?’ – it gives space for the graduate to answer however they are comfortable. If you have a closer relationship with the graduate, you could also ask, ‘What were the highlights of your journey?’ and ‘How can we support you during this next stage?’.
Consider being open about your own post-PhD experience, too. Even a casual remark can help de-stigmatise post-PhD depression. Something like ‘I realised after I finished that I actually really missed working in the laboratory, so much so that I decided to volunteer to do outreach in high schools’, for example.
If possible, don’t cut off support immediately, whether it’s at a personal, professional, or institutional level.
Most importantly, prevention is better than a cure. It helps to encourage a strong identity for doctoral researchers beyond academia, including maintaining connections with their family, friends, and hobbies. Supervisors and other doctoral support teams can help by openly discussing work-life balance and encouraging it for their researchers.
Take the time to learn about mental health and the PhD journey, and implement best practice for yourself, your colleagues, and for PhD candidates more generally. The ‘Managing you mental health during your PhD: A survival guide’ by Dr Zoë Ayres is a fantastic resource for candidates and academics (and it’s available through many university libraries for free).
A PhD is a life-changing journey culminating in an extraordinary accomplishment. Everyone’s journey is different, including completion and what life after may bring – and that’s ok. We can all benefit from learning to better support each other regardless of what our journeys and futures look like.