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Post dissertation stress disorder

Update Nov 2010. Surprisingly many search queries end up at this post. Whatever search brings you here you might be better reading this one – Preventing Burnout: signs, symptoms, causes and coping strategies – and talking to someone who has an idea how to recognise a burnout. Wish I did it when I wrote this post…


Like my house right now this blog is loved, but neglected space: finishing my dissertation and being a happy mom doesn’t leave much energy for anything else. I’m almost there, starting to look forward to “after the PhD” life, like moving to an unknown country…

This is what I wrote a few months ago as a welcoming message of my weblog. Now, even more than when, I feel that my house represents the state of other things in my life.

While being busy with the PhD work didn’t take all my time, it occupied my mind and also sucked a lot of energy. While urgent things in the house and general cleanliness were taken care of (it’s not falling apart and in the state of “ok to have friends for dinner” ;), I feel surrounded by all kinds of unsorted things in wrong places and unfinished tasks that accumulated over time. I try tackling them one by one in the pockets of time between other things, but feel that that those are changes on the surface, that more is needed to turn the house into a place I want it to be.

I also feel burnt out physically, mentally and emotionally. When finishing the dissertation I thought that the worst was over. I did compare working on the dissertation to pregnancy, but didn’t realise that after the “birth” the parallels can go further:

Quote from: untenured on August 18, 2006, 10:42:02 AM

Perhaps there is an analogy to post-partum depression.  Instead of child, you birthed a thesis.   I bet your gestation period was a lot longer than nine months.

That is a good analogy, Untenured.  In fact, I experienced more weirdness and depression after finishing the diss than I did after the birth of either of my two kids.  I’m thinking maybe it’s because a 400+ page thesis is not at all cute and cuddly, plus you can’t breastfeed it.  🙂

Some call it Post Dissertation Stress Disorder. Don’t think that I have the worst form of it, since I don’t have all the the symptoms (only those: Foggy brain, Inability to concentrate on anything longer than 10 minutes and Pure laziness 🙂 Fun aside, wish I knew earlier that something like that should be expected after finishing the dissertation.

Ideally I would take a few weeks off right now, but I’m not done yet. So, I’m taking it (=everything) easy, starting to sort out things in the house and hoping that the rest will follow.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Carla Verwijs June 10, 2009, 14:54

    Hi Lilia, I recognise what you write about the stress around finishing the PhD. I took a week off, went on holidays and it really helped me to feel better. I didn’t however have a partner or child with expectations, so that was probably easier to do. Rest a lot, find a new goal and enjoy the day of defence (it’s like a wedding day, on your own).

  • Amy July 7, 2009, 22:11

    Hi, Lilia, I was warned about the stress/depression after I passed my defense, but it didn’t help. I also stumbled on the concept of post-tenure depression as I searched the web for others suffering this odd let-down where nothing is really wrong, but nothing feels right. How scary to think that this is just one of the many stages on the emotional roller-coaster we’ve put ourselves on! Anyway, hang in there. You’re not alone.


  • Erica June 23, 2010, 22:04

    Hi Lilia, My diss defense is next week and I feel some similar emotions. We had this big project that took years to birth (instead of “only” nine months) and all of a sudden, it is here and almost gone. Even if it involved research on other people and guidance from other people, it was still just a bunch of mental concepts on paper. And now the energy that went into the coalescing of that pinnacle of scholastic achievement is somewhat diffuse. The goal has been achieved, so now what? With a baby, one’s sense of purpose is clear once the baby is born, you take care of it and nurture it. With a dissertation, one’s sense of purpose is less clear unless one jumps right into a job. So there is a sense of limbo and a bit of “where am I and what am I doing now?” but I trust it is just a transition. We need a real break after all that hard work and yet there are often things to catch up on (as you point out). It is like being half on vacation and half working and not being satisfied with either. One friend told me I should head to a beach and I have to say that the idea is quite tantalizing! I have found that “working” (playing) in my garden and doing other little creative projects is quite therapeutic. Everyone is different though.

  • nat February 23, 2012, 06:20

    Hi Lilia, its now 2012 and I would love to know how you feel these days about the phd etc. I submitted my phd in July 2011 and heard it was passed last October (2011). After submitting, I couldnt move for a month. Stayed in the house mostly. Then once I felt good enough, started on what I have been advised as best doing – eg. turnin the thesis into a book, applying for fellowships etc. Its now FEb 2012 and I’ve finally said ‘ENOUGH’. My relationship with my partner who was so understanding through the phd (we met during the phd), is crumbling. over actually. My tiredness, desire to simply ‘just have some time away from everything’ on the beach or wherever, and if im honest, pure bloomin bad temperedness, has caused a lot to crumble. I recommend to anyone finishing a phd, to get away on holiday for at least 3 months (even if it means working in some poorly paid, part-time job – preferably one which is physical to help one get back in shape after years in front of a computer). I still love my thesis topic and have big goals. But right now, I think I have to admit to myself that none of it matters to me if I’m ‘soul’ tired, cant be a decent girlfriend, and so lose the key things in life – relationships with partners, friends, family and community. I wonder if anyone out there has had a similar experience? particularly for me, the key problem is I met my partner during the phd, so he only knows the phd-me. and it ain’t preety! 🙂 He hoped I’d be much nicer to be around after the phd. But I’m learning from others, that this period after the phd is just as hard, if in a different way. I’d like my partner to see the carefree, fun, much calmer person I remember being! anyway, I’m taking time out, but I’ll be back fairly soon! x p.s. there are not many places on the web to find info on during the phd or post-phd ’emotional’ experiences. thanks for putting this up.

  • Jim February 28, 2012, 23:46

    As someone just posted here about a week ago, I thought I might do so as well.

    So far, the advice I read on “PDSD” seems to be about getting out of the library, developing hobbies, seeing friends, etc. – I have yet to see anyone post on the difficulties from PDSD as far as publishing and getting a TT job are concerned. Here is my story, maybe someone can help:

    My adviser stressed to me that I should “just finish the dissertation” rather than worry about publishing articles before it; having finished the diss, I now have a three year research postdoc. One would think that I can kick back and relax, as I have two years to publish before that third year job search, but the market being what it is, I need to apply for TT jobs consistently throughout the postdoc. In short: I need to publish. Yet, when I revisit the diss (after a six month break from it) I find myself swimming in circles and feel physically unable to finish anything – these were my ‘big ideas’ I spent ages to formulate, and now they’re stuck in a drawer as the field moves on (such is my perception).

    This situation is compounded by the fact that the postdoc I’ve been hired for is somewhat related to my diss topic (although centered on a different geographical region). Thus: turning to a new topic hasn’t helped, since the new topic feels like more of the old, and it just increases my feeling of burnout – and I’m contractually obligated to finish writing on this topic, which I am now only marginally interested in, and it clearly won’t be as good as my diss, which I spent such a long time formulating.

    I thought perhaps I should turn to a brand new area that’s more exciting to me at this moment, but then I fear my CV would then look ridiculously unfocused, having three areas (the diss, the postdoc, and the new topic).

    The result is I feel like I have all the time in the world to write, but I have massive burnout and writer’s block and can’t get anything done! The stress is compounded by the fact that a job in my department did not go to me because, despite my “excellent CV” (so I’m told), I don’t have enough publications yet. (Damn you, adviser!)

    Has anyone else been through this or something similar? Are there any strategies for getting writing done despite this? Let me know if anyone has any thoughts, and thanks in advance to anyone who answers!

  • Christina March 21, 2012, 16:11

    Hi guys and girls,

    Just found this great post + comments because I just keep being so damn tired! after handing in my dissertation a month ago. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – there really isn’t much out there as nat pointed out.

    I am full of ambitions for my next phase, and know where to go, and have ideas for both academic and media-related writing I want to execute on, but I am held back by 2 things: 1) I can’t seem to find time (have 2 part-time jobs now, one as research assistant, one at my old company), 2) I feel…lackluster. I have such contradictory emotional streams in my system – energy, ambition, future! on one side, and exhaustion, reluctance, and give-me-3-months-to-just-breathe-without-other-purpose-than-staying-alive on the other.

    Jim, I have not yet experienced the new writing phase that you are stuck in, but I hear you. I can’t see other way around it than following what provides excitement. Generally, none of the amazing things that have happened to me during and after my PhD have happened because I submitted to the systemic way of thinking academia. I think it is a general problem for the academic system; that we are groomed with fear that we won’t make it, that we have to follow some beaten track, etc. Research should be all about knowledge, about curiosity, about investigating some area of life we find intriguing – but this seems to fade in the heaps of demands on our academic outputs. Knowledge creation should be joyful – and shared with others – as well as hard. I hope for us we can find the courage and wisdom to follow our hearts. I also believe that’s where we have the strongest capacity for originality.

    Not much help, just some thoughts – hope this dialogue can continue? Alone the peer factor of it is immensely valuable :).

    Cheers and thoughts from Scandinavia

  • Nat April 21, 2014, 03:00

    After searching the web for stress and depression after major life events I finally googled depression after doctorate and found this. Ugh I can totally relate to your post. I am just about to hand dissertation in and I’m already feeling all these mixed emotions others have shared. I went through a month of self loathing for even doing the damn program and missing out on so much quality time with my kids. Mine also didn’t take much time up but lots of energy over many years. I also feel like I’ve missed out on doing so much more with my life. This is all very odd since I don’t usually feel regret about things. I have no idea what to do with career and have no intention of going into academia. I only fear I’ve made myself massively over qualified while losing many years of wages if id been working instead of a student. I too feel exhausted. Like a crushing exhaustion. No motivation. Feeling very pessimistic about the future which seems scarily unknown. Well I’ll keep following this blog. Thanks so much.

  • Alison Bell July 30, 2017, 18:51

    Hi, it’s a while since the last post on this kindly blog, so I do hope all of you have found your next steps and feel much better: more human at least. All of the above comments resonate with how low I feel, post-viva; it was 2 weeks ago. I too have revisions to do and to be honest, I can’t face them just now. In fact I never want to look at my thesis topic(s) again..ever. But..needs must. A year ago, in preparation for this anticipated feeling of total loss and lethargy, I booked a flight to Japan, planning to stay for a month. It’s an amazing country for an older woman (65), one who still needs to feel optimistic and curious about the future, as I’m sure all you younger PhDs do. I leave fairly soon so wont touch the revisions till my return in September. However, I feel guilty at feeling so depressed, did any of you feel this way too? I should be relieved as I now have some free time. Trouble is, I’ve forgotten what to do with it, now being so used to total focus on a very specific project for all these years. Meaningful days of time spent progressing the thesis are gone now. Only to be replaced by tiredness, inability to converse with any degree of enthusiasm or even energy, poor sleeping patterns, poor attention span, longing for chocolate…the list goes on. It will change, I’m sure of it. But really I just wanted to thank you all for sharing your own experience; it helps. Good luck to us all!

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