Mourning a dissertation

No Escape, a work by Judith Carlin, showing how unescapable depression can seem.
No Escape, a work by Judith Carlin, showing how unescapable depression can seem. Licensed under Creative Commons

This is tough to admit. I’m depressed. To many who have experienced this before me, it’s known as the Post-PhD Blues or Post-Doc Slump. Call it what you like, but just like other forms with their own nicknames, this is depression. No one ever told me about that part of a PhD program.

For me, this depression started after I sent my first “final” draft of my complete dissertation. It was so anti-climactic, attaching the very thing that consumed my every free moment, kept me from lazy weekends with my family, and created my distracted existence…to an email. I honestly thought, “Wow. That’s it!?”  I told Chris that I sent my first final draft and he seemed nonplussed. Maybe I was depending on him too much to reassure me of the excitement of the situation; that excitement I lacked. He said he just didn’t want to get my hopes up.

I felt a panic to start the job search. After the spring semester, my job ended. I have no job. At least not one with a paycheck. Chris assured me to not panic and just to focus on my dissertation, because without that there was no PhD, and without that, no academic career.

A couple of days later Kari and I left for Florida. I had a great time and was able to relax. I do admit to checking my email each time we went back to the condo to see if I had yet received revisions. I felt empty when I found none. Eventually, they did come and I felt like I had a purpose again! I stayed up late after she went to bed working on my paper. It was like an addiction, one I didn’t want, but one that gave me meaning and purpose.

After my defense on July 21, I was happy but maybe not as happy as I should have been when my advisor and committee came back in and said, “Congratulations, Doctor.”

Chris had a meeting to go to that afternoon immediately after my defense, so while Chris was in his meeting, I made the changes to my dissertation at a Starbucks. I kept thinking to myself, “Doctor. I couldn’t be a doctor. Not me. What did I do to earn this? I didn’t earn this.”

I still don’t know what I did that was enough to earn my PhD. Am I really smart enough? What do I really know? The saying “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” is very true. I know nothing.

On August 13, all of my friends and family were really nice to get together with me to celebrate. It’s so kind of them – it made me tear up. I do appreciate them all taking the time to come to dinner to celebrate with me. On the way there, we are about 5 minutes from the restaurant and I tell Chris this is hard for me. I’m a fraud. I tell him I appreciate him organizing this dinner, but I feel like I don’t really deserve it. He gives me a look and I suck it up. I get over myself.

Imposter syndrome is hard to live with. You’re not sure why or how you’re successful and you’re sure you don’t deserve the success you have. This has been me my whole life. I know it seems like I’m ungrateful for the luck I have had in my life, but I’m really not. It’s really “confusing” to me about how I got here.

After earning my PhD, the uncertainty really began. What would I do? What could I do? What jobs can I get that really challenge me while offering the flexibility I need as a parent?

Chris and I are a team, and he told me not to take a job to just have a job. He said I worked too hard for too long just to get a job. I love that I get to be intentional in my job search. For now, while casually searching, I’m enjoying my sabbatical from school and work. I get to enjoy my kids. Go biking and running. I am volunteering for education organizations, which does take a lot of time, but it’s from home and I can do the work whenever in the day I want.

Some days are harder than others – the days when I’m not busy are the hardest. Sometimes I get a pinch in my chest making me feel like I should to be doing something else – editing, reading, writing – working. I feel sad that I’m not working in a traditional job utilizing my PhD, but maybe I can be more outside a traditional job.

I do like the idea of making my own way, researching what I find to be needed, collaborating with colleagues and friends I choose, presenting the research found, and setting my own hours. I feel like I can make a larger impact that way.

It’ll just take time to get comfortable with ambiguity. With not having a consistent paycheck. With being my own cheerleader. I’m getting better at relaxing. I’m getting better at it all…slowly. And some days will still be tough.

I submitted a PechaKucha talk to an upcoming convention. The topic: Post-PhD Blues. Today is a good day. I can objectively talk about it, but, just a couple of days ago. Tuesday was a really bad day. Sometimes depression can feel inescapable, and now I have a small taste of what that is.

2 thoughts on “Mourning a dissertation”

  1. Thank you for sharing this Jackie! Know that you are brilliant and definitely not alone. Take pride in your work and look forward to what lies ahead. If you EVER need it, we always have the Mudhouse??!

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