The Post PhD Blues

This post is written by Brian Flemming, a mathematician working as a Systems Engineer in Edinburgh.  He has recently completed an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) as a mature student at Heriot Watt University, which he found an intensive and enjoyable experience, and which he credits with greatly increasing the effectiveness and authority of his work.  He is now appreciating the freedom to continue studying and spend time away on the hills, without the associated “PhD-guilt” of neglecting the books …

When Brian sent me this post I could instantly relate. In fact, this blog is the outcome of my own PhD blues where I needed something meaningful, creative and interesting back in my life. I know many people who have finished and express similar sentiments. Here are Brian’s thoughts.

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 3.26.52 pmOne of the posts that caught my eye recently commented on the career prospects for the newly-qualified PhD, especially outside academia.  Getting a job in the first place — especially in today’s economic climate — is naturally of concern.  But the post-study period can be an unsettling time for a number of other reasons involving a range of emotions, which I’ll refer to collectively as the “post PhD blues”.

I’m in a different situation than most, in that the job I’m doing now is the same as before I started my thesis.  In December 2008, I started working on an Engineering Doctorate (EngD) alongside my “day-job”. 1,731 days later I submitted my thesis for examination, and was immensely proud to graduate as Doctor of Engineering last June.

I had always harboured an ambition to do a PhD, but it seemed unlikely that a suitable opportunity would ever arise.  Entrance to post-graduate education is increasingly competitive and expensive, and is practically inaccessible to those without some form of 3rd-party backing.  One would have to be highly motivated and determined (or wealthy enough) to make the attempt otherwise.  To someone like me, having already established a career, the chances of becoming a mature student seemed a pipedream.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance when our universities liaison manager asked if I wanted to do an EngD.  An EngD is a PhD-equivalent qualification combining technical research and study with an MBA component.  Without any further prompting I came up with a project that interested me, and which was subsequently accepted by management and the university.  I was in.

The four-and-a-half years or so I spent grafting away at my studies were an extraordinarily intense experience; tremendously hard work, of course, stimulating, frustrating, depressing and exhilarating in equal measure, but ultimately personally very rewarding.  Passing the viva so convincingly was truly a high point.  I felt on top of the world.  A PhD represents a pinnacle of learning, a measure of achievement to which considerable amounts of time and effort, as well as emotional commitment, have been devoted.  Who hasn’t suffered pangs of uncertainty over whether a line of research will be successful, or merely end up as a waste of time?  More worryingly, will your efforts be good enough to convince the examiners that you are worthy of a doctorate?  To put it bluntly, a PhD is b****y hard work and exacts a great toll on one’s character to see it through to the end.  A doctorate provides status in a society that values success.  No wonder the sense of triumph at the end can be so potent, and the glow of personal pride so strong.

I have to admit being disappointed in the glow of my viva success not to have received greater recognition from my employers.  But, no matter how elated I was feeling personally, reality had to kick in at some point.  There are plenty of PhD-level engineers working in the company, so one more wasn’t going to make much of a difference to its prospects.  There’s also plenty of R&D going on elsewhere in other departments.  My research interests had simply to compete for attention amongst all other claims for development funding.  The first of my “post-PhD blues” is that not everyone will share your excitement at getting a PhD, or will necessarily see the same value in your research as you do.  Those close to you will of course be pleased and share in your delight, but the wider world isn’t necessarily going to be bowled over by your accomplishment.  In short, your hard-won sense of achievement is likely to be deflated sooner or later.

Post-PhD Blue #2 concerns the process of getting back to ordinary life after completing the PhD.  Suddenly, there’s the “what-on-earth-do-I-do-now-in-the-evenings-and-at-weekends” syndrome to cope with.  For three or more years you were effectively your own boss managing your thesis from inception to completion, while having to satisfy the “must-have-it-now” demands of supervisors, university departments and sponsors alike.  Whatever else you’ve had to cope with, you’ve spent long hours chasing references, and agonised over the wording of every paragraph.  You’ve burned copious amounts of midnight oil, and had critical ideas at the most unlikely hours.  After living the “PhD-lifestyle” for so long you’ve forgotten what it is like to live an ordinary 9-to-5 existence.  Instead of those heady days obsessed with papers, presentations and conferences there’s now the tedium of the weekly timesheet and management priorities to cope with.  You might have hated it at the time, but you’ll gradually realise that that period in your life when you stretched your brain on the rack was a veritable paradise compared with the daily humdrum of the profit motive.

My final “post-PhD blue” is that a PhD isn’t an automatic ticket to a better life.  You might expect that the doors to promotion and a higher salary would open automatically, or that there would be a sure-fire guarantee of a place on the interview shortlist.  Unfortunately, life isn’t quite that easy.  For one thing, you’ll likely as not be over-qualified for a large number of jobs on offer.  Moreover, experience and industry-specific knowledge will often rank as high for the prospective employer as do theoretical skills and academic attainment: lack of the necessary experience can militate against the short list, no matter good you are academically.  As ever, it is also still as much “who-you-know” as “what-you-know” that gets you in line for the job you want.  Networking skills are still important for the post-doc, even for preferment within a company.

You might not experience any of the above and adjust to post-PhD life without any difficulty.  Others might not be so fortunate.  We should, of course, aim to get the best out of our hard-worn qualification whatever our circumstances.  However, my experience is that a PhD/EngD is ultimately about personal fulfilment and satisfaction.  Anything else is a bonus.

What do you think? Have you suffered the PhD blues? Or do you have plans on how to avoid it? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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23 thoughts on “The Post PhD Blues

  1. Ian Street says:

    Yes. I can relate (took me a second to fill in B****y- not a curse word in the US)…I am simply trying to find work and projects I enjoy now and hope a career comes out of it. I’m a postdoc now trying to really figure out a direction that will work for me (after years of not really prioritizing myself) and in the blues of realizing that getting out of academia will be b****y hard. But I am networking (mostly on Twitter), writing a blog, and getting my voice out to the world…all of which are more for me and have lead to some interesting things.

  2. Shari Walsh - Resilient Researcher Program says:

    When I finished my PhD I was working as a Postgraduate career counsellor who specialised in helping PhD candidates prepare for post-PhD life. I was pretty convinced that I had done everything to prepare me for the adjustment and so I wouldn’t experience the post PhD blues. To my surprise (and disappointment), I did! There was a palpable sense of loss and constant feeling that ‘I should be doing something’ as I that was the pressure I had lived with for four years. I liken it to when my kids grew up and moved out of home, it is suddenly quiet and there is not as much to do.

    I realise the post PhD blues was part of process. I have learnt to enjoy the time now and have re-discovered the joy of socialising, hobbies and working on projects I enjoy. However, it took a while…

  3. Tracy Stanley says:

    Thanks so much for this authentic post Brian. I feel like I am on the final lap of my PhD now and while it has been an up and down process – I feel very pleased and indeed privileged to have had the opportunity to go down this path. Only this week I have recognized that I need to start thinking about m life Post PhD. I groaned. Like you, I am already mourning the loss of the (nearly) complete freedom the study process has provided and that I will (probably) need to get used to the discipline of an organizational environment again. It is important to consider the impact of this transition process in advance. Thanks again Tracy

  4. Jigsz NS (@JigszNS) says:

    Thanks for your article. I was so happy to complete my PhD and many others were also so happy for me. Doing a PhD in a foreign country on the other side of the world was an added stress factor. After returning, I did find a lot of time in my hands but I reveled in it as I could do lots of things that I wasn’t able to do since I was away. The PhD factor can be a big boost in one’s career, depending on where you are and in what profession. It has helped me now simply because it is the culture where I am. Suddenly there are many offers and possibilities for employment that it is quite a dilemma what to choose! I still have a number of papers to write for publication!

  5. anthokosmos says:

    Thank you very much for this beautiful post. Almost 10 months after my viva and still in the “post PhD blues” I find this post more than accurate. For me this period seems more as a double blue period as I did my PhD in a foreign country and after finish it I decided to change country and go back home, probably not the best decision of my life. Suffering from loss of the “PhD-lifestyle” and its context I decided to make a blog and keep on working on the theme of my thesis, practice on writing and reading about an issue that I really love. Obviously I have lost a lot of the rhythm I had a year before but at least I have create a new syndrome to cope with, a new “must-have-it-now”.
    Of course other difficulties have raised in my life….mostly economical ones….but I am working on it.

  6. Rock Doc says:

    This hit me about 18 months after I finished my PhD. I submitted on a Friday afternoon, got on a plane for my new job that night, and started work at 9am Monday morning. I didn’t have the time to really decompress from it. I kept myself busy after submitting with my postdoc, but it all eventually caught up with me and I had a complete breakdown. It wasn’t pretty.

    I appreciate that economics play a part in this (as it did for me), but I strongly recommend taking at least *some* time off after finishing the PhD to de-stress.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the post! I have just celebrated my first anniversary after completing a PhD in English literature, and I can relate very well to the post. Especially as I have been working before, during, and after PhD in the same finance company, which does not correspond to my rsearch interests at all. I battled my ‘what you do on week-ends and evenings’ blues by doing research and writing journal articles and conference papers, in the hope of getting a research or teaching position in the academe, and I was actually lucky to get a little part-time job as lecturer. But it was not thanks to my PhD, it was all networking. In fact, my employer thought I was an MA student. I completely agree that you may be over-qualified, and I have been refused an interesting and well-paid job on these grounds… I wonder if you can ‘conceal’ your PhD when applying for job 🙂

  8. The Canon Journo says:

    Quite enlightening! Thanks!
    As a high school student, now I am not so sure if I will be doing anything fruitfully positive about the “bloody” (sorry had to fill it in) hard work that fits into a PhD. Impressed with all of you who have done with or taking up the courage to do one!

  9. lenidou says:

    Thank you so much for your article. Although I am just a B.Sc. student right now, right on the middle of my B.Sc thesis, I have to admit that reading about your experience made me far more appreciative of the path that lays in front of me . After reading your post I became higly interested in writing down my thoughts while composing my own thesis and searching for the next step. Right now I have written only 2-3 posts but I believe that as my thesis progress, my blog will be more coherent and focused on my experiences. If you ever have the time, it would be awesome to hear from you.
    Thank you again for making me appreciate once more the journey,
    Leni Dou

  10. Dani says:

    I can empathize even as someone who has stayed in academia- EVERYONE has PhDs in a university! You are just another one of those contracted brains who HR often think are just quirky and too revered, so somehow you can end up even less respected simply by having a PhD. The little thrill I get at being called “Dr” when boarding planes (although this is rare) is soon overtaken by the fact that they assume I’m a medical doctor who could be useful in an emergency- I would not be.

    I work as a post-doc and I am Principal Invesigator on a big project. I totally have “the dream job” for a post PhD. But I have to say that the amount of time I spend dealing with bureaucratic dramas, staff attrition in one of the many teams I manage or constantly stressing that I don’t have time for actual academic outputs means at least once a week I long for the PhD lifestyle of worrying about only managing myself and spending days on end in the lab or perfecting one section of a paper. Sometimes I’d easily give up my salary to go back to that life! Enjoy it while you can 🙂

    • Tracy Stanley says:

      Thanks for the post Dani. You make good points about appreciating this time we have to read and think deeply – which may soon be gone once we are in our post PhD lives.

  11. Sarita B says:

    I’ve been warned of the PhD blues and fully expect to get them at some point after I submit this summer. However, as a single parent doing a full-time PhD, I’ve only ever been able to work on writing during the hours that childcare providers are open, when and if I can afford it. This means I’ve not had weekends and evenings to work on my thesis and I will not have bags of spare time post-submission either. I wonder how PhD-ers with responsibilities at home get on post-submission?

    • Mandy B says:

      I’m with you Sarita. I am handing in my PhD tomorrow and, having two small children, a teenager and part time work as a sessional academic did not make for an easy time. Maybe now I will be able to sleep properly and my stress induced back pain will depart.

  12. Ann Hamel says:

    This was really helpful, thank you for posting & sharing. I am in a similar situation to Brian in that I embarked on my practice-based PhD while working full time as a university lecturer where i continue to work. Four weeks ago I somehow managed to pass my viva “without corrections”. There were many congratulations from colleagues but some didn’t acknowledge the milestone and management noted it only in passing due to my informing them. The last year of the PhD was particularly brutal as I knew had to complete before new responsibilities were upon my shoulders. This meant I had to carefully plan out a forced march over last summer with little time to reflect, which in turn meant I finished 3 years early. Relationships with colleagues and family suffered as a consequence. Lecturing full time while preparing for the viva and my exhibition of artefacts was near impossible. I did it, and should feel immensely proud but I don’t yet feel that. I feel relief of course. But was it worth it? I guess it’s about how we measure success. Day to day lecturing keeps one very grounded: students don’t care that your title has changed, nor should they. They want to learn and succeed through good teaching. In the arts there here in the U.K. there are fewer PhD holders than STEM, social sciences and humanities (in the US, where I am from, there are very few indeed as the MFA is the final degree). I therefore have a Head of Department and Dean without PhDs — their lack of understanding of the efforts and pressure was noticeable. Jokes were made about how another female colleague and I managed (or didn’t) our stress levels in the final months of viva & exhibition preparation. So I feel dissapointment and,yes, anger. I am looking round now and grateful to myself that I’m in a position to do so. There is something I need to get my head round and I’m not sure what it is so I can put the anger away and enjoy developing a new chapter in my career, at 49 I’m hoping this can happen and I’ve not left it too late. Brian’s point regarding seeing the PhD as a personal journey of discovery and test of my drive is really helpful, it just might make the next few months possible as I get back to mental and physical fitness. Thank you for your excellent blog.

    I was hoping the Christmas break

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