What’s it like to be ‘finished’?

This post is by a British post doc working in Scandinavia on European Studies.

In the weeks and months leading up to the submission of my PhD, I found myself imagining what life would be like on the ’other side’. As a means of forcing myself over the final hurdle, I visualised how amazing it would be to be free of the thesis, to once again recover my weekends and my academic freedom, and how relieved I would be to hand over the culmination of three and a half years’ work.

And yet, when submission day dawned, and I took possession of the bound thesis and scurried to the research office to send it on its journey to the examiners, I felt…nothing.

Or at least, nothing beyond the profound fatigue that sets in after getting up at 5am to make it to the binders before the next month’s continuation fees take effect. My viva, three months later, was routine, pleasant, and successful. And yet, immediately after being told I’d passed, I burst into tears. (My poor examiner looked completely flummoxed by this – and kept repeating ‘no, you’ve passed, this is good news!’). The next day passed in a blur of unstoppable crying, punctuated by barely-noticed congratulatory missives from friends and relatives.

What happened? Why wasn’t I happy to have achieved all I had worked so hard for?

Screen Shot 2014-08-29 at 4.48.19 pmThe mixed blessing of finishing the PhD

Six months later, I am beginning to come to terms with the fact that exiting the PhD is, in fact, a fairly significant life event in all sorts of ways. And, as with many other significant life events (marriage, children, and so on) they come with their own everyday traumas that accompany the joyous parts.

In the case of the PhD, in gaining those three letters, you also lose much of what has defined you over the past few years. The endless, grinding work (at least temporarily) abates and you rediscover what it is like to have a social life and see the outside world. But losing the status of being a student also impacts you in all kinds of mundane ways. I have to remind myself that a student discount is no longer a perk applicable to me. My library and journal access and VPN login (mostly used, it must be admitted, to watch TV whilst on holiday) are gone. The several thousand emails I amassed have been hurriedly copied over to my personal account before my address disappears into the ether, although I dread to think how many unrecoverable passwords, linked to that account, I will encounter in future.

I feel as though I have been forcibly expelled from an academic community that sustained me for a long time. There have been other impacts, too: not uncommonly, I dropped a stone in weight in fairly short order after submitting and reverting to a non-biscuit based diet. These all add up to some individually minor, but collectively quite substantial, changes to my daily routine.

Dazed and confused

Publically, at least, I think most newly-minted PhDs live up to the expectation that surrendering the PhD is an unconditional relief. But after a few pints, most I have spoken to have admitted to more mixed feelings.

Some of these feelings relate to the more mundane aspects of the process as an event: ‘handing it in was totally anticlimactic, I kept thinking I should be really relieved but mostly I was in a state of shock that it was actually over’ or ‘I found myself feeling really emotional after the viva, like I was grieving rather than happy’.

But a surprisingly large number of my (competent, successful) friends admitted that the PhD came wrapped up with a deep sense of inadequacy. One said that he couldn’t bear to open the thesis at all because it made him feel sick. Another can’t face turning it into a book project because it reminds her of how miserable she was (she has instead been focusing on her postdoc, which she loves). A third, deep in the book project, says that even three years later she is struggling to knuckle down and finish it because of how stressful it is being immersed in something that makes her feel so insecure.

As for my part, I found myself distracted, fretful, and desperately avoiding finishing my (minor) corrections. This came to a head one evening in my kitchen with a full-blown breakdown followed by a trip to the psychologist, who related my symptoms to those of PTSD.

It gets better

I do not mean for any of the above to sound negative, and there is certainly a lot of truth in the ‘life gets better’ dictum I hung onto during the final, exhausting stages of the PhD.

Finishing the PhD opened up the chance to pursue my dream job in academia, to move countries, to wipe my debts, and to start afresh. I am much happier in my work life as a postdoc, and feel extremely lucky to be in my present position and unendingly grateful to all who supported me throughout the PhD in order to help me get here. I am proud that I survived and turned out a piece of work that even on my worst days I can grudgingly see isn’t that bad. And the PhD taught me a series of life lessons in tenacity that have made me a more sympathetic, hardworking and resilient person.

Nonetheless, the process of completing and then moving beyond the PhD has left some lingering traumas that persist despite my altered circumstances, and which have led me to realise how profoundly the process of completing a PhD changes your life. You need to carve out a whole new identity, often in a new career and environment, frequently devoid of many of the reference points (supervisor, fellow students) that defined the PhD experience.

So, if, in the aftermath, you find yourself feeling more confused and bewildered than overjoyed, you are not alone. After all, as an academic, you never stop learning.

I hope you found that post as thought provoking and moving as I did. Are you looking forward to the end of your PhD as a liberation – or do you fear it? Love to hear your stories in the comments.

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79 thoughts on “What’s it like to be ‘finished’?

  1. I’m 61. I’m nearly there. I did mine part-time and paid for every penny of it. I’m too ‘old’ to envisage a new academic career. Instead, I take time out to review the feat, and I encourage all near submitters to do that. Life won’t be the same.: it will be subtly, different. Make plans on this basis.

    • I can relate to what you say Susan. I’m older than you and nearly there — but my friends and family are over it and I cant help but agree —

  2. Thanks for a great post. I’m submitting in the next couple of weeks; going over the comments I got on my final draft as your email landed my mailbox. I am anticipating my submission a lot because I am really fed up with the PhD project and process itself, but I do realise that I am going to miss a lot of other community-related aspects of the PhD, as well as the advantages of being a student. This gives me the chills…! And I also cannot wait to be off my biscuit diet too!

  3. I am to hand my manuscript in the following weeks. It has been a difficult process as I am learning to be confident in my own work while having to listen to so many sources of commenting and doubt sowers. Including my supervisor who seems to struggle more than i do to.finish

  4. I was enjoying the Thesis Whisperer emails and posts for the past 3 and half years. Last week I passed my viva with flying colors and this post was just on time. Thank you all.

  5. Glad to know I’m not alone!
    I wrote about my own immediate post-viva feelings the other week.
    Just under a month later it still feels weird and I’m still yet to start my corrections because of the anxiety at even opening my thesis, despite being pleasantly surprised by it when prepping for my viva.

  6. The PhD is indeed a funny old beast and for many the thrill is often in the ‘chase’. I suppose for many PhD students the focus is almost entirely on completion, which is entirely understandable. However, this often results in an anticlimax as many people often don’t know what to do next, simply because they haven’t really thought that far ahead.

    Consequently, it’s often wise to consider the PhD as an apprenticeship – so obtaining it is never really the end point, but rather the beginning of the next phase. This is especially important for post doc development. I did a PhD largely because I wanted to change career pathways, so before I finished I started to think what I needed to do to get to that point, career wise. About 2 years prior to completion I got my first paid research post, while also working part time on my PhD. This subsequently gave me a huge incentive to complete as it allowed me to get on with the rest of my life.

    In relation to ‘books’ from PhDs this certainly isn’t the common UK model for most disciplines. Most British PhD students are more likely to turn key aspects into scholarly journal publications. 3 of my PhD papers formed the core basis of my REF2014 outputs. This is something else to consider post PhD.

  7. Great post. It so accurately describes how I, and many others I know, felt upon handing in the final bound thesis. I was expecting a feeling of elation and celebration. I wasn’t expecting that the PhD submission office would have given me balloons and cake – although that would have been nice!. However, I did expect some comment about the achievement. There was nothing, I simply handed it in and I got in return was a piece of paper acknowledging lodgement. I remember feeling rather empty and exhausted for a few days afterwards.

    I also burst into tears when I was finally told I had passed and been awarded the coveted title – Dr. That was when I realised how much it meant to me even though I avoided using it for a while. I think it takes 6 – 12 months to grow into feeling ownership of Dr and also to recognise what an achievement it is to complete a PhD.

    Like most things, we only realise what we have done upon reflection.

      • I think I am afraid because I have been at uni for so long, and now I have to go out and face the big scary world! I will be out of my university bubble. I am also fearful of actually writing. I don’t like finality. Once it’s done, I can’t change it, and I don’t like that! But yes, that’s a great idea. I might go and have a word to them! 🙂

  8. I turned in my dissertation yesterday. The panel is negotiating the date for the defense right now. I am completely numb. This post totally connected. Thank you.

  9. I had a job lined up by the time I finished my PhD, so I wasn’t stressing so much in that regard…However, I handed my PhD in at 5pm on a Friday afternoon, and started work at 8am on Monday morning. I went from working 80+ hours a week on my PhD so that I could finish without needing an extension, to working 80-90 hours a week as a new postdoc. In hindsight, I’m not sure what would have been worse. I actually wish that I hadn’t been so desperate for a job so that I could have taken some time off. The burnout that I eventually suffered from was extreme.

  10. What a great post. A learning journey shared with vulnerability and authenticity. Thank you.
    I am currently writing up my findings then rewriting my findings, and then re-writing them again. A familiar story for all readers of this blog. Some days are great – others are mind numbingly tedious. I am aware that this is my last year of this privileged life. The end is nigh . I know that need to consider what my next step will be. However I have given myself permission to defer any more thinking about it until 1 July. So I must stop being distracted and get back to it. Thanks again for sharing your story (and for the distraction).

  11. Dear Thesis Whisperer, you have the knack of providing what I need at crucial times and I wouldn’t have survived my PhD without your posts telling me I wasn’t insane. And I handed my thesis in 2 weeks ago. I am suffering, enjoying, deflatedly trying to have a life and once again the post has rescued me! Thank you. I look forward to whatever normal feels like.

  12. This made me cry! Every word sat on a tender spot in me because I can so relate. I just submitted mine in February and currently waiting for my examiners’ report. There is indeed something profound that the PhD process does to a person. Thank you for sharing. x

  13. Great piece! success is often a more complex and nuanced phenomenon than people realize, but many times people sense that it’s going to be so and that delays their completing their work. You capture this very well.

  14. I went through a substantial and painful grieving process after submitting my Thesis. While the examination and subsequent corrections were easy to manage, I was utterly unprepared for the grief I felt at losing such an integral part of my life. As a goal-oriented person the relief at submitting was far outweighed by the sorrow of leaving this mind-altering study. And I was unprepared for the anger and loss I felt too. Luckily I’m over the worst of it, but reminded every day of how bored I am now that I only have life to deal with. I miss the mountains.

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  16. What a lovely post. You describe issues at the core of the completion process: euphoria and void. Yet, having carved out a new career, totally separate from my English Phd, I know that my doc experience continues to define me, for the better.

  17. This post couldnt have been more timely. Last night some hours after 1.30am (that was when I last checked the time) I sent my e-copy over to the Profs for their okay for printing. To be honest, at this point I’d welcome any thing be it deflation, hysteria or lack of any emotion. I just want to be at “life after” whatever that is. So I am eagerly looking forward to all the excitement of the emptiness 😉

  18. I too can relate to this post except I felt huge elation on submitting that was never surpassed by passing the Viva. I also went straight into a post doc afterwards which was a huge relief career wise and for financial survival. However I did struggle with mental exhaustion which only subsided after a little time off. However some self help strategies really helped, especially in those gruelling final countdown days/weeks/ months. Yoga, fresh air and meditation all really helped, as well as finding some time to relax. I’ve still got a long journey ahead to gain a permanent post but getting past that challenging PhD hurdle has made me believe I can make it happen.

  19. Great post, thanks.

    I’m not quite out of thesis prison yet. But I’ve been thinking about how you actually need to be mentally ready to finish, in order to finish? Starting out anything is possible and to get to the end you need to make choices, which is more than just ‘killing your darlings’ or removing excess. It’s about never taking this or that road, and to come to complete but temporary end you have to be OK with that?

  20. I am 5.5 years out now from completing my dissertation. Yep, I can relate to the comments expressed. My job position allows me to use the Ph.D. title in a somewhat indirect way. Having the credentials on my business card and email account definitely adds to my credibility with stakeholders I interact with in my work. I occasionally get called “Dr,” but not very often. I moved back to my home state a few months after completing my doctorate–away from the school and the academic community. These days I sometimes wonder, “Did I really complete a Ph.D.? Was that me? Wow, I am sure glad I made the effort and stuck with it.”

  21. This post really resonated with me as well. I am a year on from my oral now and it has definitely been a tough time! After submission, defense, and corrections, I felt like a dick when people congratulated me and I couldn’t match their enthusiasm. Finally walking across the stage at graduation was actually wonderful though and I had a really memorable and enjoyable day. Thanks for sharing this story.

  22. Reblogged this on Early Modern Ballads and commented:
    This post on the Thesis Whisperer’s blog managed to articulate much better than me almost exactly what I was trying to say in my last-but-one post. ‘Finished’ is a very strange place to be, especially when so many of us find it difficult to move into another role immediately upon completion.

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  24. “Is the aftermath PhD feeling really bewilderedness, confusion or emptiness? ”

    First of all: I can’t relate with this post. Why? Because there are too much of those negative emotional posts out there. The time I read the title, I thought like, oh please … not again.

    When I submitted my thesis: Did I cry? No. Was I relieved? Yes! Was I happy? Yes. But the overloaded emotions in this article are just too much to bear.

    I don’t want to be rude or mean. I know that feelings are precious. They are the innerself of us and, although I feel the words as honest and authentic, it’s that there shouldn’t be too much of those out there. I am sure that more people out there after their submission just celebrate and feel happy than being overly emotional. They just celebrate! They go home, take their child and wife and go out for dinner. Or they meet at a pub with their friends and have some beers. No empty feelings, no tragedy, no drama. Just happiness! For more read my new blog post: http://www.marcelhofeditz.com/blog/2015/5/9/publish-perish-better-publish-party

  25. This is so accurate! I handed my final copy in last month after an October viva and putting off the minor corrections until the very last minute. I feel incredibly relieved that it’s over and that I have definitely passed (the imposter syndrome was strong in this one) but at the same time there’s a strange feeling of deflation. I think it’s partly to do with the anticlimactic hand-in but largely to do with how empty my life feels now. I had a relatively healthy social life throughout my PhD but now having one or two engagements a month leaves me with lots of empty evenings and weekends which previously would have been filed with writing or lab work. It’s great to have my life back, the only question is, what do I do with it now that I have it?!

    Having said that, every time I see those three letters after my name on my email signature at work and every time I fill in a form that asks for my title I get a little thrill!

  26. Thank you again for another great post. I, too, had the range of emotions that others talk about. When I handed it in, there were no smiles or congratulations at the postgrad office, just admin checking and ticking boxes. When I finally was conferred with the title, it took the same uni (I was working there) TWO YEARS for the HR section to change my prefix to ‘Dr’ despite email requests and phone calls, and they requested ‘proof’ that their own uni had conferred the title. It was my family, fellow ECRs and PhD friends who took me out for lunch and congratulations (not the supervisors or department). PS – I don’t work there any more.

  27. Any newly submitted PhD students with children or with jobs lined up out there? I’d be interested to know if keeping busy helps with the post-submission void. Personally, when I finish in a few months (After 5 years full time) I look forward to some quality time with my son before he starts school, and hopefully I’ll start a job soon after, all going well. I’m hoping that keeping busy will help…

  28. I did my part-time, I handed in, took a day off to play video games and was back at work the next day. At the time it seems pretty important but only a few years later I wouldn’t be able to get the title entirely correct without checking…

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  30. What a great, comforting post. The bit that got me was the reluctance to even start with the minor corrections.I passed my viva, everyone around me is thrilled and calling me Doctor, but yes, I was an emotional wreck before AND after the viva (which actually went brilliantly) and don’t think the people close to me understand what that really means…but I didn’t anticipate that I would find doing my corrections such a HUGE pain in the a***. I mean, my examiners were actually very supportive and I do think all their recommendations strengthen my work. But I’m still getting insomnia and my loved ones are giving me a hard time for still being grumpy. And yes, I definitely still feel inadequate. Like, “Really? Did my thesis actually contribute anything to anything?” So on top of everything else, I feel guilty for feeling this way, because shouldn’t I be happy by now? (And I’m one of those people who actually ENJOYED my PhD!) Sorry, all of this sounds a bit bleak, but what I wanted to say is this post is definitely helping me process my emotional state, and I wanted to be honest about it so that others who might read this won’t feel so alone. I am so grateful for this blog in general. Thank you thank you thank you.

  31. Oh, can I ever relate to this post, even though it has been two decades. My friends and I joked we were going to do a paper on PTDD–Post-Traumatic Dissertation Disorder (never did).

    It was suggested to turn my topic into a book, I just couldn’t face another year of struggle. It took about 18 months to adjust to not working on multiple degrees simultaneously, moving back to be with my husband full-time, and getting a job that wasn’t directly in my field.

    The good news is that I’ve used the writing and research skills frequently through the years, and once I got “academese” out of my system, found it relatively easy to do other writing assignments.

    Thanks for a great post and bringing back the memories.

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  33. I can so relate! I submitted my thesis a week ago, and apart from the initial joy and feeling of relief, there has been an unshakable exhaustion and profound sense of a loss of identity. for the last 4ish years I have been a student consumed with this project, and all the pros and cons that entails, and now that chapter of my life is coming to a close and I am left trying to forge a new identity which is a lot of mental and emotional work. But I also can’t really get stuck into building a new identity until I have finished the examination process – I’m stuck in limbo, with a lot of loss and not a path yet to make new gains. Anti-climactic indeed! But I think (hope) more sleep will help!

  34. I’m currently writing my thesis with a knot in my stomach, like I want to deliver the work but at the same time I don’t. Being a student is such a constant in my life that is just awkward to imagine myself out of it, but at the same time I just want to get it over with. My partner is also doing his PhD so I guess at this moment we seem like two disturbed people at home :p

  35. I remember after I was finished – particularly after the defense – feeling a mental exhaustion like nothing I had ever experienced before. I described it to friends as the mental equivalent to having run a marathon.

    Leading up to my defense, while immersed in thesis writing, I had fantasies of disappearing into the night and moving somewhere in the country to live under an assumed name =). It was ridiculous of course, but I’ve talked to friends who had the same feeling while they were writing.

  36. Thank you so much for this post. I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to read that what I am currently going through isn’t me turning crazy. I relate to every single syllable in your article. I finished my PhD and am currently in limbo wondering whats in store for me. My friends and family think I am ungrateful to not enjoy the post-PhD phase of my life. If only I could tell them just what you have expressed above. I am going to show my husband and my parents this article. I am very grateful to you for penning my thoughts, so I get a chance to explain myself to people close to me, and find a way to deal with things.

    • I finished my PhD in 7.5 years, so I think I need find a way to give myself sometime to come to terms to what just happened. I am curious, how did you move on to the next phase ? Did something in particular help you ?

  37. What a great description of the time after the PhD! I just finished five days ago (the viva/defense) and was expecting an overwhelming feeling of relief that this was actually finished. The last year was extremely tough on me which lead to a depression and frequent visits to a psychologist (and use of anxiety medication) just to get by. Now that I am finished, the “lump” in my chest, and tension is gone, but I still do not feel any real joy of finally being finished. It is actually quite weird as I was expecting such a major transformation after I finally finished…
    I was never happy with the work I had done through my PhD, and no matter how many times my supervisors, mentors and coworkers said my work was really really good, it was never good enough for me. Even after my defense the opponents congratulated me with a very well written and thorough body of work. I am still sitting here five days later and questioning their ability to judge my work and the quality. So to sum up my experience after finishing my PhD: depression/anxiety gone for now, however no real sense of joy or happyness of being finished.

  38. I am reading this as well and I am so glad to have stumbled upon it. I have just received the two letters to my name after the Australian process – no viva, just a long period of waiting, amendments, etc. I hoped to feel joy, but… I don’t feel a thing. And it has been already more than 6 months since I submitted so I kind of am a bit rested. But moving countries (I moved back to my home country after I finished), searching for jobs, still not feeling adequate I guess I feel similarly – still lost, still searching and scratching my head whether the difficult experience was worth it. I keep wondering, when will the joy of life finally sink in, I guess it takes more time…

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  42. This is very interesting. My viva was last week and despite all of my worries it went very well and I was awarded my PhD subject to minor corrections. It is a surreal experience after all the ups and downs to be finally near the finishing line. I’m quite the opposite to some of the commentators above; I can’t wait to get my corrections list and finally put it to bed.
    I completely get the sense of anti-climax some people have expressed, when you have spent so long and have expended so much energy striving towards your goal it definitely leaves a gap in your life. I guess I need a hobby! In my case I think the fact that the industry I work in doesn’t particularly value academic qualifications contributes to my ennui, but then again, I didn’t do the PhD for them, I did it for me. Hopefully I will receive and make the corrections in time to graduate in January next year, maybe I’ll feel some sense of closure then. In the interim I’m going to consider how best to publish elements of my study, it seems a pity not to do something with it. My thanks to the writers above, it’s nice to know someone else is in the same boat. Good luck to you all.

  43. On Oct. 6th, 2016, I completed my PhD after 5.3 years. At the age of 38…I am still amazed that I actually received my PhD before the age of 40!! After my defense… I went to sleep. Now… 4 months later… I am still amazed and awaiting my tenured-track contract at my university.

    • Dr Linder, Congratulations! I had my oral defense in January this year. I passed successfully also under the age of 40. I am exhausted. The tiredness is creeping in but I am extremely eager to carry on writing and turning it into a book. Obviously with work in the government field I will have to buy some time. Completing a PhD and achieving feels so surreal.

  44. Hello from Forest City, Florida
    USA

    I am trying to form the habit of
    saying hello to blogs I read!

    I enjoyed your article on joy of
    finishing what you start.

    God bless!

    Gerald Landis
    3515 Craig Drive
    Forest City, Florida 32703
    USA
    brogerald@gmail.com

  45. Thank you for your article. I just finished my defense, and I am feeling similar emotions. Thank you for sharing.

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