Singing the submission blues

This post is by Dr Catherine Ayres, who completed her PhD in the School of Sociology at the ANU in 2016. She’s worked as a research training nerd at the ANU Research Skills and Training unit. This post was written at a bit of a low point. Cathy wants you to know that she is now happily on the working in research management at the ANU College of Law. She tweets from @catherinetayres.

Maybe you’ve heard of the ‘PhD cliff’. Dr Lauren McGrow wrote a brilliant piece on TW about strategies to get through the final dash to submission. I’ve done some of the things she suggested and I’m so glad I did, because it’s been the hardest, busiest, stressiest time in my life.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 3.23.10 pmI didn’t run off the edge of the cliff. I jumped across the submission chasm, landed, and just kept sprinting. But now I’ve leapt the chasm, I’m looking back at the other side longingly.

It’s weird, but I miss my PhD already. I’m not alone here, so I want to introduce a bit of a contentious argument: sometimes submission sucks.

I submitted my PhD thesis just over two weeks ago, and I’m smack bang in the middle of what I’m calling ‘the submission blues’. I celebrated for about 15 minutes, then got back to the pile of work I had been putting off until after that sweet, sweet submission date.

I’m not trying to scare those of you pre-submission. I just wanted to balance out the conversation a little, which is overwhelmingly positive and perhaps doesn’t reflect some of the more difficult realities of (ostensibly) completing such a major phase of our lives.

Of course, submitting a doctoral thesis is a HUGE achievement that deserves celebration, but for me it’s also brought about some HUGE changes in my life that require some navigation:

Not being a student anymore

Ok, I know this is literally the WHOLE point of submitting. Submitting and being awarded your PhD means you’re all grown up, kid. But for those like me who have spent almost their entire lives in total institutions of education, this can really throw you. I can’t help thinking of newly released prison inmates who immediately rob a bank in order to get back into prison (yes, I have considered looking for opportunities to do another PhD).

When I meet people and get asked ‘what I do’, I have to stop myself saying “I’m a PhD student”. But I don’t yet know what else I am yet, so I don’t know what to say. In addition to being socially awkward, this kind of encounter generates a lot of anxiety around my uncertain future. Normally I’m all for uncertainty. Uncertainty can mean opportunities to learn cool new stuff and can give rise to exciting changes. But this kind of uncertainty feels like a big wave crashing on my head; the only thing I know for sure is I’m gonna have to swim somewhere.

Everything else catches up

Imagine you’re a juggler. But for three and a half years you’ve just been holding one big ball with both hands. Then one day you put that big ball down and try to juggle again. Because you’ve just been holding one ball for what feels like forever, you’ve forgotten how to juggle, and the multiple balls you threw in the air just fall down around you.

The PhD has been my top priority by a long way for three and a half years. So now that’s out of the way, priority numbers 2 – infinity all crowd in and clamour for attention all at once: the pile of essays that need marking; the loose administrative ends I’ve been ignoring; that book chapter that’s still in the ‘shitty draft’ stage; and the job applications. Oh, the job applications!

Burn out

Having just completed a PhD, I’m tired. I’ve been working my butt off for a long time, so finding the energy to deal with all the aforementioned things that are catching up is extra hard. Hell, deciding what to make for dinner every night is extra hard

Greener grass

Overall, I really enjoyed my PhD, and I find myself reminiscing about the excitement of finally putting an idea together, smashing out a 20,000 word chapter in a couple of days (this actually happened once at a Thesis Boot Camp!) or printing out that first full draft, its heft surprisingly satisfying. This side of submitting? The excitement is pretty much confined to Friday night wine (ok, and Tuesday night wine).

Internal conflict

I submitted my thesis. I should feel amazing! I should feel on top of the world, like doors are opening up everywhere and I just have to choose which one to walk through right now. But I don’t feel like that. So what is wrong with me?! Why am I not satisfied with this massive achievement? If this doesn’t make me happy, what will??

Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of my work, and I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back and do it all again. I just don’t have answers to all the problems I’ve outlined here yet.

I think with some more time and perspective those feelings of pride and satisfaction will overtake the more negative aspects I’ve talked about here. Just like the Valley of Shit, I’m sure it ends and leads to bigger and better things. I just wanted to say, sometimes submission sucks. But that’s ok. Let’s just be real about it. And let’s be kind to ourselves and each other about it.

What do you think?

Related posts

How not to run off the PhD cliff

The ‘few months post’ post

The nowhere-everywhere place


20 thoughts on “Singing the submission blues

  1. Haitham Jafar says:

    Submitted exactly 12 days ago! Feeling almost identical to what this post has (thrown) at us/me. It is overwhelmingly overwhelming to be in such a state of flux and weightlessness, both at the same time.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us and congratulations on getting your PhD.

  2. Daniella says:

    Very recognisable! In the months before submission I was involved in organising a major conference, which took place about six weeks after submission, so I just kept going with that, and I had an article due the week after my submission deadline, and job applications…yikes. I finished on a really tight schedule (the three years that my PhD was supposed to take ended on 30 September and I defended my thesis less than a week after that). Part of the reason was that I’d been lucky enough to get full funding for the three years, but nothing beyond, and I just didn’t want to have to finish AND just have a new job at the same time (plus I was moving between countries, adding the decision where to look for work). All in all the “just kept running” thing is still going – the week before my defense I started a full time temp job, I have two revised article drafts to submit, I have to tie up all administrative loose ends concerning thesis submission and defense and there’s more job applications. And more job applications. And…well, you get the idea. I hope it will get better at some point but I don’t really see it happening in the near future… Apologies for the rant but this blog definitely touched upon my experience so far.

    But, to end on a good note – isn’t it way cool to sign your job applications as Dr so and so?!

  3. jessicanexus says:

    I can relate to the post-submission blues. After each diss chapter I submitted, I felt great for a little while and then immediately remembered all the papers I had to grade, etc. Sometimes, I even use research as a way to avoid other work I don’t want to think about! Not the worst problem to have, I guess.

  4. ajpeee says:

    Dear Thesis Whisperer I feel move to write to you for a number of reasons, I started following your blog when I started my PhD and it has provided inspiration and priceless guidance all the way through my journey. I might add that I have passed my biblical allocation of three score years and ten; I have come late to academia, my studies in contemporary art research being my way of avoiding daytime TV, household chores and the cognitive decay of retirement.

    I am approaching the end of the PhD tunnel and many things are starting to fall into place. The experience I want to share with you is as I edit the life out of my thesis is the sensation of clarity that is starting to descend upon me. Since I cobbled together my first draft I have been doing battle with confusion, doubt, lack of clarity, crumbling structure, I could go on. I Edit, write and re-write my Abstract not to mention chunks of the thesis. When my friends and family ask how I am getting on my reply is, “I have all the right words but they are not necessarily in the right order” (apologies to UK comedian Eric Morecambe). But, at last, clarity is starting to appear. My problem is just how much time should I spend on re-writing my thesis to expose the re-crystallisation of my ideas and arguments. New thoughts and ideas are constantly cropping up. It could be a process that never ends, what are your thoughts?

    My regards Alistair J Parker

    On 25 October 2016 at 18:09, The Thesis Whisperer wrote:

    > Thesis Whisperer posted: “This post is by Dr Catherine Ayres, who > completed her PhD in the School of Sociology at the ANU in 2016. She’s > worked as a research training nerd at the ANU Research Skills and Training > unit. This post was written at a bit of a low point. Cathy wants you ” >

  5. Sandra says:

    Oh, heck YES!!!
    I can completely relate to this article. The post-submission downer was difficult at first, until someone told me “Oh, don’t worry! Everyone gets that!”. At least I felt less alone and abnormal, for a while. The examination period wasn’t too bad for the first couple of months, because I had set my expectations that it would take 3 to 6 months (at least according to most of my fellow travelers). However, when the 3 month period had passed by a few weeks, I suddenly became incredibly anxious and convinced that I had failed. Fortunately, this fear was also not realized.
    After I got my ‘pass’, at least one person remarked to me “you must feel proud of your achievement”. My response was, “No – I just feel so tired”. I could not even honestly say I was glad it was over.
    Perhaps the reason for feeling this way is that something else I struggled with was losing my mum to cancer, about 6 months before submission. The worst part was having to put some of my feelings about this event on hold, while I completed, so I COULD complete. Writing this now is hard and I am crying as I am typing.

    I don’t know if I am going to look back upon completing my PhD as a good thing, as yet. I just hope I can somehow find a way to be at least content about it, sometime in the future.

  6. gensimpson says:

    I completely agree with this. I submitted last Friday and gave myself a bonus Monday off before coming back to work on Tuesday to work on editing papers and responding to reviewer comments on papers I had already submitted. Of course by Tuesday all the adrenaline pushing me through my PhD had run out and I couldn’t get out of my pjs for two days. I’m back at work today and not at all enthusiastic about trying to finish my papers. I also paid an Adult fare for the bus and filled out a form on Monday with my work status as ‘Unemployed’. I’m using my papers as something to focus on as the big scary, uncertain future pokes its head up somewhere around December/January. And I don’t feel any less stressed. I’m still dreaming about my thesis every night!

  7. Germana Nicklin says:

    I finished my PhD last year (another late bloomer, BTW), having taken three months off my full-time job to do so. When I returned to work, I was unsettled, unmotivated and didn’t want to work there any more. This was unusual for me – usually known for my enthusiasm – and I had loved my job before. I got some help, as there were other things going on in my life too, and was told I was going through ‘transition’. That I was having to redefine myself – as Catherine mentioned, I was no longer a PhD student and a member of that special club in my School. I was only a public servant. I no longer had that special relationship with my supervisors, I no longer had an office at the University. All these things I had lost or was in the process of losing, and at the same time, I hadn’t even passed – was still waiting for my oral. Knowing I was in transition really helped. I could be kinder to myself, and work on thinking about who I wanted to be next.
    I am out the other side now, and being clear about how I wanted to redefine myself has enabled me to see and take opportunities that are getting me there. So while the submission blues are real, they are an important part of transition. And transition is part of change and growth. Go well.

  8. Jonathan Downie says:

    Yes, yes and Yes. Trust me, those blues can come back later for different reasons. I graduated in June and had been run off my feet … until three weeks ago, when I hit a quiet spell. It’s a lot harder whrn you have to generate your own momentum again.

  9. Katharina says:

    I am about to submit my thesis next week and I still have the feeling that it won’t be good enough; although I did a ‘cumulated’ dissertation and all of my papers went through peer review and were approved by my supervisor.

    However I still have that feeling that it is imperfect and unfinished… I set myself a deadline and tell myself just to go for it.

    I just wonder whether this is normal having all of these doubts???

    congrats to all of you guys on your submitted theses

    • Daniella says:

      I would say yes, certainly. I think many people feel like their work is never perfect and never truly finished – I certainly did. I also just ‘went for it’ in a similar way – set myself a deadline (together with my supervisor), and decided that however good, perfect or imperfect it was at the time, it had to be enough. And it was, luckily – not perfect, but certainly good enough. I would say that there’s not too much wrong with striving for perfection, or wanting things to be, as long as that feeling can be balanced by a sense of acceptation of the ‘good enough’.

      Best of luck finishing your work!

  10. Katharina says:

    Thank you Daniella for you encouraging words! And congrats on your PhD!

    I have went through horrible times for the last three years; lost my mom to cancer last year; looked after her while she was ill the best I could (not alone of course), I have debts, a little son …

    Sometimes I worry that everything was worthless :-/ I did not spend enough time with my mom and kid on the one hand; on the other hand the scientific quality of my thesis is not that good. I am really afraid of failure!

    I had to start psychotherapy in order to cope with things better; also have some personal issues with self-esteem and fear of rejection. Well, I am sorry I bothered you with my stories; it’s just that I wonder what I could do against this fear that befalls me every single morning when I wake up (I ruminate about a lot of things; like whether the statistics were appropriate for the data etc. etc. etc.). I know to a certain extent that I am exaggerating (all papers went through peer review)…

    I wish you all the best!

    • Daniella says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your loss, that must have been, and still be, really tough indeed. I can only speak from personal experience, but you’re certainly not alone in these feelings. Trying to balance anxiety with rationality can help, I think, but it’s also important to allow yourself to feel these things rather than sweep them under the carpet to hide. It is tough – the loss, the work you invest in a PhD that is massively significant to you but at the same is only a small stone in the building of sciences and research, the insecurity, need for money, your role as a mother and carer…it’s a lot, practical, emotional, all of it. I don’t have an easy answer to it, other than to try and remember that you do what you can, and that is enough. You’re not superwoman, but no one is, she doesn’t exist. You manage. You try. You do the best you can, in difficult circumstances and uncertain times, and that is the most important thing. That is enough, and it’s good.

      Wishing you strength and luck!

      • Katharina says:

        Dear Daniella,
        you are a truly kind person. Your comment actually made me cry (for good) :-). I know that I did not do things perfectly; but as you said; I gave my best given the circumstances. And the rest is not in my hands but for others to judge.

        I am still refining my thesis; you will hear from me after submission 😉

        kind regards;

      • Katharina says:

        Dear Daniella, I submitted today – I am pretty anxious because my stats skills are not so elaborated … I hope it will be all fine. I am not in the blues – rather anxious whether it will be enough… Thank you again for your encouraging words! Now I just hope for the best. Kind regards

        • Daniella says:

          Just saw your message pop up so a quick reply: congratulations on submitting! No matter how it works out, it’s a massive achievement to have come to this stage! Take a bit of time to enjoy, whether it’s by going out for a meal or something, or just sitting down on the sofa (hugging yourself, your son, or whoever seems appropriate at the time). You’ve done well, now it’s out of your hands for a bit, so try not to worry about it too much! Wishing you all the best and hope it’ll work out the way you want it too!

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