Beyond the PhD: Avoiding Post-Parting Depression
You’ve been craving the end, to finish at last and be done with it. You’ve lived with your dissertation for too many years, pushed hard for so very long, and hardly believed this day would come. But it did. You no longer have to spend every moment you’re not eating or bathing (forget sleeping) on the dissertation.
But why do you feel an inexplicable . . . hole?
A philosophical truism says that the most dangerous time is when you’ve reached a goal. You’re feeling what I call Post-Parting Depression (PPD).
In my dissertation coaching and editing practice, most clients I’ve helped graduate experience this void. During all the hills and mostly valleys of the dissertation creation and refinement, they say, they’ve wished for nothing but to finish the durn thing. Now that they have, they get depressed.
If you’re a new doctor and want to avoid PPD, several strategies can help you make the transition to what may fill that hole and rekindle your passion and career.
Take a Break
Certainly well-deserved, a break can be a day, a few days, a week, or a few weeks. Some new doctors go on long-postponed vacations with their families. Others catch up on the horribly neglected essentials of life: cleaning the house, the refrigerator, the car, your desk. Loading up on paper goods at the local discount warehouse. Liberating the dining room table and floor from all the dissertation books, articles, note cards, and old takeout cartons. Phoning or texting friends you hope understand. Or reminding yourself why you chased the doctorate in the first place.
Make a List
You had good reasons for pursuing the doctorate. Make a list: perfect position, perfect business, perfect office, perfect clients, perfect colleagues, perfect compensation . . . .
Choose one of these goals and decide on the day or date you’ll start taking the necessary steps. Don’t take too long or you’ll lose your momentum. Settle on the one you’re immediately drawn to—that’s the one you’ll tackle with vigor.
Ask yourself, What do I need to do now to reach that dream? For example, is your dream to get an excellent teaching position at a great university? A project in itself (see Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In).
Instead of mining the databases for literature, mine the Internet for universities you’re interested in. Subscribe to the newsletters of professional organizations in your field—they often have listings of job openings. Plan to attend several conferences; most have employment prospects sections.
Ask your chair and committee members (don’t forget former professors) for leads. Request letters of recommendation. Talk to current faculty members and employees at your desired institutions. Review and update your vitae. Draft introductory letters to department chairs or administrators. When you get nibbles, set up appointments and interviews. Notify everyone you know and tell them you’re interested. Talk to colleagues who are teaching. As a start, consider part-time campus or online adjuncting.
If you want to continue in academia, publication is still the road to advancement. Start thinking about that article that’s lurking in your dissertation. You deserve the recognition as well as additional benefits from all you’ve invested. Your chair or a committee member may have already suggested publication.
Make a little plan for working on your article. Join an academic writing group or community. Michael Harris has a fine article on reasons for joining a writing group. See too Wendy Belcher’s Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks and Pat Thomson’s smart and always insightful blog Patter.
If one of your doctorate goals is promotion in your present company or institution, you won’t need much time for job-hunting or vitae-sprucing. If your postdoc goal is establishing an online business, you’ll want to devote more of your time to steps to get it off the virtual ground.
Look at Your “Later List”
When I counsel beginning dissertation writers, they soon come to the bald realization that the dissertation is going to consume them. I advise them to make a “Later List.” This list assuages you about all the projects and events and chores you’ve wanted to do (or should) other than your professional goals. You know you must put these things off during dissertation drudgery, er, requirements, and will not get to them for at least a year and probably more. The Later List is a convenient compendium for getting all those nags out of your head.
After the dissertation, though, you have the relative leisure to peek at your Later List. See whether your priorities and desires have changed. Maybe you don’t want to go jogging for five miles a day and now want to enroll in a gym, or you no longer feel the need to write your memoir. Maybe new priorities have surfaced.
When my client Lucas just graduated, he looked up from his desk and realized his three kids were suddenly teenagers. At the top of his Later List, he wrote, “Now! Spend more time with them!” Other clients have resumed weekly dates with their families, poetry writing, bookshelf building, volunteering, camping, aesthetic welding.
You don’t have to mow down the whole Later List in a frenzy of activities. As you may already know, the sun always rises and to-do lists never end. We’re also supposed to enjoy our activities (at least some of them). If you haven’t already, add some purely fun things to your Later List that you’ve deprived yourself of for so long—make a long-postponed fancy lunch date with a friend, poke around the new fake-quaint mall, cheer at pony races, go to the multiplex for four first-run movies in a row and munch incessantly from one of those huge horrible popcorn buckets.
These ideas and suggestions are all meant to lift your PPD and help you make the choices most meaningful to you. Go forward armed with your dreams and goals and lists. Bask in your doctorhood and look forward to the new present and your life free of Post-Parting Depression.
Belcher, W. L. (2009). Write Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Harris, M. (2017, June 19). “Five Advantages to Write More With a Writing Group.” http://higheredprofessor.com/2017/06/19/five-advantages-write-writing-group/
Kelsey, K. (2015). The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide to Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Thomson, P. Patter. https://patthomson.net/
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).
© 2019 Noelle Sterne
Dissertation editor, coach, academic mentor, and author, Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University) for 30 years has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations. Her handbook addresses their overlooked but crucial nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). Learn more about Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.
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