Post PhD Submission Fatigue. Part 1

As some of you might know, I submitted my PhD thesis a while ago. I knew about the supposed post-(PhD)-partum depression from stories, of course. I wasn’t sure how it was going to play out for myself. Now after more than a month, I’m definitely still in the deep of it and I’d like to share what I feel like and possibly discuss how others felt (if you’re willing to share). As of writing this article, I’m in a phase where I feel much better and get a little productive again and but then also fall back into a hole of being very tired (just for the record, so you know where I currently stand in the recovery process).

Having web-searched for the topic many times, I know that there are quite a few posts online but I found that most of them weren’t super helpful to me. I hope it might help someone to have my perspective as you’re going through it.
In this post, I’m going to outline what Post-PhD-submission Fatigue is (according to me, my friends’ experiences and what I’ve found on the web), what I’ve heard about it and what people are saying about it. I will also set out to gather advice from “survivors”, so that we might even be able to provide some guidance if anybody comes across this post feeling lost. However, the personal experiences stories and the advice will probably mostly go into part two of this blog. Without further ado, let’s get into it…

What is Post PhD Submission Fatigue?

It’s a name (or even set of names) people have come up with to describe the feeling you get after the submission of your PhD thesis. Unlike what you’d think, most people do feel relieved but not in the happy-happy way they had imagined. Most people end up feeling extremely drained and like they’ve fallen into a void, lost perspective, don’t have that one big like goal to work towards, etc.

Some say it feels like burnout…

Some say it feels like burnout, some have even related it to symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. In order to think through whether this classification makes sense, let me start with listing a few commonly mentioned symptoms of both (so you can check if you think any apply to you). If you feel that they do, don’t jump to conclusions. But if you very strongly related to them, make sure to reach out to a therapist or counselor as soon as possible. These issues can be quite serious and you shouldn’t feel “stupid” asking for help if you need it!

As symptoms for burnout, lots of web sources (for example) commonly list exhaustion (physical and mental), being annoyed at the world and your life (cynicism, feeling useless, feeling things don’t make sense or are pointless), lack of concentration, being easily irritated and missing more and more time from work due to sick days.

Watch out for common indicators of too much stress: Sleep, digestion, headaches

Additionally, common indicators of too much stress like issues with sleep, digestion or headaches can come with the package. These are all indicators you’re suffering from overwork and should see a doctor, therapist or at least dial down a little (reduce work, take a vacation, etc.) If the symptoms persist for a longer period of time that’s a sign that something’s off and you should seek help.

Personally, despite feeling super tired, I wouldn’t say that any of those common indicators of stress (or burnout) apply to how I’m feeling at all…

How I felt

A further indicator you might be suffering from burnout – maybe most importantly -, is depression. For me personally, I can only relate to very few of those burnout symptoms but absolutely not depression (though I’m not a stranger to that, so I know how it feels). I have no indicators of too much stress.

I do have bursts of stress and anxiety but feel good and happy overall. Mostly I’m just very tired. The number of work hours I can reliably get in a day are about 3-4 maximum and notably, I get overwhelmed much more quickly than usual. I’ve been trying to conceptualize what it feels like over the last few weeks and I think the most obvious problem for me currently is being very “jumpy” when it comes to work. I get overwhelmed when to-dos pile up. I get stressed and panicked really quickly. But I can also shut work out much better than usual (maybe due to lack of energy or the overwhelm with it just being way too high).

I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself with symptoms of burnout because I have had tendencies of (seriously) working too much since my early youth. However, I also have always really enjoyed work and (over-?)used it as a coping mechanism to deal with other things. Despite the last weeks of the PhD pre-submission phase being very stressful with little room for myself, they coincided with some post-lockdown reopenings. I made the most of that. I worked at the university café, went to the reopened bouldering gym and met a few friends. Despite the stress, I have profoundly happy memories from that time. However, I feel that the past four weeks (ergo the first weeks post submission) have been somewhat of a blur. Time seemed to pass very fast.

Right after the submission, I had to prep getting to my US fellowship so it was quite busy. I was stressed but also still in the go-getter mindset from before the submission. I actually really like this mindset and I hope I can eventually re-cultivate it in the future. I wasted a lot less time on non-essentials and was very focused when I worked. Once I had arrived in the US, there was some jetlag and adjusting to the time zone change. Although, weirdly, even after more than four weeks, I still start yawning in the early evening. I’m starting to suspect this might be a problem of low blood sugar due to intermittent fasting (which I had been trying but will probably discontinue as I don’t really see the benefit).

When I first arrived in the US, I couldn’t look at any work at all in the beginning. I wouldn’t open my email or even go near anything work related. My memory has been horrible for weeks (getting much better now in month 2 post submission). I needed to write everything down and at the same time was continuously panicked I might have forgotten someting or missed a deadline. Despite the fact that I currently don’t even have all that many meetings or deadlines I could miss. So I feel that I was a bit too hyperfocused on what I had to get done.

Post Traumatic Stress versus Post Dissertation Stress?

Now let’s just take a quick look at symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress. Which some people have related to their own Post Dissertation Stress (read more here). These, however, are quite a bit more severe than what I have been experiencing, even though some people have drawn the parallel (and I can see why). Common symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress are being easily frightened or getting anxious, always on your guard for danger, possibly connected to self-destructive behaviour (like drinking too much, driving recklessly, etc.) Furthermore, trouble sleeping and concentrating, being irritable, angry or aggressive and feeling guilty.

I get why people would relate what they feel to Post Traumatic Stress because I also felt that I got disproportionately triggered by, say work, responsibilities, emails, totally normal to-dos (like taking the trash out). The smallest things put me in a “frenzy” if you want to call it that. This might have also been a reason for my extremely bad memory during the time because I overreacted so much to everything that my brain was constantly too busy stressing out and couldn’t focus (and commit stuff to memory, a process which is reduced during high-strss moments). The bad memory really got to an almost dysfunctional state. I had never experienced anything like that before. And then not being in full control of my brain stressed me even more (like a vicious cricle). But I guess I got through it alright and the memory part is really not an issue anymore now.

From what I hear, people are trying to move the concept of Post Traumatic Stress away from being reserved only to huge triggers (like having been in a war, victim of rape, etc.) – but I’m not sure I like it being applied to what I have felt. I think that I’m still in such a privileged situation. I’d say maybe it’s my body being confused at the stress dissipating after an extremely high-stress time. Maybe the symptoms are similar. I’m not sure I’d want to call this Post Traumatic Stress though (btw, in case you have been wondering… yes, it was known as PTSD, i.e. disorder but the “disorder” part was removed from many mental things which aren’t actually disorder.. like Autism etc.).

More practical advice is coming to you in the next post!

So yeah, that’s my story and my take on how to conceptualize it. This was a long post already, so I’ll save everything else I’ve written down for the next part. Maybe I even have enough material for two more posts, so remember to check this blog for more related content 🙂 What you can expect is, among others, further descriptions of possible symptoms and advice for how to deal with them. How long we’ve heard that it can take (or have experienced ourselves). Some experiences from others. What information we have found for making sense of your feelings (why are you feeling like this, what could cause it?).

That’s it for now. So long and thanks for all the fish!


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