Post PhD Submission Fatigue. Part 2

In a post last year about Post PhD Submission Fatigue I promised to follow up and then I never did. Post Phd Submission fatigue got me 😀 So now, you’ll get both an update on where I am now and some more info on the phenomenon itself (What can I expect and how long will it take?).

The state of things almost a year post submission

I never finished the list of things you’re suggested to do to make it better (that I promised in the last post). Now I am almost a year past submission (May 2021) and a good half year post defense (September 2021). My fatigue has been getting better and better. A big improvement happened after the defense was actually done. I think a contributing factor was that I didn’t work/push as hard during my fellowship in Philadelphia (3 months) and then took a vacation after the defense and before I started my new job as a PostDoc. Since I was fortunate to get a relatively long-term, full-time PostDoc position at my old workplace, a lot of worries fell away from me.

But that doesn’t solve years of overwork, of course. Feeling refreshed after taking time off, I got overly motivated in October and November (the first two months on the new job), trying to do it all. I had (and still have now) many guilt items on my to do list which had been postponed during the final phase of the PhD submission sprint. They are still not done. It’s getting better but new tasks have appeared. I took on new responsibilities and took time to work on other pet projects (long overdue, good for the soul but not that good for making due with those old todos which get worse the older they get). Then I was overwhelmed again in December and shocked at myself how I had gotten back into my old (overworking) habits again and it took me two months (!) to even notice that I had fallen back into that rut. That was a sobering realization for me. I tried to make as much time as possible to reevaluate my life, goals and work ethic over a Christmas holiday and I think some stuff got a little better. I now have a clearer idea of how I should ideally live my life (which I still don’t do, of course). But, all in all, I think things are improving. It’s astounding just how many little things have piled up that I couldn’t handle during the PhD submission phase or my fellowhips (just simple stuff like repairing sth at my appartment, doing taxes way too late and so on). I feel like I have at least gotten more or less of a handle on the private stuff. Work todos are still piling up but I’m trying to focus on trusting that I’m on the right path and improving a little every day. I’m in all over my head and do still get very tired at times (probably a normal response that I just had a habit of suppresing in the past, I fear) but all in all, I feel more in control again.

Recently, my university has lifted most covid measures, so I work from the office again. That has been a nice change. But you also sometimes waste a lot of time when not productive. In the end, neither working from home nor from the office are cure-alls. You still get procrastination and bad days. I think the goal to handling them is to just acknowledge that they happen, forgive yourself and not try to control them.

With all that said, here are a few paragraphs I wrote around last summer where I was still deeper in the recovery process. Many of them are from intel I had gathered from fellow academics who had gone through the process before me. In the following post (Part III), I will try to get more into possible reasons for Post PhD burnout, what to do about it and share a “state of things” paragraph from the recovery process last year, so you get as much first-hand experiences as possible.


What symptoms can I expect?

In this section, I want to share a few symptoms which either we epigrammetrists have experienced ourselves or which have been related to us by other people. I will try to distinguish between things I was told almost everybody will experience and more rare or individual responses.

[This part of the post was written last year, so you don’t get confused.]

  1. A week of being totally tired, out of it, with practially no working memory and your brain being total mush is to be expected. First-aid things you can do about it are:
    1. Celebrate your achievement. It means get drunk with your friends if that’s someting you like to do. Get out the barbecue. Whatever applies and works for you. This really helped un-paralyze me and make me realize what had happened. Don’t put it off for too long. The time before this event was really weird for me. It got immediately better afterwards (at least a bit better).
    2. Take as much time off as possible. An extended holiday would be best.
    3. Set an “out-of-office” reminder in your email stating that you are not available right now and emails will only be checked after the period indicated. If something’s truly urgent, tell people to call or leave an audio message. This should help you not feel guilty or like you have to check your emails constantly (thankfully, my email only works on VPN in the US so I need to be actually at my computer to check emails at the moment). If you really can’t take time off or be unavailabe, at least set boundaries on the weekends and be offline.
    4. Sleep. You will be very tired and that’s ok. You can also binge-watch a few seasons of your favourite show while having take-out (guilt-free!). But also, frankly, I feel that too much passive media consumption isn’t the best thing for me.
    5. Get moving (preferably in nature). Go for a walk, go to the beach, go the the gym. Anything that’s available to you. Move your body, think with your body for a while. Breathe. No phone.
    6. Induldge without guilt. Screens are not great but give yourself permission to pursue brainless recreation like binge-watching Netflix or whatever it is that you enjoy doing as your guilty pleasure. That will drive you in some sort of a slump but you’ll get bored of it eventually. You can still get into nature after that.
  2. Not having a distinction between work and life anymore. At least that probably was the most important problem for me. It took me ages to realize that I subconsciously felt like I should constantly be working, like I’m disappointing everybody and not able to hold up all those deadlines. (Only the dealine part was true but also, it turned out many of them were artificial deadlines and I needed to learn to see through that or at least, draw my own boundaries.) I only got my energy back after I truly accepted that my to do list doesn’t control me. That I don’t need to be working as much or even constantly. To actually take some days off (still not really doing that and in the beginning, it also seemed more reasonable to me to work a little every day – but never not working is bad!). You need to re-learn how to “switch off”. This had gotten extremely blurred during the thesis, esp. the third year where everybody constantly reminds you “Why are you doing XY, you should be finishing your thesis”. Which technically is true (you have to get finished somehow and it’ll always be a pain in one way or another) but it’s also a very toxic mindset (since you have to cultivate it over an extended period of time and that’s not healthy), especially given that your thesis and personal identity get so extremely closely linked during this time in your life. You really need to un-learn this again.
    1. Travel, even if it’s just a day-trip. I know that’s a luxury thing that not everybody can afford – but I have seen the biggest improvement after travelling. It’s both relaxing and inspiring. That was just what I needed to learn to “live” again. To understand that I am more than my work and I don’t have to think about it constantly. For me that happened during a short trip to New York. I walked those streets and realized that I am more than my work. I exist beyond it. I have interests beyond it and that’s a relief.
    2. Make lists so you know what’s essential and urgent. Be prepared that nothing except the most essential and urgent to dos will get done. Accept that this is ok. You just had a great accomplishment, you don’t need to be super-productive now. Give it time. However, having that list (and keeping it up-to-date) helped me to stop worrying constantly about forgetting something critical. I also had a list for the months to come so I wouldn’t mindlessly push things off to a future month that’s already taken. Even if that meant that I had to do the task now even though I didn’t want to and didn’t have the energy. But also, sometimes you don’t meet your own deadlines and realize it wasn’t that urgent after all. Tomorrow’s another day. All other deadlines are not as urgent as that PhD submission. You can relax a bit more.
    3. Do it now. In the beginning, I was litterally physically unable to look at work or emails. I made myself do it anyway and agonized about it. Now I’m finally able to use the “Do it now” approach again on some work. Like incoming emails. I feel that it’s often easier to tackle something as it comes up. The longer you put it off, the more stressful it becomes. During the PhD phase, I had deliberately gotten out of the habit to respond (immediately or at all) to anything non-thesis-related. While helpful for finishing the thesis, the pile-up of neglected to dos was overwhelming after the thesis was done. That’s why I decided I needed to get back into doing stuff as soon as it comes up. I’m still in the process of getting stuff done I postponsed during the thesis sprint [edit: still true almost a year post-submission]. But answering that email straightaway at least means that I don’t need to put it on my to do list. The old items on the to do list are the most painful. Tackle those. But also avoid generating this procrastination spiral for new items or it’s just going to get worse and worse.
    4. [Addition from May 2022] Learn to enjoy research again. Honestly, looking back, I was seriously that close to a full-on burnout last year. The fact that we had a few successes (like decrypting that alchemical cipher) made it look on the outside like I was my productive normal self – but I really wasn’t, that was just an illusion. It’s a year later now and only recently am I feeling like I’m getting my energy back again, finding an effective and productive rhythm (also my responsibilities have obviously changed from PhD to PostDoc position, so that needed some adapting to as well). My boss says I should focus more on publishing my digital edition (asap!) and I totally agree (yes, too many conferences are part of the problem) but I also needed to find my energy and love for research again. Last year was such a pain because I’m definitely juggling too many projects to not be on full energy and I wasn’t for at least those three months in Philadelphia. I have to admit that. But in order to get back into full steam (not that you have to if you don’t want to), I needed to travel a lot – both for work and for conferences (which I realize is a luxury that I’m very grateful to be able to afford). In the meantime, I have been to RSA in Dublin meeting early modernist and alchemist friends and last weekend, to give the very first-ever LaTeX Ninja workshop at Harvard. Of course, conference travel is tiring (hello jetlag!) but I also haven’t felt so energized and positive in a long time. I know that I’m behind on so many old projects but I also know that I’m slowly progressing. I can believe in the fact that I can do it if I just “live in day-tight compartments” (Dale Carnegie), i.e. focus on what I can do today to get stuff done (the stuff that actually needs to get done today but not everybody’s artificial deadlines). Harvard was, of course, straining in a way but I also haven’t felt this invigourated and excited about research and doing things in a long time!

How long does it take?

From what I’ve heard, the first week post submission is full of being confused, tired and your brain feeling like mush. I had that, many friends confirmed it. It guess it’s a perfectly reasonable response from your body after completing such a big and stressful project. Now [at the time of initially writing this post] I’m in between month one and two past submission and I feel that there’s an up-and-down. I have moments of productivity again. Since I luckily had a fellowship for funding where I’m financially supported but don’t have an extreme lot of obligations (the ones I have are mostly old ones I postponed from pre-submission and some of my fellowship research), my workloads have varied from 10 hour workweeks where it felt almost impossible to open either email or an urgent work project, to 30 hour weeks where I feel that I’m pretty much back to normal, just taking it a little more slowly than I have been before. And that’s alright too since I’m in a different country and also trying to make the most of my experience here (as far as the occasional fatigue allows 😉 ). I think I have a good balance of hanging out with people, doing the occasional sightseeing, making the most of my currently two parallel climbing gym memberships (will say more about how that happend in the upcoming review posts) and watching some TV.

And also, giving myself the time to just exist and experience the process of relearning what I enjoy and relearning to listen to what I currently want to do (in the beginning, I was pretty blank on that). Oh, and as you can see, I have taken up blogging again and remembered that I actually enjoy it [edit: also then totally ignored the blogs for a few more months and I think that was an important part of my recovery process]. In the beginning of the post submission stage, I felt like my blogging life was so far away, I wasn’t even sure I still liked it. [Now in 2022, I know that I still do but I have to set it up in a way that doesn’t feel like a burden, so less blogging for me right now.]

So, that’s it for now. Stay tuned for part 3!

Good luck on your journey!

S


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