Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Watch out for the post defense blahs!

So this post is a little more serious than some of the previous ones.  Around 4 months ago, I defended my dissertation.  I wasn't really aware of what to expect immediately afterwards, and hopefully this post helps some people who are in a similar boat.

My actual dissertation defense was fairly easy, with no curve balls from the committee or moments of doubt once the defense started.  While I stayed fairly calm in the weeks leading up to the defense, the day before I was ABSOLUTELY. FREAKING. OUT.  I felt that I was going to forget some key piece of my dissertation (like one of my research questions or main findings), and/or that I would completely choke under the pressure.

Everyone I knew who had already gone through it (including my own dissertation committee members) said the defense would be fine, and would be more like a friendly chat about my research and future directions than an actual defense of the work I completed.  While I "heard" what they said, I wasn't able to really internalize it and overcome my self doubt.

I imagine I looked a little like this
during the defense.  I blame coffee.
In any event, I wasn't able to sleep much the night before the defense, and so I went into my defense running on about 2 hours of sleep and a pot of coffee.  Despite being tired to the point of almost falling over, the defense went fine, and I became a 'Dr.' (which, from what I've been told, is conferred upon successful defense, while the 'Ph.D.' usage comes after successful conferral of the degree itself.)

Immediately after the defense, I felt pretty damn good. I was finished, and even if I got hit by a car and killed walking back to the parking lot, I'd go out as a Doctor (sorta).  After going back to my (on-campus) office and receiving some congratulations from coworkers, and calling my wife and my mom, I went home early to crash.  I slept for about six hours, got up, and then felt... well... nothing much.  Maybe a little relieved, but otherwise just sort of empty.  I knew I was basically finished (barring some minor formatting things required by the University beancounters), and was already a 'doctor' in title, but I still just felt a little... blah... if that makes sense.  I had a 'so what' kind of feeling about the successful defense, the culmination of what I'd spent the last 5 years pursuing, and the last 2 years directly working on.

If you DO see a sad
little bubble following
your every move, you
should probably call
a real doctor...
Unfortunately, this 'blah' feeling stuck with me for probably a month or so.  I had occasional flashes of 'F*ck Yeah!' feelings that would last a few minutes or maybe an hour (like after walking across the stage at graduation), but nothing constant like I had imagined prior to the defense.  It wasn't full-blown depression by any means (at least, I didn't see a sad little floating bubble following me).  However, there definitely were occasional feelings of sadness at the 'race' of the dissertation being over, spiked with a little 'Oh Sh*t' feelings at what I needed to do next (i.e., get tenure... eventually...).

After a while, the 'blah' feelings subsided, and were replaced with other feelings and thoughts, like stressing about upcoming deadlines, travel plans, and work, my upcoming cross-country move, and day-to-day things like working on research projects. I began to get more and more excited about other things, too, like submitting (revised) pieces of my dissertation to journals for publishing, planning out my fall syllabus, looking into housing options where I would be moving to, etc.  The feelings that were at the forefront of my thoughts, namely my new status as a doctor, eventually became a feeling in the background of my thoughts, that I now forget about more often than not.  A somewhat similar experience happened after I finished my Master's degree, but it was on a much smaller scale compared to finishing my Ph.D.

I'm writing this blog post not as a review of what everyone always experiences after defending their dissertation, nor is it meant as a warning of impending post-dissertation depression.  I simply want to throw out the idea that you might feel a little 'blah,' a little sad, a little depressed, a little angry, a little scared, or feel nothing much in the days and weeks after you defend.  So, if you know this *might* happen, you can hopefully deal with it if it occurs, whether that's by surrounding yourself with friends and family, going on a relaxing trip, diving into your next project, rewarding yourself with a post-defense gift, or even talking with a professional if need be.

Now that it's been about 4 months since I defended, on a typical day I usually don't remember that I'm a Doctor/Ph.D. unless something or someone reminds me (like when someone refers to me as 'Doctor.')  While I'm very proud of my accomplishment, 'being a Doctor' doesn't define who I am as much as I thought it would. That might change the more time I spend in my new position as an assistant professor, but until that point, I feel I'm just someone that successfully survived the dissertation and made it through the post-defense blahs.

Picture Credits: Beaker Zoloft_Bubble


  1. This was such a lifesaver that I forwarded this entry to my sister to help explain how I'm feeling. I successfully defended my dissertation yesterday and have been feeling precisely same way that you described. So much so, a few people have asked if I'm okay (b/c I'm not in a celebratory mood). Hopefully after a few days of rest, I'll feel more like a Dr. =)
    Thanks for writing this blog entry.

  2. Thank you so much for this! Just defended very successfully about four days ago and feeling "off", irritable, angry, apathetic, and down. This helped a tremendous amount in just normalizing and validating what I was experiencing. No one told me to prepare for this! Thank you!

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I successfully defended my dissertation a week ago today and have been feeling very blah (anxious, sad, irritable, even angry) and couldn't understand why. I Googled "post dissertation depression" and found your post. It is comforting to know that I'm not alone. I'm not sure how to deal with my feelings right now, all I know is that I am in no condition to begin working on my revisions (which aren't even a big deal and will not take me long). In fact, I don't want to do ANYthing. Ugh. I hope this wears off sooner than later. But thanks again for sharing your story; it really does help!

  4. Thank you for publishing this. I turned in my dissertation to my committee yesterday and will be (hopefully) successfully defending next month. I keep having these moments of sadness and confusion like "what am I going to do every day since I'm done writing?" and "I'm freaking done with the majority of this crap so why do I feel so blah?" I am already an assistant professor so my job won't change, which I'm guessing adds to the feelings of blahness. Anyways, thank you for honesty and for posting about something that I assume is fairly common.

  5. I (successfully) defended a few hours ago, and I am feeling exactly as you describe. I am a bit surprised though. I didn't expect to be super-happy, but didn't expect this blah-ness either. Thanks so much for posting this, at least I feel normal now :-)

  6. It has been 4 months since my defense and I still have that blah feeling. After spending 8.5 years working toward that goal I had an immediate letdown followed by remorse that I ever decided to pursue the PhD and then some minor ongoing depression followed by some spurts of, holy crap I actually did it! On a bright note, the degree gave me a raise at work (academic program director) which just about covered my student loan costs. Now I have revisited the golf course to fill the void - after all, I am a Doctor.