The PhD comedown can be swift and brutal

You have spent three years thinking your life will be perfect after you submit your thesis. But it isn’t true, says Petra Boynton

December 18, 2019
Woman with head in hand
Source: Alamy

The morning after I passed my viva, I sat alone at breakfast in a hotel, jealously watching families and couples eating together.

What was wrong with me? I had been dreaming of this moment for so long. The previous night I had been elated at finally achieving something that had taken me nearly a decade owing to two failed relationships, a miscarriage, the loss of my home and resulting financial hardship, self-funding, and a chronic illness triggered by hepatitis. I had silenced my schoolteachers, who had labelled me stupid. Yet I felt lonely, ungrateful and deflated.

My PhD had been my anchor, the constant in my life when everything else was falling apart. I had hoped a doctorate would erase my past and transform my life, as others had promised that it would. But it didn’t.

In the decades that have followed, these feelings have receded and I’m able to take pride in my achievements. This helps me support my own doctoral students, examine PhDs and train supervisors. Yet I’ve learned from them about people whose relationships ended shortly after they got their PhD, or who found the doctoral process so debilitating that they abandoned academia after graduating, or whose mental or physical health problems suddenly worsened the moment their studies stopped.

There’s a name for such phenomena: the PhD comedown. And we need to talk about it because it isn’t unusual, can be distressing and confusing, and may mask other significant issues. Left unaddressed, it may lead to poor decision-making or a failure to seek appropriate support.

For most of us, PhD comedown is an entirely normal and predictable reaction to an incredibly focused period of study. Indeed, we might find ourselves grieving the ending of our PhD while being uncertain of our new identity as a “doctor”. Comedown can strike at any time after submitting your thesis, doing your viva or attending your graduation. Alongside the positives we feel – relief, pride, excitement, hope – it is common to feel strung out, directionless, empty, uncertain and tearful. This may last for a matter of days or could stretch into months.

If a student struggled through their studies, had poor supervision, a particularly tough viva, major revisions, or is in dispute with their university, they may also feel angry or anxious. The same goes, in particular, for those subject to various kinds of discrimination during the doctoral process, due to – among other things – racism, sexism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism or other inequalities (such as being a parent or carer). Anyone who has been ground down within an environment of bullying and harassment may struggle to celebrate successes.

Meanwhile, if other problems or life events were never acknowledged nor supported during the doctoral period, it is common to find, as I did, that they are still waiting for you after you finish. Not everything has a solution and it’s unrealistic to expect or suggest that PhDs are some sort of panacea for structural barriers or problems in other aspects of life.

Currently, we don’t prepare doctoral students adequately for what comes after submission, viva or graduation. Without a range of options to consider – particularly careers outside universities – it’s easy to feel trapped. Not least if you discover that the university jobs you expected, and that your degree qualifies you for, aren’t available.

Which brings us on to the crisis of precarity and competitiveness within universities. While we’re busy offering ever more PhDs, we do not adequately buffer these with pastoral care, careers advice and training in more than just passing a viva. Nor have we created fairly paid, secure jobs across universities that those with PhDs might want to do. Moreover, rising rates of workplace pressure and the inevitable accompanying mental distress for supervisors and students diminishes the result in fewer opportunities for supervisors to provide advice.

The risk in discussing either PhD comedown or the wider problems inherent in universities is that doctoral candidates may become demotivated or anxious about their futures. Supervisors rightly worry about their pastoral roles expanding without additional training, supervision time or pay being offered.

There are ways we might fix this, although some are easier than others. We can challenge the myth that suffering throughout your PhD is a badge of honour to pin on your graduation gown. We can present the doctoral journey as an emotional journey that doesn’t end with submission, viva or graduation. We can alert students to the comedown, and encourage them to honour the strong feelings associated with the ending of a significant life experience. And we can advise that negativity may be offset by planning celebrations, timetabling breaks, seeking support for any existing mental or physical health problems and talking to others about what to expect.

All of us feel stronger and less isolated when we are reassured that we are not alone. Sharing our stories of how we coped when we got our doctorates can be reassuring, and even raise a smile during uncertain times.

Crucially, if someone is struggling, such stories may also point them to any care they need, while reminding them that they have managed something wonderful that they will always get to keep.

Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and author of The Research Companion: A Practical Guide to the Social Sciences, Health and Development (Routledge). She advises universities on student and staff safety and well-being. @DrPetra on Twitter and @petraboynton on Instagram.

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Reader's comments (9)

> Currently, we don’t prepare doctoral students adequately for what comes after submission, viva or graduation. Without a range of options to consider – particularly careers outside universities – it’s easy to feel trapped This is true for full-time students. For part-time students it's a bit of a different conversations because often we already have careers so we aren't at the mercy of the academy. I didn't have time to fall to pieces the day after my viva because I had to go to work...
Not as much of a comedown as having your thesis disrespectfully rejected in the viva by an examiner who clearly would have preferred to be elsewhere.
I agree with Bigsur: doing a PhD part-time whilst working insulates you somewhat from the trials and tribulations described in this article, and certainly any feeling of let-down once you've actually got the darn thing! I already work in a university, technically in a professional support role but my duties are more those of an academic and that's how everyone regards me anyway! The PhD is just the icing on the cake, it's already my dream job :)
I completed my PhD in Science Education @UTS in 2 years and 3 months part-time producing 11 publications and working full-time. I have an amazing learning experience and it was extremely smooth. I am currently writing a paper on strategies to complete a PhD successfully. I have seen people struggling with PhD's before and I never understood why. Some of the golden rules are not known by most of the students and it is to prepare before enrolling. You should know your topic and the literature around, your research question and methodology, shop for supervisor and co-supervisors, have exemplars of ethics applications (if required) and to be a self-regulated and motivated learner. Starting a PhD because of pressure will end up affecting your well-being. If your job requires a PhD and you are not into it, get another job, don't waste 10 years of your life carrying something on your shoulders that will give you lot of frustration. PhD's are not for smart people but persistent, passionate, self-regulated and motivated individuals. If you wanna ask for some tips here is my website, send me an email www.jorge-reyna.com
I completed my PhD while working in a somewhat unrelated field. During the course of it I underwent diagnosis, surgery and radiotherapy for a brain tumor. My PhD got me thrown out of the church I grew up in and I have been accused of trying to"pass myself off" as a doctor - when actually I am "only" a nurse ( this by a nursing " colleague"). But I would do it all again in a heartbeat, because I absolutely loved it. It's done nothing for my career, but it has revolutionised my life, held me together when things looked pretty bleak, increased my confidence, made me realise my ideas can change things, and stopped me thinking that God and the clergy were perhaps interchangeable ( a trap that some clergy are not immune from). I have lifelong passion and am a respected teacher, mentor and preacher ( I don't see a barrier between one role and another marked by payment, all being merely facets of a whole). I'm hoping to offer some time back to academia, but as always for me, it will be focused around social justice or community health ( I would argue that they are possibility aspects of the same thing anyway!).
To do a good phD, get married early, be in love with your spouse, relax your higher mind ,intellect,to think independently and freely. I am now 76.when I was at York with my wife and children I was 26-29. I did my Dad. Phil in Linguistics. The second Ph. D I got in Law when I was 70. Take it easy helps us intellect originally.
I have finished my PhD in Mechanical Engineering. I thought I could find a job anywhere that I proved I am bright. Now a year passed and couldn't find a job. If I find a job it's not even paying a rent. It's like I am feeling totally stupid why is this happening to me. There is a joke now going if you finished a university you are stupid and if you finished a PhD you are a retard. It's totally sad how hard work goes to the drainage. Ofcourse I had my breakout during my PhD like the rest. Now I want to marry someone who is really special to me and can't find a job. I am afraid she might get fed up. When I see people who don't work and don't put effort and they are so successful. I become jealous. I mean all these years of my life wasted?
I have had a group of full time and part time research scholars. I find the full time scholars going through the peak of confusion during their three/four year doctoral period. Just before their final theses is being corrected, they have a huge amount of confusion. To start with they seemed so confident. But as time passes, their confusion gets multiplied. And, yes, we dont prepare them for post submission problems. As regards the part timers, they have a huge problem of complying with the regulations of the University. More so when the students are overseas and they are not able to fulfill their attendance requirements. Its killing!

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