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Megan Poorman completed her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder and associate of NIST. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or on her website.

It’s hard to believe we've reached the final part of my dissertation series. I’ve had fun writing it and I hope you’ve found it useful. Today we will talk about the aftermath—the months after your defense and the changes you might go through. If you missed the previous parts check them out below:

Part 1: Pre-Gaming Your Dissertation
Part 2: Catastrophe-Proof Your Dissertation
Part 3: Nose to the Grindstone
Part 4: Preventing Dissertation Burnout
Part 5: Time for Battle

I always thought of the Ph.D. defense with a bit of reverent awe. It was the pièce de résistance, a triumphant culmination of years of hard work, something to be inspired by and daydream about with friends over beer. When research got rough I would envision myself at the podium giving my defense and wonder about being named a doctor, about being published and recognized in the field, and about doing awesome research that would change the world. For years I worked tirelessly to make my dream a reality. I faced the struggle head on. I rode the roller coaster of ups and downs as I devoted every single ounce of energy I had to succeeding in my degree. I pushed and pushed at the boundary of knowledge until one day, as Matt Might said, it gave way and I found myself in a whole new world.

After my defense was over, a lot of life changes happened. In the course of two weeks I re-submitted a paper, officially turned in my dissertation to the university, packed up my apartment, said goodbye to my friends, and moved across the country to a new town, new state, and new job. I never really considered what came after the defense until it was already over. From my point of view during school, people defended, got a great job, and rode off happily into the sunset. While finishing grad school is certainly a joyous occasion and exciting life stage, it was not as clean of a break as I expected it to be. Even with great advisors and a supportive community in school, the logistical changes and emotions that came afterwards were a curveball I had not anticipated. No matter how used to rolling with the punches you’ve gotten, transitioning out of grad school can be difficult mentally and physically.

This post isn’t intended to be a warning or a how-to. It’s more my reflection on the changes I went through after defending and, looking back, how I think I dealt with them. My hope is that it can serve as equal parts “heads-up” to those coming later, therapeutic outlet for myself and those in the comments section, and reassurance that if you’re experiencing something similar, you’re not the only one.

The main thing I remember feeling was that something wasn’t quite clicking in my head. My usual quick-wit, direct manner of speaking turned into lost trains of thought and the inability to remember what word I was looking for. Having taken a bunch of physiology classes throughout my training, my mind immediately began wondering about all the brain diseases that could possibly cause this issue. Then I reminded myself that I needed to calm down and that it was probably just stress and burnout. It seemed silly to me that I would be stressed when I had literally completed all of my responsibilities, but unwinding and letting go takes time. My recommendation here is to sleep a lot, do (and eat) what makes you happy, and go easy on yourself. Know that it might take you longer than you expect to feel back to normal. For me, my lack of memory carried on for a few months after finishing, making learning names at my new job an extra (not) fun challenge. After four months I began to feel eager to engage and after six months I felt like I was beginning to catch up on sleep. Be patient, it might take time.

Along that vein, I highly advocate for some time off between your graduation and starting your next step. I managed to rustle about a month off and, honestly, I could have used more time. I spent a lot of my vacation submitting a paper from my dissertation, moving to my new apartment, and going through the logistics of becoming a Colorado resident. I underestimated the time and brain power all of the logistics would take, especially when I was still so worn out from finishing my dissertation. Looking back it would have been nice to have some time to lie on the couch to do nothing and to plug in to the community in my new home. Don’t be afraid to carve out time for yourself, maybe even plan a new adventure.

Starting a new job is hard; doing so while burnt out is even harder. I wouldn’t say I was completely burnt out—after all, I was very excited about my new position and research area. However, I felt a bit like I was moving through Jello as far as my intellectual curiosity went. Perhaps this was just transitioning from a student to a Ph.D.-level independent researcher, perhaps it was figuring out an entirely different work environment structure, or perhaps it was trying to find my identity outside of the context of graduate student. Whatever it was, it took me months to feel like I had my feet under me at work.

Navigating an environment different from the academic one I had come from was a new experience. It took a lot of confidence in my past decisions to recognize that my uncertainty stemmed from the emotional aftermath of de-stressing from grad school and not my new surroundings. The advice I have here is to do the best you can. While I’m a big believer in actively tackling your burnout, recognize that this period might be one where you need to go easy on yourself. It’s okay if you can’t pull the long hours you used to or you can’t bring yourself to get as involved in extracurriculars. These things will come back with time and when you once again feel that zap of energy in your head when a new idea clicks, you’ll be excited and ready to pursue it.

Be aware that you might miss school. Immediately after finishing I was just so glad to be done that I doubted I would miss anything. My Ph.D. was one of the most exciting and intellectually challenging times of my life, but it was also the most stressful and exhausting. To me, moving on represented a chance to enter the “real world” (although I despise that phrase) and I couldn’t wait to see what came next. However, after a few months I began to miss the familiarity and atmosphere of my Ph.D. It’s normal to be nostalgic, especially when you’re challenging yourself with new experiences. It reminded me a bit of the uncertainty I felt beginning graduate school - unsure where I fit and transitioning to something new. My advice here is to remind yourself of why you chose the path you did. For me, choosing to transition to a new area of research meant I could expand my breadth of knowledge. Choosing a new work environment meant being introduced to other structures and mentorship opportunities. Choosing a new location meant exploration of hobbies and balance. It’s natural to feel scared when you push yourself outside your comfort zone, but a Ph.D. was not meant to train you to do one specific thing. It trains you how to think and work towards a goal. You can always go back to what you know, but you don’t always get the opportunity to explore something different. The bonds you made in grad school haven’t gone away, so enjoy the ride and you might just discover something that intrigues you even more.

So, what’s to gain from all my rambling? Not much expect to say that I’m here and it does get better. Just because you finished graduate school doesn’t mean you’ll immediately snap back to “normal,” whatever that means. You’ve accomplished something amazing and your life will never be the same. It just might take your mind a little while to come to terms with that.

[Photo by Abbie Bernet on Unsplash and used under the Creative Commons license]

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