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I would dream of celebrations (involving cake), and a massive high that I could ride into the next stage in life.
I’d never considered that anything other than sheer joy and satisfaction would follow completing what feels like a mammoth task.
Now, I know to prepare with a more realistic perspective. While this dream may be a reality for some students, I have learned that this is not everyone’s experience. Sometimes, students can be overwhelmed by ‘post submission blues’, including pessimism, worry, anxiety, sadness and depression.
I’m still pre-submission so I can’t talk from personal experience but I'm grateful to my peers who candidly shared with me their post-submission challenges and joys. I feel I can much better prepare for life post-submission.
I hope this post prompts other students to engage in such conversations, too.
1. Submission can be anticlimactic
Thesis submission is a big deal for a student, but not everyone may understand. It’s a journey few get to experience. It can be disappointing if people don’t see cause for celebration.
Also, submission does not equal completion. There are still amendments to finish after waiting months to receive results. This waiting period is outside of a student’s control, and it can challenge anyone’s patience!
2. Sudden change is challenging and daunting
While a PhD thesis is not constrained by traditional 9-to-5 working days, research provides structure: experiments and equipment bookings, writing, meetings, conference preparation, even lunch with colleagues. It consumes brain space, too; ideas can frequently invade thoughts. We constantly plan and problem-solve.
These daily routines can suddenly disappear once you submit. Any smatterings of work left (such as papers to write) are typically unsubstantial compared with a thesis.
This sudden and possibly uncomfortable change can leave people feeling lost and overwhelmed. Where to next? There might be worries about the next step in life, writing papers, finances, and hurdles introduced into romantic relationships and family life that might arise from difficulties from job-hunting or perhaps moving homes. This can be particularly daunting for graduate researchers who are completely exhausted.
If you’ve already got a job lined up, you might be moving to a different university or company, maybe even countries. There’s paperwork to finish, good-byes, and packing.
If not, there’s job-hunting, which is highly competitive. Repeated rejections can have a significant impact on self-esteem. Sometimes, the feelings of ‘drifting’ are overwhelming.
Either way, submission marks a sudden change from the known to the unknown, and this can be very confronting and lonely.
3. Expectations of life beyond
Students often think and say “I’ll do that…after I submit”. There’s just not enough time to do everything now! Perhaps we imagine a blissful, stress-free, post-thesis life. It can be disappointing if reality doesn’t reflect the dream.
Prolonged stress, often part and parcel of a PhD, weakens the immune system. After submission, graduate researchers might experience repeated illnesses.
A PhD can exacerbate physical and mental health issues and sometimes we (and our support network) hope that these will dissipate along with our thesis. But completion does not guarantee an immediate fix to these struggles.
It can also be easy to compare lifestyles and life journeys with friends outside of (or in) academia. If the next stage of your journey is still uncertain, the appearance of greener grass on the other side might induce jealousy or fuel self-doubt.
There’s another, perhaps unsurprising, challenge: actually missing research! After all, most of us undertake a PhD because we enjoy problem-solving, learning and writing.
What can help
1. Get support and practise self-care
Take each day as it comes and be kind to yourself. Recognise that it is OK to experience whatever feelings come with submission, and that each individual responds differently. Reach out to understanding friends and consider professional help if feeling overwhelmed. Talk to others experiencing similar challenges.
Practising self-care and developing a new routine can help to anchor you. Healthy sleeping habits and diet, routine exercise, and planning social events can be beneficial. Routine might even include going to a work-like environment (library, office, uni) to write papers, catch up on long-ignored emails, or plan a holiday.
2. Explore your new identity
Many of the enjoyable elements of a PhD (problem solving, communication, writing) can be found elsewhere. They might be in unexpected places, so don’t be afraid to explore different options.
Establish new, realistic goals and engage in meaningful activities: volunteering, improving a skill, taking up a new hobby, preparing for a job, or even meal plans. These can provide structure and fulfilment. Consider taking ‘baby steps’ and set some small goals. Success breeds success.
3. Celebrate each milestone
Recognise that a PhD is a remarkable accomplishment, so celebrate the major points: submission, completion, graduation, jobs! And remember to celebrate the small steps, too, whether it’s preparing a well-cooked meal or acquiring a new skill.
Each PhD journey is unique, including submission, and that’s OK. Whether a PhD is the foundation of a career in academia, or you transfer your skills elsewhere, it marks the beginning of something new.
So carry with you your best self and the hard-earned life-lessons you’ve learned along the way!
La Trobe resources and support units you might find helpful:
Laena D’Alton is a PhD student in chemistry within the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Sciences (LIMS).
Her project is on developing a sensor that can be used with a mobile phone for portable disease diagnosis at low cost.
She is also a communications assistant to Dr Giselle Roberts. Laena loves all things creative (and chocolate).
Thank you so much. It has been very helpful for me to read your words and to be reminded that we do not know how we will feel when this journey ends, and that this okay.
I am very close to submitting my thesis. I feel mostly pretty optimistic , and don't think that I will crash, but already, just waiting to receive word that yes, the thesis is ready to submit I just feel ... strange. I am in shock and disbelief. Nine months ago it felt l like this would never end. I have presented at conferences at least once a year but apart form a short sweet family trip in 2016, I have not had a holiday in 3 years. All the things that I thought that I would do - such as spring cleaning the house and so on ... seem a little bit unnecessary right now. I will celebrate when it goes in, coffee and cake for my co-workers sounds good, but as you describe, this ending is a series of stages ... and when the thesis is passed by the examiners and I can look forward to the graduation day that will bring home to me that I have really finished.
All the best to you, Anni
Thanks for your comment and feedback - well said. And well done, you're almost there! I hope your post-submission journey is smooth, and that you can enjoy a well-earned rest and holiday. And actually sit down and eat cake really, really slowly. All the best to you too!