Sobriquet 92.1: I Finished My Dissertation! Why Am I So Sad?

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a good friend's dissertation defense. Despite the tremendous anxiety with which he faced his committee and the barrage of pointed questions directed at him, his defense was successful and was declared a Doctor of Philosophy by his advisor. Following a spirited round of applause and after the attendees stopped inundating my friend with celebratory handshakes and pats on the back, the newly-minted Ph.D. expressed a tremendous sense of relief and the sort of joy one would expect following the culmination of so much hard work and dedication.

A week or so later, during one of our telephone conversations, my friend marveled at how his mood, which had so recently been practically ecstatic, had morphed into something far less pleasant. He was, he admitted, depressed. In fact, he likened his sudden, unexpected emotional turn to the post-partum depression some women experience after giving birth. Although he could not see me do so, I nodded. And, boy, did I nod.

I nodded because my friend's comments reminded me of two unrelated conversations I had had over the past few years. The first conversation I recalled was between a friend of mine and myself, a year or so before I completed my own doctoral dissertation. She was employed by Cornell University and worked in one of the school's most well-funded programs. Not surprisingly, she had, in her decade or so of working at one of the top universities in the world, gotten to know a good many brilliant doctoral students who'd written some truly spectacular dissertations. When I expressed the very typical doctoral student desire to just be done with the damn thing already, she drew upon her years of experience among those bright young men and women and told me, in no uncertain terms, to be careful what I wished for.

The second conversation that immediately popped into my mind while chatting with my melancholic friend took place a couple of years after I had completed my dissertation, as I sat around a dinner table with a few fellow professors and reminisced about graduate school. For whatever reason, the conversation turned to research and, in the course of things, we began discussing our respective experiences writing dissertations. I mentioned my old friend's ominous "be careful what you wish for" comment and admitted to having felt depressed after completing what was, essentially, a very successful part of my academic career. Before I could even finish what I started to say, two of my colleagues, suddenly animated by what can only be described as a mingled sense of relief and recognition, offered that they, too, had experienced exactly the same thing. There were tears where they'd expected smiles, oppressive heavy-heartedness where they'd made room for jubilation. In short, there was the same nasty post-doctoral post-partum depression my friend had described to me over the telephone a couple of weeks ago.

So, why do so many academics experience painful depression and sadness when they should, by almost any reasonable person's estimation, feel happiness and relief? Here are a few factors that may explain the phenomenon:

1. The Post-Partum Analogy Might Not Be That Far Off

In "The Author to Her Book," the American poet Anne Bradstreet famously likens a collection of her verse an "ill-form'd" child and faults her own "feeble brain" for causing what she sees as the book's deformities. Many authors, like Bradstreet, have found the work-as-child metaphor to be a satisfying way to describe the relationship between the writer and his or her writing. Indeed, it is not difficult to see why the connection is so appealing. A book, like a child, undeniably begins deep within an individual as an unformed, nebulous thing and grows, over a period of time, into a fuller and fuller being until it is released into the world as an entity separate from the one that nurtured it. The transition from a life organized around the care and cultivation of something to a life in which the individual can no longer provide that entity with the same sort of intimate care to which he or she has grown accustomed can be jarring. It's not a perfect analogy, to be sure, but it does capture the sense of shock an individual must negotiate upon transitioning from one role to another.

2. Identity Crisis

Most Ph.D.s spend a minimum of six years in graduate school, four years as an undergraduate, and thirteen years in K-12. That's twenty-three years in school. Since many (if not most) Ph.D.s take longer than four years to complete their doctorates, you're looking at spending around a quarter of a century in school, at a minimum. Even taking into account the people who take years off between degrees and obtain their doctorates in their forties or fifties, twenty-five years is still a huge chunk of one's life. For someone who completes their dissertation at fifty, one-half of their life has been spent as a student; for someone who completes their doctorate at, say, thirty, 83% of their life has been spent as a student. Think about that for a second. After spending the majority (if not the overwhelming majority) of one's life as a student, that identity can become a pretty major part of a person's self-image. Then, one day, they're no longer a student. Sure, they're still academics and they still do academic stuff, but they're not what they've always been. They're something else: they've gone from being the apprentice to the master.  As I wrote above, transitions can be jarring and the resultant trauma can produce depression.

3. No Excuses

Being a graduate student is often shorthand for living below the poverty line, putting off starting a family, and not having a "real job." Similarly, writing a dissertation can often explain spending a lot of time by oneself, being fascinated with an obscure topic of little interest to others, living a sedentary life, and keeping odd hours. That's all fine and good until you actually finish writing your dissertation and complete your graduate studies. Then you no longer have excuses for being an overweight, poor, lonely, childless person who has never held a real job and eats ramen noodles for dinner at 2:45 in the morning. This is, of course, a caricature, but my point is that many people attribute the aspects of their lives with which they are dissatisfied to their status as underpaid graduate students writing dissertations. The unpleasant realities you could hitherto blame on graduate school emerge as plain old problems you need to address the moment you submit the final draft of your dissertation.

4. The Purposeful Life

Writing a dissertation can give one's life a sense of purpose. You have something you have to do. You have a responsibility, a mission. Then, suddenly, you don't. The sucking void left by your dissertation? Yeah, that's where depression goes until you fill it with something else.


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