please ask for help if you’re suffering from pdf

The first two weeks of the semester are behind us and I really love my course. I also really love my students and am so excited to be back on campus for two days a week. Rather than sap me of energy, returning to work while still taking care of our daughter full-time (barring the hours she spends with a sitter while I teach) has left me feeling more “on top” of things and excited about seeking out different opportunities. I feel more like myself, getting to wear both my “mama hat” and my “professor hat” during the course of the week. Before I knew it, I started revisiting my dissertation to work on that article I wanted to pull from it and looking up conferences to attend. All of this made think back to how apathetic and lethargic I felt not too long ago. I was even questioning whether this academia thing was for me at all. And now all I can think about is my article on the nineteenth century female Faust figure and my next lesson plan for my German current events class. So yeah, I think it all boils down to this.

I was clearly suffering from a severe yet undiagnosed case of Post-Dissertation Fatigue.

In case you or a friend are similarly afflicted by PDF, I thought I’d pull together some information on this condition so that you or your loved one may recognize the warning signs before it’s too late. In my case, a good semester off and plenty of bike rides to clear my head have worked wonders. Additionally, getting to vent at length to anyone who would listen to how I don’t know what I’m doing with my life and dreaming up plans to open a brew pub with a good friend in town also soothed feelings of disillusionment and apathy . I still want to open up a brew pub but I’m starting to think that I’m not so ready to quit my day job yet. It turns out that I don’t hate academia after all, I just really.needed.a.break.

If you’re a grad student or someone who’s just recently defended, please take a moment to consider whether this applies to you and please turn to someone you trust for help. The first step is simply recognizing that you’re dealing with PDF:

What is PDF? Early Warning Signs:

Post Dissertation Fatigue (PDF) is a severe anxiety disorder that can develop after prolonged exposure to graduate work, particularly after composing a lengthy body of work such as a dissertation or thesis. The symptoms include feelings of extreme ennui and lethargy, often accompanied with feelings of malevolence towards one’s home institution and advising faculty. Irrational jealousy of one’s peers, a drive to self-deprecate, and chronic questioning of one’s self-worth often overwhelm the individual’s ability to cope. As an effect of Post Dissertation Trauma (a lesser understood type of psychological trauma), PDF is less frequent and more enduring than the more commonly seen post traumatic stress disorders (also known as acute stress response). Diagnostic symptoms for PDF include re-experiencing the original trauma(s) through flashbacks or nightmares of chapter drafting, editing, and footnoting, avoidance of stimuli associated with the trauma such as inserting proper citation and turning on the “track changes” function in Word, and increased arousal—such as difficulty falling or staying asleep, anger, and hypervigilance. Formal diagnostic criteria (both DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10) require that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.


If this sounds familiar, please talk to a friend or leave a comment below. You are not alone.

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20 Responses to please ask for help if you’re suffering from pdf

  1. b. says:

    Lol. I think this is fairly common for many people who’ve just ended a major stage in life and are not 100% sure what the next step is. I remember feeling similarly after finishing my MFA. Although I didn’t write a diss, I did write a fairly lengthy thesis, and letting go of that document was both wonderful and disorienting. Glad your new teaching gig is helping!

  2. I really love this! After four years (FOUR YEARS) I’m finally thinking about researching and writing again. But I totally hear you about teaching. I have a really wonderful class this quarter. The students are engaged and interested and totally invested. Makes my mind start working in good ways again. Glad you’re having a great time! I think being an adjunct is a great way to get back to it while focusing on family/personal life.

  3. M says:

    Can I claim a space for almost-finished dissertation fatigue? (AFDF?)

    But seriously: I’m not a mom; I’m not even a casual bike rider. But this is why I continue to keep up with your blogging — it’s so fantastic to read smart women making their way in and around academia. Thank you :)

  4. Sara says:

    I’ll claim AFDF with you, M. This is a little scary to say (okay, write) out loud, but I barely recognize myself right now. Did I make up the person I used to be? The one who was mostly happy and could generally handle life and get things done? I nearly had a meltdown in my kitchen this morning (by myself, thankfully) when I realized I’d forgotten to set the alarm for the coffee maker the night before. Um…making coffee is not hard. Waiting an extra five minutes for the coffee to brew is the complete and total opposite of a bit deal, and yet my nervous system went into full-on fight-or-flight freakout mode. Now that I think about it, it’s a little like being thirteen again (minus the all-black wardrobe).

    What’s helping: I talk to the nice people in the counseling office at my university. I’m lucky they’re there and that they’re good at what they do. I’ve been doing yoga and working out pretty much every day (a luxury for which I am extremely grateful, since the days when I don’t tend to be much darker). Work dates with friends have been a lifesaver. There, I just reminded myself that it’s not all terrible. Whew.

    Thank you so much for this post–and for the reminder that “this, too, shall pass.”

    • Kim says:

      I’m in the AFDF boat with you! I hope it’s helpful for you to know that your meltdown made me laugh a little and feel a less alone. I’m very prone to tearing up over nothing when I’m stressed out and depleted.

      I gave myself mental permission to make the time for my sanity (counseling, massage, and exercise) during this year, even though that means I’m actually working fewer hours right now than I have earlier in grad school. (I’m in the sciences, so there was a long period of lab work collecting the data for my dissertation) Plowing through this document is just such a mind trip.

      We will get through it!

  5. J. says:

    This was me. (With a thesis, not a dissertation, though. So I can’t imagine what post-dissertation will eventually feel like…) I could barely drag myself out of bed to go to my thesis defense, and as soon as it was over and I had passed, I half-heartedly drank champagne with some fellow grad students, and then promptly got the sickest I’ve ever EVER been in my life for the next two weeks, followed by a solid month of extreme difficulty functioning on a day-to-day basis. My poor partner was miserable. It’s nice to hear someone else voice similar experiences. I, too, am happily back on track after a much needed summer off. Happy to hear you are as well :)

  6. Susan K says:

    Yes, I suffered this! I needed the summer after defending to concentrate on myself, but instead I taught a summer course (much needed for the funds), then two days after that ended, packed up my apartment and drove 1/2 way across the country to begin my new job. I spent the 6 months after my diss feeling like a worthless idiot. I wish I could say the same for the 6 months after the book version came out, but the same feelings of exhaustion, wanting to quit, and feeling like a fraud bumped up again. (I am happy to say 6 months post publication that I feeling less like that again).
    Glad to hear you’re back on the wagon of academicness!

  7. Erica says:

    YES! I totally get this. I defended my dissertation in Pharmacology at 5.5 months pregnant, moved 3 weeks later, started a postdoc a week after that. I gave birth 3 months into my postdoc and had 2 months of maternity leave, then had to jump right back into research. Finally, now, over a year later, I feel like I can truly understand what I’m doing and can start working on things like papers and grant proposals. PDF is real!

  8. Stephanie says:

    YES! Very well said. I jumped right from defending my dissertation at the end of July to starting a T-T job at the end of August. Even with knowing the next step, there was a ton of existential angst! It wasn’t really until the end of the winter break that I started to feel like myself again. We can do it!

  9. S. says:

    Oh man…this was totally true for me post-bar exam (and post-law school in general, since, let’s face it, no one likes law school). Taking a long vacation — and having a relatively low key job this year — have helped a lot, but I sometimes feel like I’m still emerging from the fog. I’m so glad to hear you’re starting to feel well again!

  10. Sarah says:

    Yes, this is me too. I defended last May when I was 6 months pregnant. Had my baby mid-August and was planning to go on the job market in the fall. Well, I severely underestimated how exhausted I would be dealing with a newborn, and then I got a terrible case of mastitis that turned into an abscess and required intensive medical attention… Two months later I was finally better, but needless to say I didn’t send out a single application last fall, let alone get organized to do it! And these days, I’m wondering whether I ever want to enter academia again at all. I don’t want to be a SAHM forever, but even the thought of teaching seems pretty terrible to me right now. Not sure how long/if this will last…

  11. Rita says:

    I think I finished my thesis on a positive note and am looking forward to my Viva. Ok, actually, now that a date is being settled, I am actually starting to doubt things a bit a getting a little bit anxious. But, on the plus side, I still feel excited about my topic. I have, however, pre-empted a bout of PDF by finding myself a full-time, permanent position outside academia. I am doing stuff

  12. Rita says:

    …that was unexpected! Anyway, as I was saying, I am doing stuff that I enjoy but completely unrelated to my research work. This way, I take a break and appreciate things more. Plus, I get to meet people I wouldn’t in academia and that is great for my research! I did the same just after I finished my first degree and before I started my PhD. I went and worked in Vienna and then in Brussels. Variety helps keep things interesting! ;)

  13. Amanda says:

    This is really a thing? I have been suffering apparently from it for YEARS. In fact, the grumpy attitude towards everything connected with my PhD research (in chemistry) made me do a 180 on my career plan and I chose to pursue an alternate academic career (non-faculty of any sort) and while I still work at the same university, I will not enter my old department’s building and hate walking by it…and it’s five years later.

    • simplybike says:

      Amanda, sorry to hear that it’s hit you that hard. Obviously this post is me attempting humor at what is a pretty tough situation: that burn-out that we all feel to varying degrees after the hard work and the never-ending time spent on an advanced degree. So no, it’s not an official thing, but it sounds like a lot of people feel this way based on the feedback to this post alone. I really considered whether academia is for me but now that I’m back to teaching, I really think that the answer for me is yes. But it sounds like it’s not the case for you and it’s good that you figured that out and are doing something else now. Can I ask – are you doing admin work on campus? How was it making that transition and do you like your new work?

      • Amanda says:

        Hi there! I realize you were probably just being humorous about it, but I was actually kind of caught off guard reading your post at how I am ACTUALLY still feeling all those feelings about my PhD. My advisor used to joke that when you hate what you’re doing and who you’re working with, it’s time to start writing your dissertation. I’m sure others in science/engineering will agree there.

        Thankfully in science/engineering, there are options for other academic career paths besides faculty at a unversity, and while I never considered my current job a possibility as a student, I absolutely love it. I’m working as a research scientist at a multi-user analtical facility. I take care of some fancy microscopes/spectrometers and train researchers (mostly grad students) to use them. It’s a really great mix of interacting with/teaching students and keeping my curiosity occupied and up to date on research. At a large university, it’s probably a more stable long-term career than being a lecturer in my field (which was my original goal after the onset of my “PDF”), because non-tenure track faculty have seemed to be the ones laid off amidst the economic down-turn.

        In general, the transition has been smooth. My brain was so exhausted from the “never-finished” aspect of scientific research (there is always something you could/should be working on at home on nights/weekends) that this was a very welcome change. My husband says I’m a nicer person now than I was as a grad student. I also feel like I finally have time for getting enough exercise, rest, social stimulation, etc. that by default was sorely neglected during the last few years of my PhD. It was a little weird for awhile being inexperienced with this job and working with grad students who were older than me (as many still are), but now that I’ve been doing it for almost 5 years, I am much more confident and very good at the instrument maintenance, upkeep, student training, and administrative things that go along with the job. So all in all, a pleasant and unexpected career for me. :)

  14. Jo says:

    I finished my PhD in October last year, and have definitely suffered from PDF! I can think of two things that have helped.

    I’ve been sick three times since I finished. The first two times I kept going, and didn’t give my body a chance to properly recover. I was unwell the last time over Christmas, which gave me the chance to rest for a few days and slow down. I hadn’t realised it, but I had kept working at the same pace as I had during the PhD, and I was exhausted. My forced rest made me slow down, and now I’m actively trying to maintain a slower pace. My advice would be to plan a holiday as close as possible to finishing a PhD – it doesn’t have to be far away or expensive, just somewhere that gives you a break from your day-to-day routine.

    Throughout the PhD I wrote down all the things I thought I was missing out on because I was working on my PhD – catching up with friends, concerts, books I wanted to read, etc. Now I’ve got a great list of things I want to do. It’s Summer where I am, and I’m really enjoying getting out and about in the sunshine doing all the things I didn’t do last Summer :)

    Those with AFDF should read
    This too shall pass!

    • simplybike says:

      Hi Jo!

      Thanks for the comment! I think the trip idea is a great one, I was just talking to an academic friend today who did just that and was praising it for giving her a break just when she needed it most. I guess we did something like that by going to Europe right after we both defended but traveling with a 10-months old is a very different experience from going on a vacation as an adult with other adults, so while it provided a lot of amusement and fun, it wasn’t exactly a chance to put up my feet, sleep in, and relax. I think if it’s at all possible, all PhDs should get a weekend getaway with no kids or babies right after defending. :)

    • simplybike says:

      PS: That link is awesome! Just read the post and have posted in on my FB wall and on Twitter. Should be required reading for grad students :)

  15. msmaggie says:

    Love your post… finally got around to reading it! I’m teaching 3 courses and putting the finishing touches on the diss manuscript and finding new avenues to get involved outside of the university. And FINALLY I feel like a real person again. I’ve finally accepted that I was actually BORED during grad school, despite all my efforts to get involved my days lacked structure and I had way too much time to doubt myself. This continued in the first semester of my job… and I neglected the diss even though it was nearly done and started thinking I should just leave academia… at least in the role of professor. Now that I’m fully engaged, I feel really motivated and I’m connecting with my students differently, connecting with everything differently really. And I feel confident about academic work, for probably the first time since my undergraduate days! Now, I’m just finding myself frustrated that I’m “only” an instructor and thus can’t contribute more actively and fully to department and campus culture and decision making. Strange how all this works… glad you put all this out there, talking about it will help folks understand it and shake off the blues.

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