Post-PhD ‘brown out’ – will I ever recover from my PhD?

In March it occurred to me that I lacked a certain ‘get up and go’ in my life. I often found it difficult to sit working at my computer for long stretches at a time, my mind wandering to other things.  Similarly, I found that I’d lost interest in cooking – I was more than happy with toasted cheese and baked bean sandwiches than the pumpkin bakes or shepherd’s pies I used to cook.  I was tired all the time, too.  Whereas I used to struggle to get through a season of my favourite TV show within a month I find ‘netflix and chill’ had become a way of life – watching entire seasons in a single weekend. It occurred to me that this all might be because, six months after submission, I hadn’t actually recovered from my PhD.

The thought occurred to me as I was reading an article on ‘brown out’, the more insidious sister of ‘burn out’ in the workplace. While burn out sees workers unable to function and often requires serious intervention – time away from work, a change in work schedules or psychiatric help, people with ‘brown out’ continue on continuing on.  They still manage to meet their heavy workloads, they function in meetings and they engage with colleagues, but the spark has gone. They might be more careless in the way they approach their work, or they might not have the ideas and suggestions they once did. But without expressly voicing their feelings to their bosses, they end up disappearing into the workplace, becoming disenchanted with their work and less capable of contributing actively.

The PhD, of course, is an entirely different beast. You work like a proverbial Trojan to get a huge body of work finished by a deadline. Then you rest. Or do you?  In my case I had expected to take a long weekend then return to my university work the following Tuesday. I had papers to submit, peer reviews to write and, after receiving my thesis examination results two months later, PhD corrections to make.  Sure I went back to work on the Tuesday, but then I was sick in bed for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.  I slept in late in the following weeks and struggled to engage with my work.  It seems the PhD is almost geared at creating super-brown out. I felt a complete disinterest in my work after submitting, which made completing the (arguably more important) journal articles very difficult.

And there I was, nearly six months later and still feeling physically, emotionally and mentally drained.  Every time one of my five papers came back for changes it felt like a mission to get myself back into gear.  I was trying to give all my hard work the justice it deserved by improving my papers according to the peer reviewers’ comments, but it was hard to think about anything except curling back into bed.

It turns out I was not alone. Two friends who finished their PhDs in December both told me that emotionally and mentally they felt like they hadn’t recovered from their PhDs. While I had some time at home after submitting (partially as a result of my partner being in a nasty car crash that left him with a broken back), one of my friends went straight into a new job and the other travelled around for two months before starting her new job.  She found that her new job was exhausting her, even though it didn’t appear too taxing on the surface.  She told me: ‘to be honest, I’m sooo mentally exhausted that I feel like I’m just keeping my head above water, and I don’t want to be challenged..’  I know exactly how she felt.

In the end it took me hurriedly finishing my PhD resubmissions and moving to Northern China for three months to get a break from my PhD world.  I found that once I was away from my house, my friends, my family, my TV I had no choice but to switch off, read a book, and forget my work.  Now, after three months away, I finally feel like I’m ready to engage with the working world again.  But how many people will get the opportunity to disconnect from their ‘old’ life enough that they can recharge their batteries?

If you’re in the throes of your PhD, it’s definitely worth thinking about what you will do to recover once you’ve completed. In the words of my friend: ‘I don’t know if it would have helped, but I wish I had left myself more time for a complete switch-off and reset. Not even holidays, just maybe 2 weeks of complete goal-less time at home in my pjs.

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2 comments

  1. Glad you’re feeling more like yourself Gen.xx

  2. Claudia · · Reply

    Sounds like a actual burn out to me! Glad you had no option but to disconnect in China!

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