Completing a PhD compared to the anything else you’ll ever do in your life (professionally at least) is likely to be one of the hardest things you ever accomplish. Not necessarily because you’re not capable enough, but because PhDs are inherently designed to be a massive intellectual challenge that at times, is boarder-line impossible. The very nature of the PhD is positioned on the cusp of knowledge, where you must explore and pioneer things that haven’t been explored before. As part of this pioneering journey, you are stretched in a way that most other professions don’t provide. Of course, this can be the main source for a lot of stress, burnout, and the need to take frequent breaks from your PhD, but it’s also the reason post-PhD blues are a common term a lot of PhDs experience once they finish.
Post-PhD blues is that feeling of being ‘lost’ or possibly unmotivated to start anything new. Once you’ve completed your PhD defence/viva and embark on a different journey, whether that be outside academia or even within it, all that built up anxiety, tension, excitement of actually finishing your PhD is unfortunately a bit underwhelming. After the defence, things just continue as normal, in fact, the PhD submission part can be a really protracted process. With the original submission, finding time to organise your defence panel, then sit the viva and wait for feedback, get the feedback months later and then spending a few more months amending any corrections (if you have any) can take several months. That monumental, climatic finish just doesn’t happen, so the time you are officially finished, it’s not as exciting as we were hoping.
Following this, you can then lose a sense of direction. Before it was all about reaching the end goal of your PhD, but now that doesn’t exist, so what are we working towards? If we’re not careful, we can float around in this interim for an extended period, with an empty void and lack of direction to steer us. This is another reason why a lot of PhDs fall into post-doc positions, as it’s a nice placeholder to figure out what to do next. Because of this, we’re less inspired and motivated to show up to work and really dive into those complex challenges. We no longer lick our lips at those difficult problems we once loved solving. Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t have a break. If you need time to re-calibrate and space to set some new goals, then make sure that time spent is purposeful. Go travelling, don’t take up a job, find a job that’s part time or in something that you’re just interested in – even if it’s not directly related to your professional goals.
Figuring out what really stimulates you or even if intellectual challenge is something you want from your career is subjective and likely to align with one of your personal values (or not). As with most things, it’s good to try and pinpoint what types of challenges you enjoy or think about the challenges you’ve enjoyed before and figure out what it is about them in particular. Is it the challenge itself, or the outcome of solving that challenge? Both in terms of your enjoyment but also the wider impact. This is why taking a break after your PhD can be advisable. It can give you headspace to think about these all-important questions. If you decide to dive into work straight away, an opportunity presents itself, or you’re not in the situation to be able to take a hiatus – you can still ask yourself these questions, as long as it’s deliberate and intentional.
In essence, the goal is to find a job that’s in that sweet spot of not too boring, but equally not to overwhelming where it compromises your well-being. Finding a role which enables you to grow, stretches you, provides you with the right kind of intellectual challenge can make a huge difference. That sweet spot also aligns with greater purpose and self-actualisation or your ability to thrive.
One caveat to intellectual challenge, however, is that it doesn’t necessarily need to come from your 9-5. At this point, the absence of intellectual challenge may lead to decreased motivation and enjoyment, but if your work is less taxing on your brain, you’re likely to have a significant amount of resources left in the tank to go and explore other things. This might mean more thinking space to take up a new hobby that you find challenging, become an entrepreneur, start a website or blog (cough cough), or even a business which might help you achieve some other personal goals you’ve set yourself.
We typically place too much emphasis on our career – of course, it’s important that we get this right as we spend most of our time at work. However, if your work enables you to thrive and explore other avenues because it doesn’t quite offer you the right amount of intellectual challenge, then there’s more to life than what you do in your day job!
The core message is that finishing your PhD or even leaving academia can feel a bit lack-lustre. Not being challenged as much or not having the motivation anymore because the end goal has been ‘completed’ are common experiences for most. However, if we know that intellectual challenge is important to us and it’s what we need to feel alive or satisfied in our lives, then it’s integral that we consider this when identifying what to do next.
Whether you remain in academia or not, you’ll need to set new goals and have a new target to work for. These goals don’t necessarily have to be work/career related. These goals can be related to skills, hobbies, or side projects – just as long as we set ourselves new goals that stretch and grow us, we’ll get all the intellectual challenge we need.
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