Loss of Identity: Surviving Post-PhD Depression by Amy Gaeta

Completing the biggest achievement of my life has left me in the most zombie, emotionally depleted state of my life. Immediately after defending my dissertation successfully, thereby securing my Ph.D. in English, I found myself soft crying into a pillow and trying to find enough stability to reply to all the “congratulations!” text messages pinging on my phone. This emotional release marked the start of what I’ll refer to as my post-PhD depression: a state of aimlessness, premature cynicism, and loss sparked by the contradictory realization that it is all over and yet there is so much more to do. It is like finishing a marathon after giving all you got only to realize you’ve agreed to compete in a triathlon every day for the rest of your career.

Graduate Life 

I knew that leaving graduate school would be difficult. I had structured my life around it for the past six years; relied upon it for various forms of emotional, logistical, and material support, including health insurance and an income. But, as anyone who has done it will tell you, grad school can also be hell. Researchers have demonstrated that students have similar challenging experiences at institutions around the world (Fogg, 2009; Keeler & Siegel, 2020). Many students report feeling overworked, underpaid, and invisible in the eyes of the university unless they can develop some research that bodes well for the institution. Even then, students often feel that are not truly valued. They see themselves as reduced to a flashy toy for the university to wave about. This experience is made even more difficult depending on factors such as your race, gender, class, and disability status. It is not an exaggeration to say that grad school can be a site of trauma, if not traumatic itself. 

The mental turmoil experienced by a significant number of graduate students has gained much more attention in recent years, largely due to grad students and newly minted PhDs speaking out about their experiences. Less discussed is what happens to our mental health after grad school—post-PhD depression. The depression is certainly compounded by the collapsing job market and unrealistic demands of higher education, but is likely not caused by them (Fogg, 2009; Bekkouche, Schmid, & Carliner, 2022; Fernandez, 2019). Rather, I believe post-PhD depression stems from something deeper: a crisis of purpose, particularly the sense of loss that accompanies the end of a time of accomplishment and security. Our desire for purpose is human, and our purpose comes to shape who we are and how we are seen. If leaving grad school threatens our sense of purpose, that does not mean we need to find a new purpose. Rather, we need to interrogate why our sense of purpose—a determinant of who we are—is tethered to our position in an academic institution.

I am writing this blog post amid the height of this depressive episode with the hope of capturing the apathy and restlessness that accompanies it as I wallow in the grey area between grad school and academia. I also chose to write this now because I wanted to spare readers yet another narrative of inspiration or toxic resilience, or some other cliché that encourages people to tamper down their messy, ambivalent feelings and put on a happy, strong face.   

Sacrifice & The Self

Many grad school students have spent anywhere from 3 to 12 years of their early adult years in higher education. It is common for people to attend grad school immediately after finishing their MA or undergrad degree, which they probably completed right after graduating high school. At the time of my writing this, I am 29 and for the first time in 25 years, I am not a student in an educational institution. I have few memories of myself before school. Without ignoring that such a robust, long education is a massive privilege resulting from my race, class, and social situation, being in school so long does things to one’s ability to cultivate a strong sense of self. ‘Student’ and later one’s research areas, become a convenient explanation and stand-in for who you are. Your professional development and academic successes motivate the formation of this identity, while, at the same time, every dose of imposter syndrome and minor setback feels like a personal failure.

Academic culture promotes and celebrates a full body and mind self-sacrifice to the academy, one that begins in grad school. Whereas undergrad is a more social journey bound up in coming-of-age tropes and questions about identity, grad school is more of a personal and intellectual journey, one that entrenches itself in your psyche and wears down your self-esteem like a stone sitting right before an endless motion of rough waves. Grad school is quite lonely. There is no time to engage in campus culture beyond your home department. You’re told that you’re there to work, professionalize, and research. Soon, your entire life becomes structured around earning a degree and swinging through all the hoops—conferences, teaching, research awards, guest lectures, etc.—that you’re told you also need to succeed. In my first semester, I was working, studying, writing, reading, or in classes for at least 70 hours a week. Precisely due to the consuming design of grad school and academia, having it suddenly end can leave one feeling lost at sea. 

Because of the academy’s emphasis on productivity and structure, without grad school, I have been aimless. Not just “what am I going to do next” type-of-aimless, but “browse the cereal aisle at 11pm on a Tuesday” type-of-aimless. I cry a lot at tiny things. Each morning I wake up afraid at the prospect of how to get through the day. No hobby interests or fulfills me. I cannot access affordable mental health care because my health insurance ended immediately after graduation. People kept congratulating me and asking how I’m celebrating. I creak out a rehearsed monologue about ‘taking time for myself.’ While I want to celebrate this achievement, it is hard to look at it as an achievement after witnessing so many colleagues be pushed out of grad school due to the demands it put on their physical and mental health. I am proud of my Ph.D. I am not proud of what I allowed myself to go through to earn this degree.

In this state, I feel like I’m meeting a former version of myself for the first time in years. All the emotions, ideas, habits, desires, and fears that I repressed to survive grad school are now foaming at my mouth, emerging all at once like a geyser that’s been trapped by a glacier. I feel like I lost something, but the loss cannot be fully grasped or mourned. I also feel like I want something, but the desires cannot be fully wanted or realized. Any attempt to end my stay in this grey area is met with fear. At least fear is a feeling I can understand, something I can process and turn into knowledge. 

How to Prepare

After years of mentoring younger grad students and reflecting on my own missteps, I’ve come to realize what I wish I did differently and that I could have better prepared myself. Healing from grad school brings challenges in its own right, like accessing mental health care or a stable, supportive home. But neither of these promises to soothe the real wound here—your relationship with academia and your relationship with yourself. To address these relationships, you need to make an active effort to learn who you are without academia. This is best done early on, something that you practice on a micro and macro level. 

  1. Ground yourself in multiple places. The first piece of advice I give to every new grad student is to make friends and hobbies outside of the university; ideally, these are each non-academic. In my experience, these are people and things that bring you joy and support your self-worth. The more you structure your life around grad school, the more power it has over you, and thus the harder the blow will be when you leave it.
  2. De-romanticize grad school. Multiple things can be true at once. Grad school may offer you world-class learning resources and introduce you to some of the best friends you’ll ever make, but it will likely also put you in financial hardship and create mental distress at times. It can make and break you at once. Hold these contradictory images in the front of your mind. Once you have a clear, realistic image of grad school, you can begin to see your life without it, or at least, your value centered around it. 
  3. Return to what made you love your field. You were likely excited to go to grad school because you wanted to solve a problem, make a discovery, or push a research area to new heights. Is it not uncommon to have changed interests during grad school or to fall out of love with your thesis topic. You may even hate or resent it. Try to reclaim the joy or excitement that your research first brought you. Doing this will help you to remember yourself before grad school and recognize that you do not need an institution to learn and create.
  4. Sit with difficult emotions. Let yourself cry, scream, throw things, cry some more, and whatever else wants to crawl out of you. Do this as much as possible. Find a place where you can express these emotions without judgment or forced positivity. No matter what anyone says, you are not ungrateful for having complicated or even negative feelings toward grad school and your Ph.D. I have personally found that repressing your emotions will ensure a breakdown or worse.
  5. Leave your future open. Part of the misery comes from the pressure of trying to reach a future that may never materialize. I am not just talking about the academic job market or even a job at all. I am talking about how academic culture limits our imagination of the future by showing us a few pathways for how we can use our degrees and build a life. The more that you can see that the future remains wide open, the more that you can see graduating and aimlessness as forms of freedom. 

I have no idea how long this will last or how it will end. A part of me wonders if this depression is covering up a greater fear: the exhaustion does not end. A professor of mine once said grad school would be the best deal you get in academia, and while I want this to be bullshit, the current state of the job market and neoliberalization of the university does not give me much hope that he is wrong. I figure then that what I can take comfort in is that I do and can exist beyond the university.

Reference List

Bekkouche, N. S., Schmid, R. F., & Carliner, S. (2022). ‘Simmering Pressure:’ How Systemic Stress Impacts Graduate Student Mental Health. Performance Improvement Quarterly34(4), 547-572.

Fernandez, M., Sturts, J., Duffy, L. N., Larson, L. R., Gray, J., & Powell, G. M. (2019). Surviving and thriving in graduate school. SCHOLE: A Journal of Leisure Studies and Recreation Education34(1), 3-15.

Fogg, P. (2009). Grad-school blues. Chronicle of higher education55(24), B12-B16.

Amy Gaeta

Dr. Amy Gaeta (she/they) is a scholar and poet of disability, gender, and technology. She is an incoming postdoc in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she is developing her first scholarly monograph. Broadly, her work focuses on questions about desire, ability, and the nature of the human in the context of high-tech militarization, medicine, and lifestyles. Her first chapbook The Andy Poems (2021) was published by Red Mare Press, and her second poetry book, Prosthetics & Other Organs is forthcoming on Dancing Girl Press. She regularly discusses all of this on Twitter @GaetaAmy