Dissertation Blues

colorful glass tiles

The end of the spring semester is a time when many PhD graduate students are completing their qualifying exams or defending their dissertations. I hope these moments are successful and rewarding for all of you! As mentors and supporters, we are excited to see students move through these academic benchmarks. At the same time, we can feel the students emanate a nervous electricity that’s tinged with anxiety, uncertainty, and sometimes terror and dread. These are mysterious passages for graduate students.

Working in graduate student support for over 20 years, I often see PhD students, successfully on the other side of these passages, in a state that looks like mourning (as if they hadn’t passed). Even students who have successfully defended their qualifying exams or dissertations experience a lost sense of purpose, listlessness, languidness, low motivation, and lack of direction. After a major PhD hurdle, a graduate student might spend a couple weeks to a whole semester in an ambivalent daze or funk. In the Hero’s Journey that is graduate school, they look like Frodo, spent, on top of Mount Doom.

In their tweet, @GaetaAmy captured the experience like this: “Finishing a PhD is really emotional. I wish someone told me that it wouldn’t be all happiness or relief. I feel like I’m in mourning. I structured my entire life around this degree for 6 years and it (in an unhealthy way) gave me life so much meaning even as it wore me down.” Followers chimed in with affirmation of similar feelings. 

The feelings are real – because you’re having them. And these feelings are reasonable. I want graduate students to be able to talk together about these experiences and their attendant complex, competing, and ambivalent emotions. The reflections below on the sources of those feelings might help graduate students both be compassionate witnesses to themselves and each other as well as be courageous in asking for the care and community they need at these junctures.

You’re exhausted

PhD passages like the qualifying exams and dissertation defense take a huge amount of intellectual energy with reading, studying, organizing, synthesizing, writing, editing, and rewriting. Sleep is a critical part of synthesizing short-term information into longer term memory. Yet graduate students might not be giving their brains the extra rest needed to deeply integrate all the information they are trying to absorb at that time. These academic benchmarks are also physically exhausting. That exhaustion isn’t just from lack of sleep. Graduate students in these passages often experience a prolonged anticipatory flight/flight mode. For weeks or months, they experience the jitters and tense muscles from that nervous, anxious physical energy. 

Your body and brain need to rest, sleep, and be less energetic after these hurdles. You don’t need to hop right back onto the productivity train. A step away that is restful, restorative, and rejuvenating will help you see yourself, your past experiences, and your future possibilities with strength, hope, and compassion. 

Your identity has shifted

You have become your future self (Kegan 1982). I hope you celebrated with peers, mentors, and family the successful completion of an academic milestone. At the same time, you might be experiencing a turning inward, reflecting, and rewiring as everything about you “catches up” with your new reality. Your brain needs time to integrate, consolidate, and make sense of the change in your identity, including your roles, functions, relationships, values, commitments, responsibilities, capacity, and higher self. 

You’re now a person who has reached candidacy or a person with a PhD. Your larger community recognizes your increased capacity and your self-expansion. They also have given you new responsibilities and expectations. You have a new peer group: people who have also completed their coursework and are writing their dissertations or people with PhDs like your faculty mentors. 

That future self can now be confusing and even daunting. Maybe the experience of the  new role doesn’t quite match up with your hopes and dreams. And it can be frustrating to start over as a learner, even as you’ve advanced into a more expert role. You might have forgotten some of your former self when you placed joyful things aside in order to organize your time and energies around completing this milestone. It takes initiative and energy to bring back previous joys and integrate them into your new identity.

Orient yourself in this new identity in relation to your former identity. What do you need to do with these responsibilities? What past strengths and experiences are helpful now? How do people spend their time with these responsibilities? What do you want to do with this role? Who is in this new community of experts and what are the social norms of the new community? What do mentoring, resources, and support look like at this stage? What are your growth possibilities now?

You are grieving

Change involves grief; when you are becoming something new, you’re also saying goodbye to something. Grieving is a process of making sense of an experience and/or person that is now in the past and learning to cope with the resulting new routines (Kessler, 2019). It’s a normal and important part of your developing self. However, we can suffer with our grief when we stay stuck between our illuminated, expanded self and our shadow, previous self. We’re learning how to “take what we need and leave the rest.”

In crossing these academic milestones, PhD students are grieving the person they were, the roles they had, the way they understood themselves, and the experiences they were having before the milestone. For example, there were probably enjoyable aspects of your younger-self stage that have changed, such as knowing who to talk to and knowing how to do things. There were probably disappointments and “should haves” in the previous stage that will remain unresolved. In addition, your life for a time was built entirely around crossing that hurdle; it’s possible you became enmeshed with your dissertation in a way that makes it hard to separate your personhood from it. 

Now that the hurdle is described in the past tense, you will be letting go of the way you had organized your life and reorienting around new goals. Grieving is the internal work of making sense. Mourning involves the social and community rituals that sanction and validate the grief, celebrate what had been, acknowledge the uncertainty ahead, and honor the change in relationships.

Making meaning of PhD benchmarks

Here are some reflection questions that might be helpful in both making sense of ambivalent feelings around benchmarks and in learning how to be in community with others about these experiences and feelings. These questions approach the experiences with compassionate curiosity.

  • As you cross this milestone, what are the concrete and abstract changes you are experiencing? What are the things you are becoming? What are the things that will no longer be? What emotions relate to these changes?
  • What is the larger significance for you in completing this benchmark? What does the benchmark represent for you? Why is it important to you? 
  • What strengths, values, and commitments did you bring to the task? How will those continue to serve you in this new role?
  • What was disappointing or hurtful to you?
  • What do you need to feel supported in this next phase? Who has given you important support along the way? What communities did you have then and do you have now?
  • What are your hopes now? What opportunities and choices become possible now?


Kegan, Robert and Lisa Laskow Lahey. (2016). How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work.

Kegan, Robert. (1982). The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development.

Kessler, David. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

Lesser, Elizabeth. (2004). Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. New York, 

McLaren, Karla. (2010). The Language of Emotions: What your Feelings are Trying to Tell You. Trauma Resources: University Graduate School, Indiana University

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