From Graduation to Uncertainty: My Journey through Post-Doctoral Depression and Rediscovering Hope
Updated: May 6
Graduation is often seen as the pinnacle of one's academic journey, the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. But for many, like myself, it can mark the beginning of a period of depression and uncertainty. This is my story of how I navigated the landscape of post-graduation life, the challenges I faced, and the lessons I learned. I hope
that sharing my experience might help others going through similar struggles to find their way.
The Terminal Point
I had reached the end of my educational journey, and the reality of no longer being a student was daunting. This terminal point in my life made me feel lost and directionless, with no clear path forward. Coupled with the challenges of finding a full-time job as a professor in the competitive New York/New Jersey tri-state area, I found myself spiraling into a deep, post-graduate state of depression.
An Unexpected Struggle
My decision to take a "much-deserved summer siesta" after defending my dissertation in April 2022 turned out to be a terrible idea. Going from a busy writing and research schedule to a more leisurely pace sent me on an emotional spiral. I was unprepared for the void that would be left after completing my studies and underestimated its impact on my mental health.
Depression following the completion of a dissertation and the doctoral journey is not uncommon among recent graduates. This post-dissertation depression can be attributed to the sudden transition from a structured, goal-oriented environment to a state of uncertainty and perceived lack of direction. Additionally, the loss of a clear purpose and the withdrawal of support from mentors and peers can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness (Haynes et al., 2012). The immense pressure and high expectations placed upon doctoral students during their studies may also contribute to the development of mental health issues, which can persist even after the completion of their degree (Evans et al., 2018). It is essential for recent graduates to recognize the potential for post-dissertation depression and seek support from their communities, mental health professionals, and career resources to facilitate a smoother transition into the next phase of their lives (Daya & Hearn, 2018).
Navigating the Uncertain Landscape
Despite the challenges I faced, I was fortunate enough to secure adjunct teaching positions at my alma mater, NYU, and a spring semester course at Barnard College. These opportunities gave me a sense of purpose and direction, but the uncertainty of my future weighed heavily on my mind. While I am immensely grateful for the experience and opportunities that being an adjunct professor has afforded me, I am not unaware of the criticisms.
With the increase in adjunct positions and the decrease in tenure-track positions in recent years, Black women have found themselves disproportionately represented in the adjunct labor force (Snyder et al., 2016). Adjunct positions are often more accessible because they require fewer qualifications and are more widely available, providing a temporary solution to the lack of opportunities for Black women in academia (Curtis & Thornton, 2013).
However, adjunct positions come with their own set of challenges, including lower pay, limited job security, and fewer resources for research and professional development (Kezar & Sam, 2014). Despite these drawbacks, many Black women continue to pursue adjunct roles, as they provide an opportunity to gain experience and establish a foothold in academia, which is exactly what I have done.
Learning from the Past and Looking Forward
Almost a year later, I am still navigating the ups and downs of life after graduation. I have learned that staying proactive and engaged in my field is essential and that taking time off from my academic pursuits may not always be the best decision. I have also realized the importance of actively tackling the academic job search very early on.
Starting the job search during the last year of your doctorate is essential for several reasons. Firstly, the academic job market is highly competitive, and beginning your search early allows you to identify potential opportunities, prepare tailored applications, and network with professionals in your field (Austin, 2002). By starting early, you can also develop a better understanding of the job market's dynamics and the necessary qualifications for various positions, enabling you to strategically tailor your application materials and efforts (Sauermann & Roach, 2016). Additionally, a proactive approach to job hunting can help mitigate the stress and uncertainty associated with post-graduation life (Haynes et al., 2012). Allowing the job search to lapse can result in missed opportunities and increased pressure to secure a position after completing your doctorate. It is crucial to maintain momentum and consistency in your job search to increase your chances of finding a fulfilling position that aligns with your skills, interests, and career aspirations (Austin, 2002).
Tips for Recent Doctoral Graduates
Recent doctoral graduates often face uncertainty as they transition from their academic programs into the next phase of their lives. Here are some tips to help you prepare for and navigate this period of change:
Develop a self-care routine: Prioritize your physical and mental well-being by establishing a self-care routine, including exercise, healthy eating, and mindfulness practices (Daya & Hearn, 2018). This will help you manage stress and maintain a positive outlook during this time of uncertainty.
Stay connected with peers and mentors: Maintain relationships with fellow graduates, faculty, and mentors from your doctoral program (Haynes et al., 2012). These connections can provide invaluable support, advice, and networking opportunities as you navigate the post-dissertation landscape.
Pursue professional development: Attend conferences, workshops, and other professional development opportunities to stay up-to-date in your field and expand your network (Denecke, 2017). This can help you remain competitive and connected as you search for employment.
Create a structured routine: Establish a daily or weekly routine that incorporates job searching, professional development, and self-care activities. Having structure in your life can help mitigate feelings of uncertainty and provide a sense of purpose.
Be open to alternative career paths: Consider a range of career options outside of academia, such as industry, government, or nonprofit work (Sinche, 2016). Being open to diverse opportunities can increase your chances of finding a fulfilling position that aligns with your skills and interests.
Seek support from career services: Utilize resources and services offered by your university's career center, such as resume reviews, mock interviews, and job search assistance (Denecke, 2017). These resources can help you effectively navigate the job market and increase your likelihood of finding employment.
Hope and Determination
As I search for a full-time professorship, I remain hopeful and diligent, knowing my future awaits me. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had and the lessons I have learned throughout this journey. With renewed determination, I look forward to the 2023-2024 academic year and beyond, ready to embrace the challenges and successes that lie ahead.
Graduation may mark the end of one chapter in life, but it is by no means the end of the journey. For many, like myself, it can be the beginning of a new, uncertain, and sometimes challenging path. By sharing my story, I hope to encourage others facing similar struggles to remain hopeful, stay diligent, and embrace the opportunities that come their way.
Austin, A. E. (2002). Preparing the Next Generation of Faculty: Graduate School as Socialization to the Academic Career. The Journal of Higher Education, 73(1), 94-122
Curtis, J. W., & Thornton, S. (2013). Here's the News: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2012-13. Academe, 99(2), 4-19.
Daya, Z., & Hearn, J. H. (2018). Mindfulness interventions in medical education: A systematic review of their impact on medical student stress, depression, fatigue, and burnout. Medical Teacher, 40(2), 146-153.
Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282-284.
Haynes, C., Bulosan, M., Citty, J., Grant-Harris, M., Hudson, G., & Koro-Ljungberg, M. (2012). My World is Not My Doctoral Program… Or Is It?: Female Students’ Perceptions of Well-Being. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 7, 1-17.
Kezar, A., & Sam, C. (2014). Governance as a Catalyst for Policy Change: Creating a Contingent Faculty Friendly Academy. Educational Policy.
Sauermann, H., & Roach, M. (2016). Why pursue the postdoc path? Science, 352(6286), 663-664.
Sinche, M. (2016). Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science. Harvard University Press.