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I have submitted my STEM PhD thesis to the committee. If everything goes well, my defense will be done by the end of the year. I published 2 papers during my 5 years of PhD, few more to be submitted.

I had applied to few industrial positions a while back, got rejections. I am feeling unmotivated and lost now. I don't feel like searching for postdoc or industrial positions. I am 31 years old.

I have few pending projects that I should be doing, but I am feeling hopeless and dumb. I am taking this time to study and revise the theoretical concepts from my masters and undergraduate. I should be honing my programming skills. But the more I study, more I am feeling incompetent and lost.

I am literally wasting my time. It's already been over a month since I have not worked. I have just edited my manuscripts, watched some MOOCs. I watch movies or just sleep most of the day. I feel uncertain and uncomfortable about my future. Any advice for me?

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    Of course it's reasonable to feel exhausted/burned out... but/and, one potentially helpful exercise is ... "imagine how you will pay rent and buy groceries". That is, at some point, "being bummed-out" is a sort of bourgeois luxury, and I think it can be helpful sometimes to realize that. That is, some people have no happy prospects at all, no good choices. Some of us are lucky enough to have interesting choices... yes, which become stressful or disappointing. But don't lose perspective. Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 22:05

4 Answers 4

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Sounds like burn out. Take a vacation. Do something fun and not work.

These sorts of feelings are pretty common for someone completing an advanced degree. But in most cases the feeling doesn't last unless you continue to add stress.

In many cases it is worth seeing a counselor.

But your current activities are probably too related to work to allow for stress reduction.

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  • Talk to someone about this... Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 23:16
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    I think a nice long vacation to somewhere OP never has been to is an excellent idea. Get rid of the pressure to "have to do something next". Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 23:46
  • Thank you so much for your answers and advice.
    – Pingu
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 3:16
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    I have suffered from depression in the past due to workload and I agree 100% with this advice. I would also add: don't feel guilty about taking a break from work for a while to recharge your batteries, if you need to. We're not machines and everyone needs that from time to time.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 11:19
  • How long is this vacation that you guys recommend? Experiencing the same thing here. :/ I took 2 weeks off and that wasn't enough.
    – User293727
    Commented Sep 4, 2019 at 12:09
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Just to add a few things to Buffy's answer:

What you are describing are some of the symptoms of clinical depression. There's no reason to panic, it's really common to go through a bit of depression at the end of the PhD (did it myself and know more than a few people who did). I would even claim that it's a quite natural reaction to the end of a long period of stress... and very often to the beginning of a new period of uncertainty.

That being said, it's really worth seeking professional help, if only to be reassured that it is indeed a temporary thing due to the professional context and not anything serious.

It's also normal to feel lost and confused regarding your career at this particular stage. Going through a PhD is a quite special experience which often affects us even as a person: we are not exactly the person we used to be at the beginning, and not only because a few years have passed! It can be confusing and it often takes some time to fully realize and digest these changes, including realizing the range of skills one acquires during this time. Very often people think that what they have learned is some very specialized knowledge about their field, but there is actually much more to it.

With some time and perspective you will feel better about yourself and discover which direction you want to take in your career. For now if you can afford to take a real break far from anything related to the PhD, preferably with some relatives or friends who have no relation whatsoever to this world, that would be the best way to start the healing process.

In my case I was applying for postdoc positions and got rejected every time. After about 6 months, when I had almost lost hope, I got a positive answer out of the blue. The following year of postdoc in a new town, new institution with new people and on a new topic turned out to be beneficial on every level. It helped restore my confidence and made me understand where I stand professionally and where I want to go.

I wish you the best.

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  • Thank you so much for your answers and advice.
    – Pingu
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 3:17
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I was at that point a couple of times. If I were you I would try to find out where it all comes from, are there some frustrations you have with your job or your field? Is there something in your particular workplace that brings you down? That might help you make sense of it all.

One thing that is nice about being in science it is that you have a lot more freedoms than in other fields. You said that you have not worked productively at any project for a month. I consider that to be more or less fine! Smart people often have a wide range of interests and confining oneself to one 'project' may temporarily kill your curiosity. That is often the case during a phd, you are forced to work on a super specialized subject for extended periods of time. If there is no other source of inspiration you sooner or later feel that.

I suggest you just accept the fact that right now you can't give a 100% for these topics, and find what you are passionate about in the meantime. That is fine. We have all been there.

have you done any traveling? Is there a place you'd want to see one time? There sure is a book you have always wanted to read and never found the time to. Have you, like me, been slacking on sporting activities? Volunteering in some kind of way may give you a break and perspective without long-term consequences (career-wise).

(If nothing of this seems to help, consider talking to a professional!)

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What you describe is understandable, and I'm afraid many people have some similar problems, depending on the place they work (academia or industry) or point in the career (beginning of PhD, end of PhD).

First of all, I'll share a phrase: You can't change yesterday, but you can ruin today by worrying about tomorrow. This comes to your statement:

I feel uncertain and uncomfortable about my future. Any advice for me?

Your future is uncertain and that's fact. So try to accept it, and later think from the other way: you are not limited! The new, bright opportunity or idea might come, sooner or later.

I am literally wasting my time. It's already been over a month since I have not worked. I have just edited my manuscripts, watched some MOOCs. I watch movies or just sleep most of the day.

What you actually do doesn't help you to get out of the situation. And what's even worse, I guess, you are fully aware of that. I had similar problems, with the difference, that I was actually working but there was no effect, and it's a different story. But what could help you are few things:

  1. Cut off what holds you back. I was distrupted by facebook, you are by pointless movies. So drastic change might be a shock, so if you say "I don't watch movies", either you stop only for few days, or you'll find something even worse (I don't know, let's say, scrolling tiktok). So put yourself in the situation that you've no choice. Go somewhere there's no tv nor the internet connection. Change your phone for that time. And explore new opportunities on some holidays - museums, nature, baths, rollercoasters. Something that you might enjoy. What I did, I went for a one-week hike with my old phone and tent to Corsica. I slept near mountain shelters.
  2. Find some new people, which are absolutely not related to what you do currently - it's hard nowadays, but just join new society, or club with the activity you wished. The thing is that now instead of doing that - you watch tv. Think about such change, it actually works for many.
  3. Talk to someone you trust, and you like to talk to and listen to. If you don't have such person - you need a counsellor, as someone already mentioned. There are also many work-job related advisors, who went through similar problems (burnout, lost sense of work) and successfully overcomed them. A friend of mine found a good counsellor - it costs her quite a lot of money she earns, and it takes time, but her academic trauma was extreme. She is much more "normal" person after these meetings.

Good luck!

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