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The last year has been ridiculously difficult. I can easily say it has been 90h weeks 12 months in a row, with the hours taken of rest being vastly overshadowed by intense guilt (over not using that time to work) and inadequacy. I produced a lot of research, published 5 new papers, and produced a thesis which is now submitted for evaluation. On the day I submitted it (about a month ago), I couldn't even read a single sentence and maintain focus - that's how severe my burnout was. My sense of not being good enough permeated every aspect of my being.

I'm finding myself now getting better, slowly and surely. But the brain fog is ridiculously severe. I don't think I have lost intelligence, but the lack of care I feel for my current position as a research assistant eclipses all output I know I'm otherwise capable of producing (or used to be, anyway). On top of that, I feel more tired than usual. I easily need 1-2 more sleep in a day. Normally, I'd be exceptionally motivated to work out, and now I really could not care less. I adopted this "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do." attitude, in hopes to be kinder and gentler to myself as opposed to the whoo-tshh (whipping sounds) dictator I had employed to stay on track in my madness PhD.

I cannot fathom a job in this field anymore, I cannot stand the endless thinking up of made-up projects to pursue research grants. I want out of academia, and this both excites and terrifies me. I feel largely inadequate as a computer scientist joining industry post-PhD because I just spent 3 years of my life not getting industry experience.

I feel lost. Like there's a daily existential crisis. I don't know what to do with my life, and what's worse, I don't even know if I'll recover from this. I mean, what even is this? PTSD? Burnout? Needing a break after excruciating intense labour and emotional distress?

How can I deal with the life changes and the drop in motivation after having submitted my PhD? How do I deal with the remaining burnout?

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    Are you seeing a counselor, or similar professional? Sep 4, 2019 at 11:48
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    Nope. It's hard to afford that when my life is in complete flux with needing to choose where to go next (job, country). I suppose I can speak to my PhD counselor, if that is still an option. Why do you suggest this?
    – User293727
    Sep 4, 2019 at 11:50
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    I said these issues are "not uncommon", i.e. they are pretty common. Sep 4, 2019 at 12:12
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    I don't find a question here, just a plea. But, let me, at least, give some perspective. You've just won a marathon. It was especially difficult at the end but you pushed through to success. Your body gave out after you passed the finish and you collapsed, hopefully into the arms of loved-ones. At the moment, you don't even want to think about ever running, or even moving, again. Your coach and medical advisors will help you back into a normal state in which you can plan your next steps. But it is too early to think of that now. You just need to recover. Life isn't always like that last mile.
    – Buffy
    Sep 4, 2019 at 12:52
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    Continuing my analogy, I have a friend who blew out his knees running marathons. He now rides a bicycle and does much better with the more measured and less punishing pace it affords. You don't need to give up everything or move into a cave. Find some professional help to help you decompress, as others have suggested.
    – Buffy
    Sep 4, 2019 at 13:13

7 Answers 7

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The first thing to do is to get rid of the 90 hour weeks, and resolve never to get back into that trap. There is a lot of experience suggesting that the maximum weekly output for intellectual jobs is produced at around 40 hours a week. Going beyond that reduces actual production, because of more mistakes and less creative thought. Your mileage may vary, but it would be very unusual for 90 hours to be optimal.

You need to accept that sleep, exercise, relaxation, and social life are all essential to achieving maximum productivity when working, and to general mental and physical health. If you feel intense guilt when not working, and cannot change that by yourself, you may need some sort of counseling to help you get a healthier attitude.

The mental issues you describe could just be because you got into a bad habit of working too long and relaxing too little. On the other hand, there could be an underlying problem that needs a professional. I am not qualified to evaluate that, and agree with the suggestion in comments that you should consider counseling.

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    @User293727 So you've had two weeks of rest after a stressful year of working 225% time and you wonder why you haven't recharged yet? I admit I'm not sure how long it's "supposed" to take, but two weeks of holiday (no, work doesn't really count) sounds awfully short compared to what you've put yourself through.
    – Anyon
    Sep 4, 2019 at 12:57
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    @Anyon you know, when you put it in perspective like that, it does seem silly of me to expect such rapid improvements... I suppose I was hoping to exert the same discipline and willpower onto recovery. But alas, seems I've run out of it.
    – User293727
    Sep 4, 2019 at 13:08
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    Personally I can recommend hiking in the mountains for a week or two. It eliminates the feeling of being guilty of not working (enough), because one simply CANNOT work or actively prepare your „life after PhD“ while doing this, while presenting a different rewarding challenge at the same time. Good for your mind.
    – jvb
    Sep 4, 2019 at 14:38
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    Discipline and willpower are not what one needs for effective relaxation. You need to turn them off, and just relax. If you enjoy hiking, go hike. If there is some TV show you like that you have not had time to watch, binge watch... Sep 4, 2019 at 15:32
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    @User293727 After I finished all my classes and thesis defense for my master's degree, I didn't start working or work on any research for more than 3 months. I am very glad I took my sweet time finding a job and resting up.
    – Kevin
    Sep 4, 2019 at 22:39
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First of all: congratulations on submitting your thesis and on publishing 5 papers! That's a tremendous effort!

I was in a somewhat similar situation to you in that the last 9 months or so of my PhD involved ridiculous hours and a lot of uncertainty around getting results and having access to equipment etc. It can be hugely stressful, and for months one builds up this expectation that with submitting the thesis all of this stress will just magically disappear and be replaced by elation, happiness, and fulfillment. Unfortunately in reality submitting my thesis (and later passing my viva) were two hugely anti-climactic experiences.

I was suddenly without a purpose, and without a plan (with respect to my career). Ever since I was a child I wanted to be a scientist, and later this had morphed into more tangible goals like "getting a PhD" and "working in academia". After my PhD I had achieved the first goal, but I didn't really want to work in "the real" academia anymore.

After my viva I soon wanted to get back into reading non-scientific books, as that's something that was very much on the back-burner during the PhD, but I found my attention span to be extremely short and my motivation to keep reading was very low. It took me about 3 months before my hunger for reading and new knowledge came back.

Figuring out what I wanted to do career-wise took a lot longer for me, and involved many hours of often somewhat circular conversations with friends and family (plus probably hundreds of hours of soul-searching on my own) over many months.

I realise that none of this really answers your questions, but I think they're also going to be fairly individual answers for everyone. However, I found the following to be hugely helpful:

  • If you can, take some time off from academia/work to spend time with friends/family and/or do something you love but you had to compromise on a lot during the PhD (for me that was travelling and spending time in the outdoors).
  • Without putting too much pressure on yourself with regards to timeframes and the like, start doing some research into options that could be attractive to you (through reading interesting books, lots of long articles, etc on a huge variety of topics I stumbled across a lot of interesting options, started following interesting companies, joined FB groups, observed, thought about what it would really be like to work in these areas, etc.). I went through lots of iterations of wildly different career paths before I arrived where I am today (actually surprisingly close to my PhD, but in industry).
  • Regarding the lack of industry experience: everyone was in the same boat once. I think this is about finding a company that values the experience and the knowledge you gained throughout your PhD and is willing to invest in you as a person (intelligent, educated, hard-working, willing to learn, quick at grasping new concepts, self-sufficient but able to work in a team, able to achieve long-term goals, etc.) rather than hiring an employee who can hit the ground running (i.e. a company worth investing your time and effort into). In my experience there's companies who are looking for people like us, and they're great, and there's companies that are looking for something else, and they'd probably not be a good match for us either.

Probably a bit of a rambly post, but maybe the two big take home messages from this should be:

  • You're definitely not the only one who feels like this!
  • It will work out! It'll take different amounts of time for everyone, but there are lots of options and lots of different paths!
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Although a mental health professional may certainly be able to help, a time-honored cure for your problem, that I think is almost guaranteed to be of some help, is to take a vacation. Two-three weeks in a nice, relaxed setting, preferably in a warm, exotic locale, will do wonders for your state of mind and help you look at your situation more clearly and think about your future, which, by the sound of it, is much rosier than you seem to think it is.

Congratulations on handing in your CS dissertation. It’s a fantastic achievement that would make most people (including those who spent the last three years in industry, I assure you) green with envy.

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  • OP mentioned in a comment that they have already taken two weeks of vacation. Sep 4, 2019 at 22:03
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    @NateEldredge then I’d suggest taking more vacation, since the first time clearly wasn’t enough to recover from the period of overwork.
    – Dan Romik
    Sep 4, 2019 at 22:57
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I adopted this "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do." attitude, in hopes to be kinder and gentler to myself...

So it was all worthwhile then. The value of an experience isn't always what you expect it to be.

I want out of academia, and this both excites and terrifies me. I feel largely inadequate as a computer scientist joining industry post-PhD because I just spent 3 years of my life not getting industry experience.

You had your experience, and learned something from it, and now you'll try something new with the benefit of that knowledge. This is life.

If "computer science" and "industry" are in reference to programming, then you can get some more experience based on your own interests by finding an open-source project to contribute to at your own pace.

I don't know what to do with my life...

Instead of struggling to find something to do with your life (for something new), you can focus on maintenance and preparedness. Do you have a bunch of junk to get rid of? Is your non-junk well organized? Do you have any health issues you need to address? Is your bathroom clean?

Are you prepared to receive what you only dare to dream of?

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it sounds like you're depressed. I've felt very much like this. In my case it was triggered by reaching a point where I thought I had achieved my major life goals, and had no new goals to work towards. You'll get better but it may take some time and some help from a medical professional.

I suggest you explore opportunities for new creative or artistic endeavours, spend time with friends, make new friends etc. In my case I took up music (writing, learning, performing, playing in a band). You may not even have to make any big professional/academic changes, but it could help to do something fresh or different professionally for a while.

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I'm finding myself now getting better, slowly and surely.

Well, from your description - not quite. That is, not surely, and in some respects you're now experiencing the repercussions of working yourself to the bone.

the lack of care I feel for my current position as a research assistant eclipses all

After you come back from your vacation, see if you still feel the same. If you do, it's time to remind yourself, or perhaps ask yourself "Why did I do this in the first place?" - and then re-assess whether you've achieved that goal; whether you want to continue following it (not in 90h work-weeks, nor in 50h work-weeks either); whether you want to try something else (for now or permanently).

Remember, though! You've not "lost" or "wasted" anything - except your peace-of-mind and physical health perhaps.

output I know I'm otherwise capable of producing (or used to be, anyway).

You're not a paper mill, you're a person. Stop thinking about imaginary theoretically-producible "output".

On top of that, I feel more tired than usual. I easily need 1-2 more sleep in a day.

When you're stressed out, in an anxiety spell, and/or depressed - your sleep suffers too. You don't sleep as well. That's why you feel you need more sleep, and at the same time - even that sleep is not enough. Consult your physician. He may or may not prescribe some sort of super-mild anti-anxiety medication if your sleep trouble is serious. In parallel, consider an appropriate physical/meditative activity; I have found Yoga to be helpful, but YMMV.

Normally, I'd be exceptionally motivated to work out, and now I really could not care less.

"work out" sounds like something very intensive and not very relaxing, which gets your adrenaline pumping. Like I said above, perhaps something with less "grrr!"

I adopted this "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do."

... but it seems like you're beating yourself up about it. Remember this is not a binary thing; and it's not permanent. So: "For a while, you don't have to do all those things you don't want to."

Also, I'm guessing this doesn't help with the fact that you're not really sure what it is that you want.

I cannot fathom a job in this field anymore, I cannot stand the endless thinking up of made-up projects to pursue research grants.

... which is why - after your vacation - think of what it is that you actually want to do as an academic. And if there's no such thing - then your job search should probably focus, at least partially, on out-of-academia positions. This is not "failing" - because your goals have changed.

I feel largely inadequate as a computer scientist joining industry post-PhD because I just spent 3 years of my life not getting industry experience.

  1. You're quite adequate - believe you me (and I'm a CSer who entered industry after academia, then back again, then back again).
  2. Most industry experience is bad industry experience.
  3. Industry needs people with academic experience.
  4. If you worked 90h weeks, you got the industry experience of some places in industry...
  5. When you leave academia you'll understand what "inadequate" really means.
  6. Forget about adequacy - and think about finding something interesting to do in industry.

I feel lost.

Many, including myself, have been in your shoes - and worse. Hope this answer helps a bit. Don't try to snap yourself back to full working condition at once. It's a process.

I feel lost. Like there's a daily existential crisis. I don't know what to do with my life, and what's worse, I don't even know if I'll recover from this.

You need to keep in contact with people - not online, but physically. Visit friends and family. You don't have to repeat everything to every one of them, but try to be open to letting them cheer you up a bit about life.

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  1. It's post coital tristesse. You shot your wad. Seriously, though. As grim as the battle is, it can be sad when the combat is over. Those 90 hour weeks had a sort of joy of the struggle to them.

  2. Can't help you on academia. There are a lot of twidgety aspects to it. Can't say industry is perfect either, though. But these issues exist whether you are just done with thesis or not.

  3. Take some industry job interviews. Don't even worry (too much) about getting the offer...although that would be nice. But get yourself on the market. It will change your mindset to be going after something. And it will force you to get out of your own head...because of the person on the other end.

  4. Go for some bike rides. Doesn't have to be in "cardio mode". But just get out and move a little and breath the vitamin D-shine.

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