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I'm a last year PhD student in an engineering field in Europe applying for postdoc positions. I've got 2-3 months left to finish writing my dissertation and graduate. I've been working so intensely during my grad school experience that I now feel completely exhausted. Reading, writing and creative thinking is now really hard for me, even though I did well in all those three aspects during grad school. I feel my brain just shuts off at times. Over the last 1.5 year, I've written a few high-impact papers out of my PhD work and over the last few months I've been writing my dissertation. This intense writing period is a large factor why I'm also finding difficulties to write and revise text.

I've now sent out 3-4 postdoc applications, with possibly another 4-5 that I'd like to send. Every postdoc application requires that I read carefully at least a few most important papers of the prospective PI. I usually aim to read 3-5 most impactful, most cited papers very carefully, front to back (those are usually the ones where the prospective PI is either the first or the last author) and I skim 8-10 more papers (read the abstracts and conclusions, and take a quick glance at the results). Since I'm applying to postdocs that are not exactly within my PhD discipline, reading those papers requires gaining at least basic understanding of a new research area. This is really hard for me now, as I can't focus so well, I don't memorize well, and it generally takes me much longer to understand written text.

Even worse, some postdoc positions that I'm going to apply for require proposing a research idea, as it is not imposed in the postdoc offer. Those postdoc offers encourage the applicant to come up with their research idea as long as it's within the scope of the PI's research line. Over the last few months I noticed that I don't have much research creativity anymore in how to connect my skills and knowledge from my past research to what the prospective PI would like to develop. Only a few months ago I used to have that creativity. Now it's just gone. Thus, it's really hard for me even to write the 1-2 page cover letters. I look back at them, they seem poorly written, the research ideas seem shallow and I just don't know how to correct them. I used to be really good at editing my writing (based on the feedback my supervisors have been giving me in the past).

I feel like I'm at an impasse. Taking a break to rest my brain would probably help, but I don't have time to take a break. My defense date is already scheduled and I need to finish writing my dissertation. I also don't want to postpone applying for postdoc positions, as there are many positions open I'm really interested in and I'm scared of loosing those chances. What would you advise me to do? How do I apply for the postdocs efficiently? Can I for instance cut down on the amount of effort I make to get to know the research of a prospective PI and still be able to write a competitive cover letter?

Extra information: I plan on taking a >1 month break after I graduate. In my postdoc applications I indicate the starting date that takes account of that break.

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    From what you have written, it seems like you are severely burnt out. Are you sure you will be able to do your best work if you start a postdoc while you are burnt out?
    – Outsider
    Dec 28, 2022 at 22:23
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    @Outsider, I plan on taking a >1 month break after I graduate. In my postdoc applications I indicate the starting date that takes account of that break.
    – user166265
    Dec 28, 2022 at 23:27

1 Answer 1

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I remember feeling similarly to you by the end of a PhD: like I'd just finished a marathon, and am completely out of breath (brain-breath?). In fact, more than one medical professional that I'd seen at a time (just for my regular check-ups) had noticed stress-related health issues and had told me in no uncertain terms that I need to take a break. So, unfortunately, I think the strict answer to your question is that you are simply not able to apply for postdoc positions efficiently right now.

You seem to be suffering from a severe burnout, which is only going to get worse if you keep pushing. Burnout is a serious issue, and the longer you keep pushing, the longer you will need to recover. Your creativity, analytical skills, the ability to concentrate are all shutting down, and a magical "restart" button does not exist - the only way to recover it to take a serious break. You say you plan to take a month to recover, but (depending on the severity of the burnout, and how long you keep pushing for) a month might not be enough.

However, it is very reasonable to worry how you will financially get through this period. Instead of applying for a postdoc, here are a few alternatives that come to mind (while some of them are country- and culture-specific, and may not all apply in your situation, I list them all for any future readers):

  • Speak with your supervisor about a possibility for a short postdoc.

    I ended up doing this at the end of my postdoc. I told my advisor that, while I knew I should have been looking for postdoc positions while preparing my viva... I simply was not able to. And I asked whether he might have any work and funding available to keep me on for a few months. They may have a specific problem to which they might want to apply the results of your PhD, and some funding for a short application-oriented position.

    I was lucky, and my supervisor was kind -- and offered me a 3-month position that was fairly light-touch. I mostly just re-ran the techniques developed during my PhD on some new data.

  • Claim back from the social system of the country where you got your PhD.

    This is obviously quite country-dependent, and how comfortable you are with this option will also partially depend on your attitude (which is possibly more related to your country of birth than the country in which you are finishing your PhD).

    In France, where I did my PhD, the unemployment benefits were very generous: you were entitled to 80% of your previous salary for a number of months (and then the percentage would go down to 70% and then 50%). Finishing PhD students were able to claim this, as they were considered employees of the University, and were contributing to these benefits during their PhD from their salaries. Back in my day this option was only available to French and EU students, but after I left I heard they changed the rules so that even out-of-EU students could benefit from this for 3(?) months.

    Obviously, this is not a particularly glamorous option. Personally, my upbringing (and my mother) were both very opposed to this: "Did you really emigrate to another country just to take advantage of their social system?" However, if this is an option where you are, I would strongly suggest you reconsider your prejudice towards this option (if you have them). I got a lovely letter from the French government when I applied for unemployment benefits listing the precise amount of days that I was entitled to it, and the specific amount I was entitled to. If the government says it is okay, then it is acceptable.

  • Consider coming back to your family and staying with them for a few months.

    Again, this may not be an option for everybody, and is again certainly not a very glamorous one either. "What kind of a doctor are you, unemployed and spending time on your parents' couch?" It also comes with challenges (many people find it extremely difficult to move back in with their parents after some time of living alone).

    However, if the alternative is writing sub-par postdoc applications, accepting any postdoc position that you can get your hands on because of the lack of options, or even starting your postdoc while still burnt out (and do you really think you are going to impress your new supervisor if you are struggling to come up with creative ideas, if your analytical skills are suffering, your conclusions are shallow, and your writing is poor?), again, this might be something you need to consider.

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    Thank you for your answer. It is tough to accept that I might need a longer break (as in: why can't I just keep being productive and doing research that I normally enjoy?), but it is probably the best path forward for me. Would you mind sharing how long it took you to recover after completing your PhD?
    – user166265
    Dec 29, 2022 at 19:17
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    Unfortunately, I ended up doing a much longer break than expected due to a lengthy procedure for the immigration paperwork. Approximately tho, my timeline after completing my PhD was something like this: 2 months of mostly chilling, 4 months short postdoc with PhD advisor. During this time I secured a postdoc; however for better of for worse it took me around half a year to get the immigration paperwork sorted (ended up doing a 4-month industry position while I waited, after not working for 2-3 months).
    – penelope
    Jan 4, 2023 at 12:44

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