Post-submission blues

I am depressed. This may seem strange, given that I have just submitted my thesis and I am on holiday at last and free to watch hours of Downton Abbey while eating mince pies. But, I am. I am annoyed with everyone and everything, I am tired and grumpy, and I keep feeling like there is something serious and important that I am supposed to be doing that I am not doing.  I am not at my best right now. I have what I am referring to as ‘post-submission blues’.

I am not sure what to do about this. I am trying very hard to just relax and be on holiday and let my whole self recover from this long and tough work year. I am trying not to think too hard about the papers I have to write from the thesis in the new year, or the post-doc research I want and need to do. But it’s really tough not to be all about this research and my writing and work when it has been a huge part of my work life and personal life for so long.

I am also trying not to think too much about my examiners and whether they are reading my thesis and what they think about it, and what corrections they are going to recommend. I had a frantic dream last night about getting all my reports back before Christmas and then having to spend Christmas day finding missing references. It was horrible. My examiners were nice enough but I was so annoyed that I had left out so many references for books I don’t even remember reading.

What do people do when they finish their PhDs? How do they go back to normal, whatever normal is? Perhaps there is no going back to normal if normal is what you were before you undertook something as big and life-changing as a PhD. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but if you really want to pursue an academic career, a PhD is a huge thing – the swipe card that lets you in and out of the doors; the badge that buys you recognition and validation. It’s important. And it changes you. Not just as a researcher but personally.

I am not the same as I was when I started this journey in 2010. I have grown in lots of ways ways: as a reader, a thinker and a writer; I have grown as a mentor to others who are working on their own PhDs or MAs; and I have become a more recognised and valued colleague as my ability to contribute to research and practical projects has grown. This process of becoming someone my colleagues will refer to as Dr, with all that this connotes, has been one of many ups and downs for me personally, and it has not been an easy identity to get my head around.

Taking on a doctoral identity is a process in itself – half the time I am convinced that my PhD is awful and that I will be exposed for the imposter that I am, and the other half I think it’s probably good enough and that I have done well – ish. I think perhaps that I need to use this post-submission period to let myself be a bit down, and a bit bereft of this big part of my professional and personal life. I need to find a new normal – a new way of looking at myself, as capable of owning the title of Dr, so that when I cross that stage next year I am ready to take on this new professional identity with confidence and belief that I deserve it. Because actually, I think I really do. 🙂

It’s a PhD thesis!

I have handed in my PhD thesis. (Pause for yells of triumph and applause :-))

I feel quite different now compared to when I handed in my first draft at the end of September. At that time I just felt wiped out, exhausted, out of words and ideas. I did not think I could make it to this point, quite honestly, and I was really worried. I put off the revisions for the longest period of time I could get away with to avoid having to go back into the thinking and writing and worrying and fatigue that has been a huge part of my life for the last couple of years at least. But go back into it all, I did, and now the thing is finished enough to submit and I am very proud of myself and of the way it has turned out.

I have heard people refer jokingly to doing a PhD as like being pregnant and having a long labour, with the thesis being the ‘baby’ that one gives birth to and rejoices in after this long, painful period of time. Possible issues aside, let’s go with this metaphor for this post (with apologies to male readers who may need to find a similar metaphor – I’d be keen to hear one).

Pregnancy and labour are pretty tough, although there are really lovely parts, of pregnancy at least – one of which is the fuss people tend to make of you, even people you don’t know very well. Not all of labour is painful and these are respites from the painful  bits, but it feels endlessly long and difficult and exhausting and even though you know it cannot actually last forever, it’s often hard to see the end in your line of sight. So, in some ways I guess I can see the connections with the process of doing a PhD.

Not all of the PhD process is hard and painful, and there are some lovely bits too – the relationships you build with your fellow PhD scholars and supervisor; the way you can see your ability to write, read and think more critically and analytically growing over time; the pleasure you can take in learning new things about a field you are really interested in – and these lovely bits often make the more painful bits feel like they just might be worth it.

But the painful bits of both processes are really awful, and even though you will (and should) have people around you, coaching you and encouraging you and giving you sage advice, you are the one who has to go through it all and you can feel quite alone at times, even though you know you are not the only one who is going through something like this.

It’s a lovely relief when that little baby appears and the pain and discomfort and swollen ankles and heartburn are at an end. You know that the next phase is beginning, and it’s scary and also exhilarating. And with a PhD, it’s a huge relief to print out the thesis, ring-bind it and send it off. The next phase of your career is starting – post-doc research, writing, conferences and so on. It’s also scary and heady all at the same time.

There is another similarity too: not too long after going through all of that pain and discomfort, you look down at that little baby and think (somewhat bizarrely considering how much you whinged and carried on about how long the pregnancy and labour were taking): ‘that wasn’t so hard, really. I think I could do that again’. I must say that, in some ways, I am thinking already that doing a PhD was not so hard in the end. Of course, this is not actually the case: it was hard, and it’s not over yet. I still have corrections coming and my final submission before I can graduate. But I feel like I could gear up to do this again sometime in the future, except next time I’ll be having a book! 🙂

Using metaphors for thinking and writing your PhD

I read a really interesting article recently by Frances Kelly on using metaphors in thesis writing, and she highlighted to kinds of metaphors: structural and conceptual. As I understand her, a structural metaphor can help you to use an image or an idea to organise and shape your thesis – to lend it an underlying narrative of sorts. A conceptual metaphor can be used as a way of thinking about what your argument and data actually mean, or the shape your methods and methodology are taking. She mentions a common PhD-related metaphor that could possibly be used both structurally and conceptually: the journey. I am sure many of you have heard this metaphor and even used it for your own thinking about your PhD process and what kind of journey is has been or is for you.

I am using a metaphor in my PhD, a structural metaphor that came to me quite early on as I was trying to work coherently with all the layers of theory and conceptualisation that are now mostly contained in chapters 2 and 3. It is the image of an archaeological dig of sorts. I have outlined 6 stages, steps or layers in the process of doing a ‘dig’ and each chapter now aligns with these. I was just using this image and idea in my theory chapter to unpack and fit the parts of theory into a whole, but a friend suggested I try using it for the whole thesis and it has worked well. This metaphor or image has, importantly, helped me to think about what I am doing and need to do at each stage in telling the story of my study, and how the parts fit together to make a whole.

Image from NBC News

Image from NBC News

In my use of this metaphor, I move from choosing the dig site and giving my reasons for the choices, to finding and setting out the right tools for the kind of dig I am doing, and to help me find the things I need to find. I then move on to do the dig with the tools, describing and reflecting on my process of digging, explaining why I did not do certain things and did do others. Then, in my two ‘analysis’ chapters, I go on to show you what I have found in the dig and what I think these artefacts mean in relation to my reasons for doing the study and my chosen framework. I conclude as I explain the significance of the findings within the area in which I chose to dig, and within the field in which I am working. I like this metaphor – I have found that it has helped me to focus and also given me a space to play and be creative while still producing a fairly normal, regulation PhD thesis. 

Like all metaphors, though, there are things it does not do and ways in which it could all fall apart and confuse people who may interpret it differently. So, if you want to try and use either a conceptual or structural metaphor in your own thesis, these would be my top tips:

1. Choose an image or idea that has resonance with your study – either with the field of study, the research questions, the methods you are using or the conceptual framework. It should not just be creative frippery, it should work on a deeper level and tie in clearly with what your study aims to achieve or say.

2. Work out very carefully how you are using the metaphor and for what end. You will need to explain its use very carefully to your reader-examiners so that they cannot misinterpret it, or tell you it makes so sense and to take it out. Try it out on your supervisor or a critical friend and see what they think.

3. Choose something that excites you or makes you feel creative – think about adding images as well as just words to describe the metaphor. A friend of mine used Alice in Wonderland’s journey down the rabbit hole as a metaphor for her thesis with beautiful illustrations and it worked really well. Take your readers on your creative journey by pulling the metaphor very clearly into the places it belongs and showing your readers why they need to take it as seriously as you do.

Happy thinking, scribbling and writing, everyone!


Kelly, F. 2011. ‘Cooking together disparate things’: the role of metaphor in thesis writing. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(4): 429-438.