Time: 5:30pm, 12th December 2014, occasion: last seconds of my PhD defense. I was standing in front of my PhD committee and peeking at that giant round clock praying for the bedel to come and rescue me. The bedel came inside the defense hall and stamped the mace on the ground. All the committee members were satisfied and the next thing I knew was the chairman saying “Congratulations, Doctor Rohani!”. And I thought to myself: “Well, that is it. Now the fun begins”. Was I right? Or maybe wrong?!
I successfully defended my PhD dissertation about ten months ago. After four years of having been occupied with reading, experimenting, teaching, publishing, filing patents and getting my thesis done, I was finally called a Doctor. Despite a very successful defense, countless compliments and a job lined up next to my PhD, I had a ‘so what?’ kind of feeling. I was empty, apathetic and dull; doubting whether this blue diploma had been worth the effort or not. That uncertainty drowned me further and further every day. One month later, I underwent a “clinical depression”, a dark period of my life which was filled with alcohol, cigarette after cigarette, and twelve hours of sleep per day. A time that cost me losing dear things in my life I can never get back.
Apparently I was not the only one in experiencing a post college depression. According to a survey about phD depression from UC Berkeley, 47 percent of PhD college students experience depression sooner or later. 47 percent! What is going on? Wasn’t our PhD supposed to make our life easier and make our sense of self stronger at the first place?
The fact is that after having worked for so long on one thing, the PhD dissertation in our case, our identity begins to revolve around it. Our personal sense of self will be wrapped up in the dissertation. Thus, when the dissertation is finished our identity slides into limbo, which in turn leads us to depression. Our identity after the college is the answer of the question “what have I become good at during these years?”. And if you cannot come up with any answer other than “Ahem, an independent researcher!”, then welcome to the “post-dissertation depressed” club, in advance!
When your identity is bound to your dissertation, it ends as soon as the dissertation is finished. Losing your identity in such a sudden way can cause severe disorders, like depression and anxiety. If you put all your eggs, or identity in this case, in one basket, then you are putting your emotional health at risk, no matter of how strong your identity might be. It is the same slump that some celebrities experience after retiring from a very successful career. “I cannot find anything to fill this void in my life”, wrote Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times after his career unexpectedly ended in “Top Gear” in 2015. As you might know, “Top Gear” was the most widely watched factual show in the world and Clarkson spent seventeen years of his life merely to build and lift up the show, as he called it “my child”.
A while ago I was reading an article from Mark Manson, the author of the best seller book “Models”. I could not take my eyes off of its title, “Diversify your identity”. In this brilliant article he talks about the danger of deriving the majority of your “validity” and “self-worth” from only one source and how your entire sense of self will be vanished when that source is finished. I loved that article and I read it again, and again, and again.
I see identity diversification as a life jacket to prevent drowning in depression, either during the college or after graduation. A mistake that the majority of PhD college students makes is to invest all of their time and energy in their research, especially international students who may feel insecure because of language barriers and cultural differences. So, they lock up themselves in their office while sticking to their old habits after office hours. Well, PhD research is not as straightforward as assembling an Ikea table (especially those white side tables) that each step brings you closer to completion. Sometimes our efforts during the PhD take us one step forward – then two steps back, and another day two steps forward etc. etc. This is why our entire identity might be defined by a successful completion of this complicated task, only destination that many PhD students strive to reach every day of their PhD studies. And if you are one of those students, I have good and bad news for you: the bad news is that once the dissertation is finished, so is your entire identity that you have held for several years. The good news is that there is a safety net here, identity diversification.
Do not invest all your time on research. Choose new areas of interest, completely different from your academic life, and invest in them. Join a social club and make new friends. Sign up for some courses in the sport center and make an athlete out of yourself. Go to the culture center and pick an activity which is completely out of your comfort zone, singing, dancing or theater and overcome that damn shyness in yourself for ever. And do not just do these things, care about them, invest in them, dedicate yourself to them. An immediate result is that you can have a great day by, for instance, reaching a new record in the gym, despite the fact that your simulation results were all messed up the very same day. This good feeling can even make your PhD research more productive. But most importantly, when somebody asks you during your PhD graduation, “so…, what have you achieved in these years?” you have a much more satisfying answer rather than just obtaining a PhD degree. Answers like, I have become a professional runner or an enthusiastic dancer, which I was not before.
I was lucky enough to recognize the roots of my depression, act on them and get my feet back on the ground again. Now what if my current job grinds to a halt suddenly? Well, I will be sad, for sure, but I will conquer the daunting feeling by putting a new record on my running track which I have been practicing for months, going for gliding which I have started taking lessons for a few months now (a very cool thing by the way), getting on my road bike which I just bought, or simply by catching up with some of those awesome friends that I have found recently. Nothing can make me feel broken again, because if one part of my identity goes down, I will stay standing by holding on to another part. Ensure that you have made a diverse identity for yourself, before it becomes too late. Otherwise, one day the cruel reality will slap you in the face and say, “Really?! four years and just a PhD degree!?”