The post submission blues: the doctoral let down

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It may be less than two weeks since I submitted in my doctorate, but that “rush of love” and “the intellectual satisfaction” of submission that dear friends with doctorates advised would appear has not yet descended.

If this were a jazz song, the lyrics would go “Baby, I got the post submission blues…” Admittedly, this is a good space to be in – better than “Baby, I need an extension…” or “Darn it, honey, I couldn’t submit on time…”

But I have to tell you there is no smug satisfaction from submission – not right now.

There is the anxiety of waiting for the examiners’ reports, similar to the anxiety of the results when you send off writing to a competition, the publisher’s response to the first three chapters of your book (what, no bidding war?) or the editor’s report when you send off to a journal. Magnified, of course. To a truly sickening level.

In fact, the last time I felt this anxious was after my youngest son was born and was whisked away to the special care unit for several days. To put it into perspective, not being able to hold your baby because he has to get help – now! – will never be on the same level as needing to respond to requests for changes, minor or even major – in an examiner’s report. At the crossroads of life and death, you realise what is important, and what, in the end, probably just comes down to more work if necessary – and ego.

I realise I am not alone in my anxiety. I searched out post submission blues and discovered that this is a recognised, though not talked about aspect of the doctoral process. It’s good to know I’m not alone. Ailsa, from Auckland, who has just submitted her PhD in education, relates her anxiety and that limbo land feeling. She turned to making patchwork quilts. I simply turn to my true north – writing. Knowing that this post submission anxiety is standard issue makes it less of an issue. Sort of like knowing that it actually takes a few days for your milk to come in after giving birth (called the ‘let down’), despite all the time and effort in pregnancy and childbirth.

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So I’ll coin the phrase “the doctoral let down” – waiting for the reports to come in. My mental lethargy probably makes sense after the intensity of the last few weeks. When it came to getting the submission printed – a trial that is well known and features in The Thesis Whisperer this week, I was quite indignant that one copy centre I approached warned they let their machines have “a little rest” during the day and therefore couldn’t guarantee same day printing for all my copies.

Well, I gave them a serve. If I could sit at my desk writing for a 12-hour stretch, how dare a mere machine need a rest. The voice on the other end of the phone understood but was firm. They had obviously dealt with the crazed caffeine-fuelled doctoral student close to submission before. It was gently suggested that maybe it was this particular doctoral student who needed a “little rest” – and that they would not be flogging their machines to death for me.

While established mums pass on information to new mothers, there seems to be no such informal information swap doing the rounds about different stages of the doctorate. While in that intense 100 days phase, I was given sage advice from older hands who had never uttered a word of such things before (probably because they knew I wasn’t ready to hear it), no one mentioned “post submission blues”.

Once you have had a kid you never bother to tell a pregnant first timer some of the grim realities post birth. Not because you don’t want to scare them, but because you know they have baby brain and can’t hear you. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the human race continues. If people realised what would happen to one’s body and life after a baby, zero population growth would have happened a long time ago. Prince William has admitted to worrying about the lack of sleep that awaits him. Clever man. Fear is good.

Now that I think about it, post submission blues is like the postbaby blues they warn you about and is very real. As much as you wanted a baby, there is a hormone crash after three or four days that makes you weepy. Then there is sleep deprivation. For many unlucky women there is crippling postpartum depression as well – I managed to avoid that, but the reality of parenthood is that you are consumed with a new baby and its demands. Whereas post doctoral submission, there is no instant gratification of a new person to care for and hold. There is just waiting. And waiting leads to anxiety.

As university students, we are expected to celebrate at the final graduation. All that mortarboard flinging in their air, the wild parties, the excitement. And it is exciting – the family gathered, the photos, the ceremony.

But post submission? Nothing. A few “well done” comments and hugs, some cheering from those closest to you and those who have been through the mill. If you are lucky as I am, you have good friends who understand and celebrate with you. But the rest are leaving the “big moment” to the “real thing” – that end of year graduation event where you get to finally wear the floppy hat.

Mind you, my wonderful mother presented me with a beautiful necklace after I submitted, and I did take the opportunity to buy myself an artwork of a Kingfisher with a huge fish in its beak, symbolic I thought of biting off more than you can chew and then chewing like mad.

This state of limbo is a strange and exhausting time. I feel like I am a slow moving cog on the wheel of life, hardly able to concentrate on returning emails in the evening, much less applying the mental clarity to new work that I mustered every night after work for the past four years. Whereas doctoral life was a steady hum of work, kids, study, writing, conferences and writing workshops, it has dwindled into work, kids – bed!

While I have returned all those overdue library books, my study is still a bombsite of stacked journal articles, piles of drafts, and towering piles of books on transhumanism, monsters, mutants, and Human-Animal Studies. Friends have been scrambling to get their hands on my novel and are reading – and enjoying it – but that’s not the same as the examiners’ reports.

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One thing we are never given any preparation for at university is the post submission blues. Or how fragile we will feel after we hand in. If we think about it as similar to the end of a theatre performance for an actor that makes more sense because live performance is emotionally draining.  And the come down is equally confronting. We have used up all our mental strength and physical energy creating a major work. One old hand warned me today not to make any major decisions for two months because post submission was like a version of post traumatic stress disorder. He had found himself in a similar state of shell shock.

Indeed, my sneaky body knows a major project has been handed in, even if my mind refuses to accept it. My body, the little engine that could, has been chugging along on minimal sleep, a lot of caffeine and social outings comprised entirely in the past six months of going to work, dropping the kids at school and taking the dog for a walk and studying for hours every night. Now as I venture out again with friends, my body is finding ways to fight back.

Indeed, malaise, aches, pains and sheer exhaustion mental and physical have been my lot. It is as if my body has said “right, that’s it!” – and the affects of 100 days of massive exertion and adrenalin leaving my body have seen me numbly flicking through magazines at lunch time while staring into space for the most part. Then a sinus infection took up residence in my head, landing me in bed. I have very dark hair in contrast to my skin, and when I get sick I look like an extra from Twilight. A fact commented on by all around me; “you look so pale – what happened?”

I have just handed in my doctorate!

As much as I am loathe to admit it there has been the shock realisation since submitting that that I am not, after all, a machine. Damn. Because one of the kids just asked me to contribute to the school bake sale. You know, make a cake after work tomorrow night as I don’t have a doctorate to do any more. I hate cooking with a passion. That second PhD is starting to look appealing, even now…

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