How I see it … Post PhD Exhaustion

I handed my PhD in on Tuesday this week and I must admit it is a relief it is gone in. However, what I didn’t anticipate was the sheer exhaustion after having finishing it.

As expected, the PhD has been replaced by an increased workload. But, what I didn’t anticipate was the sheer exhaustion after finishing and the impact this would have on my own functioning. I had been doing 60+ hour weeks to complete and found that while I was doing this, I didn’t notice the physical and emotional signs of fatigue as readily. However, since handing in, I have realised just how fatigued I actually am.

Fatigue is not new to me. As someone with a vision impairment, I generally read very slowly and favour discussion or audiobooks. To compensate for reading taking me longer than those around me, when I need to read and am under time pressure, I often subconsciously read by the shape of the word rather than larger text, but this can cause errors. The more visually fatigued I get, the more I revert to reading by the shape of the word. It is a chicken and egg situation as I make more errors when reading by shape, or large print reduces errors but is much slower, and I work longer. Either way, it takes more time and visual energy.

Just over a year ago (2 years into my PhD), I realised that “visual fatigue” was an actual issue. I found myself subconsciously needing to take a break at 0930, 1300 and 1530 ish every day whereas before I could just keep working through these. When I analysed the situation, what I was doing was subconsciously reducing visual activities, such as getting away from the light, screen, office and moving objects. I was finding that when I was beginning to get tired ordinary tasks became a problem, such as the room lights would be too bright, I would walk into things and people (with an already reduced visual field) and anything that took visual processing became a considerable effort.

My strategy until this time had been pushing through these things and keep on going, but now the problem was that the effectiveness of this solution was inadequate. I also found that my peers didn’t understand the extra need for time or the extra fatigue with visual processing for someone who has low vision. I didn’t really know any different so would explain I was tired, often the response I got was “well we are all tired” or “PhD is a right of passage, it is hard”. So to be less of a burden on those around, I gave up trying to explain, worked harder, longer and just kept on going.

The interesting part of this story is the impact of the PhD related fatigue. Usually fatigue is manageable, but post handing in my PhD, I am actually noticing all of the things which relate to visual fatigue more, whether they are actually more of a problem or whether I am noticing them more is a different issue. But, proofreading is harder, lights brighter, walking home in the dark is more of a challenge and even distressing, even using my computer (which I usually enjoy) is causing more than usual problems. What this has reminded me is that I need to remember to know myself, to notice when things become difficult and actively work to reduce the issues. Literature suggests people with low do take longer to process and fatigue more quickly because of needing to process what they see differently. Yet, for me, who relies on evidence based solutions, this is hard as it means asking for more time for things.

The dilemma here is I see those around me working hard, I don’t want to be seen as different, but, If I just keep going, I will start to make mistakes and become more fatigued. Yet, I want to support those around me and don’t want to be seen as a person who doesn’t do her share. My natural instinct in this situation is just to keep on going, but, in some respects this is not the right solution, nor is it sustainable.

Today, I couldn’t keep on going and had to stop visual processing and go and rest. Noticing this is a positive step for me, yet in the background, I feel guilt as I know there is more work waiting and others relying on me to get things done.

Back to the good part my PhD is submitted!

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