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When celebrating yourself feels hard...

Two days before my dissertation defense, I cried to my mentor and told her I wish I had a bit more confidence in myself and my research study. She encouraged me to work on sharing what's on my mind because when I don't share, I could be withholding my intellectual thoughts from folks. My mentor also assured me that nothing I say would come off as arrogant because I am not a person who lacks humility.

I think many people can attest to my humble spirit. Often times, my friends would share my accomplishments before I do. I think where I struggle, however, is maintaining a healthy balance between celebrating myself (when a celebration is due) and upholding humility. On July 6th, 2022 at approximately 11:42 AM, I successfully defended my dissertation and earned a PhD in applied developmental psychology. I was on cloud 9, y'all, and my friends helped me to stay there for the entire day by purchasing a delicious chocolate cake that had "THE. Dr. Telfer" written on it and going to my uncle's lounge with me.

The next day took an entirely different and unexpected turn. I woke up feeling sad and alone. My major accomplishment of earning one of the highest professional degrees had left my mind and I thought to myself- well perhaps I am just tired as I did not sleep properly in the days leading up to my final defense. But these feelings lingered and, eventually, I lost my appetite. Suddenly, hours of crying followed my appetite loss, which, ultimately, left me in a state of confusion. I did not understand these emotions, and as much as I wanted to talk to my friends and family about it, I didn't want to rain on their "we're celebrating Nicole" parade. On Friday afternoon, I decided to reach out to a few Black women doctors who I trust and confide in. All three of them shared the same sentiments and assured me that my feelings were more common than I thought. One of them mentioned "post-defense depression" to me, and I had NEVER heard of this term before (which is so odd given that I am in a mental health field).

Post-defense depression can be characterized by different feelings that are heightened or expectations that have not been realized. As Dr. Angel Jones (2021) eloquently stated, "...once you come down from your champagne-soaked high, the fact that it actually is all over will hit you like a ton of bricks. Of course, you’ll love being Dr. _____ (insert last name here), but you’ll also wake up one day and realize that you have no idea who that person is." I did not know who Dr. Telfer was and to be quite honest, I'm still a bit unsure. I have been in school all of my life, having absolutely no break in-between, and I am afraid because I only know of student-Nicole. We've been tight since 4 years old, and the thought of letting her go TERRIFIES me. Needless to say, I am in the process of grieving the loss of the student in me.

I wanted to write this blog post for the doctoral student/candidate who will come after me and may encounter these same feelings. Or even the new doctoral scholar who is currently having these same feelings and is unsure of what to do. Celebrating myself amid this depression, anxiety, and what seems to be an identity crisis feels hard right now. It feels nearly impossible. It was no longer a matter of maintaining my humility, but overcoming sadness and fear of the unexpected. And before I move on to providing hope and encouragement, I have to say that the academy is partially responsible for the poor mental and emotional wellbeing of graduate students. We-especially students of color- are literally fighting for our lives in academia. Fighting to be seen, to be heard, and to be valued. So, when our doctoral journeys are over, yes, we're relieved. But we are also physically and emotionally depleted. It can be hard to find joy after being part of a perpetuated cycle of unnecessary trauma. I don't want to be called "strong" or "resilient" anymore. I want these systems of oppression in academia to be dismantled so that when the next cohort of doctoral candidates cross the finish line, they won't cry the tears I did after I defended my dissertation- tears that were not entirely of joy. I want them to have a smooth transition into the next stage of their career and know that it's okay to not know what's next for them. I want them to know and believe that they deserve to be celebrated, not only for earning a doctoral degree but also for the amazing person they have grown to become.

When celebrating yourself feels hard:

  1. Tell your people so that they can celebrate with you. Were it not for my doctor friends, I would have stayed in my apartment after my successful defense and watched Netflix for the night. But they celebrated with me from 10 in the morning (during my presentation) until 10 PM at night.

  2. Write about it, or talk to someone you trust. As I've mentioned earlier, my emotions post-PhD left me very confused, so I sought advice from three Black women who had already earned their doctorates. If I did not reach out to them, this blog would have not been written and I would have probably still been in that space of sadness, loneliness, and fear. This is a reminder that we do not have to go through bad experiences alone! We think that by keeping our pain away from our loved ones would benefit them, but it only hurts them to know that we are hurting. Don't go through your pain alone.

  3. Remind yourself of who you are. Not academic or student you. Just YOU. What brings you joy? What are you good at? What have you done to make yourself proud? What makes you laugh? What have you always wanted to do/master? Who are your people? I realized that part of my identity crisis entailed me not knowing who I was outside of academia. I am in the process of finding new hobbies (one of them being knitting) and it has been quite an adventure.

  4. Try your best to do it anyways. My mom would always say "when it feels hard to pray, that's when you need to pray the hardest." Something may be holding you back from wanting to celebrate yourself. It could be negative vibes, spirits, or thoughts. Whatever it is, don't let that something win. You deserve to be celebrated! I am so proud of you.

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