Recovering from the PhD: Part 2: Caffeine and the PhD

Caffeine consumption has been a huge after effect from earning a PhD. This piece reflects on recovering from caffeine consumption's impacts.


Before entering doctoral work, I liked and drank much caffeine. During and after doctoral work, my caffeine consumption reached incredible depth, breadth, and extremes. Over the past two weeks, I've slashed consumption to one cup of coffee in the morning. Going through this process, I've reflected quite a bit about the impact that substance, specifically coffee, can have on professional performance, personal identity, and scholarly productivity. Most important, though, is caffeine's impact on my sense of well -being.


I love caffeine. Loved it as I have always loved my addictions. Addictions were fun, fulfilling, and branded to my sense of self and identity for years--until things went south, I crash banged in my relationships with others, and hurt people I care about. [Just to be clear: when I write "hurt" or "crash bang" I refer only to verbal interactions with others.] Verbal snaps. Lashing. Cheap shots. Reading kindness as a cutting comment. Ugh. Invariably, caffeine, sugar, and chocolate led me to that same place: synapses riding excitation eventually crashed and enabled my stupidity to take the helm. Then my inner tool wanted the helm. It took the helm. I don't like being a tool. From others' responses, they don't like that version of me either.

Since I've slashed my caffeine, I have been far less difficult. This I know.


Look closely at my post-defense picture in Lubbock and you'll see me holding a smoke in my hand. I wasn't supposed to be smoking. I'd quit--theoretically. When I was in Lubbock, though, I allowed myself the luxury of tobacco and huge quantities of caffeine. Extreme volumes of caffeine. Smoking was the "privilege" I'd earned for enduring having to live in Lubbock [that's another story]. Vices, like caffeine, in my experience invariably shifted from limited "rewards" for behavior to daily, regular usage. All that needed was a weak justification, and that enabled the pattern to start.

End Flashback

Smoking eventually puttered out--not by choice buy by necessity--while caffeine remained. Coffee, tea, soda. No matter what I was doing--reading, writing, applying for academic jobs or funding--caffeine sat in a cup, bottle, or mug next to me. When I was in a park, there was coffee. When I watched videos, there was soda. Rarely, if ever, was I without caffeine. It was my one remaining vice, and I embraced it completely.

In Fall 13, I took a stunningly stupid next step. I tested out energy drinks. A sip turned into a soak. That was an intense emotional experience. After ongoing consumption for several weeks, I stepped out and ricocheted emotionally for several more weeks. Even though I was back to just coffee and not the energy drinks, I still felt frantic and frayed. Several follow up tests later proved that yes, indeed, when I consume energy drinks my emotional responses and insecurity go on hyper-alert. It's like an internalized paranoid security state manned by a Master of Insecurity.

Entertaining and engaging it was. Fun it was not. 


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I used to like coffee for coffee, tea for tea, and soda for the different flavors. Now, sometimes, when I am considering a drink the flavor comes to mind. But, to be honest, the drinks are just about jacking up my synapses. Why? Because, in decades of experience with reading, writing, and caffeine, I have found that consuming caffeine often appeared to lead to thinking, reading, and writing breakthroughs.

  • Need an insight: drink another cup.
  • Want to read quickly: drink another cup.
  • Need to hybridize some Continental theorist with a daily materialist practice and sound sexy: drink another cup.

It's as if, subconsciously, I externalized my faith in my ability to perform smart, interesting, and unique thinking onto caffeine containing fluids. Oversimplified, perhaps, but that's my reading.

Prior to the past two weeks of caffeine downsizing:

1 97% of the time, I never sat down to write without coffee or soda.

2 If I'm feeling low, slow, or stupid, I go for coffee because I feel like it will make me smarter, sharper, or--at least--less dull.

3 Coffee is as integral to my self-image as a scholar, academic, research, and thinker as my glasses and word processor. I just can't "see" myself without coffee. I'm still struggling with it.

Caffeine & Academic Productivity

Caffeine is not just a thing. Caffeine is not just a substance. Caffeine was my totem for smart-thinking power. Caffeine significantly impacts my emotional and physical bodies. I long ignored these impacts in lieu of the perceived cultural capital that successful caffeine consumption would generate: publications, blogs, and writings.

When drinking coffee, caffeine helped me feel precious and special. Actual material production was about 15% of what I expected it to be based on how the coffee helped me feel. After years and years of feeling like I should be producing at level X, it's depressing to actually generate 1/12th of X. 

If I remove the caffeine and restore some accurate judgment, I realize sanely that I'll never produce at level X. That's cool, but it takes a while to adjust to that sense. Frankly, there's no point for me hating on myself for not accomplishing as much if/when my standards of what I need to accomplish were generated in caffeine intoxicated moments.

Caffeine & Professional Self-Image

When I felt like a dork or academic wanker/impostor and needed to feel peer-like, I consumed caffeine to boot me up to non-dork self-image status. That's what I told myself when I bought and consumed the caffeine. Might have even felt that way for several minutes. However, that false promise usually devolved into heightened states of insecurity where I felt like even more of an impostor than I did pre-coffee. Caffeine is a fuel that fires whatever's burning.

From what I can tell--anecdotally as well as from some research--lots of colleagues experience the impostor syndrome. Given the rates of caffeine consumption in academia, I am pretty sure I am not alone in experience the short-term-halo and the longer-term self-doubt-impost smack. 

The Problems of Caffeine Consumption

There's a problem: like most fun substances, stable, flat use results of coffee usually results in decreasing impacts. Thus, for a strong continued impact, increased consumption is needed. Like capitalism: must slowly, but surely increase intake. I was up to about three pots a day.

Problem two: once you escalate to a level and attempt to reduce your consumption, you face multiple pressures. Pressure one: the headaches that may result from cold turkey. Pressure two is more insidious: it's all the people around you who also consume caffeine and wonder, "Why are you quitting? It's just a cup." Friendly social pressure. I've pimped coffee to more colleagues than I can count. Not my proudest reflection. Pressure three, general cultural pressure: even when alone, trying to find decent non-caffeinated or non-sugary drinks can be a challenge. So it's often water that's left--unless you have planned ahead.

Problem three: externalizing actual skills and abilities onto caffeine devalues the work I've done and, frankly, contributes the impostor syndrome and insecurity. Then the caffeine just fuels that. By cutting caffeine and remaining productive, it proves that I actually have the skills and removes fuel for impostor/insecurity.

Sidebar: Emotional not Intellectual

Much of this may seem obvious, or, "Duh, yeah. How can you be so stupid?" Intellectually, I already knew almost everything I wrote above for years. It's not new. However, emotionally understanding the impacts that the above had on my world and the people in it is a completely different matter. Praxis is also a different matter. Knowing the above but continuing to consume huge quantities of caffeine proved that I did not know how to actively apply my knowledge--or that I lacked the will to do it. One of the critical points in making academic work and exercises valuable is in applying that understanding and demonstrating it.


If I am not able to apply my own skills to my own life, if I don't live my values, live my theory and philosophy, and control my own thinking, responses, and life, then what am I? An impostor. 

Autonomy. Self-regulation. Thoughtful application. These three things are what comprise my vision of an impressive and socially valuable academic. In my experience, caffeine corrodes all three by increasing dependence upon external forces, by fueling impulsive or thoughtless responses, and by focusing on potentials, could-bes, and the glamorous future instead of the writing-your-shit-down-now.

3 responses
I used to say of DC that the town runs on caffeine from 6am-6pm, and on alcohol from 6pm-6am. I didn't drink either when I lived there, so I was watching the cycle as an outsider. And it was fascinating. Appreciated this inside view of caffeinated academia. What I've missed is understanding what makes you step away from coffee and energy drinks now? Is it self-awareness and part of your general growth process? Or to do with the distance between you and the structured hyper-production of grad school that you mentioned in your last Recovery post?
Keisha, I've stepped away from caffeine because it was clear that my use of caffeine was damaging my partner and my self. I was being a total tool to my partner and it sucked. Things were lame, and I was trying to not be mean, but ended up being that way repeatedly. So, I inventoried my activities and behaviors and what I knew about myself. Also listened to my partner's evaluation of my behavior, too. Cut the caffeine drastically and things became dramatically better in about 36 hours. I've also found that a lot of my neurotic insecurities are at a low cook instead of roaring boil like they were for a bit. They hyperproduction in grad school led me to believe that caffeine was an effective solution to address the needs of those times. And, frankly, it did help. But, I was left with habits that did not help after that solution was useful. Instead, I kept thinking I could produce at that rate and use the same tools to produce that level of work as faculty. Not so. Relationships--with partner as well as with colleagues--are core to my happiness and productivity. If those are damaged or appear unstable to me, then my productivity drops rapidly--I worry instead of work; I create scenarios instead of research. Removing/reducing caffeine pulls the fuel for those problems. While I have not seen a huge burst in my productivity, I have seen significant improvement in my well being and that of my partner. I have also kept my mouth shut more--always good--and have not over-volunteered for things I do not have time for. Additionally, I am slowly revising my own capacity for performance and creating more realistic expectations for myself. In the end, I want to be a nice guy. I don't want to be a tool. The nice guy gets work done AND is kind. The tool is smart, talks a lot, gets nothing done, and verbally cuts folks along the way. By cutting caffeine, I reduce the tool's presence. Linking back, again, to grad school: I think I did well because the pressure, for me, was so intense but it had a short window (three years). If I had been under that same level of pressure for five years, I might have cracked. Surviving grad school--during and after--could be smoother if people realize and consciously adopt strategies useful for handling stress and then drop those strategies once they are out of the stress zone. Long reply.... Oops. Obviously I like to talk/think about this stuff. gz
Congratulations, GZ. Amazing that you leveled out in just 36hrs! Fully concur about building sustainable habits, adopting a sustainable pace with an eye to capacity and goals, and adapting when life does change. Thanks again for sharing your experience.