Normally, my capacity is exceeded gradually, through the accumulation of simple, daily tasks.
But a few times a year, I spontaneously decide that I'm ready to be a real adult. I don't know why I decide this; it always ends terribly for me. But I do it anyway. I sit myself down and tell myself how I'm going to start cleaning the house every day and paying my bills on time and replying to emails before my inbox reaches quadruple digits. Schedules are drafted. Day-planners are purchased. I stock up on fancy food because I'm also planning on morphing into a master chef and actually cooking instead of just eating nachos for dinner every night. I prepare for my new life as an adult like some people prepare for the apocalypse.
The first day or two of my plans usually goes okay.
For a little while, I actually feel grown-up and responsible. I strut around with my head held high, looking the other responsible people in the eye with that knowing glance that says "I understand. I'm responsible now too. Just look at my groceries."
At some point, I start feeling self-congratulatory.
This is a mistake.
I begin to feel like I've accomplished my goals. It's like I think that adulthood is something that can be earned like a trophy in one monumental burst of effort and then admired and coveted for the rest of one's life.
What usually ends up happening is that I completely wear myself out. Thinking that I've earned it, I give myself permission to slack off for a while and recover. Since I've exceeded my capacity for responsibility in such a dramatic fashion, I end up needing to take more recovery time than usual. This is when the guilt-spiral starts.
The longer I procrastinate on returning phone calls and emails, the more guilty I feel about it. The guilt I feel causes me to avoid the issue further, which only leads to more guilt and more procrastination. It gets to the point where I don't email someone for fear of reminding them that they emailed me and thus giving them a reason to be disappointed in me.
Then the guilt from my ignored responsibilities grows so large that merely carrying it around with me feels like a huge responsibility. It takes up a sizable portion of my capacity, leaving me almost completely useless for anything other than consuming nachos and surfing the internet like an attention-deficient squirrel on PCP.
At some point in this endlessly spiraling disaster, I am forced to throw all of my energy into trying to be an adult again, just to dig myself out of the pit I've fallen into. The problem is that I enter this round of attempted adulthood already burnt out from the last round. I can't not fail.
It always ends the same way. Slumped and haggard, I contemplate the seemingly endless tasks ahead of me.
And then I rebel.
Are you struggling with stress and burnout in graduate school?
You might be creating your own grad school burnout if you try to be “too productive”
“I want to be more productive, but I just keep disappointing myself. It’s like I am always feeling burnt out and end up getting distracted and procrastinating.”
Sheila was in her 10th year of graduate school, and she really wanted to graduate.
She wanted to be more productive, but didn’t know how.
When I asked her how she defined “more productive” she hesitated.
She is not alone in her constant uphill battle of trying to be more productive while feeling burnt out.
Many students tell themselves that they “should” be more productive, but they have a tough time defining what it would take to reach their desired level of productivity.
It is tough to achieve something that is not well-defined.
Besides the pressure that students face in academia, the most common source of grad school burnout is the lack of structure.
In college most students have classes back to back and one exam after another.
While college is a busy time, short-term deadlines keep you on your toes.
If you have ever worked at a typical job, you know that most supervisors expect very quick turnaround times.
You usually have a few days to complete an assignment, or maybe just a few hours.
Completing assignments in college and jobs are similar to running sprints.
You give all you can for a short burst of time, and then you recover on the weekends and during vacations.
In graduate school your deadlines are very long, typically months or maybe years.
Instead of a sprint, you are running a marathon, which requires a completely different strategy.
You cannot “give it all you got” for 5-6 years and 7 days a week, and get a PhD at the end.
Yet, this is what many students try to do, because they don’t have a well-defined structure that helps them set reasonable hours and realistic goals.
Driving yourself so hard for such an extended period of time can lead to a grad school burnout.
Does the cartoon below seem familiar?
When you experience a burnout it can last for weeks, maybe even months.
Once you are in a burnout cycle, it is very difficult to regain motivation.
Each time you go through a burnout cycle, you become more and more exhausted and frustrated.
Some students who started graduate student with enthusiasm, decide to drop out due to exhaustion, lack of motivation or loss of interest in their project.
How do get out of a burnout cycle, or better yet, how do you prevent yourself from falling into one?
Myths That Create the Grad School Burnout Cycle
Nobody intends to have a burnout.
We just want to be more productive and get results faster.
Yet, a combination of an unstructured environment, lack of guidance, and poorly-defined projects can lead to long hours at work without getting results.
In addition there are many myths about graduate school that actually prevent students from reaching their full potential.
Most of these myths are silent, and even many senior students don’t realize that they aren’t true.
Myth#1: More Hours at Work Leads to More Progress
This is true to a certain extent. Of course you need some minimal amount of time to do your work.
Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” can be especially dangerous in graduate school where you have long stretches of unstructured time.
In an effort to generate results and publish, students commit to long hours at work, even at the cost of their health and relationships.
If you give yourself an entire weekend to complete a presentation, you will probably take up the entire weekend.
However, if you only give yourself 2 hours, you will be so focused that even if you don’t finish it you will probably make good progress on it.
One of the most life changing concepts I heard about is called the “Default Mode of the Brain.”
The default network of your brain becomes active when you are not focused on a task, and this is time when you become creative and come up with unexpected insights.
Do you ever wonder why you get your best ideas in the shower, during a walk, or when you are having fun?
It is because at these times your brain is not focused on the problem, and the default network becomes active.
If you chain yourself to your desk for the whole weekend, trying to force yourself to come up with ideas for a presentation, you will exhaust yourself and the quality of your work will suffer.
When you are force yourself to focus, the default mode is deactivated and your creativity shuts off.
You are much more likely to achieve your desired results if you structure your day so that you have frequent breaks and regular exercise.
Myth #2: My work needs to be perfect
Perfectionism is one of the vestigial attitudes from college, and it is a very common source of grad school burnout.
We are used to striving for perfect SAT scores, perfect GRE scores, and a perfect grade point average.
Research works a little differently.
Yes, you should be meticulous, but a “perfect” thesis does not exist.
Experiments are not perfectly reproducible.
In fact, one expects a 10-20% error between data sets. Perfectionism can also take its toll during the writing of a thesis.
I advise students to “let go” of their thesis when they are confident that is it 95-98% complete.
How do you know if you have written a thesis that is good enough?
Consult with your advisor and read other theses from your department to see what constitutes a doctoral dissertation.
You might be surprised at how much you have already accomplished.
Myth #3: I am great at multitasking
Actually it is impossible for your brain to multitask.
When you think you are multitasking you are just switching back and forth between tasks.
When you do task A, you are ignoring task B and vice versa.
The constant switching between different tasks actually leads to reduced performance on all of the tasks and exhaustion.
That’s why you might feel exhausted after a busy day, when you actually did not accomplish much.
Our inability to “truly” multitask, is the reason why it is not a good idea to drive and talk on the cell phone at the same time, or to try to read a journal article while watching TV.
You might be able to get the gist of the journal article while hearing the latest news, but it impossible to get into depth in your article if you are also trying to process information from the TV.
Myth #4: I need to abuse my body to get work done
This is a silent myth- you might be doing it without realizing it.
Do you ever skip lunch, cut down to dangerously low levels of sleep, or deprive yourself of exercise in order to meet a deadline?
As a former student I am very familiar with the concept of “crunch time.”
Sometimes, there really is no time for exercise, and loss of sleep is nearly inevitable.
However, you cannot keep this pace up for long periods of time.
If you try to work at 120% efficiency for extended periods of time, you are creating your own grad school burnout.
A consistently poor diet that is high in processed carbohydrates can also lead to a burnout.
Foods that contain high levels of processed carbohydrates (donuts, bagels, pasta) lead to fluctuations on your blood glucose levels.
After you eat a meal or snack that is high in processed carbohydrates, such as pastry, there will be a spike in your blood glucose levels.
This can give you a quick burst of energy, also known as a “sugar high.”
However, the high levels of glucose in your blood stream will send a signal to your body to release insulin to remove the excess glucose.
Once the glucose is removed from your blood stream, you will experience fatigue and lose your focus.
While our bodies are amazing, they cannot take abuse for extended periods of time.
Many students in their twenties experience stress-related conditions due to lack of sleep and poor nutrition that lead to poor performance and even chronic health problems.
Myth #5: My thesis has to be groundbreaking
Many students are very enthusiastic and ambitious when they enter graduate school and carry very high expectations from themselves.
While ambition does motivate you, unrealistically high expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration and burnout.
Simply put: if you expect yourself to do pioneering work in graduate school, you will probably make your life harder than it needs to be.
A distinguished professor at a prestigious university put it succinctly:
“My students usually think that they have to do more than they actually need to.”
He did not expect groundbreaking work from his students (even though he was one of the world’s leading experts in his field).
However, he did expect carefully thought-out theses that showed his students were able to carry out independent research.
The idea that you have to create groundbreaking work to succeed in graduate school is a myth.
Focus on taking advantage of graduate school as a learning opportunity and you will feel less stressed and make more progress.
How to Break (or Prevent) The Grad School Burnout Cycle
The best way to prevent or break the burnout cycle is to refute the myths that are the root cause of it.
Simply bringing awareness to these false beliefs will help you to break habits that lead to fatigue and productivity.
Tip #1: Structure your day so that it includes frequent breaks away from your work
One of the biggest mistakes students make is to make “reading email” their break from work.
In order to give yourself a real break and activate the default mode of your brain (that will lead to creative solutions), you need to be away from your desk.
I remember that when I was interviewing for graduate school programs, one professor told me that the most useful advice he ever gives to a student is to:
“Just go and sit under a tree.”
As most graduate students are already overachievers, it is not helpful to tell them to work harder.
When you are away from your desk, you are giving the default network in your brain (the back burner) to get activated and solve problems while you are relaxing.
What could be better than that?
Tip #2: Give yourself permission to make mistakes
When I was in the third grade I started to become self-conscious about my spelling and grammar, which actually stunted my ability to write creatively.
My teacher, who was one of the most respected teachers in my school, told me:
“I have been teaching 3rd grade for 28 years and I still make mistakes every day. Just write from your heart and we will correct your mistakes later.”
While at the time neither my teacher and I thought I would get a PhD, her advice helped me to get over my tendency to try to make everything perfect.
Allowing myself to make mistakes (at least on the first draft) was essential to help me complete my thesis by the deadline.
By not letting perfectionism get in the way of my creativity, I was able to get my ideas on paper for the first draft of my thesis without being concerned about the spelling, grammar, or even the data analysis/interpretation.
Whether you are still designing your studies or are writing your thesis, give yourself permission to just go for it, even if it is not perfect.
You can always correct your grammar/spelling and data analysis later.
However, you need to have a starting point, something on paper, in order to be able to create high quality work.
Tip #3 Set up your daily structure so that you minimize the necessity to multitask
I know, I know…this sounds impossible, especially if you have a family.
The good news is that most of the skills you gain as a parent are transferable to academia too – talk about efficiency!
If you are a parent, I understand your challenges.
I had to write my grant for my postdoctoral fellowship while taking care of my newborn daughter.
I actually submitted all the necessary information for grant before my due date.
Unfortunately, I got a notice the day before my due date that I had to revise my grant within the following two weeks.
Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid multitasking
However, once I realized that I was less efficient when I multitasked, I was able to restructure my days so that I reduced the number of occasions when I had to multitask.
For example, I set aside specific times to check my email, rather than jumping back and forth between my work and email.
I also set aside some days to run experiments, and other days to write manuscripts, rather than try to write while experiments were running in the background.
While some people might claim they can multitask, in most cases you will be more efficient if you fully put your focus on one type of activity (running experiments vs. writing), versus trying to do them in parallel.
As a parent, I also “compartmentalized” my schedule.
When I am with my kids, I commit to being 100% with them (anyone who has tried to work while watching kids run around knows how futile this can be).
Tip #4: Nurture your mind and body unconditionally
We are all familiar with the concept of “rewarding” ourselves for doing great work.
In fact, using rewards (eg going out to the movies or dinner with friends), can be very motivating to help us complete our work.
However, if you only nurture yourself when you do good, you are creating a vicious cycle.
Neglecting your mind and body by depriving yourself of “food, folks, and fun”, will inevitably lead to a burnout.
Your body needs rest, fuel, and a supportive community to stay health and productive.
Of course, you can reserve special treats (such as going to your favorite restaurant) for special occasions, but you always need to provide yourself with a sufficient sleep, nutrition, and recreation regardless of your performance.
Tip #5: Reach out for support to help you keep your thesis on track
I interviewed over 100 PhDs who are now successful professionals in academia in industry to find out how they would advise current graduate students.
The #1 thing they would do differently if they could start graduate school all over again was to join a support group.
A support group can be formal through your university, or informal with your friends and hobby groups.
Of course, when you have technical questions your thesis advisor or committee members are the best to turn to for advice.
The reason that most PhDs would join a support group if they could start graduate school all over again, is that the biggest challenges they experienced were not technical.
They could get support for technical questions from professors, but they had few people to turn to when they experienced loss of motivation, personal conflicts, writing blocks, or a full-blown case of a burnout.
A support group can help you to cope with grad school burnout, isolation, and loss of motivation.
They can also provide you with accountability, so that you stay focused and follow through on your commitments.
For many students the best part about being part of a community is they get the opportunity to support other students who are going through the same challenges that they faced in the past.
While members of your support group might not be withing your technical field, just knowing that there are people who are there to listen and provide you with insights, can help you regain your focus and stay on track, even you are experiencing loss of motivation or a burnout.
When it comes to preventing a grad school burnout, what’s the #1 challenge you face?
Please share in the comments below and I will respond to you directly.
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