Graduate school and research is hard; enough difficulty and failure can squelch even the brightest people. I am one of the many I know that have experienced burnout in grad school but it goes beyond academia, it is an experience that is emblematic of our generation.
The winter break is a good time to recover and reflect after a difficult period. So, going full fire metaphor with this, I thought I would share my experience of dealing with burnout.
Fueling the fire
Research can be all consuming. When feeling seriously depleted, there are few things that make me feel better (use any of these that feel good for you):
- Stop working. Do something else, or nothing at all.
- Sleep and rest. Acknowledging that being tired is not the same thing as being lazy.
- Eat and hydrate. I feel better when I can make food that is both nutritious and comforting
- Running and yoga are my activities of choice.
- Tidy up. Having a clean space helps me feel more at ease.
- Be in nature. Going for a hike, run, or walk along the East Coast Trail or concourse trails in the city. For the past few weeks an eagle around Quidi Vidi Lake has been a joy to see.
- Connect with family and friends. Text or call those who are a far away, discuss future visits, and spend time with those who are near.
Curiosity is the spark
Ok. We have the tinder, now to strike the match. My zest for life is driven by the obsession to learn as much as possible. I like to bring genuine curiosity to these difficult phases.
Ask others if they feel the same way. How do they deal with it? How do they find balance?
Ask myself why do I love what I do?
– I remember loving group projects as a kid. It was fun to brainstorm, assign tasks based on our individual strengths, eat snacks while working together (and sometimes chatting about other things). I was very lucky to work with other dedicated people who were or became close friends. Doing research in grad school is just like a big group project. Sometimes I lose sight of that when the work is monotonous and the setbacks pile up.
Ask myself what have I learned from the failures?
– I have learned more from failures than I ever have from my immediate successes.
Ask myself what do I want to explore even if it isn’t the most productive choice? What conversation about research am I excited to have? What new thing do I want to learn today?
– I am focusing on doing my research for the sake of enjoyment and not solely production.
Tending the fire
Wow! That is an impressive blaze! But be careful – check that there is enough fuel and don’t spread it too thin.
- Plan for success. Create a schedule with realistic tasks, with a few that can be completed in a short time. It is important to not overload or multitask.
- Celebrate success. I try to praise myself when I accomplish something (not necessarily finish it), or even if I felt engaged in some part of my work that day. If focusing on failures is draining, then focusing on successes can be sustaining.
- Make pauses intentional. I create a schedule that includes breaks. During these breaks I meditate, seek perspective, and or do a systems check. I try not to check messages, emails, or phone calls during work-free time.
- Set boundaries. Taking on too many things will make a realistic schedule with successes and pauses nearly impossible to do. It is ok to say no.
- Accept everyone has limits. Humans aren’t perfect: I can’t always be the best or do the most. I try to let go of the fact that it will often be impossible to achieve my ideals. This post is not meant as another guide to optimization: that’s feeding a different fire. The solution is not to do more and do it better. Instead, I just do what is possible and am comfortable with what that is. Dealing with burn out is a constant battle, and if I want the fire to stay burning, I have to keep tending to it.
- If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do (That is an Angel quote for any Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans out there). All my deadlines and all my work seems critical at the time but taking a step back to look at the things I do in the scale of my life, other’s lives, or the entire world leads me to the comforting conclusion that everything is inconsequential. I get lost in the accomplishment of being done, but the journey of doing the research is what I love.
Share the flame
I shouldn’t deplete what I don’t have to give, but I have learned that what seems like a small gesture on my part has been deeply meaningful to others. I value the community that is built when I try to lookout for others and discover that others are looking out for me.
As the last post before the holidays I feel that I need to put out this important ~*~*~Public Service Announcement: TAKE A BREAK DURING THE BREAK~*~*~.
Please don’t do this:
Finally, I want to share two holiday posts: The first is about how to deal with the very common but unpleasant questions about our thesis and for families that would be receptive, this is a helpful guide to taking care of their grad student.
Wishing you all warmth over the winter break. Keep those fires burning.
If you are struggling or seeking advice here are some resources available to you:
The School of Graduate studies offers individual and group sessions and can be contacted at email@example.com