PhD Life

PhD burnout and what to do when it arises.

PhD burnout happens to all of us during our PhD. Feeling emotionally and physically exhausted, drained, and overwhelmed is often due to chronic stress. Take a minute to stop and create some down time for yourself.

Burnout is a relatively universal feeling and an experience a lot of people are familiar with. Burnout is often characterised as that feeling of complete exhaustion – whether that be emotional or physical, typically caused by chronic stress. Burnout happens when you’ve been overwhelmed for too long and not had enough time to recharge, take stock, and re-centre your headspace. PhD burnout is no different, and if anything, it happens more frequently than in other professions. PhD burnout can arise from a whole range of things and can really start to have a negative impact on your work and personal life. It can also feel even more daunting if imposter syndrome starts to kick in or if your friends and family don’t really understand what you’re going through – reducing the opportunities for support.

PhD burnout can arise from a range of different sources. Usually, I find that it comes from either having too much on. PhD students love to take on too much. This is usually the biggest pain point for poor time management, and subsequently the precious time you need to protect your well-being and prevent burnout disappears. A lot of the tips to manage PhD burnout can be found in the time management tips post on this blog – this mainly consists of reducing your responsibilities, reducing your guilt, and shifting your attention to the quality instead of quantity of your work output. Of course, having more time available from your PhD can help offset PhD burnout, but it’s also important to work out what you’re doing with your free time when you’re not doing your PhD.

PhD burnout really starts to spill into other areas of your life, it can make you irritable, it can make it impossible to get out of bed, it can make you anxious, you might find yourself rushing through tasks because you no longer have the capacity to focus 100% anymore. The hard truth to all of this is that simply no matter how badly you want to stop doing these things it literally won’t get better until you stop doing them. No matter what you want to do, even if you know how to do it – if you’re at the point of burnout you need to just stop doing what you’re doing.

Stop. Stop what you’re doing and take a minute.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. PhD burnout is no different. If you’re at the point where you’re emotionally and physically exhausted the next best step is to block some time for yourself. This means taking annual leave and finding time for yourself. At this stage you should have an idea of what things help you re-charge. Some people prefer doing exercise, some people prefer reading books alone, some prefer seeing friends, some prefer sitting in front of TV and eating pizza all day (that’s my method). The point here is that it doesn’t matter what you do, but it definitely matters that you do something. Take action. Well in this case, you’re likely to be experiencing PhD burnout from too much action. So, for you, the best action you can take is the action of doing nothing. Boredom is a luxury and it’s your best friend right now. It feels counter intuitive but, as I’ve already pointed out, even if you don’t want to stop – your body is going to make you stop whether you like it or not.

It helps to think about resting as a key part of the PhD journey. PhD’s are not a sprint – they’re a slog that happens over time. To be able to complete your PhD or research project effectively you need to allocate time for yourself. If sitting in bed is making you feel anxious, worried or even guilty for not doing work then it’s possible that imposter syndrome is behind it. Alternatively, you might actually have genuine commitments and deadlines that need to be completed soon. In this instance, cut down what you can, you could maybe ‘take time off from your PhD’ so you can just focus on the reviewers comments this week, or this month for instance. As mentioned before, PhD burnout can spill into other areas of your life, maybe there’s a lot going on outside of your PhD which is adding fuel to the fire – maybe you could cut down or pause some of the things in your personal life that are emotionally draining to try and create space to recharge.

PhD burnout is a common phenomenon that, if you’re not careful, can be debilitating and catastrophic to your well-being and life. But fortunately, the solution is relatively straight forward – stop doing things. I give you permission, as will anyone else who cares about you, just stop doing so much. Even if it’s just for a short time. You don’t have to stop forever, but you need to stop for a short minute. If the word stop is too intimidating for you, maybe the word ‘pause’ helps. Either way, just understand you need to stop. Be compassionate towards yourself. If your body desperately needs to stay in bed to recharge, then stay in bed for a few days or even a week. Once you’ve got passed the PhD burnout, things will naturally pick up again. If they don’t, then you can worry about it then – at this point, speaking to your supervisor, taking a formal break from your PhD, or contacting your GP are avenues to explore at that stage. If you don’t take a break now, you could find yourself needing more drastic forms of support later down the road. Think of this current break as a preventative strategy to avoid a more serious one later on.

Inner peace.

PhD burnout can also offer as a useful tool for you to work out what you do and don’t enjoy, or maybe some poor working habits. If there’s a reoccurring theme or task that always contributes to your PhD burnout then maybe that task isn’t for you – maybe it contradicts a life value or a personal goal. This is useful information that could play a key part into your future career decisions. If you’re constantly experiencing PhD burnout from a range of different task’s then it’s likely that you’re spreading yourself too thin and overstretching yourself. PhD burnout is really useful information as it’s your body’s way of telling you that you’re doing too much. Take this time to reflect and understand what is contributing to your PhD burnout – the goal here being that once you know what’s causing PhD burnout you can put preventative measures in place to either change your work load, or schedule in more ‘time off’ when things start to ramp up.

In short, PhD burnout is a really common experience that we all at some point or another go through. The key thing here is to understand what is contributing to your PhD burnout, make adjustments to your commitments where necessary, and most importantly – know to take time off when you need it. If you find that this is you currently, STOP.

STOP. Book next week off from your PhD and go eat pizza. One week (7 days) isn’t going to derail a three year (1,095 days) or potentially longer PhD journey!

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