Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. Her writing can be found on her portfolio site, kdshives.com.
Every grad student knows that getting an advanced degree can be extremely challenging and that, unfortunately, taking care of yourself often falls off the list of priorities. The long hours in the lab, teaching, and coursework requirements can become a grueling recipe for burnout. Burnout is a different monster than just being tired or overworked for a short period of time. It’s a chronic state of distress resulting from too many constant demands (sounds like grad school!).
I had to learn how to take better care of myself to manage burnout after months of struggling with experiments that did not work. Here’s what I learned: getting out of a burned-out funk takes effort.
With PhD completion rates around 50%, knowing how to deal with and push through burnout is an essential professional skill in an environment that demands so much from students.
Are you experiencing burnout? Some of the common symptoms are:
- chronic physical exhaustion that does not go away with rest
- depression and/or anxiety
- loss of motivation or interest in your work
- forgetfulness and/or impaired concentration
- detachment from those around you
- increased irritability
- lack of productivity/poor performance
If you thought these feelings were just a normal part of graduate school, I have great news for you: You don’t need to feel this way in order to get a degree.
So how can you combat burnout in graduate school when there are so many demands on your time? The key to managing this conflict is to be very proactive about self-care. The best way to combat burnout is to take the time to take care of yourself. These changes don’t have to disrupt your whole life, but taking the time to reassess your habits and alter your behaviour to better care for yourself will have a positive impact on your work and is worth the effort.
Don’t feel like you have to suddenly change your life to beat burnout; it’s not fair to expect that of yourself when you are burned out and it’s a recipe for failure. Instead, focus on making small, consistent changes to take better care of yourself and see if that impacts how you feel.
Here are my five personally tested tips for dealing with burnout while in graduate school.
Get Enough Sleep
In grad school sleep is one of the first things to go; some students even brag about how little they’ve slept like it’s a badge of pride. Yes, it can feel good to crank out a major experiment overnight or finally finish writing that article in the wee hours of the morning; but long-term sleep deprivation is incredibly bad for cognitive functioning.
There are two parts to this: getting more sleep and getting better sleep.
Getting more sleep is straightforward. Go to bed earlier or find a way to get up later. Turn off the autoplay on whatever video streaming service you use so you are forced to make the decision to watch more TV late into the night. Or try setting a “bedtime” alarm so you will be mindful about getting to bed at an earlier hour.
Getting better sleep is just as important as getting enough, nobody wants to sleep for 10 hours and still feel tired. To get better sleep try setting a “no screen” time for later in the evening. The light of computer monitors, cell phones, and television screens are known to disrupt your ability to sleep. Aim to shut down tech for the last 30 minutes of your day so you are not exposed to the bright lights that disrupt restful sleep.
Get regular exercise in your life, however you can. It doesn’t have to be a huge undertaking, even little bits through the day will help to improve mood. Taking the time to incorporate physical activity into your routine will help combat the physical symptoms of burnout and can produce mood-stabilizing endorphins that will help you to feel better in the long run.
Do you live close enough to campus to ride a bike?
Can you walk on your lunch break and get some extra sun to help your mood?
Examine your schedule and start by adding in little activities that you enjoy. You can always add more exercise later, the important part is to just start.
Eat Better Food
Eat real food! Even if it’s basic, it’s better than a vending machine, which is usually filled with empty carbs or salty/fatty chips. These foods aren’t doing your brain any favors even if they do feel better on your wallet. Eating better doesn’t have to break the bank.
Eating better is not complicated or unaffordable, no matter what all those diet plans are trying to sell and tell you. Don’t worry about gluten-free, low-fat, paleo, vegan, or the fad-of-the-year diet plan. Focus on eating basic, nutritious foods consistently so your brain actually has enough fuel to function. For me it means throwing a little tuna salad on a bunch of spinach before I run out the door, it’s really basic, takes less than 5 minutes, and provides enough energy so I don’t come home from lab like an over-caffeinated zombie. Embrace whatever works for you.
Even if you absolutely love Ramen noodles (which I do, I embrace the love of ramen I developed in undergrad) at least throw some frozen vegetables in there at the end so you’re not just eating empty carbs and salt. It’s not about major changes, but making the little improvements where you can, when you can.
Take some time to learn to cook. It doesn't have to be a complicated undertaking. Making a bunch of stew on a Sunday is pretty easy, and if you make enough to freeze you won’t need to cook lunch for the rest of the week (which is a HUGE time-saver as well!). Play around with a Crock-Pot. Have some fun with it! Learn to cook real food that you like and nourish your body.
Ask for Help
One of the major drivers of burnout is trying to cope with an overbooked schedule and too many necessary tasks. Try to take a step back and see if there is anything you can ask for help with in order to lighten your workload and give you room to recover from burnout. Do you have a spouse, significant other, family, or friends who can help ease the burden for a little bit by taking on some smaller tasks (like cooking dinner when you usually cook)?
Your personal life isn’t the only place where you can ask for help. If graduate work is completely overwhelming then take a hard look at all of your professional responsibilities and see if there is anything that you can step back from. This may mean having to speak with your advisor to determine what is working for you and what is not. Sometimes you might just need to be reminded that projects don’t always work and to be kinder to yourself, other times it may be time to address the project and drop aspects that are not working.
The important part is don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.
Learn to say NO.
When trying to get back from burnout you have to accept that you can’t do all the things. The temptation to add lines to your CV is always there, but it’s important to know when to say no to unnecessary activities, events, and even people. Protect your time and cut out whatever is not helping you achieve your goals or take care of yourself. Learn to say no to activities and people that are not contributing to your progress. Be ruthless!
Once you have a set of self-care habits to protect against the worst of burnout, then, and only then, can you start taking on new activities. Wait until you’ve made it through the burnout and can actually handle the increased workload, otherwise you may end up right back where you started.
While other articles may suggest the power of positive thinking in combating burnout, I think this is a bad way to deal with this particular problem. Positive thinking can result in an inability to actually deal with the issues that caused your burnout in the first place. It’s better to accept the negatives for what they are (heavy teaching loads, long hours, failed experiments) and work with what you have then imagine a false alternative for yourself.
Take baby steps to take care of yourself and stay consistent. Small, regular changes go a long way toward helping to break through burnout.
These tips don’t take much to implement, so try what fits for you. Always remember that you are worth taking care of.
Have you dealt with burnout during your graduate degree? What helped? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
[Image from Flickr user emiliokuffer, used under Creative Commons license]