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Falling Back in Love With My Degree (Part I)

Preventing burnout.

June 8, 2017

Megan Poorman is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.




The unstructured nature of graduate school leaves a lot of room for independence. Your main goal is to graduate, and your advisor may set a few long-term goals, but the steps along the way are entirely up to you. Having the flexibility to define your own measures of success is exciting but it also means you’re constantly striving to achieve more. This is great for challenging yourself, not so great for your self-esteem when you fall short of your own high expectations.


The topic of overcoming burnout has been very well explored here on GradHacker. However, it’s not always easy to implement these strategies when you’re being pulled in so many directions. It’s easy enough to say you’re going begin a self-care routine to avoid burnout, but it’s hard to stick to it when the problem seems far off. How do you recognize when you’re in the early stages of burnout? What can you do to act before it becomes a problem? How can you overcome burnout when you’ve got so many other things going on? I’m here to find out.


My Reflection:

I don’t like to admit it, but I too am suffering from a little bit of burnout. When I first applied to graduate school I was excited to begin a grand adventure. I knew it wasn’t all going to be fun and games but I felt empowered to pursue my Ph.D. despite the challenges that would arise. Three years down the road I’ve hit a bit of a wall. Perhaps it was wrapping up my final semester of classes or the 22-page manuscript hanging over my head, but suddenly the opportunities presenting themselves weren’t exciting. They were annoyances. When summer hit I felt a huge sense of relief. Finally, I could focus on just research and tackle those projects I’d been dreaming about during seminars! Except, instead of bringing clarity, the open slots on my calendar became daunting and it became difficult to focus with no time constraints forcing me to be productive.  


I’ve been lucky -  I have a very supportive advisor, my research area is exciting and productive, and I do my best to take time on weekends for myself. These help eliminate common causes of burnout. Lately though, I’ve been becoming more and more frustrated with every responsibility that comes up. I believe having a sense of purpose and adventure is critical to doing good research, yet the grad school slump has left me feeling uninspired. I want to tackle my final year of school with the same fervor and delight as when I first began, not coasting to the finish line. It’s time to fall back in love with my degree.


To that end, this summer I’m going to implement some of GradHacker’s burnout-fighting strategies and see how those integrate into my grad student lifestyle without taking away from research. Taking advice to heart and making a change is always challenging, especially when you can only see the beginning and end. It’s the steps in the middle that are hardest, so I’m going to document my journey and share the process when we return from summer break. I’ll see what worked for me and what didn’t, what the ups and downs were, and what is realistic to incorporate going forward.


Early Warnings for Burnout:

In the meantime, I encourage you to reflect on your own graduate school journey. Avoiding burnout is possible but it requires identifying stressful situations before they get out of hand. Below are a few of my thoughts on ways to recognize when you’re at risk for burnout.


1. You’re no longer in control: It’s the most frustrating thing when your one day that week free for an all-day experiment gets interrupted by a last-minute meeting. This constant changing of schedules can make you feel like you have no time for your own work and increasingly bitter at interruptions. Take a step back and examine what you can adjust. Perhaps you can implement some collaboration management strategies, say no to a few activities, or minimize your time spent in meetings. Accept that you’ll have to roll with the punches on things outside of your control.


2. You’ve stopped calling home: When I’m stressed out I desperately want to talk to my family and friends. Yet I usually don’t because it seems like too much effort to field questions and properly explain the situation just to get some advice or comfort. When you find yourself withdrawing stop and ask yourself what’s really bothering you. Use this opportunity to reflect and accept what you’re feeling and then reach out anyway. You’ll feel better afterwards.


3. You’re affected by other people’s opinions: As they say, comparison is the death of joy. In a field where most milestones are self-enforced it’s only natural to look to your peers for confirmation that you’re on track. The problem with that is that everyone’s degree is different; there’s always going to be someone working on a Sunday, taking a vacation, winning an award, or giving you a hard time for doing any of the above. While having a peer group can be a great motivator, the only immediate opinions that matter are yours and your advisor’s. Take stock of your situation and decide if anything needs to change without outside influence.


4. You’re disconnected: You turn down every social invitation because there’s a never-ending pile of work to do and you feel guilty taking time off. That intensity of work is not sustainable. Notice when you start making excuses even if there’s no major deadline coming up. Take the opportunity to relax before jumping back into the next crunch time.


5. You’re not cheerful: You respond to the greeting of “Hey, how are you?” with a sigh, “fine,” or a half-hearted “good.” I’m not saying you must be constantly bubbly, but noticing your gut-reaction when someone asks how you are is a great insight into your current mindset. It’s okay to experience ups and downs, but if you notice you are consistently unenthusiastic it might be time to take a step back.


6. You forget to celebrate: Often by the time you’ve submitted an assignment you feel even more stressed instead of accomplished. All you can think about is finally working on the things you’ve been putting off. Regardless of how behind you feel you are, submitting a paper or having an experiment finally work is a huge accomplishment. Step back, acknowledge your success, and give yourself an ice cream break. Work will always be there and immediately trying to tackle more will only add to the stress.


Going Forward:

If you’re curious about what strategies I’m thinking of implementing I’ve compiled a list here. Comment below if you have any more suggestions or what worked for you. I’ll be choosing a few small steps to take as a I go along. I’m excited to get a lot of work done this summer as well as gain some perspective. Wish me luck!


What situations do you notice as signs of burnout? How do you integrate burnout prevention and care strategies into your daily life? What strategies have you successfully used to combat burnout?


[Image by Flickr user Bernard Goldbach and used under the Creative Commons license.]


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