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



“It’s only a mountain when you’re down below. Halfway up it’s just a big hill. Before you know it, you are on top of the world.”- source


Four months ago I declared that I was officially burnt out. It was tough to admit to myself, but being miserable is not a requirement to get a Ph.D. So, after a few weeks of wallowing, I launched into an overly planned and ambitious recovery phase. I decided I would implement burnout-fighting strategies that other GradHackers had suggested and document my journey (see Part I). This post details my fight with burnout, what worked for me, what didn’t, and how I endeavored to take control of my well-being. If you’re struggling with burnout and feeling unmotivated here are some things I learned along the way.


Did it work? I’ll start by saying that since beginning this process my mood has improved and my research progress is once again inching forward. However, I’m not 100 percent cured. Fighting burnout is an ongoing process, prevention is just as important as treatment, and there is no immunity-boosting vaccine to protect yourself from new infections. Terrible metaphors aside, since taking action, I’ve regained a sense of excitement in exploring new research ideas and I have a support plan in place for when things aren’t going my way. The journey was definitely frustrating and is still full of ups and downs, but it is possible to reset your outlook if you don’t give up.


What did I do to overcome burnout? I implemented a lot of strategies with varying degrees of success. I suggest starting small and gradually adding in strategies as they become habit. I liked everything I tried but didn’t have the bandwidth to make them all stick at once.


1) I got away/took time off. Taking a few months off from school was not something I wanted to do so I opted instead for a short trip with a strict no-contact rule. I joined my brother on the Colorado Trail for a backpacking adventure where I covered 60+ miles of uninterrupted wilderness with absolutely no cell phone service. I returned from the trip rejuvenated and, after some vacation to visit family and friends, with everything in perspective. That effect has since worn off a tad, but I strongly advocate for a trip where you disconnect and focus on overcoming a challenge you set for yourself. Just make sure you give your advisor a heads-up before you go off the grid. Verdict – Success!


2) I exercised. Fear of getting left behind in the mountains is a terrific motivator. Since I had planned a hardcore backpacking trip I knew I had to get in shape. I aimed for six days a week and tracked my workouts to stay motivated. The frequency forced me to get creative, so I started doing more HIIT workouts since they could be done immediately after rolling out of bed. You could commit to fewer days a week but exercise is a great outlet for stress and often freed space in my head for new ideas, something I felt I needed almost daily. Try different activities and don’t overlook everyday opportunities,  like walking or biking your commute, as an easy way to get a workout in. Verdict – Success!


3) I journaled. I was excited for this one but I aimed too high. I found a 150-day challenge with short prompts and vowed to write just a couple sentences each day in my notebook. That didn’t last. I am eying this strategy for the future but this particular attempt fell by the wayside during the process. I’d suggest working up to this one. Verdict – failed but hopeful.


4) I ate better food. Luckily, an unplanned apartment move put me within a 30-second walk of the grocery store. That, combined with an experiment in consuming less dairy, has led to an increase in home-cooked meals and fresh vegetables. It’s hard to measure the effect of this one on burnout, but it improved my waistline and reduced the stress of cooking, which are both positive changes. Verdict – unclear but still enjoyed.


5)  I connected with others. To implement this, I joined a city-wide adventure group, said yes to more social invites, and vowed to call home more often. The adventure group got me meeting people outside of my field and reminded me that there’s a large world outside the walls of my office. Calling family and friends on my commute home reduced my traffic-induced stress and reminded me that people care. It takes effort but this one paid off big-time in contentment and having activities planned for after work. Verdict – Success!


6)  I reduced social media usage. This one started while I was on my backpacking trip and has trickled into my everyday life. I permanently turned off email notifications on my phone, limited my social media usage to specific times and places, and plugged my phone in across the room at night instead of next to my bed. This one has been slipping lately but I really enjoyed the freedom it provided. I could experience things in the moment without worrying about capturing it for the internet and even managed to finish reading some books for fun! I highly recommend trying this out for yourself. Even small steps can have a huge impact on your overall happiness. Verdict – very hard to do but I loved it.


7) I meditated. My mind is constantly going a mile a minute, which is great for thinking on your feet and idea generation but terrible for relaxing. I decided to meditate a few minutes a day and kickstarted it with a way-out-of-my-comfort-zone meditation retreat. I set up a little corner in my room with a comfy chair and an essential oil diffuser, downloaded an app, and took some classes at the wellness center on campus. I then proceeded to not meditate at all except for the rare occasion. Every time I did, I felt much calmer but it was easy to slack on this when it was just me in my room lying on some pillows. I suggest finding an accountability partner or class to initially build the habit. Verdict – I want to keep trying at this.


How did I stay motivated? It’s one thing say you’re going to combat burnout and select strategies to implement. It’s another to actually stick to your plans.


1)  I declared publicly. For better or worse I decided to promise the internet that I was going to banish my burnout. There’s no better motivation than knowing your department head, thesis advisor, and the institute in charge of your funding have all liked your tweet about it and are waiting to see what happens. While you don’t have to immortalize your decision online, knowing that your family, friends, or colleagues might ask you about your journey will make you want to have positive things to say.


2) I kept a notebook. I set quantifiable goals and wrote them down, which provided cold hard data about how I was doing, and created a habit tracker page in my notebook to follow my progress. This served as a pat on the back when I had met my goal and a kick in the butt when I wasn’t doing so hot.


3) I picked myself up when I failed. Life happens. There was a week where, in the span of three days, a journal rejected my article, my landlord unexpectedly raised my rent, and travel plans for my backpacking trip fell through. My burnout-fighting healthy habits took a backseat to the craziness, but, instead of giving up, I picked back up when things settled down. Having regularly scheduled programming also helped me deal with the insanity of a week that imploded.


4) I knew the only way to go was up. When I was frustrated that I wasn’t making progress I began to worry that I wouldn’t be rejuvenated by the time August rolled around. With graduation (hopefully) looming in the next year I worried that I would be too burnt out to make hard decisions about my future career path. Major life decisions such as finding a job or quitting graduate school (if that’s something you’re considering) should not be made from a place of frustration. No matter how much you don’t feel like trying don’t give up. Worrying will only make the process harder.


Now what? Overcoming burnout is a process. Between trying to wrap up papers and (hopefully) writing my dissertation, I know this year is going to bring just as many challenges as ever. Knowing this, I am still implementing the strategies above as a means of self-care to stay motivated and inspired. Going forward I’m just trying to keep in mind that you can’t control what life throws at you, you can only control how you react to it.


Have you struggled with burnout during your time in graduate school? How did you overcome it? What strategies worked for you?

[Image taken by the author after triumphantly summiting a pass above Snow Mesa on the Colorado Trail and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.]