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Preventing Dissertation Burnout

Some advice to help you push through the stress during the final stages of your dissertation.

December 16, 2018
 
 

Megan Poorman recently completed her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder and associate of NIST. You can find her on twitter @meganpoorman or on her website.

In the fourth part of my dissertation series we’re talking about how to keep going and stay motivated through that final push, particularly when you’re already giving it all you’ve got. Feel free to check out the previous parts in this series below:

Part 1: Pre-Gaming Your Dissertation
Part 2: Catastrophe-Proof Your Dissertation
Part 3: Nose to the Grindstone

Ah, burnout. That unmotivated feeling that we grad students know all too well. Sure, you’re supposed to implement a self-care system, and of course life is all a balance, but how are you supposed to maintain all that when the biggest deadline of your grad school life is looming around the corner? There’s no time to stop: There’s no time to waste. You continue typing word after word as your last bit of sanity floats out the window.

Okay I’m being a bit melodramatic, but writing your dissertation can really take a toll on you mentally, physically, and emotionally. I’m already 5 months past my defense in an exciting new job, and I’m still sleeping 9+ hours a night trying to catch up. Burnout is a serious issue that can occur at any point in your graduate career. If you’re struggling with a lack of motivation, I encourage you to seek solace in your support network and implement some strategies to take back control of your time. I’ve compiled some advice from GradHackers below, and feel free to add yours in the comment section. [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]

In my opinion, dissertation burnout is a unique type of burnout. “Normal” graduate school burnout sneaks up on you. You’re excited by pursuing a new question and you dive headfirst into the challenge until the day that you realize you’re putting in more and more work for a seemingly decreasing amount of return as your frustration increases. Conversely, with your dissertation you’re working constantly and you may already be starting from a slightly overworked place. You’re aware that the pace you’re working at isn’t sustainable, but there isn’t much you can do about that when you’re working against a deadline. So are you doomed to be miserable? No. While you may not be able to completely avoid burnout you can do some things to keep yourself functioning during the process.  

Let go of the guilt
As much as we like to think that we have mastered the juggling of life and school, something is going to have to give while dissertating. Especially as you get more and more stressed, your capacity to deal with anything outside of your own bubble is going to decrease immensely. For me, having to say no to so many things that I used to enjoy doing, like participating in departmental activities, was incredibly frustrating. I felt like I was letting everyone down and, worst of all, not acting like myself. This made me even more frustrated, which severely cut down on my productivity. Eventually my partner had to remind me that, in this instance, it was okay to be selfish and that I shouldn’t feel guilty for doing what I needed to do to finish my dissertation. Work styles are different for everyone and this is one of the times in your life that you are entitled to a bit of self-preservation. You know best what you need in the moment to make sure you are mentally prepared to keep writing. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion of what writing your dissertation “should” look like sway your decisions, because that will only lead to more exhaustion.

Reward yourself
Did you finish a chapter or finally get the wording write in a paragraph you’ve been struggling with? Reward yourself with a beer or an activity you enjoy doing. Ironically, I was most consistent about going to the climbing gym when I was in the crunch time of my dissertation. I needed that weekly fun activity with my crew to keep me sane, and I was willing to sacrifice a little bit of sleep to make it happen. You might feel guilty about taking the time for yourself or spending a little bit of money, to which I’ll say again…let go of the guilt. Do what you need in that moment, whether it means splurging on a nice coffee or ordering delivery instead of driving to pick it up. You’re allowed to make your life a little easier and still get enjoyment out of things even if you’re in crunch time.

Find joy in the small things
I really loved finding a sunny spot on campus to write. It was a simple pleasure that wasn’t usually afforded to me as a programmer working in a basement office. No matter how frustrated with my dissertation I was, I could still revel in the fact that I was soaking up some sun. I loved the feeling of not having to get out of my PJs until later in the day if I was writing from home. I enjoyed the brief conversations laying on my roommate’s floor as I heard about the latest lab happenings. I reveled in beating the cars to campus as I zoomed past them down the hill in the bike lane. These are all such small things, but when my day was filled with nothing but writing and equations, they were the best parts. Find the simple things from your daily life that make you happy and make sure you do one of them a day, even if it’s only for a few minutes.

Know your limits
I’m generally a pretty outgoing person. I was never the person in grad school to work odd hours or only go into lab after hours to avoid people. However, when I went into full writing mode I found myself no longer able to hold sustained conversations. I was distracted and honestly a little grumpy, so I wasn’t in the best mood to be lending a listening ear to people anyways. Gradually I began shifting my hours to avoid the office when it was crowded or skipping gatherings all-together. While in general I would say social time and mutual venting is good for helping burnout, know your limits. Even if your excuse for skipping is just that you want to curl up in bed with a book, do it. Again, you know what is best for you right now. Don’t let others’ expectations encroach on your decompressing time.

Plan for after the dissertation
I want to emphasize that some level of burnout during your dissertation is inevitable, but this level of effort is not sustainable in the long term. You must put up with some level of burnout to make it through, but you absolutely need to make up for it with a large period of fun afterwards. After my defense I gave myself a couple weeks to wrap up loose ends and then I had a full 20 days of vacation planned before my post-doc started. I spent the time traveling to visit family and friends, hiking in the Colorado mountains, and setting up my new home. Knowing that I would get to see people that I loved and planning what I wanted to do afterwards kept me going. Even if you aren’t moving to a new place just yet, plan some fun time for after your dissertation is done, and guard that time fiercely. You’ll always feel like there is more to be done, but you deserve a huge reward and your mind needs a break so don’t let that get away.

Burnout during your dissertation sucks, and these strategies are not a cure-all approach to make you feel rejuvenated and worry-free. They are simply things that worked for me to help make a stressful time a little bit more bearable. Hopefully they can do the same for you.

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