An update on PhD Burnout

After writing briefly about burnout in July, when I had done a Google Summer of Code while working as a Research Assistant on a grant about spatial multilevel modeling, I was super burnt out. Now, I’d like to safely say, while I’m still stressed and spread too thin over too many projects, I don’t feel burnt out any longer. 

The main thing I realized is the importance of switching into “write-only” mode. While this was something I did a bit ago, the realization of the term/practice was prompted by reading how Kenneth Reitz went into a “publish-only” mode. As again noted by that Atlantic piece, being a graduate student (and academic) is, at the end of it, an extreme exercise in peer approval. So, you begin to find yourself naturally thinking about what people (i.e. your committee) might think about a given analysis method. This can be helpful, since getting to know how your committee members think will help you internalize perspectives that aren’t necessarily your own and empower you to be a self critical and independent scholar.

After a while, I began to realize this is a really fragile way to put something novel together: anticipating critique doesn’t resolve it, but it does slow you down. I found that when I just did stuff, generating tangible products that I knew weren’t perfect, the work began to have a life outside of my head and my hard drive.

So, I guess this is what it means to produce research: developing a collection of documents, drafts, and software that could be related, linked together, assessed, and published, rather than a collection of perspectives and arguments held in your head, jupyter notebooks sitting on your server, or proofs and drafts of documents people never read. 

Now, while I’m still stressed, I’ve begun to try and characterize where that stress is actually me confusing “excitement” with “anxiety.” When I was younger, it felt like almost everything was clearly “excitement.” My understanding of anxiety was episodic, in response to specific emotional stimuli. Excitement was a typical state of being for me. 

In some ways, my understanding of this flipped. Anxiety is a state of being, excitement is about specific futures I can imagine or tangible prospects I can identify. Most of all, I new see it’s possible to be both excited and anxious, and the boundary isn’t clear. When the anxiety is generalized, it helps me to try to enumerate specific tangible components. Then, I try to act on those after giving myself some time to refocus. Sometimes, I’ve found it possible to pivot anxiety into excitement when completing these tangible components, moving from:

I’m anxious about failing, getting this wrong, my understanding not being thorough enough and getting discovered to misunderstand.


I’m excited to try this out, implement a few things, and see what I can learn. 

Making this pivot can be very hard, but I think it’s essential for graduate students who struggle with this kind of anxiety. Importantly, everyone has concerns about misunderstanding something, but pouring over the same literature multiple times won’t address this. My understanding of academic research shifted from what it had been in private enterprise situations. There, “research” is often about building capability, i.e. finding the secret keys, solutions, and silver bullets that add functionality and make new things possible. Academic research needs a more lunch-pail touch: 

find the gap, do the math, write the code, write the paper, send the paper. 

Another large component of generalized anxiety about my work comes from concerns about software bugs in research code. I’ve become particularly sensitized to that concern since I’ve been a long-time user and occasional contributor to free software projects and have consulted on dissertation-adjacent methods before. I still wonder whether there is a way to integrate code review for academic journals or grants. Until that day, though, there’s nothing you really can do about this aside from code responsibly and do honest test-driven development. 

So, it’s been a long road. But, as I’ve started getting my hands & head fully around the dissertation, these are a few things I’ve come to realize about how I handled the burnout I wrote about back in July. 

imported from: yetanothergeographer