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I’m trying to recover from a bit of burnout. This summer, I’m ostensibly double-booked, working on a Google Summer of Code project in addition to a project with the new Center for Spatial Data Science at the University of Chicago, and I’m still keeping up with my Dissertation & my involvement in the Python Spatial Analysis Library outside of my GSOC project. I just finished my comprehensives back in May, so I’m also trying to maintain momentum on my dissertation work.

Doing so many things, I’m starting to feel burnt out. So, I’m hoping to document the factors that are causing it, in hopes that I can avoid it in the future and help other graduate students avoid burnout. Check out the sections below the fold and let me know if there’s some tips you’ve learned that I may have missed:

Prioritize your mental health

Something that was really powerful for me to read was the recent Atlantic article, Why do so many graduate students quit. I’ve had some second-hand expeirence with anxiety and depression recently, but had never really found myself particularly affected by clinical depression or anxiety. But, I’ve found myself falling into exactly the bind mentioned in the article in the Atlantic. When you’re doing your PhD, you’ll naturally focus a great deal on what your committee thinks of you. this extreme focus on perceptions leads you to second guess yourself about everything.

In my personal and working life, I’ve come to find that being forthright and direct is the best way to maintain healthy relationships. So, the PhD is very difficult to handle sometimes, because sometimes the answers to questions like:

Am I doing a satisfactory job? Do you approve of the work I’m doing? In what ways can I improve?

aren’t cut and dry. So you’re left with this gnawing uncertainty about whether or not you’re making satisfactory progress. Sometimes, positive reinforcement exacerbates this, since it feels insufficient or incomplete.

So, if you find yourself noticing negative changes in your physical, emotional, or mental life, please be sure to seek treatment. You will not finish your degree if you sacrifice your health and mental wellbeing.

Set aside ways to recover when you get overwhelmed

At some point, even if you’ve prioritized your mental and emotional health, you will get overwhelmed. It will feel bad, you might feel rotten, and nothing will seem worth it. In these moments, it’s quite important to figure out how to get back on the horse and ride.

One thing that I’ve found is incredibly important is to develop affirming relationships with your colleagues, your committee, and your friends. You should feel like you & your fellow graduate students are in the same boat, working towards similar goals. This community is sorely needed, because the PhD is hard enough substnatively. Feeling like you’re doing it alone simply adds too much load.

In this vein, taking my comprehensives was a sea-change in my feelings about the PhD for me. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it traumatic, but managing anxiety and panic is something I now need to learn how to do. Something in me changed during my comprehensives, and I am still figuring out how to cope with it. I am confident in my relationship with my committee and my colleagues.

But sometimes the stress of certain events in the program will overwhelm you. It might make you see the whole process a little differently, change your motivations, and make you think of things in a different way. So, you need to have some way to pick yourself back up when you get overwhelmed.

The worst thing isn’t the truest thing

I’m not used to having things be clearly outside of my capabilities. So, I’ve always found myself considering the set of what was possible as equivalent to the set of things that I could do. Anything in that set that I wanted to do wound up on some todo list somewhere. And, that list grew and grew and grew. 

When you’re a PhD student, you may find that, at some point, your capabilities vastly outstrip the time with which you can actually get something done. When this happens, it’s easy to become disappointed in yourself every time you see something neat, new, or cool. You think to yourself

Oh, that’s really neat. I could’ve done that.

which quickly moves to

I should’ve done that first!

and finally metastastisizes into

The fact that I didn’t do that first means I’m behind.

While this is sometimes true, it’s important to recognize that, sometimes, the person catching the brass ring won’t be you.

You can do everything, but you can’t do everything

Something you need to tell yourself often is that while you training enables you to do almost anything, the economics of existence means you can’t do everything. With this in mind, you need to pick the set of anything that is rewarding, both in terms of your scientific field and for your personal feelings of gratification and justification.

In the lifehacking world (a world I’m somewhat sketched out by), they call this triage, and I think that it’s possibly the most important skill for a PhD student. For a PhD student, triage involves prioritizing the tasks which you need to complete. Since the set of requirements on PhD students is often nebulous and extremely self-directed, figuring out how urgent a task is can be difficult.

No is not defeat

Indeed, with so many people asking for a bit of your time or attention, you need to be clear with how to draw boundaries with your colleagues. If you find that you can’t say no to requests from colleague, you will quickly overcommit yourself. While some people do deserve more of your time, you still need to triage and prioritize the things that are most important for your health & your career.

You need to learn how to be comfortable saying no about projects. Learning your limits is important, and the fact that you have them is not an indication that you are somehow defective or ill-equipped.

Attention trumps intent

This is possibly the most important realization for me.

Even though something is possible I don’t have to volunteer myself to do that thing. Attention trumps intent. Simply being the first person to mention that something is possible is enough to get the ball rolling on the task. Sometimes, this ball will squash you. Thus, in meetings or casual conversations, try to talk about the things you intend to do, rather than just generic things you’d like to see done.

In fact, it’s safe to assume that you should try to do only the things you want to do. Your attention should align as well as possible with your intent to do things. While it’s sometimes necessary to just buck up & do stuff you don’t like to do, I know that my work is often better when I find the project both compelling and personally interesting.

imported from: yetanothergeographer