How To Avoid PhD Burnout In 10 Minutes

Last week I was close to a PhD burnout. I knew that if another shitty thing was to happen, I would snap.

Have you ever put more on your plate than you could chew?

And then, when you feel your mind is 100% busy with work projects, life decides to add more troubles to your plate, like those that “never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blind side you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday“?

That was me 3 weeks ago.

Walking Towards PhD Burnout

Having a PhD burnout is rather common. In fact, several factors make stress, burnouts and mental illnesses a sad reality in Academia.

Projects were not going well. In fact they were going like horse manure, turning more complicated than I had anticipated and this caused delays. Obviously the supervisors of the projects were not very pleased.

I should have already closed a project so I could have room in my schedule to start the next project in the queue. I ended up running both projects in parallel. It was my bad, for being over optimistic in the planing.

Then two managers asked for help. They had some of those side projects that you know they will be beneficial for you to say yes. The downside is that you need to work on them in your free time.

I thought I was a sort of super effective dude that can take anything, so I said “sure, bring it on!”.

Life did not only start to get out of control at work, it also started to derail at home.

Creating the perfect PhD burnout storm

First, we were moving to a new house. The renovation was running out of schedule, which resulted in us delaying the moving and costing many worries (and money).

My girlfriend and me were in constant tension with all the arrangements for the new house. It was not fun to be around us. We would have loved to chop somebody’s head just to release our frustration.

Then my father, who was staying with us to help with the moving, started to have some severe health issues. Doctors could not find an explanation. I might sound silly given my age, but I realized my parents won’t be here forever. I know it’s a cliché. Nevertheless, it was a scary realization.

And then my daughter fell down the stairs.

While discussing with my girlfriend about some stupid thing related to the new house, I forgot to lock the stairs gate. I went downstairs and my daughter followed me. Only this time I was not waiting with my arms wide open to lift her and carry her downstairs.

She keep running and I saw her tumbling down ten steps, bouncing on her head. It was the first time I saw life in slow motion.

She landed on my feet.

Luckily she cried with fear and pain, and just that. We checked her. Apart from a huge swelling in her forehead, she was still functioning normally.

That put everything in perspective. What was going at work mattered very little compared to what I had almost lost.

My life realization lasted just a few hours. Next day at work it was the same old, though, back to PhD stress land. For having done a PhD I am a slow learner.

In that never-ending project, I was trying to run some data analysis, but the statistical libraries I thought I could use were not offering all the features I had expected (take that Julio for not reading thoroughly all the documentation).

Next day I had to present results and I had none. Nothing. Nada.

Not happy with this, I decided to join a useless meeting that spanned for more than two hours. Two hours!!

Have I ever told you to skip meetings to protect your productivity? Like half a dozen times. Well, maybe I should use my advice more often.

I had only a few hours to fix the damn statistical analysis and generate results that were decent enough to keep my supervisor happy.

I felt I couldn’t take all this shit at once. Not any more.

Stress level close to a PhD burnout

I felt panic.

Panic of not being able to deliver. Panic of failing. Of not knowing how to get out of this situation. Panic of people discovering I am an impostor. If only I could try a bit harder and fix that program.

I knew I was getting close to a burn out.

Do you know that feeling of being so close to boiling point that you are about to do something you will later regret?

There was I, about to implode or to hit somebody, or both.

The 10 minutes that kicked PhD burnout in le derrière

For the next 10 minutes I did something that cleared my mind. It gave me oxygen and perspective on how to approach this situation.

PhD students handle stress in many different ways. There is not one-size-fits-all.

I did something you probably don’t expect from me. But I want to share it with you, because it might help you when you are pushed to the limit of your stress tolerance.

You see, I was too far down the rabbit hole I dug for myself. I could not see other alternatives in my project. Results HAD to be obtained using THAT specific technique. I was just pushing forward and hitting a brick wall every time.

After doing this, I saw my project with new eyes.

I reformulated the research question, so I could use a simpler yet still valid statistical method. I could program it rather easily.

After two hours of focused programming I had some results to show. Not great results, but something to save the day.

This is what I did to calm my stress

Where I work there is a praying room. There is just a chair, a carpet, and a sink and paper towels if you need to wash yourself.

I walked in the praying room and locked the door not to be disturbed.

If somebody 3 months before had told me I would be in a praying room to fix my stress problems I wouldn’t have believed it. And there I was, in a praying room, searching for my inner peace.

I did not pray.

I did something else that had a radical change in my mental and physical state.

I meditated.

Avoiding PhD burnout with meditation

How To Calm The PhD Stress Within You With Meditation

Look, I know what you are thinking: Meditation, really? I’ve heard all that crap about spirituality, mysticism, mantras, and burning incense.

I have to admit that first I saw meditation as some sort of homeopathic remedy for your mind. Something hippies were teaching for a living after a pilgrimage to India to find themselves. So, nope, I didn’t buy it at all.

To my surprise, the last months I have heard many super busy (and successful) people say that they use meditation to control stress and to have a sense of balance in their lives.

I had to give it a shot.

Look, my brain is always on. When it is not worrying about the progress of work, it’s coming up with some new ideas to research, or it’s trying to remember what’s next in the agenda.

I see meditation as a break, a pause for my brain to relax and refresh itself.

It doesn’t require much from me. I just sit down for 10 minutes with my eyes closed and follow an easy guided meditation audio.

Some people think that meditation is about shutting off your thoughts. All the contrary, it’s about noticing them, acknowledging them and letting them go.

Meditation helps you to clear the noise in your head and focus on what matters.

I would urge you to try meditation if you feel overwhelmed, constantly stressed or you feel unhappy in your PhD. In other words, if you are at the baseline mood of a PhD student.

The benefits of meditation

Your mind is busy. Meditation will help you to think clearly by

  • turning your brain off when you need it
  • helping you to focus
  • relaxing you

Meditation is to your brain what a warm bath is to your body.

The effect on your brain is comparable to what guys (and some women) experience after an orgasm: they can think clearly because the sex drive switches off.

[Fun fact] Did you know that Japanese has a word for that mental state? Kenjataimu: The post-orgasmic period when a man’s thoughts are no longer impaired by his sexual drive; he is thus likened to a “sage” of clear mind. Some people called “moment of clarity”, others “philosopher’s time”.

Whatever you want to call it, wouldn’t you want to enjoy a moment of clear thought?

Let’s see how meditation can tame that wild brain of yours.

From my (ignorant) point of view, I think you can use meditation in two ways, depending on the results you want to get:

  1. Meditating regularly to be in a constant state of calmness and presence.
  2. Ad-hoc meditation, when a situation requires you to calm down your brain.

Doing meditation the right way to avoid PhD burnout

How to start in meditation, easily (and for free)

  1. Sign up for free to HeadSpace and download their app in your smartphone.
  2. Follow after waking up (or during the day) one of the 10-minute free guided meditation practices in Headspace. No pressure to do this every morning, just when you can.
  3. If during the day you feel too much stress, retreat to a quiet place and play one of the headspace audios for 10 minutes.
  4. If you are too short of time (or want to do it more often) just sit with your eyes closed for two minutes and focus on breathing.

A few tips to get the most out of meditation as a PhD student

There are many ways to deal with stress. There are different habits to start your day. It is important not to be overwhelmed. Do not try to do and achieve too much. Here are a few pointers to help you stay realistic when trying meditation.

Just show up

Benefits of regular meditation are profound but you will only notice them in the long-term, so don’t try to feel the improvement in your mind after a couple of sessions. Leave the “am I already making progress?” for other time. Just focus on showing up for your meditation practice. Results will show up in due time.

Inner peace to beat PhD burnout

Do not try to control your thoughts

The goal is not to shut down all your thoughts, but to focus on one (for instance your breathing), so your brain slowly disengages with the rest of thoughts. Other thoughts will come and go while you meditate, that’s fine, just remember to come back to your breathing.

Find a quiet place

Being interrupted by a colleague or your child while practicing meditation is anti-climatic. Make sure you won’t be disturbed for 10 minutes. Some people wake up minutes earlier, when it’s still quiet at home. Others retreat to a room with a lock.

The 100% guaranteed benefit of meditation

You might not reshape your brain. You might not reach a mystical state of mind. What you will for sure get with meditation, is a 10 minute break in your busy schedule. And the benefits of that pause can go a long way.

If you don’t have time for meditation because you are too busy, then you REALLY need meditation

If you are doubting about your PhD. If you think “why am I going through all this stress if nobody will read my PhD thesis?“.  I have something to tell you: your PhD matters.

I want you to do 3 things

  1. Today, try 10 minute mediation like described in this post.
  2. Send this post to some stressed colleagues.
  3. Share some of your own tips to deal with PhD burnout and stress.

 

About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on JulioPeironcely.com.

Comments

  1. Thanks for writing such great posts. I am a foreign medical graduate living in USA. It took me a while to get done with USMLE exams (due to family reasons). So by the time I got myself an MD certification, most of medical residency program not willing to take since I have been out of med school for a while. My question is if I want to do PhD do I have to do Masters first or can apply to PhD programs? Thank you very much.

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