Do you feel overwhelmed by the possibilities you have and expectations you meet as a PhD candidate? You are not alone. And the feeling might affect you more than you think. Two PhD candidates tell about their experiences with burning out during their PhDs and and what steps they took to overcome it.
The flexibility of a PhD is a cause for celebration amongst many of us. Want to work from home today? Sure. 9 to 5? Pfft. But sometimes it works in reverse, and the lack of a ‘regular week’ and set hours can lead to some people working well beyond 40 hours a week, then taking work home with them.
If your days are filled with publishing deadlines, teaching responsibilities and progress reports, and they’re coming home with you on the weekend and in the evenings, it can lower your productivity at work, affect your personal life, and lead to mental health issues.
I sat down with Elena Albertsen and Endre Grüner-Ofstad, both PhD candidates at the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics at NTNU, who have had experiences with burning out during their PhDs. We spoke about recognising the signs of a burnout, how it affected them professionally and personally, and what steps they took to overcome it.
Sam Perrin: Elena, you suffered from quite a bad burnout last summer. Tell me a bit about it.
Elena Albertsen: I guess that I wasn’t prepared for a lot of the pressures and expectations that actually come with a PhD position, such as the strong pressure to publish which is a result of the uncertainty of your future as a researcher. You have to compete against the best, and this can be a bit overwhelming. I realised last summer that I was burnt out, but I think it was building up for quite some time. When I started my PhD I was feeling more stressed than usual and I didn’t know how to deal with it very well, and that piled up during my PhD. At some point I realised that I wasn’t able to do anything productive in a day, and I was just going on this “freak-out loop”.
SP: Was there anything in particular about the PhD which contributed to it?
EA: I think it was not being able to do things as fast as I had hoped and when comparing myself to everyone else, I would feel like I was falling behind. Part of it was that I couldn’t accept where I was academically.
I couldn’t accept that there were some things I just hadn’t learned yet. I felt that if I got stuck on some aspect of my project, either in the analysis or literature, it would take away from the time I needed to complete my PhD. When I’d sit down to work I’d get caught up in that thought, and I’d become anxious when things took longer than expected.
What was the tipping point at which you realised you needed to take action?
EA: When I felt like I didn’t want to go to work, because it really stressed me out going somewhere where people reminded me what I had to do and what I should know. I think that was when I realised I should find someone who could give me some guidance, because what I was doing was obviously not working. I realised I was stuck, and knew I needed to get some outside help.
Figure 1: Elena and Endre work at the Centre for Biodiversity Dynamics, Department of Biology, NTNU.
SP: Had you dealt with anything like this before?
EA: Through my Master’s degree I worked a lot on my own, and I got stressed of course, but I could take some time to isolate myself and work through it. But being in a PhD usually involves being in a research group, and you have a lot of people involved in what you do, so I couldn’t do that anymore. So what I’d done previously didn’t work anymore because the work environment was very different.
SP: Endre, you came close to having a burnout, but you were able to salvage some sort of sanity in time. When did you recognise you were close to crashing?
Endre Grüner-Ofstad: Well I would be feeling like I should always have this super product ready, or I’d have deadlines, or deadlines I’d set myself that just weren’t feasible, and I’d start to feel like I couldn’t leave work at work. I had periods where I’d work form 8am-4pm, go home, spend time with my family, then when they’d go to bed, I’d be on the computer from 9 in the evening until midnight or 1 in the morning, and I would be getting almost nothing done in these hours.
SP: Were there steps you took when you started feeling like you were burning out?
EGO: I put myself in situations where I couldn’t think about work., I’d go to training, I could focus on that instead.
SP: How did you find it affected your personal lives?
EA: I found myself wanting to be less social. I ended up a bit ashamed about not being able to do what I was supposed to do, and then being around people at work who were able to do it made me feel worse. And then that loops around and makes work a little more hostile, because if you don’t enjoy being around people at work it’s not a very pleasant place to be.
EGO: I don’t think I was the most talkative person at home during periods when I was very stressed. I’d be sitting at the dinner table and thinking about how to solve problems, and not being present for my family in our spare time.
SP: How did you deal with it?
EA: I talked to human resources, and the woman there advised me on some steps I could take. One was to talk to the University doctor, and when I went there I was given different options. There was medication that you could try out to see if that would bring you out of this loop. Then once you are out of it, it might be easier to deal with what you are struggling with.
Or you could try therapy. The University covers ten hours of therapy with an institute that’s linked to the University, separate from the student therapists at SiT. I was also told you could just talk to your doctor, and ask to go on sick leave to recover, which might be enough to get you out of the “loop”.
EGO: I’ve taken that sort of leave before. It’s different from the leave you take with the doctor, you can apply to take the day off due to personal reasons. I’ve taken them as a precaution, when I can feel that I needed to take some action to prevent myself from crashing. You don’t need to get to that tipping point before doing anything, taking time off. Also, when contacting HR, you don’t need to go into detail, you can just tell them that you need to talk to someone and they’ll put you in contact with someone.
EA: It was good to know that there were different options. I was assured that it was normal, that I was going to be able to get back on track, and that I just needed a bit of help.
SP: Endre, you had a family member go through this as well. What’s your advice to people who have someone going through this in terms of providing support?
EGO: Obviously, be there for them. If you see someone who might be in danger of burning out, or you can see they’re not looking forward to going to work, tell that person. If it’s Sunday night and you’re dreading going to work on Monday, that’s a huge red flag. And if you don’t take action quickly, The consequences could be that you’re in danger of relapsing later on even if you get through it.
SP: What was the best piece of advice you got?
EA: As a PhD you get a lot of criticism and feedback which is good, but this requires you to be a bit kinder to yourself. It helped to embrace my humanity by accepting that it’s ok that I am not all-knowing and all-doing. I would tell myself that I’m still learning, and you don’t have to be perfect to be in this business. As long as you have a passion and curiosity for what you’re doing, that will get you far. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be flawless, no one is.
EGO: It’s not always easy, either, because it’s so easy to start comparing yourself to others, and when you’re all focussing so intently on publishing, then you don’t necessarily keep track of the differences between yourself and other people. For instance, I work with observational data, so parts of my project will take more time than someone working with experimental data, and vice versa. Different projects are going to have different phases. Your project might be part of a pilot project, and might find yourself in a landscape where even your supervisors don’t have all the answers, so it will take longer. For me that was a big issue, keeping in mind the difference between what I’m doing and what my colleagues are doing.
SP: Did you have trouble admitting to your supervisor that you were struggling?
EA: Yeah, definitely. I wanted people to get the impression that I was on top of everything, and I worried that if I gave them any hints that I didn’t know something or was struggling mentally, they’d see through my façade. I wanted my supervisor to be happy that he chose me, to show him I was functioning really well and being productive, instead of going to them and saying “sorry, but I’m NOT functioning well, I need to take some time off”.
When I actually did it was really hard, I had to do it over email because I felt ashamed. I worried that it meant I was not cut out for this job. But in truth I just lacked the tools at the time for dealing with the stress at the time.
SP: And how was his response?
EA: Really positive. That was eye-opening, that people are willing to see you as a human as well and not just as a publishing machine. People also reached out and came forward with their own stories of troubles and stresses. People don’t just talk about it in general, but once you hear someone else is struggling people come forward with their own struggles in support.
SP: What sort of advice would you give for people going through this?
EA: Take it seriously. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or talk about it.
EGO: If you want to try to rationalise things for yourself, look at it like this. What would you rather do, spend the day at the office, where you’re not very productive, or take the time off and become more productive later on?
EA: If you take more time to make sure you’re mentally healthy you’re going to work better on those days. Your brain is switched on. But if you’re unhappy, stressed out and things are bothering you, then sitting at work and trying to focus on other things will be impossible, so I definitely think the importance of taking care of yourself and being your own best friend can’t be overstated.
EGO: It’s also important to keep in mind that one of the benefits of PhD work is that it’s very flexible. As long as you get your work done, you can take a bit of time in the morning. Sleep in, go to the gym, go for a walk.
EA: Yeah, it’s the end product people are looking for. So if you can work efficiently over 4 hours, it could easily be the same as ten hours of work where you’re unfocussed and unhappy.
SP: Any last comments?
EA: Everyone’s different, there’s no universal solution, but reaching out and talking to someone who might know a path that you could take is a good starting point.
EGO: When people around you tell you that they’re worried about you, or suspect that you’re showing some of the symptoms we’ve mentioned, take it seriously. It’s not easy for other people to say. If it’s gotten to the stage where they need to tell you this sort of stuff, take it seriously.
This blog post is written by Sam Perrin. Sam is a PhD candidate at the Department of Natural History at NTNU.
The image of the stop sign is published on Flickr under a creatice commons licence by https://www.flickr.com/photos/thecrazyfilmgirl/