Beat Dissertation Burnout: 5 Things to Do Now to Prevent a Crisis | Issue 253
Summary: Don't let dissertation burnout stop you. Learn the warning signs and proven ways to prevent a crisis. Over half of doctoral students drop out due to stress, burnout, and other factors, so it is not you, it's the system.
Estimated Reading Time: Five refreshing minutes.
By Nora Misiolek, Ph.D., P.C.C.
My friend Ted (not his real name) knew that something was wrong. He had completed his coursework, successfully defended his dissertation proposal, begun data collection, and completed his literature review.
He began to doubt that he could successfully complete and defend his dissertation. Plus, he needed to search for a post-doc or a full-time academic position, write conference papers, teach, and maybe search for additional funding. He didn't feel that he could afford to spend much more than four years in the program.
The doctoral work had already taken its toll. He had gained weight and flab, and his significant other complained that he was irritable most of the time. The pressure to produce was affecting his sleep and his moods. When he sat down to write, he felt listless and exhausted. He began to imagine he was losing his hair.
He described himself as feeling like a hamster in a cage with one of those running wheels that never stopped turning. Sound familiar?
Doctoral Students: From Burnout to Dropout?
Two recent studies of graduate student mental health found these dismaying results:
Between 67 to 40% of graduate students said that they felt hopeless during the past year.
54% in one study said that they had a hard time functioning due to depression, while 27% said that they had felt "depressed" in the other.
Slightly over 78% said that they felt overwhelmed.
Almost 55% felt stress ranging from "more than average" to "tremendous."
Almost 10% reported that they had considered committing suicide.
Burnout turns energy into exhaustion, involvement into cynicism, and efficacy into ineffectiveness.
Christina Maslach and her colleagues have been conducting research on burnout for over 20 years in a variety of workplace settings ranging from schools to health care settings. They define burnout as the "erosion of a positive state of mind."
As you burnout, your engagement with your work erodes, they find. The energy, involvement, and efficacy that you felt when you began your work fade away. Positive feelings like enthusiasm, dedication, and enjoyment fade away and are replaced by feelings like frustration, hostility, anger, anxiety, and alienation.
There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither. - Alan Cohen
Is it Burnout or "Just" Stress?
Surprisingly, factors associated with burnout are in fact the opposite of factors associated with stress, note Melanie Smith and colleagues. Consider these differences between stress and burnout:
• Burnout is characterized by disengagement, while stress is characterized by over-engagement.
• Emotions are blunted when you're experiencing burnout, while they are over-reactive with stress.
• Burnout produces feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, while stress produces feelings of urgency and hyperactivity.
• When you experience burnout, you lose motivation, ideals and hope, while loss of energy is the result of stress.
• Burnout leads to detachment and depression, while stress leads to anxiety disorders.
• The primary damage from burnout is emotional, while the primary damage from stress is physical.
• Burnout may make life seem not worth living, while stress can kill you prematurely.
Are you beginning to suspect you might be suffering from burnout? You might take some comfort from knowing that it is not about you. [Take a free informal burnout self-test here.]
While perfectionists, pessimists, and control freaks may be more at risk, the primary causes of burnout are more often built into the graduate student social environment, assert researchers.
The causes are myriad: work overload, lack of control over your work, lack of recognition and reward, losing a sense of community and connection with others, real or perceived lack of fairness, and value conflict.
When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows,
carrying a high price with it. ~ Maslach & Leiter
Know Burnout Warning Signs
Burnout is insidious—it creeps up slowly over time. Watch for warning signs and symptoms that have been found to be associated with burnout. Check in with yourself regularly and honestly. Listen to your family and friends.
Denial could lead to a full-blown case of burnout down the road, which is likely to require treatment by a mental health professional.
• Chronic fatigue; lack of energy; feeling tired and drained most of the time.
• Changes in appetite or sleep habits.
• Frequent illness.
• A sense of failure and self-doubt.
• Lack of motivation.
• Increasing cynicism and negativity.
• Feelings of helplessness and defeat.
• Detachment from others.
• Procrastinating, and taking longer to get things done.
• Isolating yourself from others and decreased social responsibility.
• Irritability and a tendency to take out your frustrations on others.
Prevent Burnout: Five Strategies to Leverage Now
Although the sources of burnout are environmental, relevant research shows at least five things that you can do as an individual to prevent it.
1. Avoid work overload by setting boundaries. Figure how you are spending your time and energy by starting a personal activity log. Once you have a handle on how you're spending your time and energy, it will be easier to say "no," and to set boundaries around work expectations.
2. Establish priorities to manage workload. When you establish priorities, you narrow your focus, which is essential to managing work. It also becomes easier to set boundaries when you are clear about your priorities than when you are not clear.
3. Don't aim for perfection. When you try to be perfect, you wind up working more, and procrastinating more. Partnering with someone to whom you are accountable, and who will honestly evaluate your work and give your feedback, can curb the need to be "perfect."
4. Make time for yourself on a daily basis. Make daily renewal a habit by doing something for yourself each and every day. Some simple, and effective suggestions are taking frequent breaks, exercising, taking a walk, meditating, making sure that you get enough sleep, eating nutritiously, and practicing gratitude.
5. Disconnect from technology—but stay connected with others. Get a handle on how much of your day is spent on non-essential technology use like checking email, posting to Facebook, or playing games. Set aside or schedule times at which you will do things like respond to email or check Facebook, and use the extra time to connect with friends, family, and other ABDs on campus or off.
I hope you can use these strategies to keep burnout at bay and successfully complete your degree. And in case you were wondering, Ted took a leave of absence and then happily reengaged with his work. He will be defending his dissertation this Spring.
You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but are worthy of love and belonging. - Brené Brown
TED talks to energize you when you feel totally burned out are here.
Joan Borysenko. Fried: Why You Burn Out and How to Revive
Christopher Gergen & Gress Vanourek. Three ways to beat burnout. Harvard Business Review
Christina Maslach & Michael P. Leiter. The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It
Christine M. Riordan. We all need friends at work. Harvard Business Review
Melinda Smith, Jeanne Segal, & Robert Segal. Preventing burnout
About the Author
Nora Misiolek, Ph.D., M.B.A. is an Executive, Life, and ABD Coach who divides her time between Rhode Island and upstate New York. She is deeply passionate and committed to helping organizations and individuals develop their full potential through coaching. She particularly enjoys working with students who are returning to academia to continue their studies, having done so herself. Her teaching and research interests include managing innovation, virtual collaboration, leadership and teamwork, organizational change and development, and the psychology of work.
Her website is nmacoaching.com, and you can reach her at Nora.Misiolek@gmail.com.
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GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., Editor, ABDSG.
An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources .
BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (www.MentorCoach.com), a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.
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