What is burnout?
I am not going to rewrite a third of the modern internet in this post to explain what the signs of burning out are. Still, I’d suggest checking this article out The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout … Do You Have Them? (link). On a daily basis now I am struggling not to forget my head in the elevator, not to explode into an episode of psychotic rage on the public transport, to feel grateful for all the wonderful things I have going in my life, and to generally be content with who I am.
How did this article became relevant to me?
Not exactly an origin story
Ever since my success depended on me, I been feeling virtually unstoppable. I was never straight A’s student, but I got accepted for my BSc, MSc, PhD and SciComm PostGrad without even a hiccup. I’d always get my final exams just right. I got my current job as a scientific project manager from the first interview I was ever invited to, while I was prepared to go to 100s of interviews like many colleagues and friends before me. Same success I had with the podcast I auditioned for. I’d always put a decent amount of effort and hard work (most of the times thinking that I could always have done more) and succeeded 99% of the time from the first try. And while I always assumed my success was a lot of luck, my family would always worry that I have too much on my plate. Without knowing, all my life I was working towards becoming a self-destructive overachiever.
What is actually happening?
I’ve spend the last 2 years and to a greater extend the last 8 months trying to fight off the many signs I tick off the long list of warnings from the article by Sherrie Carter. I tried socializing because it’s one of the greatest joys of my life, despite my mind and body wishing for every possible waking moment to just crawl into bed and spent the next few months there until finally rested. I stuck religiously (despite ultimate exhaustion) to the thing that made me truly happy – this blog and the podcast I co-host (BlueStreak Science Podcast). Yet, all the while, I was becoming more and more cynical and disconnected with the world around me, often at the expense not only of myself, but of my loved ones too. And while I’m fine with putting myself last in the priority list, I am definitely not ok with the people I love suffering from what my life has turned into.
With the completion of my PhD, for the first time I actually failed to a noticeable extend. What happened is that already half-way through I started becoming more and more disenchanted with academia. This feeling only got more intense as time passed by, as results kept eluding me and as frustration set in with the (lack) of guidance I was receiving at the time. The fact that this is a worldwide epidemic did not make me feel better.
I’m SO not alone in this! I’m sure in fact that at least some of you reading are, have been or are afraid of ending up in the same pickle. I suggest reading this article by The Thesis Whisperer called “Is the University a bad boyfriend”.
The soaring numbers of PhDs going through the same tough time I was, didn’t make me happy – how could someone else’s pain make me feel any better?! But I didn’t want to quit either – I did put hard work into this degree and I wanted to bring it to a completion. So I pushed through. I wrote my thesis as best I could and submitted it for a review by my jury. I went to my private defense and I did my best to convince the people sitting in the room with me, that my work, albeit not as groundbreaking as I hoped, deserved to be awarded the title. And actually, they didn’t disagree. They had little concerns with how the work was executed, once I answered their questions. Their concern was with how the thesis was written. You’d think this is great – since I love writing, I shouldn’t have problems with getting back to the text and fixing it. And you are right – it is so much better outcome than the jury having problems with the concept of the work itself. I received extra time to finish the text, submit again to the same people and as long as my corrections were sufficient, I’d be allowed to the public defense stage and be truly over with it.
But the truth was, at this point I have already had enough with it all and I couldn’t take anymore. So I took my time… In fact, I am still to complete these corrections 7 months later. Every time I am about to open the electronic document and work on it, I would get nauseated or have mild heart palpitations. So instead, most of the times I’d blog, or podcast, or focus on work, or do literally anything else but my thesis corrections.
I am not easily fooled!
Sweeping the thesis under the rug did not trick me into believing that it was not there. The pressure from family and friends to finally get it done and over with didn’t help either. Nor did the conviction I still harbor that I am not going to give up on it, at least not just yet! So in the end, I had to recognize that it didn’t do me any favor that I took too long off focusing on anything and everything else. The thesis was weighing on my mind, haunting me in my dreams.
Moving into offence
After several conversations with my partner, it became painfully obvious that I am headed for a major disaster if I continue like this. That I had to either forget about the thesis and move on, or get it done with one final painful push and be once and for all free of it.
For this, I have to temporarily put on hold some of the things that actually keep me sane. It will not be easy, nor will it be fun, but slowly doesn’t do it this case as experience proves. No Dutch classes, no podcast, no blog, no scicomm – only non-distilled science.
“Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.”
It terrifies me to have to let go even for a short while of the things that I love most. I am terrorized by the thought that if I don’t update my blog, or don’t podcast, or don’t accept all the amazing little opportunities to actively sci-comm for even a day, the real big opportunity will pass me by and never come around again. But while such chances had come to people, I don’t subscribe to the belief that for all of us there’s ever only one chance, only one golden opportunity. Because I work for my success, and once my mind is unburdened by the dreads of the thesis, I will be free to do so much more than I was able to until now.
I feel good about this!
After yet another panic attack, me and my partner (whom by the way I give all the credit for this), we devised this plan – we picked an week, just after a weekend together in France, where I canceled all my appointments and plans other than 8h/day work. He’ll take it up on him to do all the cooking, cleaning, cat-handling etc just so I can focus for as many hours a day as humanly possible on the thesis corrections. I pity him, because I won’t be fun to be around, but I also realize that without him I wouldn’t have even made it to today. And for the first time in really long I look forward to doing something about my thesis, because I actually think it will be good! I hope the result will be there in time and I can be back here before someone had actually really noticed. Until then though, I have to put this on hold.
This is how I imagine going into rehab feels
If you are feeling the same way as I do, write me (personal message, on social or comment underneath). Strength is in numbers and the support of people who know what you are going through is invaluable. Burnout is not a price you want to pay for anything! Not even for a PhD degree! Trust me, I know!