I am sharing some of the things that I have learned along the way with regard to avoiding burnout in graduate school. However, these tips are also applicable to any line of work. I needed some time away to reflect and put life into perspective because I have been feeling out of balance lately, and I wanted to reassess my own priorities and decide how I want my life to look. I hope there are some pearls in these 7 tips that can be useful to you in your stage of life!!
1. Have a Clear Vision of What Your Boundaries are and Don’t Work with Someone Who Can’t Respect Them
If work-life balance looks like 9-5 for you, you can compromise by agreeing to work late nights and weekends as necessary when deadlines approach. However, try your best to be super efficient during your work hours and when 5 o’clock rolls around, wrap it up and go home so you can focus on some other areas in your life that bring you joy. Whatever your desired work day looks like, make sure your advisor respects those boundaries, encourages you to take breaks, and understands what your personal goals are. As long as you are making decent progress, your work hours shouldn’t be an issue.
2. Use your Weekends
As much as you may want to sleep in on Saturday morning, resist the urge! Your weekends are free time (for the most part) for you to do all of the things for which you might say “I don’t have time for that”. This is the time to pursue your hobbies, get your exercise in, run errands, go out on a date, or cook some meals for the upcoming week. I have been trying to learn that pushing myself just a little bit on the weekends can help me to accomplish the things that make me feel like I am really living in the moment, and not like I am just waiting around until I graduate and move on to the next stage of my life. I wish I had done this so much sooner. Here is a Ted Talk about time management by my personal hero, Laura Vanderkam!
3. Make it a Goal to Read One Paper per Week
Reading one paper a day sounds great, but it is just not realistic. If you are trying to have a really efficient lab day, you are probably not sitting around long enough to get a paragraph’s worth of information in at any given time. The solution might be to wait until you get home to read, but while that works for some people, when I get home, I want to do something other than work. I like to decompress, read a non-academic book, and spend time with my husband. Weekends just work better for me. If you are an early riser, you can get a whole paper in over a cup of coffee before the rest of the household is awake. You can also read on the treadmill or elliptical, if you are skilled enough to do that, or read while you are waiting (hair salon, car service). If you keep your goal of reading one paper per week, you will have read 52 by the end of one year! That’s not bad at all, and you’ll still be relatively up to date in your field. Getting work done in small bites can keep you from feeling overwhelmed.
4. Spend Time with Friends
Don’t isolate yourself! Your friends are there to remind you that there is a world and a life that exists outside of what’s going on in the lab. They can help you to put your problems into perspective, or if you don’t have any problems, to celebrate all of your wins. Call them, meet over brunch or coffee and keep in touch. As busy as you might be, friends are treasures, and you don’t want to lose them because you have not made a conscious choice to make time for them.
Don’t bring your work problems home with you, and don’t bring your home problems to work. Like I mentioned in the first point, focusing on work while at work can help you to be way more productive. Minimize break times and procrastination, and use down time during a long-running experiment to setup another experiment, read a paper, draft a figure from the results of a previous experiment, attend a seminar, etc. That way when you get home, even after only spending eight hours in the lab, you can feel satisfied that you got something done. Spending more hours in the lab than you need to is a waste of time if you spend most of the day daydreaming, surfing Facebook and taking two-hour lunch breaks.
While it is good to feel safe enough with your spouse or friend to share all of the bad things that happened in your day, unloading negativity can also weigh the other person down. Even if what you are sharing positive experiences, be careful about the time you spend working on your project at home. Everyone can understand if there is a deadline approaching, but particularly if you are married, make sure you carve out time to spend with your spouse. For example, you can take one hour to cook and eat dinner together, then get your work done while they work on something else, or do some work early in the morning before they get up. While work is important, it’s not an excuse to neglect your relationship, unless you have made it clear to your partner that work is taking priority in your life at the moment.
6. Avoid Burnout
The nice thing about graduate school is the flexibility. If you need a break because you are frustrated with your experiments that aren’t working or you just pulled a bunch of all-nighters to meet a deadline for a grant or presentation, take a day off. You have clearly shown that you are being productive and working hard, and it will only help you to be more productive if you make time to sleep, go to a doctor’s appointment, visit family when you need to, etc. Graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. Plan your time accordingly. Also, make it a priority to exercise and eat a healthy diet. These will help give you energy and focus throughout the day, and it is a very easy way to practice self-care. Everyone has to eat, right? It is also a good practice to write one thing you are grateful for each day. This, in addition to spending time with friends, can help you to put your life into perspective, and help you to realize how good life can be in the midst of challenges and disappointments.
7. Ask for Help and Realize that it’s Okay to Change Gears
These time management and wellness tips can only get you so far. If you feel like graduate school itself doesn’t make you feel fulfilled, is not giving you a sense of purpose and isn’t necessary for you to do what will make you happy, don’t settle. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your mental health is to change your environment and do something else. If your advisor is not treating you fairly, ask for help from your department chair, and if your project isn’t going well, talk to your advisor or your thesis committee members.If you are working a regular job, talk to your boss or Human Resources. There is always someone available who can help you sort through your feelings and help you to make the right decision for you. If you decide that graduate school is not where you need to be, that is also okay.
Don’t worry about what others may think of you. If you made that decision for the right reasons in your mind, then make peace with it. There is more to life than research, classes, publishing, recognition and climbing up the ladder. Sometimes we can acquire tunnel vision where you can only see the immediate next step on your particular path. Don’t ignore your intuition if it tells you to go another way and pursue something different. It might be scary at first (fear of the unknown), but then it feels really good knowing that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. That doesn’t make you less of a person, it makes you self-aware. At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own happiness.
There is no right answer. Once you graduated high school, the prescribed life path disappears, and it is up to you to decide where your life goes. Don’t do it because you want your parents to be happy, or because you have something to prove. Do what works best for you and your priorities: family, financial stability, personal health, etc. Take care of yourself, and do your best to see the best in every day and every person.
Comment below and share your tips for avoiding burnout!