Burning Out

PhDs are hard.

I knew that when I signed up for one, but recently I’ve really come to understand what people have been talking about.

Tunnel of Despair

The second year of a (full-time) PhD is described by many as the hardest. The honeymoon period of Year 1 has ended, but the finish line is still a long way away. You’re expected to have found your feet and to be producing thesis chapters. There’s a growing feeling that you should be beginning to publish your research, to present your work at conferences, and to build a CV that will make you a more impressive candidate when applying for jobs. It starts to feel like time is running out. Work-life boundaries can begin to break down as a result: anxieties around being ‘behind’ lead you to work through weekends and holidays, and, ultimately, to question the point of it all. This period is known by some as The Valley of Shit (though I’ve gone for a visual representation that I’ll title The Tunnel of Doom).

A few months ago, I hit a wall. I reached a limit where I was doing too much, and it had a pretty big impact on my health and happiness.

It was the final day of an intense, three-day conference at the beginning of June. The four weeks leading up to the conference had been manic. As well as writing my conference paper, I’d had a stack of undergraduate exam papers to mark and a diary jam-packed with classes, meetings, and day events. I’d taken part in the University of Birmingham’s Three Minute Thesis competition, and had spent two consecutive weekends in Leicester on an intensive PhD writing course. I’d travelled to Leeds for the day for a final meeting about the teaching resource pack I was creating (the deadline for which was fast approaching). I flew to Russia for a four-day exploration of St Petersburg. My long-term PhD placement at the V&A was trickling on in the background: I made a site visit to view objects, and wrote a report about their suitability for use in a forthcoming Shakespeare project. I was supposed to be writing my second thesis chapter. (This wasn’t happening so much.) It was the busiest month I can remember, and it came hot on the heels of a term of teaching commitments and an intense two-week trip to the US.

During one of the final conference sessions, I crashed. I felt like I was going to keel over sideways if I listened to one more conference paper. I had to leave the room in the middle of the session to lie down. The next day, the driving anxiety I’d experienced and overcome during my undergraduate degree came back with a vengeance. I had a nasty panic attack on a busy stretch of the M6 and couldn’t make it home without pulling over and swapping into the passenger seat. I’d hit burnout.

I didn’t really take any time off after this. I was getting behind schedule with my PhD research and writing: I’d been trying to write my second thesis chapter since March, and every day I tried to force words out onto the page to feel like I was actually getting somewhere with it. (Plus I was still committed to working on several side-projects.) I decided to make weekends sacred and vowed never to work on Saturdays or Sundays – something I should’ve done a long time ago – but I otherwise plodded grimly on.

The burnout continued. I felt ill, I had so little energy that I couldn’t manage to do a weekly shop without sitting down, and I’d lost all the drive and excitement I’d become used to feeling about what I was doing. I still get anxious when faced with the prospect of driving along motorways. Although it seems quite obvious now that this was all caused by doing too many things for too long, at the time I wasn’t really sure what was causing it. I even had a blood test to see if my lack of energy was being caused by an underlying illness.

A couple of weeks ago, I made the spontaneous decision to take a week off. For nine WHOLE days I wasn’t allowed to do any work. I filled my days with things that made me happy. (I’ve also come to learn that I’m not very good at doing nothing – I have to keep busy in some way or I start inventing things to worry about.) I went to four National Trust properties in five days and booked myself three nights in a lovely Airbnb in Derbyshire. I went out for long walks in the countryside, read historical fiction, caught up with friends, and watched films that made me cry.

I also decided to make some changes in my relationship with social media. It’d been more than a year and a half since I wrote this post about my social media addiction, and things hadn’t really got much better since (though I did start using a couple of great apps – SelfControl and Forest – which allow me to block my access to distracting websites/apps for self-set periods of time). The compulsion to check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram was still taking a lot of time out of my day, and scrolling (scrolling, scrolling…) through social media wasn’t doing me much good. I deleted the Facebook app off my phone the same evening that I decided to take a week off work, and I silenced all other notifications.

I’ve now been back at work for a week and I feel so much better. I’ve got my writing mojo and my energy back. I’m excited about what I’m doing again rather than questioning the life choices that led me here. That holiday did me a world of good, and distancing myself from social media has felt like a really good move. Will the good feelings last? Was a week-long holiday enough to fix my burnout? It’s probably too soon to say.

(I think another blog post is needed at some point to really unpack why taking a week-long holiday seemed like such a radical thing to do…)

Either way, I’ve definitely learned a few things this summer:

  1. Taking time off is so, so important for mental health. I need to take this more seriously in future and plan in regular breaks that happen regardless of whether I’ve reached my writing/research targets. Weekends are still sacred, but so are my eight weeks of annual leave.
  2. I need to be more careful about committing to side-projects. I had far too much going on in May; PhDs are hard enough without throwing in a zillion other commitments and deadlines.
  3. I think I’m happier and better off with my new check-it-once-a-day-and-don’t-scroll social media policy. I can concentrate on things for longer now, and I’m using the time I’m saving each day on lovely afternoon walks in the local countryside (also good for mental health).
  4. PhDs are hard. We need to be kind to ourselves and put our health and happiness first.