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Burning out

It’s that time of year when everyone seems to be running on or at least towards empty. But I got to thinking , well feeling really, this weekend PhD burnout. It’s a peculiar thing that actually few except those experiencing it or their long suffering close friends/partners/parents actually experience or understand. It’s not just ‘I’m a bit tired today it’s been a busy week’ more ‘I’m that tired I might fall down and not get up.’ And the even worse, ‘I’m so tired I feel it in every muscle but it’s 3am and I’m still awake.’ It’s the end up sobbing in your car all the way home on Sunday night because you’re so tired and it all starts again tomorrow. Which is what I did this week.
 Let me preface this by saying I’m not the only one with a hard job-I tip my metaphoric hat to hardworking teachers, nurses,  armed forces etc everywhere who do difficult and demanding jobs often with risk to their safety. I’m not comparing my experiences to them for even a second, what I am saying and fairly so, is that the average PhD student gets burnt out and run down faster and with more frequency than your average 9 to 5 job. 
The main thing to say about the PhD is really IT NEVER GOES AWAY. I don’t leave my desk at 5pm and come back at 9 to start again. I leave, I go home eat something and I’m back at my desk working. Because otherwise it wouldn’t get done.  
Then there’s also the fact that no matter how much work you do, however many hours you clock at your desk. Wherever you area, whatever you’re doing it’s there, either gently ticking over ideas or accusing you like an evil monkey in the corner-you haven’t done anything, you’ll never finish me, you’re wasting time. You’re wasting your life.
Then there’s teaching. Technically teaching is part time- yes I only physically am contracted to stand in front of students 8 hours a week-but with planning, reading and marking just how many hours does that translate to? Plus the fact that standing in front of a room of students for an hour is much more draining/demanding than an hour typing at my desk.
Then there’s the hours I put in voluntarily, this term I’ve been working with drama rehearsals and scriptwriters, I’m not paid to, I’m not required to but for my personal and professional development I’m doing it. I’ve been out there in the job market, I know I need to make myself stand out-I also know there are areas of knowledge and experience I have to develop. So with my teaching and rehearsals I’ve spent several 12-13 hour days at work-and that’s without glancing at my PhD.  That’s not including the evenings and weekends.
Like I said I’m not comparing myself to people who work long physical and dangerous hours. Nor am I saying anyone made me do it-I brought this on myself. But there is a lack of understanding outside the small PhD/academic community. People think as you’re technically still a student it must be easy, what it translates to is carrying the weighting of a professional job (the teaching) alongside the demands of high level full time study. And I haven’t even mentioned the long menial hours of part time employment most of us also have to do to pay our fees or our rent.
Finally there’s the need to have something outside of a PhD, now some people would say you can’t, you shouldn’t-basically kiss your social life goodbye for three years. But if you didn’t you wouldn’t last six months. My social life isn’t the downing vodka shots till three in the morning type, but it’s still hard to maintain. Physically finding the time, allowing yourself the time is difficult but important. Without my friends I’d be lost, and I’d have given up long ago.
But ultimately I’ve learned so is rest, so is sleep. Sometimes you have to say no to both your PhD and your friends and hope that your body and mind cooperate and give you a break.


  1. I'm a nurse. And I work a 37 and a half hour week, spread over 3 days. So yeah, they're long hourse, but I work for less than half of the days of the week. And sometimes, with nights, it overlaps more and interferes a bit with life but not to the extent you describe here, and I can leave it at the door.

    It's interesting, as your description matches very closely with a description of Diane's illness. I guess what I'm saying is thank you for posting. I always think of ME as something that we can't explain because no one will understand. You've made it pretty clear that that isn't the case and that's reassuring :)

    Thanks, Hayley x

  2. Thanks so much for your comments Hayley it means a lot! Particularly from someone who is a) outside academia saying they appreciate my point of view and b) being such lovely comments from someone I've only just started to get to know-thank you! E x


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