Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro on what she has learned about avoiding burnout during her PhD
I started doing my PhD in 2020 during the height of Covid. Doing a PhD amid a global pandemic meant that I had to continuously search for different healthy ways to conduct my research while protecting my mental health and well-being. I needed to avoid constant burnout during this long and vigorous process. Everyone always says that as a PhD student you must treat the next 3-4 years of your life like you are training for a marathon and not a sprint. It is very easy to fall into a trap of an unhealthy research lifestyle with toxic productivity which inevitably leads to burn out.
Importance of a balanced schedule
When I started the PhD, I was given various advice on how to avoid burnout, including the idea that I treat the PhD like a regular 9-5 job. The 9-5 would act as a guiding tool as to when I should start and finish my research, and help establish healthy boundaries like taking regular breaks during this time. Prior to this advice I had struggled to come up with a healthy schedule that incorporated regular breaks, and to clearly establish when to start and finish research. By treating the PhD like a full-time job, I momentarily had a clear schedule which gave me a healthy relationship with research. I was able to enjoy working during the day knowing that I would have my evenings free to do other activities like binge watch a Netflix series, exercise, and socialise with my friends. During this short period, I didn’t experience any form of burnout as I had a healthy relationship with my research. This all changed when tougher Covid restrictions were implemented, and my concept of time was disrupted.
The disruption of my routine meant that I no longer had a clear schedule and I found that I was working at random times throughout the day. This process proved to be harmful as I found that I was overworking myself and I didn’t know how to change this toxic work style. I was doing this by starting research later during the day like 2pm but then writing and researching until 3 or 4am. I convinced myself that these working times were healthy because I was being extremely productive. As the weeks passed by, I found that my working style had disrupted my sleeping schedule and the late nights meant that my routine only consisted of work and sleep, and I had neglected other aspects of my life like relationships, exercise and socialising. I neglected these aspects of my life as I was constantly feeling guilty for taking a break as I had convinced myself that I should use the pandemic as an opportunity to be hyper productive. I felt guilty taking breaks and even doing basic things like watching Netflix or even leaving the house to go for a walk with friends. I spent months in my room, laser focused on the PhD and ignoring advice from those around me who told me that my routine would eventually see me burnout. I ignored this advice, but later faced the consequences as I became extremely run down.
I became ill, as my body was under constant stress, self-inflicted, as I was trying to be hyper-productive while simultaneously compromising my mental health in the process.
The effects of burnout in my experience included a non- existent sleeping schedule, constant stress, loss of weight and a constant state of exhaustion. Being exhausted 24/7 meant that I no longer felt excited about my research as I associated this process with negative thoughts. I found myself questioning whether this was something that I wanted to continue, as I didn’t like the feelings of anxiety and dread that burnout brought to the surface. I also found that my imposter syndrome got worse as I was constantly questioning my place in academia, specifically if I was built for this.
After my first experience with being burnout, I knew that it was a feeling that I wanted to avoid for as long as possible. One way that I managed to do this was by starting a writing group with my other PhD friends who were all going through the same emotions. The writing group ran Monday -Friday (11-6) and people could join in whatever time suited them as there was always someone on the other side of the screen. There was no pressure to join in everyday; some people only joined once a week as they had other commitments.
We would start each session with a brief chat, then talk about our set goals for the day. It helped us with being accountable but also meant others might point out if your goal was too unrealistic depending on the timeframe. This process proved to be life changing as it was the first time that I realised my burnout stage was also heavily influenced with the alienating feeling of doing a PhD. I found that at times, because I was so isolated, I didn’t know what type of strategies to adapt to ensure that I was not burnout, as I wasn’t communicating these fears with my friends.
The moment I opened up about my struggle they all shared different tips of what worked for them. Some friends broke their day down; they would only write in the mornings and the moment they were tired they would switch to light research. Others stated that they established a strict routine of only research in the mornings( 5am -12pm), using the rest of the day to do other stuff. Once we shared our different working styles, we were able to act as a support group for each other. Our shared stories made us more equipped to identify when one of was overworking and in risk of burnout.
Another leading factor of being burnout as a PhD student is the immense responsibility of researching full time but also being expected to maintain a part-time job. Doing a PhD means you are under constant economic pressure if you don’t come from money. During my second year, I received a scholarship that paid for my college fees, but I still found that I was working two part-time jobs as I needed to pay for bills and rent. I found that people assumed that because I was funded it meant money was no longer an issue. A false myth amongst PhD students. Yes, the funding eased some of the financial pressure but the reality of the precarious nature of academia became overwhelming. For two semesters I was tutoring part-time and working in the library as a peer advisor. During this time, I found it extremely difficult not to be burnt out, as I was constantly on the move. I also found that I was in a constant state of guilt as the two part time jobs occupied my day and I was only able to research at night.
My well-being became non-existent. I was so fully focused on juggling all my responsibilities that taking care of my mental health and well-being were a secondary focus. This time around my family and friends were able to interject and point out how if I wasn’t careful, I would be burnout again. To try to prevent this, I ensured that I took weekends off, on the rare occasion completing a pressing deadline on a Saturday morning. My supervisor fully supported my decision to extend writing deadlines as I had previously set unrealistic deadlines that did not consider the fact that I was working two jobs. We established a healthy routine where I would be able to research and work the two jobs without getting overwhelmed.
Establishing these healthy boundaries has seen me in a much happier position when it comes to my PhD. I can set realistic deadlines for myself that provide me with room to take long breaks. These long breaks are important especially during the long summer periods where I am still researching and writing. This is the first summer in the last two years where I have been able to take multiple breaks away and feel no guilt. The guilt aspect is something that I am still working on as I still have this mindset that I need to be working 24/7. I have found by taking regular breaks and taking care of my well-being this summer I have managed to be more productive. I have been able to take breaks to enjoy the sunshine, visit my family and not bring my laptop, go on a girls’ trip, and still manage to submit work at the set deadlines.
Oftentimes it is easy to get so fully immersed in what we are doing that we forget to take care of our well-being. As I am about to approach my next year of the PhD in September, I have identified a healthy working schedule. Burnouts at times are unavoidable due to deadlines, teaching etc. I want to establish a healthy work-life balance that ensures that by the time I finish my PhD I am still enthusiastic about my chosen topic. I no longer want to normalise that doing a PhD means that I must accept the reality of being in a constant state of stress, chronic fatigue, and alienation. I have now found an unconventional routine that works for me as it has brought me peace and I am more focused now more than ever to finish this PhD in one piece.