The Black Hole in Graduate School
“I feel like I am in a deep black hole, and I have no idea how to get out,” Mike said. “I am so ashamed of myself that I don’t even know how to tell to my supervisor about it.”
We were all silent while Mike shared his story – not because we felt sorry for him, but because we had all been there: that deep dark place, that “black hole”, that you have no idea how to get out of.
I had been part of this support for PhD students for three months, but it was the first time that anyone had ever said that they were “ashamed” of themselves.
We were all hard-working students, and we joined this support group to become more motivated to finish our Dissertation – what’s there to be ashamed of?
Once Mike shared his story others in the group opened up as well about how they ended up in the black hole, and how embarrassed they felt to reach out for support to their supervisors.
The worst part of being in this situation was the longer you waited to talk to your supervisor, the more fear you felt about with them with them – it was like a never ending dark cycle of burnout and procrastination.
Fast-forward five months later…and Mike was back on track with his Dissertation. He estimated that he still a year to go, but he had a plan mapped out and his supervisor approved it.
What happened? How did Mike go from being in a “deep black hole” to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in five months?
From Burnout to Clear Plan in Five Months
After the meeting when Mike opened up about “being ashamed” of himself he was absent from the group for a few months.
The group leader was not able to reach him and we were wondering whether the quit graduate school.
Mike returned to the group about three months later, and he was a changed person: confident and full of energy.
One of the things Mike had not shared with the group earlier, was that while he was in a “deep black hole” he also started having health problems.
I spite of being just 27 years old, his cholesterol level was unusually high, and he also experienced heart palpitations that kept him awake at night.
Mike’s doctor recommended that he take a few months off from school and focus on improving his diet and lifestyle, else he might end end up with a serious medical condition.
Following his doctor’s orders, Mike took a leave of absence for two months and started a new diet and exercise plan.
Mike had been a runner before graduate school, but he gave it up because he always felt “too busy” to go for a jog.
During the two months that he was absent Mike started running again. In fact, every morning, as soon as he woke up in the morning, he went out for a jog.
Mike’s health improved and after two months he returned to graduate school.
However, when he was back on campus, he started falling back into his old habits again – checking email as soon he woke up, and working until he was exhausted without taking a break for exercise.
But, there was one difference this time.
Mike noticed that his habits were ruining his health and also his work performance, and he decided to do what helped him earlier: start every day by going for a jog.
Within a few weeks, jogging first thing in the morning became an “unbreakable” habit.
While he only jogged 20-30 minutes, this simple habit boosted his self-confidence because he was consciously taking care of his health, and he felt refreshed when he got to work.
Mike finally mustered up the courage to have a meeting with his supervisor to discuss how to finish his thesis.
Mike admitted that his supervisor was disappointed in how little progress he had made in the previous 6 months, but they put a new plan together to prepare for his next committee meeting.
With the support of his supervisor, Mike started to make progress and in 3 months he generated enough data to have a committee meeting.
When Mike recounted his story at our group, he said that his daily habit of running gave him the energy and confidence to set up his daily plan at work and then actually stick to it.
Mike owed his progress not to the running itself, but to the fact that he had made a commitment to himself to take care of his health.
Setting Yourself Up For Success Daily
Mike’s story was a life-changer for me.
I learned the importance of “unbreakable” or “non-negotiable” daily habits – commitments that you make to yourself to be able to perform at your highest level.
How many commitments do you have right now? Are they mostly for other people?
Successful students take the commitments they make to themselves very seriously. They don’t “blow themselves off.”
In other words, successful people follow through on their plans that will improve their health, their work, and their relationships.
There is a big difference between self-care and being selfish. How do you know which category you are in?
A selfish person focuses on their own interests only – they spend their time on activities do not help other people.
On the other hand, if you take care of yourself so you can help other people and the greater good, you are not selfish.
Mike, for example, neglected his health for years because he spent all of his time at work. The result was that he was burnt out and he felt stuck in his research.
Once he made a commitment to himself to take time out of his day to start running, his health and confidence improved, and as a consequence his productivity increased.
Sure, the emails in his inbox had to wait a little longer to be answered – but when he did answer them, he was able to give the emails his full attention.
Most successful people attribute their high performance to their daily habits – and at least one, two, or three habits that are “non-negotiable.”
The most common “non-negotiable” daily habits of successful people include:
4)connecting with loved ones (family, pets)
5)journaling, and a
6)a healthy diet
I bet you wish that you had 3 hours before work to include all of the above in your morning routine.
But, you might only have a few minutes for a quick snack before you run out the door.
I get it.
I have 2 young children (and pets), my business, and my home to take care of.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was one habit that would set you up for success daily?
Fortunately you don’t need 3 hours to get mentally and physically ready for the day ,
Just one habit, one “non-negotiable” daily commitment, can make the difference between being consistently productive and confident, versus a frustrating vicious cycle of burnout and procrastination
Which habit should you choose?
For Mike, his non-negotiable habit became jogging.
But, that shift didn’t occur overnight.
With help from his family, doctors, friends, and our support group for PhD students, he was able to figure out the one habit that prevented burnout for him.
Three characteristics of “non-negotiable” daily habits:
1) Good for your health (mental and/or physical)
2) Fun (let’s face it, if it’s not fun, you won’t do it)
3)In your calendar (if you don’t schedule time for it, it will most likely not happen).
Points #1 and #2 are obvious, but let me expand a little bit on point on #3.
One of the main reasons that New Year’s resolutions fall through is that people do not schedule a specific time for their new commitment.
If you are pressed for time, a simple 5 meditation while sipping your morning tea or coffee is a great way to let go of stress before going to work.
It is time to say goodbye to burnouts that, literally, just burn your time and energy that you could be using to write your Dissertation
All you need to do is to make one commitment to yourself that you know will make you feel good.
I can assure you that if it’s important for you, you will find the time – and your family, friends, and your Dissertation will thank you too.