The One Habit That Will Prevent Burnout in Graduate School For You

Unexpected Burnout in Graduate School

Burnout in graduate school is a silent epidemic.

You think you are doing all the right things to get your PhD, until one day you feel completely stuck.

I found this out the hard way in a PhD support group.

“I feel like I am in a deep black hole, and I have no idea how to get out,” Mike said.

We were all silent while Mike shared his experience of burnout in graduate school.

“I am so ashamed of myself that I don’t even know how to tell to my supervisor.”

We were all familiar with 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.

Surprisingly, 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 Dissertations.

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.

At least half the students felt too embarrassed 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 in graduate school.  

Fast-forward five months later…

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 in Graduate School to “On Track” 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.

Instead of feeling hopeless about the futute, he was confident and full of energy.

It turned out that while Mike 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.

In addition, he also experienced heart palpitations that kept him awake at night.

Mike’s doctor recommended that he take a few months off from school to improve his  lifestyle and prevent 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.

The Path to Preventing Burnout Wasn’t Always Easy

When Mike was back on campus, he started falling back into his old habits again.

As soon he woke up, he checked his email and and worked until he was exhausted.

But, there was one difference this time.

Mike noticed that his habits were ruining his health and also his work performance.

Thus, 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.

As he was 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.

His supervisor was disappointed in how little progress he had made in the previous 6 months.

However, they put a new plan together to prepare for his next committee meeting.

Over the next 3 months, Mike generated enough data to have a committee meeting.

The daily habit of running gave him the confidence to set up his daily plan 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 “non-negotiable”  daily habits : commitments that you make to yourself to be your best self.

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, they follow through on their plans that will improve their health, their work, and their relationships.

If you hesitate to make a commitment to yourself because you worry about being selfish, take a deep breath.

Selfcare vs. Being Selfish

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.

In fact, if you take care of yourself to prevent burnout in graduate school, everyone benefits.

You will feel healthier, and your work will be better quality.

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 his health, Mike improved his confidence and productivity.

Sure, the emails in his inbox waited a little longer.

However,  when he did answer them, Mike gave the emails his full attention.

Most successful people attribute their high performance to their daily habits that are “non-negotiable.”

Habits to Prevent Burnout in Graduate School

The most common “non-negotiable” daily habits of successful people include:

1) exercise,

2) meditation,


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.

As a Mom of 2 young children (and pets) I get it.

I understand how much pressure you feel to get things done, and you may be resistant to taking time out of your day to take care of yourself.

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 “non-negotiable” daily commitment, makes the difference between being productive versus a cycle burnout in graduate school

Which habit should you choose?

For Mike, his non-negotiable habit was jogging.

But, that shift didn’t occur overnight.

With help from his family our support group for PhD students, Mike committed to one “non-negotiable habit.” 

Once Mike made this decision, he prevented additional burnout in graduate school.

When you commit to a “non-negotiable” daily habit, you improve your energy, productivity and relationships. 

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 time for their new commitment.

Whichever non-negotiable habit you choose, put it into your calendar. Block out time for exercise, making a healthy meal, or taking a walk.

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.

Dora Farkas, PhD

View Comments

  • Thanks for the post, Dora. As my morning routine, I usually listen to one or two 10 minute podcast as a wake up call to set me up for a new challenging day. Those usually given by energetic entrepreneurs or coaches with plenty of tips such as how to stay creative, how to be number one in your fields, how to leave good impression, how to find your own values and niches, etc. As birds of a feather flock together, by regularly listening to those optimistic people's advices, I feel more confident and valuable just like surrounding with lots of ambitious fellows can reshape my mentality toward a positive direction.

    • Hi Chiu-An, this is awesome advice. Listening to people who are productive and inspiring will automatically help you become more confident. keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Chiu-An, this is awesome advice. Listening to people who are productive and inspiring will automatically help you become more confident. keep up the great work, and thanks for sharing!

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