PhD Student Burnout
Doctoral study is associated with high levels of anxiety and depressive symptomatology, and poor wellbeing overall (1) . Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of burnout is also high among this population (2) . Along with PhD students, nursing and medical students also suffer from disproportionate rates of burnout (3) . This is not a great omen for PhD students in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.
What is burnout?
Burnout is defined as ‘‘a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy’’ (4) .
Exhaustion may include fatigue and low energy due to the draining of emotional resources (5) . Cynicism may refer to an attitude of distancing from work or feelings of indifference towards work. Inefficacy refers to lower rates of success at work or reduced accomplishments.
It’s important to note that burnout is not a failure of the individual. While precise definitions of burnout may vary, the core issue is chronic workplace stress due to poor management. Most of all, burnout reflects a failure of the system.
Universities should take note that the experience of burnout is linked to attrition intentions among PhD students (6.7) .
HOW DOES BURNOUT FEEL FOR PHD STUDENTS?
For PhD students, burnout may feel like high levels of chronic stress. PhD students often serve in a variety of roles as teachers, students, and researchers, and this unclear delineation of roles may in itself be a source of burnout stress.
Students experiencing burnout may feel under constant strain, unhappy, and experience depressive symptoms. Students may experience sleeping difficulties due to worries and an inability to overcome difficulties.
Additionally, burnout feels like emotional exhaustion. Students experiencing burnout may feel increasingly irritable and strained. Students might feel resentful, taken for granted, and with nothing left to give. Depersonalization, or a feeling of detachment, may be experienced such that students appear emotionally cold.
Feelings of worthlessness and lack of accomplishment are typical during episodes of burnout. Students may feel an absence of motivation to complete their work.
Finally, physical symptoms may accompany the psychological symptoms of burnout. Fatigue, exhaustion, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, hypertension, colds, and flu are among the physical symptoms associated with burnout (8.9).
I think I’m getting better at recognising burnout because it’s happened so much and it’s getting quite normal. For me, I just tend to feel tired a lot and start to experience apathy and anhedonia. For me, recovery requires taking long breaks (at least a few days) from work, and finding time to reconnect with the people and things that I love.
What contributes to burnout?
Key predictors of burnout among doctoral students include:
- Chronic stress (9, 10)
- Low frequency of supervision (7)
- Lack of satisfaction with supervision (2, 7, 10)
- Lack of equality among researchers (7)
- Poor sleep quality (11)
- Bullying by faculty members (12)
- Feeling a lack of belongingness to a team (13)
- Conflict in work responsibilities (2, 13)
- Low autonomy (13)
Perfectionism, subjective appraisal of employment opportunities, and an existing psychiatric disorder may also increase risk of burnout (6, 14).
What reduces risk of burnout?
The risk of burnout may be decreased by:
- Doing PhD in hometown (2)
- Quality supervision- emotional, social, and informational support (7, 10, 15, 16)
- Equal treatment as part of research community (7)
- Regular supervisory meetings (7)
- Sense of belonging (17)
- Social support (18)
Of the predictors and risk factors, supervision appears to have a consistent and powerful impact on burnout for doctoral students. Quality supervision has a buffering effect on stress which social support from family/friends cannot match (16) .
I think the key to avoiding burnout during PhD is 1) setting realistic milestones, and 2) making sure you meet them along the way. Often PhD students set unrealistic milestones and feel like a failure if these are not met. The best way around this is to check in with your supervisor and your peers who may have more experience in how long tasks may take. And secondly, three to four years seems like a really long time but it will really be over quite quickly. Therefore students should work consistently throughout the PhD to ensure that these realistic milestones are met. Making progress in small but consistent increments should help avoid overload and risk of burnout. Remember it is a marathon not a sprint!
HOW CAN YOU PROTECT AGAINST BURNOUT?
The prevention of burnout is not an individual responsibility, but a collective one. Universities should identify risk factors for burnout and attempt to mitigate these. These efforts might include specialised training to aid doctoral supervisors in developing constructive and supportive leadership styles; clear and comprehensive information on the roles and responsibilities of doctoral students; and fostering of a cohesive community for doctoral students, faculty, and staff (1, 10, 15, 16, 19).
In the absence of power to drastically change university systems and culture, an individual doctoral student might be able to slightly reduce burnout risk by:
Engaging with peers.
Peer support has been shown to help with motivation, identification of stressful tasks and workloads, and confidence to talk with supervisors about changes that are needed to prevent burnout (20).
Active involvement in the academic community.
Students are more likely to feel empowered when they actively engage in the research community (17) . Students may attend conferences or participate in academic events or seminars to increase their involvement.
It can be difficult for students to say no to extra work due to several factors including the power imbalance between supervisors and students. But if students can cut down on tasks that don’t serve them, this would be beneficial (19).
Sleep was frequently mentioned in studies of doctoral student burnout. Better sleep quality and duration is a modifiable factor that may reduce the risk of transitioning from ‘stressed’ to ‘exhausted’ (11).
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