Careers, Guest blog

Blog – Unfrazzled Brains, 10-4 to stop Burnout

Blog from Rebecca Williams

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One morning, after tumbling out of bed and stumbling to my research unit, I could feel my eyes stinging while walking down the corridor to my desk. Every minute spent working took a tremendous amount of effort and my usual evergreen sense of internal motivation dwindled in the cold. The jobs I usually enjoy doing became a never-ending list of chores. Every setback felt like a personal attack, every new task a sizeable straw with an ever-increasing chance of breaking the camel’s back. I dragged myself to work every morning, made sure I stayed dutifully until 5 in the afternoon, then went home to collapse on the couch.

If you were to describe the benefits of an academic career to a complete outsider – what features would you highlight? A common answer is that academics can be flexible and work hours that suit them. But how many of us can say that ‘flexibility’ is a benefit we actually take advantage of? As an undergraduate student every hour of the day was a potential working hour. I’d have dinner with friends, then get back to my room and start writing again at 11pm. As a master’s student, I revelled in taking walks because it was the only time when I physically could not work, and so the only guarantee of a break without guilt attached. As a PhD student, I was determined that the trend wouldn’t continue. And so, I began my 9-5 schedule. No evenings. No weekends. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me… most of the time.

I wish my eyes were stinging because of something as simple as a lack of sleep, but getting 8 or 9 hours each night wasn’t helping either. I was eating well, started new forms of exercise, but I was still absolutely exhausted. My evenings and weekends were spent trying to recover, but inevitably failing as I couldn’t identify the root cause of my struggle.

Eventually, one day whilst sending out emails, something clicked. It had been months without a proper break, and my brain was simply giving up. I had asked it to do too much, for too long, and it was rebelling against the idea of doing more. I had been burning out for weeks without even realising it. I doubt this is a situation any academics find surprising, so why is it that we’re so bad at recognising when things have gone a bit too far? And what can we do when we realise that we’ve hit that wall?

For me, the first step is recognising the signposts before I hit a full-blown burnout:

Sign 1 – Bumpy Road Ahead. Perhaps an unpopular feeling: I love my PhD. I love my research, I love my colleagues and I love my unit. So when the thought of going into work instead instils a feeling of dread, I know something has gone wrong. It isn’t healthy to hate your day job. We don’t have to like all aspects of research all the time, but if you find yourself terrified on a Sunday afternoon that the weekend is almost over, it may be time to extend the weekend.

Sign 2 – Speed Limit Change. It’s a cruel twist of fate that the more cognitively drained I am, the more convinced I become that if I don’t complete my to-do list I am sure to fail. Whenever I notice myself becoming overwhelmed by my workload, I know it’s time to take a step back from it. The truth is that everything will get done, and if it doesn’t the world won’t end. But that’s more difficult to acknowledge when your brain is adamant that completing this paper draft cannot wait until tomorrow.

Sign 3 – STOP. I think a key part of maintaining work-life balance is having a life to balance. Usually when I get home, I engage in some form of activity unrelated to work. Perhaps a bit of sewing or baking, playing a game or going for a walk. When burnt out the scale of work-life balance is tipped unceremoniously onto the unvacuumed floor. I might want to do a project when I get home, but my brain is still screaming about all the coding I made it do, and so it waits eternally until tomorrow.

Signs of burnout are different for everyone, but it’s important to recognise yours. You deserve to enjoy your work, and though there’s a wide variety of reasons that might not be the case, lacking cognitive energy certainly isn’t going to help. Once I recognised myself burning out, I knew something had to change. I wasn’t going to just stop work. There was still data collection that needed to be completed and writing that had to be done. But I did start to re-prioritise. I made the internal agreement that I didn’t need to cross everything off the to-do list all at once. When data collection was done, perhaps I’d go home at 4pm. No meetings in the morning? Time for a 10am start. And in a shocking twist of fate, I became so much more productive!

It is true that sometimes work just needs to be done, and I will still have weeks where I pull 10 hour days or more. But the trick to using that ‘flexibility’ we always herald as such a bonus in academia is to use it as a carrot to reward ourselves for good work, rather than just a stick to punish us for an unproductive day. Flexibility means leaving early, or starting late, not just working overtime because it’s become the norm.

And so, if you’ve been having a tough few months, and if everything just seems too much, it might be time to paradoxically take a moment to breath. If you feel you can’t take 10 minutes to have lunch, consider taking an hour and watch as the world doesn’t collapse around you. If flexibility is considered one of the biggest bonuses to a career in academia, then it’s time to make proper use of it: using it not just to push ourselves to work longer and harder, but also to push ourselves to rest better.

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Rebecca Williams


Rebecca Williams is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Though originally from ‘up North’ in a small town called Leigh, she did her undergraduate and masters at the University of Oxford before defecting to Cambridge for her doctorate researching Frontotemporal dementia and Apathy. She now spends her days collecting data from wonderful volunteers, and coding. Outside work, she plays board games, and is very crafty.



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Rebecca Williams

Hello! My name’s Rebecca and I’m a second-year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. Though originally from ‘up North’ in a small town called Leigh, I did my undergraduate and masters at the University of Oxford before defecting/seeing the light (depends who you ask) to Cambridge for my doctorate. I now spend the majority of my days collecting data from our wonderful volunteers, and coding. I maintain that after spending entire days coding analysis pipelines I am very close to actually being able to see the matrix. In my spare time, I am a big fan of crafting in all its forms, and recently got a sewing machine to start designing my own clothes! I also greatly enjoy playing board games, and escape rooms.

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