Discovering new depths of academic burnout
December 5, 2017 4:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm under a lot of pressure at school without a whole lot of faculty support or guidance. I've started feeling sick whenever it's time to work on stuff, and frankly, I can no longer summon the will. I'm assuming this happens to everyone at some point. Did this happen to you when you were a student? How can I get through this without sabotaging my academic career? How should I decide when it's time to walk away?

I'm an undergrad, but I'm working on a major research project as part of a highly prestigious program at my school. I've been told it's grad-level work. It's certainly demanding.

I haven't gotten any work done in the last month. I'm beyond burned out. I've lost all interest in the work itself, and I only really care about the negative consequences of walking away. People have invested a lot of time and money in my work, and I don't want to let them down. I have a perfect GPA and stellar references. I've got a lot to lose.

I've had periods of procrastination before, and "just sit down and write" usually works, eventually, but not now. I just cannot summon the will or the strength. In the meantime, I've turned into a prolific baker, I've been playing more music, I've been making art and buying tons of books. I can recognize intense procrastination, but this is the first time I've felt like I absolutely couldn't break through it; and I honestly don't want to.

I haven't had any support. I'm working with two professors, and I haven't seen or talked to either of them in a month. One has been too busy to see me, and the other hasn't responded to my emails since mid-October (I have no idea what's going on there). So I'm on my own. On top of that, I've been getting nasty heartburn and nausea when I have to work, which magically goes away when I decide to stop. Or I'll get splitting headaches, or extreme fatigue.

(I did recently learn that I was diagnosed with a fairly severe executive functioning disorder as a kid, but a diagnosis won't present my paper for me at the conference I'm going to next month, and it certainly won't turn in the coursework that's due this week.)

I'm sure I am not the first student in an elite, high-pressure environment to feel completely and totally burned out. How do you get through an episode like this? How do you decide when you truly cannot handle what you're doing? In principle, I want to see this through to completion, but the reality is that I'm almost completely out of fucks to give.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk to Education (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
First, you are describing the symptoms of depression. Please call your university counseling center and make an appointment.

Second, I am a professor who has had many undergrads researching in my lab. I am also super-busy. Which is why I always have a formal mentor in my lab (grad student or postdoc) for any undergrads. Because undergrad researchers proportionally need more time and support and everyone knows this. Tell your profs you are "stuck" in the project and ask when you can meet with them. Ask if you could have a junior mentor to help you. And despite being busy and having a million things to do that are more important to my career I would find 20 min to meet with an undergrad in my lab.

People have invested a lot of time and money in my work, and I don't want to let them down.

If the people making this investment care about it, they need to support it. I wouldn't worry about letting them down at this point. Lots of undergrad projects don't produce super-amazing results. The ones that let us down are the ones who commit misconduct or go AWOL (like one of your profs :[). You are catastrophizing this inaccurately.

This experience can't erase your other accomplishments.
posted by grouse at 4:55 AM on December 5, 2017 [26 favorites]

If the people who you're working with are not supporting you (as an undergrad) then you are not letting anyone down by taking a break to regroup. Send them email or call telling them that you're at a point where you need more guidance, and will be taking a break to focus on studies until they have time to meet with you. When they finally get back to you, let them know you need more immediate help, like from a grad student or post doc if their group can handle it. If they care about your project they will make that happen, or set aside more time for you.

It's more likely that they are pleased-to-ambivalent about your project and just trying to get as much free work from you as they can with minimal investment. You need more than that, and if you can't get it, you need to focus on your mental health and grades.
posted by permiechickie at 5:32 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Letting an undergrad do grad-level work without intense mentoring will get you...a stuck undergrad. Not your fault really. Please reach out to your profs, and to your school re: burnout. You need support. Not a sign that you’re not good enough somehow, but a sign that you’re learning how to cope with situations where you’re in over your head. It’s a good thing you can see this so clearly, so early on.
posted by The Toad at 5:39 AM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

(Also - speaking as somebody who’s been through grad school and is now the spouse of a prof -, Professors are not just academic mentors, they also do a fair bit of handholding as part of their everyday duties. This is how it’s supposed to be. In Germany we call our thesis advisors ‘Doktorvater’/‘Doktormutter’ - they are literally your academic parents! So, they get paid to explain stuff to you, but also to kiss your boo-boos, as it were. Even more so at the undergrad level. This is all normal, and not as huge a deal as it looks right now.)
posted by The Toad at 5:50 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am not a professor, I am not your mentor, so I don't know how things are in your field. But I have had blockages like yours, and I'm still trying to learn for myself how to handle them. You mention your upcoming conference paper in a smallish aside, and it brings to mind a few times when I've been in a comparable position — unprepared, considering cancelling a conference talk —and I don't think any of the outcomes has had a significant negative impact on my career.

Twice I haven't presented at a conference after having a paper accepted there — both times I cancelled within a month of the conference. An organizer of one of these conferences continued to encourage me to submit, and I have presented at a subsequent iteration of that conference.

There are always a few no-shows at conferences. If you don't go, you'll miss out on the other good things you get from a conference, but at the conferences I go to (large, multi-track, information overload), any cancelled talk is actually a relief, because it gives everybody a chance to go to a different talk, and everybody understands that Things Come Up.

On the other hand, I have also successfully presented at conferences where I was sure, a month in advance, that I had nothing to present. I don't want to paint too encouraging a picture of this, because the nausea and heartburn sound like pretty significant blockers. But depending on the conference and the topic, a person could make a really compelling and interesting talk just about the context and work that led them to wherever you were a month ago. If a paper is already written and you're just concerned about the public performance: in my experience, I'm impressed when I see a great presentation, but when I see one that is not great for whatever reason, I mostly think "that person is lacking in mentorship about presentation" and I evaluate their work for what it is. So if you find a way to present, don't be too hard on yourself and just get through it; if you decide to cancel the talk, don't worry at all. I hear you can even still put the acceptance of the paper on your CV if you don't present it.
posted by xueexueg at 6:47 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

1. You need to be a bit of a nuisance to the profs that aren't responding. Friendly and constantly persistent such that they will figure out a way to get you unstuck so that you will go away. Also, make it easy for them to respond to you. Keep your emails short and end with a question. For example - "I'm working on project X and I'm stuck. Do you have 15 minutes to meet this week?"

2. You are catastrophizing. The Highly Prestigious Major Research Project will get done, but you are stuck, and once you communicate this, your stuck-ness becomes the team's problem, not just your problem. Stuck is often the result of bad instructions, something not working out as intended, an unappreciated nuance, etc.

3. Articulate to yourself what you need out of this. A letter of recommendation? A grade? A conference presentation? Do the least amount of work to get to the thing you need.

4. YMMV - I may be way off - but, like, in your brain, stop with the words Elite, Highly Prestigious, Major Research, Pressure Cooker Environment. Even your references aren't just good, they're "stellar." Ok fine. But Look - in the real world, the point is to contribute work. Define the work, chunk it out, do the work, fix the work, play nice, and then move on to the next thing. This layer of Impressive Word Ornaments just gets in the way. Of course you're burned out if every time you sit down you think Stellar Eliteness Prestige should come out. You may now have run into the thing that is actually going to legit challenge you, and you're going to have to sit with some discomfort as you find your way through. You can do it, but this part is probably new to you. As a last resort, you can always set a timer: "I will butt-in-chair for exactly 20 minutes and then I am free to do whatever until lunch". Keep it small to start - you just need to break the cycle.

tl;dr - high self expectations + project stuck-ness = nasty brain spiral.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 7:05 AM on December 5, 2017 [18 favorites]

If your profs aren't responding to your emails and you're doing research that they want done, and you're making a good faith effort to reach out to them (I work with undergrads, so when they tell me they haven't heard from prof after sending only one email three weeks ago, I tell them to send another email and if they don't hear in three days, come back to me because profs are busy and forget or miss emails just like everyone else) to no response, it's time to escalate.

Send another email. Say you are stuck. Reference the dates of the previous emails you sent to them (especially if it's been three or four since October), ask for a response by a certain day (reasonable time frame here) about a meeting, and then if you don't hear within that time frame that you specified, you go the next level up for you. If that's the chair or the academic dean or the student affairs dean will depend on your university. But you have every right to advocate for yourself for proper supports. I've found faculty respond when they're being met with deadlines, even from students. It's an ingrained trait among many faculty so use that to help you.

The broader question of course is if you should bother continuing, but I think it's worth the effort to see if you can get the faculty nudged before throwing in the towel.

Potential email draft:

Dear Professor X and Y,

I wanted to follow up on my previous emails from (date-1, date-2, date-3). I haven't yet received any responses, and I'm concerned about where I am on the project because I've encountered (x-problem, y-problem, z-problem) and don't know how to resolve them. I'm afraid I'm unable to move forward without some guidance.

Are you able to meet with me on (provide three times of availability) to discuss this in person? If not, is there someone in your (lab, center, program) you could direct me to for further assistance?

Given how much time has passed since I was last able to make meaningful progress on (project), I am hoping to hear from you (before the weekend, by Friday -- should be two days before your first proposed meeting date) about when we can meet so we can move forward.


shapes that haunt the dusk
posted by zizzle at 7:30 AM on December 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

I did research projects in college at a top-5 school, got a PhD, and have now spent 2 years as a postdoc. This situation really isn't your fault. I understand you may be genuinely burned out, and I know how distressing it is not to be able to muster your get-up-and-go the way you usually can - I actually just went through that myself due to a horrible life event that happened recently and it was kind of awful not to be able to Just Do It. But really, undergrads should not be expected to push through the ups and downs of research entirely alone. Even graduate students don't do that, and as a postdoc I *still* have meetings with people pretty frequently to hash out issues that have come up and figure out what direction to go in. It may seem like you "just have to sit down and do it", but my guess is that there are some difficult decisions (or perhaps many small ones) that need to be made in order to move forward and you're having trouble making them on your own, or feeling like you just don't know what to do next. You need guidance, encouragement, and support. If the faculty mentors aren't responding to you, well, they can't expect you to get much done. When I mentored undergrads as a graduate student I basically expected to be in constant contact with them - otherwise they just tuned out.
posted by Cygnet at 7:50 AM on December 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

It doesn't sound like you are getting appropriate support here. Any professor worth their salt knows that an undergrad, particularly an undergrad doing grad-level work, will need extra support - and will also almost certainly not really know how to ask for it. Obviously I don't know much about your situation or your particular supervisors, but I think it's impossible for them not to be cognizant that you are struggling. That's not even touching the complete unacceptability of the one no longer responding to email and the other declining to meet with you. I would make another good-faith effort to reach out/politely ambush their office hours/whatever, and then I would take this higher. Because that's not okay.

I also wonder, though, if you have an unrealistic model of what doing high-level academic work should feel like. I mean no, it should never be misery or pure burnout all the time, but managing negative feelings and lack of motivation is a major part of the postgrad experience, and a continual challenge even for very experienced academics. That giddy feeling of infatuation for a topic that you get when you're only writing a ten page paper for an undergrad seminar? It turns out that that feeling almost never lasts - or at least, it will go away for a long while in the middle - when you actually get married to that topic and dive in deep. I think it's easier to rekindle the spark, in fact, if you accept that it's okay and completely normal to no longer feel passion for what you are doing and to feel like you are motivated solely by "the negative consequences of walking away." (By the way, you probably aren't motivated solely by that, although right now your brain certainly wants you to think so.) Hell, I'm not sure there's a single required thing I've ever done in an academic context, and maybe my life period, that I was not ultimately motivated to finish because I was avoiding consequences rather than shooting for reward/inspiration/[insert other fuzzy feeling].

That said, it does sound like you are really going through something right now. Unfortunately, beyond seeking help from your professors, the only remedy that I've ever found is to repeat endlessly that I may hate the work, but I will hate [not graduating, disappointing people, whatever] even more. It also helps to let go of expectations like "this has to be really good and impress people," or "the success/failure of this project amounts to the success/failure of my undergrad years," or whatever. The new rubric has to be, "I will turn in this project."

Honestly, I would download a computer app like SelfControl and just be unforgiving about using it until you get through X hours of work on the project per day. Enlist a friend to hold you accountable. Perhaps even write them a check for a painful amount of money to lose and give it to them to keep unless you meet productivity goals.

Remember that this too shall pass.
posted by desert outpost at 7:51 AM on December 5, 2017

When I was trying to write my first academic book, at some point I started doing a lot of cooking, making art and other activities. It brought me a lot of pleasure. And it turned out to be a sign I needed to get out of academia. But I think people equally go through periods like that and wind up recommitting.

Right now, I think you need to go to one of your professors and work out how to get the "deliverables" done in a reasonable period of time. If you are an undergraduate at a major research university, they may have forgotten you are an undergraduate and/or how to deal with undergraduates. But you are in this program for a degree and it is their job to help you get there. If you were a grad student they could just say, "If you don't want this bad enough, go ahead and quit." As an undergrad, this stuck feeling is something you need to power through to get your degree. But it may also be something to explore in terms of whether you want a career in research, because you will likely have this sort of experience again.
posted by BibiRose at 8:50 AM on December 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Please. Just go to the professors’ office hours. Or stop by their office. They really want to talk to you—and an email can get lost or put aside for dealing with should not feel like you shouldn’t follow-up...sometimes stuff gets lost.

But just go talk to them. Or if you’re worried, email and set up an appointment, say you really need to talk to them. But just showing up in office hours is my recommendation. (I’m a professor too.)
posted by leahwrenn at 9:11 AM on December 5, 2017 [6 favorites]

Thanks for the responses. They've been very kind and supportive.

One thing I didn't mention was that I've sort of already dropped the ball on some things, and I'm about to drop the ball in a major way tomorrow. So it's less a matter of reaching out than a matter of apologizing. I can recognize that I haven't communicated enough to my faculty mentors, so it seems like anything I say now will be too little, too late. My mentor is setting aside a huge chunk of her busy schedule for a practice symposium panel tomorrow, and I'm going to be totally unprepared for it. I can very easily see my lack of preparation looking disrespectful and ungrateful.

Since I started in this program, I've grown aware of all the little things that you're expected to know already, and dealing with this sort of situation is one of them. Emailing my professors to say "oops, have depression and haven't gotten out of bed in days, sorry for not telling you sooner" doesn't seem like the best course of action, but I don't know who I'm supposed to ask about this.

It's reassuring to know that I'm being asked to do more by myself than is fair, but I'm honestly unsure if I should be frustrated with my professors over it. I don't know how to ask for more support, because again, that's one of those things you just aren't taught: when does asking for more time become an unreasonable demand? It's one thing to have not heard from the one professor; it is entirely possible that he has simply not seen my emails, because apparently campus email can be awful. But my main mentor only meets with me once every two weeks, and with two other people who dominate most of the discussion. I need way more than that, but I also haven't asked for it, and it seems unfair to be frustrated that I haven't gotten something I haven't asked for. On the other hand, when I have asked for more support, especially emotional support, it's gone poorly.

Anyway, I'll email the director of the program and let her know what's going on. I know for a fact that I'm not the first person in this program to burn out, but maybe there's a way to salvage things before it all goes completely off the rails.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:57 PM on December 5, 2017

You are repeatedly catastrophizing about this situation. Please recognize it. Talking to a counselor would be a good idea. They can help you problem-solve here and also help you find treatment for depression.

Are you the only person presenting at the practice panel tomorrow? If so, email your professor and say you are not prepared and ask if you could postpone. Blame your other schoolwork and be apologetic about it. They have heard it before.

Good idea to go to the director of the program. I would just ask if you could meet with the director and ask for some advice rather than explaining it all in email.
posted by grouse at 6:48 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I ended up calling the director, and we talked for 20 minutes. She gave me the option of postponing for a week, but convinced me to go through with it tomorrow. I don't feel great about that, because I have nothing to present, but I don't know that I'd have anything in a week anyway. We'll see how tomorrow goes. I'm going to head to campus counseling after the session.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:31 PM on December 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I doubt the director would set you up for failure. You have obviously done work and have something to talk about. Even if you suck wind... you know everybody in that room has been there. When little kids start school, they have to first learn how school works and how to be a student. When you are an undergrad, you are learning how to do research, not necessarily doing research that's any good. Those professors have seen this all before and expect there to be bumps for you.

I'm so glad you are reaching out to your professors and taking counseling. Grouse's advice is spot-on. I am surprised that your supervising professor isn't having scheduled meetings with you to guide your efforts and to help you through the rough stuff. I would be asking for that. If your progress is really as out of wack as you feel it is, then I would say it's your supervising prof who has dropped the ball and failed to check in with you.

Burnout - like that kind where you keep sitting at that desk even though you aren't actually getting a damned thing done - is awful and makes you feel like shit. Allow yourself down time and enjoy the hell out of it so you actually feel refreshed. Ask counseling for coping strategies to get your joy of learning back on track. Lean on your supervising prof to get you through this tough time, that is why they are there. If they feel you are leaning on them too hard, they will tell you.
posted by Foam Pants at 12:31 AM on December 6, 2017

I’m a prof and I really wish students who are struggling would just come talk to me. I want to help.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:10 AM on December 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Thanks for all the advice the other day. I really appreciated it.

I spent the night making a powerpoint presentation, thinking I could at least have good slides. We ended up having to reschedule the practice session for unrelated reasons, which was a relief. I met with my professor today and told her about some of the trouble I've been having. She gave me some great advice, and I'm feeling somewhat renewed and refocused. Talked to another professor who was very kind. I think things will be OK.

But really, thank you all. I think this thread helped me through the worst of what has been a very stressful month.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 4:34 AM on December 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

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