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Programs About to start PhD program at top five school but feeling burnt out

  1. Aug 1, 2011 #1
    I'm about to start a PhD program at a top 5 school but I'm just not feeling excited about it. I feel burnt out and I've lost my enthusiasm for physics. As an undergrad I worked ridiculously hard and sacrificed my social life for physics and I just feel like I can't do that for another six years. I always hear about how hard grad school physics is and honestly if I have to work harder than I did as an undergrad I'm almost certain that I'll drop out. This summer I've been at home all summer for the first time since high school and I've been having a lot of fun with my old friends from high school and it's just making me not want to go back to school. I worked so hard as an undergrad that I never really made time for friends and never developed a good group of friends and I miss having a real social life so much. Part of me wishes that I had just gone to the local university for undergrad and majored in engineering or something and just gotten by on my intelligence and had a great time rather than working so hard and having no life. I feel like I've missed out on so much in life and I need to make up for lost time. If I weren't going to a top five school I would probably call it off and find something else to do with my life instead of getting a PhD in physics but I don't want to throw away an opportunity like this in case this is just a passing phase. Has anybody else felt like this when starting grad school? Can anybody offer me any advice? At this point I can't really back out of it. I guess I'm going to go but there's no way I'm willing to continue working as hard as I did the last 4 years and I can't really see myself making it at such a tough school without working hard since hard work and not necessarily being all that intelligent is what got me in. Compared to the average person on the street I'm a very smart guy but compared to PhD students at one of the top universities in the world I think I'm on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum.
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  3. Aug 1, 2011 #2
    Hi kingofcarrots!! :smile:

    I think a lot of people here can empathize with you. If you've worked hard for years, then there will come a moment that you're totally burnt out. It has happened with me too: after years of studying, I was sick and tired of studying. With me, this was just a passing phase, but it lasted quite a while.

    I cannot guarantee that this feeling will pass, and I can't tell you when it will pass. But I feel that a grad student must love what he does. If he doesn't love his subject matter, then he won't make it in the end.

    I won't make you much recommendations. But maybe you should think of taking a sabbatical. Take a year off and do what you want to do. In college you only study what your professor wants you to study. Maybe you should try and do things for yourself. After a while, you might feel the love of physics popping up again, and then you should go for it again!!
  4. Aug 1, 2011 #3

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    And make no mistake...grad school is harder than undergrad. If that's not what you are looking for, best to know now.
  5. Aug 1, 2011 #4


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    I'm guessing you didn't schedule any social or "fun" time when you were an undergrad. Yes grad school is going to be tough, but you could work in some time to get away, couldn't you? Two or three hours a week, find a club or some non-physics interests to pursue?
  6. Aug 1, 2011 #5
    It's very easy to be burnout from working too, not just from studying.

    I've gone 1.5 years without any holiday, transiting between school terms and internships without a single day of rest. My ability to focus and concentrate is definitely falling. Finally, at the end of my current internship this Thursday, I will be able to sneak in 6 days of rest before next school term. I plan to turnoff my cellphone, computer and not check my mail for these 6 days, hah.

    To OP: I empthasise with your situation! Grad school can be a real soul-sucker. Ultimately you have to decide if you have the discipline to prioritise and manage all your commitments well, such that you leave time for yourself and your relationships : )
  7. Aug 1, 2011 #6
  8. Aug 1, 2011 #7


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    You need to exercise balance. Each week, take fridays off. Take a day off to not think of physics, not think of projects, not think of papers... Do something else. Go to a concert, go to a bar, go read a book, watch TV, go out with friends, chase girls, play soccer...
  9. Aug 1, 2011 #8

    I definitely emphasize with you. I am only a rising junior in college but I started to get that burning-out feeling in the second semester of my sophomore year. I took tons of advanced level math and physics classes and managed to maintain a very decent GPA. I never took a single day off during semesters. I'd say my sophomore year was like 16 hours during weekdays and 11 hours a day during weekends. I am spending this summer doing research. It's not like goofing around but its way easier than school days. I can imagine myself having a tough start next semester, especially given my heavy workload. However, I would definitely think grad school is worth trying. You worked hard for 4 years for a reason. It has been proved that you are good at it. I'd say go for it. Even if you cannot stick it out, it is not the end of the world. But at least you gotta give it a try.
    And whatever you are thinking about will probably change during grad school. The program picked you for a reason. They think you could do it and you should probably have some faith.
  10. Aug 1, 2011 #9
    You will have to work harder than you did as an undergrad.

    One thing that will tend to happen is that the people in your department will be your friends and your social life. If you end up "connecting" with other graduate students, you can get through, but if you don't, then I don't think that things are going to work out for you.

    I've had terrible days in the middle of graduate school, but it usually lasted for a few days, and then went away. What worked for me when I had a bad day was to read math and work on a hard problem. What I found was that by focusing on a hard math problem (and usually one that had nothing to do with my dissertation), I forgot what was bothering me.

    You are going to have to work really, really hard regardless of your intelligence. At this point, I'd start trying to think of what your options are.

    Someone has to be below average.
  11. Aug 1, 2011 #10
    One thing that you have to understand is that it's not just four years. You shouldn't get the idea that you can work like crazy for a few years and then relax since it doesn't work that way.

    I worked as hard in graduate school as I did in undergraduate, and since I got my Ph.D., I've been working as hard as I did in graduate school, and I don't think I'll stop working hard until they bury me. But I'm something of an intellectual masochist and that's the life that I've chosen to lead. It helps a lot that most of the people in my immediate social circle are also intellectual masochists, so "work hard" and "have social life" aren't exclusive.

    Also, people have limits. One thing that you have to do is to figure out what your limits are, and if you can't get something done, then you can't get something, and trying will make things worse. If it turns out you need to goof off for a week to keep from going crazy, then goof off.

    One thing that you have to do is to try to figure out what you want out of life. I wouldn't make any major life changes while you are in a bad mood, but you do have to think pretty deeply about what you want your life to be like.
  12. Aug 2, 2011 #11
    Poor decision making.

    At one point I thought I was invincible, and thought I could perpetually do 12 hours of work everyday for the rest of my life. Since half a year ago, I started to feel burn-out, but by then I had committed to my current internship which was too good to pass up.

    At least I recognised the signs of burn-out early. I find that talking to a school counsellor helps a ton- they don't try to judge you or give premature advice (like Profs/friends). OP- maybe you can find a counsellor to talk to too?
  13. Aug 2, 2011 #12
    My comment is that while grad school is harder, you also get to actually choose what you want to work on to a large degree. That's a huge deal! What makes you wake up every morning and feel like there's something to actually keep you awake?

    That's what it actually comes down to. If you don't think graduate school will do that for you, and the chance to go deep into some aspect of physics doesn't seem like THE most exciting thing you could be doing right now, you'll always wish you were somewhere else, and that can kill it for you.

    Remember that lots of people intelligent enough to get a PhD at a top program won't go very far down that path, because in the end, it's your life and that's not what everyone wants.

    That said, have you developed a real love for thinking about certain aspects of the subject? That can make it so centering your life around physics actually sounds like fun.

    Yes you can have a social life - it is simply not true that you won't. In fact, it is crucial to pace yourself as a grad student. You can't risk having large periods of burnout - better to maximize your overall output.

    By the way, also consider that some day, you might burn out on the more relaxed lifestyle you described. It may actually get old after some time.
  14. Aug 2, 2011 #13
    You say you can't really back out of it, so there you go. One thing to keep in mind is a fallback - lots of people go to grad school and decide somewhere down the line, usually during their first year, that they don't want to continue. Not necessarily that they can't, just that they don't want to - and I do think you have to want it in order to keep focus.

    I personally pretty much breezed through undergrad physics at a middle-tier state university, and then got hit with the realization after my first term of graduate school that this was the big time - all the people I breezed past as an undergrad weren't there to hold up the bottom of the curve, instead I was competing against a selection of some of the top people from all the undergraduate programs in the country, and they were hungry. I had to get hungry myself, or find something else to do with my life, because you won't survive putting in anything short of your best effort regardless of whether or not you maintain any kind of life outside school. And so if I had to spend three full days in a row doing nothing but Jackson E&M problems, 2 more days doing QM, and 2 more doing mathematical physics, every week, that was the way it had to be. But it did get easier with time, particularly after the coursework was done and I could concentrate on research - not necessarily spending less time on it, but spending it more intelligently and productively while maintaining at least some kind of outside life.

    If you do think you might decide that it's not for you, you might think in advance about what you would do instead. In my experience (admittedly 25 years ago), jobs for people with undergraduate physics degrees are few and far between, but they do exist. There is also the option of going to a less-intense school - after you've been out of school for a while, it doesn't much matter where you went as long as you're good, and here the determining factor is often the professor you study under rather than the school he works for.
  15. Aug 2, 2011 #14


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    It may also be worth adding that graduate school is different than undergrad. For most people the work is harder, but you also change gears in that once the course work is done. You're not jumping from assignment to assignment. Rather, you're focusing in on a single problem (and the branches that come out of it) and working with it until you make some substantial progress. Some people really struggle with this. Others find it a bit of a relief.

    My advice is first to stop worrying about where you fall on some arbitrary scale of intellectual horsepower. So there might be smarter people there than you - that does not mean that you can't make progress on the project you chose to work on. In fact, it really doesn't have any bearing on anything at all.

    Next take some time to think about what's really important to you and what you want to get out of the PhD. What does being successful in graduate school mean to you? Where would you like to be afterward? Do you have a backup plan if your initial intention doesn't work out? The answers to these questions can change over time of course, so it's important to revisit them every so often, but the point is to make the effort to keep perspective on your life.

    Finally, as others have said, it sounds like you will need to find a more balanced approach to the way you did things in undergrad. You probably haven't missed out on as much as it seems. Rather than "making up for lost time" try to move forward with a better perspective and the right balance for you. And keep in mind that if you would have done things the other way - slacked off and scraped by your undergrad, you likely would not have the opportunity before you now that you do.
  16. Aug 2, 2011 #15
    This happened to me my last year of my undergrad in math. Total burn out and had basically a mental breakdown- which included losing my girlfriend and having to financially support my mother and myself.
    I took a year off, learned to balance and live life by enjoying every day, and more than anything found my faith in God again. I came back strong, finished my degree, and worked for a few years. I am now in my second semester of a masters degree in physics and I am doing pretty well. More than anything, I am enjoying physics and enjoying every day of my life (having 2 small daughters and a wife makes everything worth it).
    Find yourself first, and then physics and everything else will come naturally…God bless
  17. Aug 2, 2011 #16

    I went through something similar after doing a dual-BS and then an MS immediately afterward.

    If you think you're burnt out and just need a break, but you think you might regain your interest in the future, why not find out from your school if you can take a one-year leave of absence or defer your admission for a year? The availability of that option differs from school to school, but there's no harm in asking. You may not have to give any reason at all, but if they do ask for one, then cite "personal reasons". The DGS (director of graduate studies) or graduate administrative assistant in your department should know what your options are here.

    You can then work for a year, and decide if next fall you're ready to jump into it again. If you decide not to go to grad school next year, though, make sure you give your department plenty of notice so that they can give that funding to someone else. A semester is ideal, but don't be pressured into making a rush decision. At the very, very latest, I'd let them know by the end of March (under the US system; I'm not sure what the timeline is like in other countries).

    If you do decide to drop out, defer, or take a LOA, then be sure to let your department know ASAP, especially if you're receiving TA funding.
  18. Aug 2, 2011 #17
    Thanks for the responses guys. I think my plan is that I will go to school and try as hard as I can to balance school and having a life outside of school. I'm really into staying in shape so I think I will make sure that I get to the gym 4 times a week, play some intramural sports, and also make sure to go out at least one night per week and I will make these things as much of a priority as my school work. Hopefully that will be the right balance to allow me to be successful in school and keep myself sane and happy. If I can't do those things and be successful in school then I will probably drop out but beyond making sure that I do those things I'm going to fully commit myself to school. Hopefully, at the very least I'll be able to make it to a master's degree so that I don't leave empty handed. I'm also going to make it a priority to pick a good adviser that I can get along with who isn't a slave driver. I think the point where I really started doubting whether or not physics was for me was last summer when I did an REU and had an adviser who I didn't get along with very well.
  19. Aug 2, 2011 #18
    I think that's a good plan. I know it's easier said than done, but make free time for yourself. Don't be the last one to leave the lab just to make a good impression. It's tempting, but if that's your only reason to do it, it's only going to make you miserable. Also, once people get accustomed to you doing that, it's going to be even harder to get out of it later on. So work hard, but don't kill yourself, and start making time for things you mentioned from the get-go. Don't know what else to say, really, and I think twofish-quant hit the nail on the head when he said it's not just whatever amount of years. You need to find something sustainable, otherwise you'll never get out of the "I'll suffer through it just this once, and then I'll be able to relax" loop. At least that's what I found from my experience, as I tend to adhere to such mentality too often, as well.
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