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Feeling lost and burnt out.

  1. Jan 6, 2013 #1
    I'm a 4th year physics student in the EU. Over the course of my undergrad degree I developed an unbalanced lifestyle to pull through the degree and learn as much as I could, with hopes of going to graduate school to do astrophysics research.

    I gave up on regular exercise and hobbies in my 2nd year because I wasn't performing well enough. I never had breaks in between my years as I often spent summers studying for September resit exams (not so bad in my country, we have a high attrition rate in physics), which placed me in the fortunate cohort of the only 5 students potentially graduating this year, out of my entering class of ~40. Grades have been ok my country's and prof/advisor's standards, but not excellent.

    I've always had a generalized feeling of not feeling good enough and it has only gotten worse over the years, both in academics and more recently in my personal life (one I haven't paid much attention to until recently). I have the "street cred" and total lack of social life of a work-a-holic nerd, but I always feel like I don't belong in academia and that sooner or later people like my research adviser are going to realize I'm not 1/10 as good as they thought I was.

    Burnout symptoms started in my 3rd year. I'm now in my last year, in a privileged position at a top uni (as an exchange student) and finally have a chance at doing astrophysics research and pulling a good streak of grades (coursework/exams are leaps and bounds easier than anything I did at my home institution), but my drive and optimism is now zero. Took the GRE's while feeling miserable and I had a nervous breakdown right after the general GRE, which completely discouraged me from continuing the application process (as did my adviser, scores were poor). It's now affecting my concentration too and I've just not had any drive to do anything useful in my research project in 2 weeks. I don't feel creative and I am taking way too long to do even trivial tasks. I've tried to have a break over the holidays but every moment that passes makes me feel incredibly guilty for not staying busy.

    Everyone suggests the course of action would be to find a job and try my luck at graduate school again at a later time, but the next (or the following) year I'll be 27-28 by the time I can start a phd, which I understand puts me in the "danger zone" if I do manage to get into grad school, as I'll get out in my mid 30's only to compete with fresh, younger and less burnt out graduates (these are words from my research supervisor). This of course added to the already dim prospects of a research career, which I've always been aware of.

    I'm hoping I can at least pull through this year and graduate without further tarnishing my grades and getting something out of my research project (a graduation requirement). I had a vivid hallucination about a month ago, so I figured a GP visit was in order; apparently I have textbook major depression, so I was put on a SSRI med this week. Should I bring this up to my adviser?

    I am very frustrated, lonely, and sad that I've become so useless at such an decisive moment and the fact I haven't really done anything else with my life. I really needed to vent.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 6, 2013 #2


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    Don't give up and don't despair.

    It would help to identify what research one would enjoy and then pursue a project in that area, and perhaps research and job opportunities in that area.

    As for socializing, what do other students at the univsersity do to socialize?

    As for physical activity, it would help to do some kind of activity, e.g., walking around town for 20 to 30 minutes each day, or do some light weight training periodically. My office mate and I go walking at lunchtime, almost every day - for exercise and stress relief. I find that I don't feel 'right' if I don't do some activity each week day. We also take time to socialize with others on the street or in various shops. We walk one of several routes, so we are now well-known by many people in the area. The socialization is usually brief and enjoyable.

    During university, I would play sports on the weekends with colleagues. Football was quite popular. I used a bicycle to travel to, from and around campus, or I would walk.
  4. Jan 6, 2013 #3
    Thanks. Not sure I follow, do you mean research after completion of my bachelors or current? I already have a project for my senior year which I'm halfway into on a subject I always liked (astrophysics comp/theory). If you meant the former, I am applying to the 1-2 summer intern positions I've found that interested me.
    The usual I suppose, it's a huge city (don't wish to disclose more info) so partying/bar hopping and such, which is too much for me. I've never been into nightlife, in fact I always have had a bit of social phobia.
    Before I got completely absorbed into academics, I did weightlifting for 3-4 years and got up to a respectable level. But as school got more demanding (or maybe, my own academic demands) I eventually cut it out. I do walk about 1 hour every weekday, but I feel like I need something else; I have constant upper back pain/stiffness which I never had when I exercised regularly.
  5. Jan 6, 2013 #4
    *hugs Lavabug* sorry to hear you are feeling this way. Maybe you should start working out again. It seems like something you really enjoy doing and perhaps you will meet some like-minded people to hang out with at smoothie bars or smthg :biggrin: What else do you enjoy doing? I was feeling the same some time ago...I pushed through two semesters like that and totally messed up my GPA. I took a break for only two weeks and was feeling fine again. Then I took one semester off but I regret that as I really did not need that much of a break. Sounds to me like you need a little time to regroup and you should probably keep busy with the things you enjoy doing. You could also take some time to think about working the things you like to do into your usual schedule...if even for 30 minutes a day. I really hope you feel more energized and back to your normal self soon :)
  6. Jan 6, 2013 #5
    I'm in a similar position. I took the GRE yesterday and i didn't do that well. I think it's because people were constantly walking in and out which threw my concentration way off.

    My new plan is to work for a year at my current job and try the gre again next july. My advice is to not give up and realize that there are other aspects to life besides your studies.
    Last edited: Jan 6, 2013
  7. Jan 6, 2013 #6
    I think you definitely need to get back into that exercise. Once you do you'll see it does absolute wonders for your mood, energy levels and attention span.

    Cut out some other leisure activity if you're experiencing time pressures but make that exercise a priority.

    Upper back pain is possibly to do with posture and you could correct this with weights-based exercise to target the shoulders and upper back, and exercises to stretch the muscles located at your chest and front of your shoulders if that makes sense.

    Working that core is also a good idea for.back strength and posture. Try a few plank repetitions daily.

    Good luck.
  8. Jan 6, 2013 #7


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    I think a lot of people who go through physics or similar majors experience some degree of burnout at some point during their education.

    What it sounds like to me is that you're in a spot where you've placed all your eggs in one basket. You've put several years of your time into physics and made some major sacrifices to get where you are and although you've survived the bottleneck, you're faced with finishing in the middle of the pack. The road ahead is long and uncertain. Of course you're burn out. I can only imagine how much more difficult it is with the added weight of being clinically depressed.

    My advice:
    (1) Take care of yourself. Others have focused on the exercise factor already, but I'm sure you're also well aware that there are other dimensions too. On top of regular excercise make sure you eat well, get enough sleep, and factor in some quality down time. And of course, make sure you deal with any medical issues the best that you can.

    (2) That "danger zone" idea that if you don't finish your PhD by age 30 is a pile of BS. And even if it wasn't, forcing yourself through something you know you're not ready for is a recipe for disaster.

    (3) Broaden your horizons. I know it can be difficult with a cramped schedule, but your university years should include exposure to new things. Volunteer. Join a club. Learn a martial art. Get a half hour time slot with your local radio station where you play nothing but comedy tracks. One of the best ways I know for feeling better about yoursef is finding a way to help someone else.

    (4) Whether to tell your supervisor about your diagnosis or medication is a tough one. On one hand it could help if this person is able to factor it in if called on to write a reference letter. On the other hand depression has a stigma associated with it and you may not want to be branded. Part of this call may fall on your assessment of your advisor and how much to trust this person. If it were me, I would lean towards not saying anything on the basis that I don't generally make a habit of disclosing medical information to the people I work with.

    Good luck!
  9. Jan 6, 2013 #8
    My recommendation might be hard to swallow, but maybe you should try to find some job outside of physics to take it for a test drive, so to speak. Its worth trying to imagine that maybe life can be better outside of a physics career. Right now you are living to work, which might be intellectually rewarding but it sounds like its destroying you. Maybe try working to live for awhile.

    You sound like you are working yourself to death for the SLIGHT CHANCE to have a physics research job in the future. There ARE other sorts of work you will enjoy that won't leave you such a wreck.
  10. Jan 6, 2013 #9
    Well seeing as the job oppurtunities in astrophysics are dismal even for the better students, if you feel you're behind or not up to par then you probably really should get out of physics, or consider a new field.

    Go talk to some people in an astrophysics deparment and get a sense for what they're like and how hard they've had to work, and expect that it'll be even harder for you. If that's too much for you, then consider yourself lucky you've realized this now, and not while you're already in grad school. Goodluck.
  11. Jan 6, 2013 #10


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    Exercise is the key:

    Try walking wherever you need to go. Take walks when doing your physics problems or as an intermission. Set simple goals 1 mile then 2 miles...

    Get a pedometer to measure how much you've walked.

    Make walking 1 to 2 miles primary and everything else secondary.

    Do your walking to do your walking to reach a more calming state.

    We often try to do two or more things at once and get nothing done. So tr to do only one thing at a time and observe yourself doing it nothing more nothing less.

    This is the heart of Zen meditation and it can help you learn to focus again.

    Your goal is close don't stop now.
  12. Jan 7, 2013 #11


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    Sounds to me like you have a classic case of Impostor Syndrome:

    http://www.counseling.caltech.edu/InfoandResources/Impostor [Broken]

    It's not uncommon at all. The suggestions at the bottom of that link might be helpful, "Dealing with Impostor Feelings".

    I hope you follow the advice others have given about exercise - it does wonders!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  13. Jan 8, 2013 #12
    Lavabug, I can relate. I had been close to burnout or experienced a mild variant for some times.

    'Impostor Syndrome' also came to my mind, I agree with lisab.

    I can also second most of the posters - in particular ParticleGrl. What I found helpful or important:

    You really need to break some recurring pattern. If you stress yourself out at the university you might do the same afterwards - in any job you pick. Actually, I had issues myself not so much when studying but when working in so-called competitive environments later.
    Physical exercise or any small change done to your lifestyle can really help to break the pattern. Sometimes small changes to daily routine are more important than the single alleged break-through change (such as changing jobs).

    It may be that people who are sort of inclined to burn out seek professional environments that 'challenge' them too much, maybe unknowingly. I can remember that I was stressed out much more than my colleagues by any corporate requirements in terms of 'meeting numbers' (though my numbers were more than fine).

    But people react differently to metrics, grades and the like - for some it is just a game. E.g. I had some colleagues at the university who were quite clever, but minimized their efforts - asking professors at the beginning of the term 'How many problems do I need to hand in in order to just pass?'. Or they simply learned exactly 50% of the material to scrape by with a 'D' grade. AKAIK most of them are extremely successful today careerwise.

    I read very often on this forums that grades are so important and it seems that in the US anything worse than a B is a failure (?) You say you study in Europe and I tend to confirm that grades are rather distributed via a Gaussian curve, and in addition grades are not that important here.
    I am from Austria and I had been one of those rare A students, but I do not at all think that this have given me any competitive advantage over the effort minimizing students I mentioned above.

    It is difficult to give some advice re your supervisor. I can again just share some anecdotes: When I was burnt out once I advanced my manager and told him that I might need to give up this job as I felt I am not able to work, meeting my / the usual, 'expected' 120% bar. I was absolutely sure that I was a total loser given the competitive nature of the job (performance reviews etc.).
    However to my utmost surprise some collagues (even external colleagues - I talked to clients about this!) admitted that they went through something similar.

    And re work and results I was told literally that I simply should not try to achieve to much an loosen up - my work was more than good enough still. So I did a workshop at a client's site without any preparation (I thought) and still the feedback was as great as ever. So much for the impostor syndrome.

    The key thing here was I got some really encouring feedback from colleagues that I did not expect. I think it was also important that I did not ask for help - I simply stated I might not be able to fulfill requirements any more and I am (and I really was) ready to live with the consequences.
    If course I might have had the right manager at that time and just have been lucky? So it depends a bit on your gut feeling about how your supervisor would react.
  14. Jan 8, 2013 #13


    Staff: Mentor

    Its interesting in that imposter syndrome makes you feel like two people one doing the work and one observing that you're being an imposter.

    This is similar to zen practice where you observe yourself practicing but must stop any distracting thoughts to continue observing without judgement.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  15. Jan 11, 2013 #14
    Thank you everyone for the comments. I am feeling a bit better now, I was really a wreck a few days back (some latent personal stuff exacerbated my mood). I made a few steps in the right direction for my research project these last few days and I think I'm starting to feel a little more confident with the remainder of my coursework.

    I'm getting back on track with some exercise which I hope will loosen up my back.

    I am fully aware, I go to a school with one of the bigger research institutes and know a couple of msc. students there.

    I would be moving back to the US after graduating, but I'm concerned with what I'll be able to find for work if I don't have (formal) CS experience, interns or connections in technical work of any sort (I am thinking of trying optics industry or hospitals/clinics for some kind of entry job, but most places want masters). The thought of going back to the same retail jobs I had before/early on in university is quite disheartening.

    Even if I can get a better job than those right after graduating, I still really want to go through a phd, more than ever. It's the only thing I've been looking forward to in a long time. I am totally fine with not staying in academia, but I had always thought getting a government job or something in an unrelated STEM industry after a phd. I think I really need to clean up my lifestyle before trying graduate school though.
  16. Jan 12, 2013 #15
    I just want to thank you for posting. I wish you the best of luck and had a similar experience in the latter years of college. I had never heard of imposter syndrome before but can honestly say that it describes my feelings/situation perfectly.

    I still experience these feelings but not anywhere near as much as when I was in college (just graduated last May with an undergrad physics degree). It has done a lot of good for me to be out of the (self perceived?) scrutiny of school where I can just review the material I'm interested in leisurely (so I can improve my understanding of things that I feel like I should already know).

    Anyway I recommend that you push through your undergrad. Something that helped my sanity (but not my grades) was to dedicate a few hours for doing nothing everyday, just so I could relax. I usually just watched TV or played a video game but it really helps to allow yourself a break. Or it did for me anyway.

    Thanks for having the courage to express your feelings. It helps those of us that are to cowardly to do so.
  17. Jan 12, 2013 #16


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    I was thinking with respect to enjoyment of work. There are certain work (projects, subjects) that I enjoy very much, and others that I find less so or tedious.

    I was thinking more along the lines of afternoon, evening or weekend activities with others, e.g., dinners, or weekend sports, or lectures on different academic subjects. When in university, I used to go to evening lectures on scientific topics outside my immedidate work, but related, or talks on current events. I'd go with friends/colleagues and later on, with my wife, during grad school.

    Daily exercise is helpful, with perhaps some sporting activity on the weekends, e.g., hiking, watersports, e.g., kayaking/canoeing, cycling.
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