Let’s talk about 7 tangible strategies for coping with burnout while pursuing your Ph.D. after 40. As you reach for the stars in your pursuit of a PhD, your experience is yours and yours alone. No other person will have the exact same experience as you.
However, you can learn from others and gain wisdom in handling the stress that comes from the amount of work that seems insurmountable. Many people have achieved it in their 40s (including, yours truly), and believe me when I say that you can do it too.
Many will tell you that pursuing a PhD is a rewarding and fulfilling experience, and it is. However, it can also be a stressful and challenging journey. When you’re pursuing a PhD after the age of 40, you may face additional challenges related to burnout and stress, related to the number of responsibilities you already have at that age (e.g., children, marriage, career). Coping with burnout and stress is important for staying motivated and productive throughout your PhD program. This article discusses some tangible strategies for coping with burnout and stress while pursuing a PhD after 40.
First Thing’s First: What’s Burnout?
First, it is important to recognize the signs of burnout. Burnout is a chronic feeling of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that can be caused by prolonged stress.
Some signs of burnout include feeling:
- Detached from your work
Burnout can also lead to physical symptoms such as:
- Muscle aches and tension
- Difficulty sleeping
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to take action to prevent burnout from getting worse.
How to Prevent Burnout
Here are some ways you can minimize the risks of burnout.
1. Effective Time Management
One way to prevent burnout is to manage your time effectively. Time management is essential for completing your PhD program while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Manage your time effectively by:
- Making a schedule in 10mins, 20 mins, and 30 minutes chunks and prioritizing your tasks based on their importance and urgency. You may be asking, how does this help? Well, the 10 – 30-minute chunks of time are to help you realize that there are tasks that you can complete in 10, 20 or 30 minutes so that you don’t always have to wait till you have 2-hour blocks to get some tasks completed. In Project Management, those types of tasks come from work breakdown. So, break down your tasks in smaller chunks that allow you to complete each one in between other activities.
- Being realistic about how much time you have in a day to dedicate towards your PhD and allow time for breaks. Yes, but how? Come up with how much time you need to realistically work on your PhD each day. Let’s say, 5 hours. Make sure that you dedicate 5 hours each day to doing your PhD work. For example, if you’re invited to a birthday party that would eat into your 5-hour time, you have the option to decline the party, or you can attend by allocating time from other aspects of your life to give to your PhD. This is what being realistic looks like.
- Working in procrastination into your schedule with the realization that it is inevitable. According to Adam Grant, a level of procrastination helps by giving your brain time to mull over a task or problem, creating a space for creativity. What does this mean to you? Don’t always fight procrastination. It may be that your task is still unclear to you and you need time to think it through. I suggest starting early to think it through. For example, if you have a task/assignment that’s due in 2 weeks and you don’t know how or where to start. Start by reading the assignment the first day to park it in your brain. Repeat it again for a few more days, then start to tackle the assignment bit by bit in 20 – 30-minute time increments. In this way, you are taking advantage of your procrastination to tackle the problem.
Common reasons individuals struggle with time management include lack of coping skills and complex disorders like ADHD. If you suspect you may have a condition like these and they are interfering with your focus, talk to your doctor. It’s never too late for an assessment.
2. Set Goals to Stay Motivated
Another way to prevent burnout is to stay motivated and engaged in your work. This can be challenging when you are facing a lot of stress and pressure, but there are strategies you can use to stay motivated, including:
- Setting goals and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks
- Celebrating your achievements along the way and rewarding yourself for your hard work
- Surrounding yourself with people who are positive, supportive, and encourage and motivate you.
3. Practice Self-Care
Practicing self-care by taking care of your physical and mental health can also minimize the risks of burnout.
Practical self-care activities include:
- Getting enough sleep. Seriously, this is important.
- Eating a healthy diet. Lots of water, anyone?
- Exercising regularly. Climbing those stairs up and down a few times may do it.
These are recommendations you’ve probably seen and heard all your life. But seriously, they help. Take those small steps each day and celebrate them, sharing your small gains with someone.
It’s also important to practice self-care activities such as meditation, yoga, or hobbies that you enjoy. Looking after yourself helps you recharge and feel more energized to tackle the challenges of your PhD program, thereby minimizing burnout.
4. Seek Support
When facing burnout or stress, you should seek support from others. Support can look like:
- Talking to a friend or family member about your struggles
- Reaching out to a mentor or advisor for guidance
- Seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor
Remember that you do not have to go through this alone and there are resources available to help you manage your stress in order to prevent burnout.
5. Find a Little Balance
The balance argument has been talked about many times. One camp says to find a balance. Another camp says there’s no balance, just don’t let things fall on the ground.
It’s a little of both. There are areas of one’s life where no matter what you do, there’s just no balance. You have to say no to somethings to be able to open yourself up to complete other things.
Your pursuit of a PhD is one of those in-betweens, especially when you’re over 40. It’s a challenge balancing your academic work with other responsibilities such as family, work, or other obligations. However, here is one strategy that can help you.
- Reading research papers is one of the most important aspects of doing a business information systems PhD. It is also very time consuming. So how do you save time with this? You integrate your academic work with your other responsibilities, such as listening to those research papers during your commute or working on your PhD tasks during your lunch break. I used to load research papers on a PDF text-to-speech app, which will read the papers to me as I drive to and from school or cook.
6. Learn New Skills and Technologies
Adapting to new technologies and learning new skills can be challenging and overwhelming, especially if you are not familiar with the latest technology trends. However, there are resources available to help, such as online courses or attending workshops to learn new skills. You can also reach out to your advisor or mentor for guidance and support.
7. Stay Focused on Your “Why”
Finally, it is important to stay focused on your goals and the reasons why you are pursuing an IT PhD in the first place. Remember that this is a long-term goal that requires discipline, dedication, and patience.
Put one foot in front of the other, take your work day by day, and remember why you’re doing this in the first place.