Academic Burnout: The Beginning


My burnout recovery has been occurring in waves. It wasn’t enough to remove myself from the city I was living in or avoid working in the office I had available at the university. It was certainly important as an immediate bandaid, but the problem didn’t stop there. After relocating, the physical consequences of burnout hit me harder. Depression was lingering upon me. I could make no sense of everything that had happened, or where I was going, and I was always too tired to move myself throughout life. Another cold came and stayed for days, leading eventually to a lung infection. After that, anxiety and stress kicked in on and off. Memories, or the simple act of sitting down and opening my thesis word document, became unbearable and overwhelming triggers.

This isn’t the result of accumulated stress for 3 or 6 months, but the accumulation of many negative feelings for more than 3 years. It started when I was three months-in in my PhD. Not knowing the city or anyone, I had made the decision to apply for accommodation at the university. It would be one thing less to worry about. I didn’t have anywhere to stay in the first couple of days while looking for a house and I didn’t have money to afford an infinite stay in a hotel or hostel. I was aware that I wouldn’t be living by myself and that I would be sharing the accommodation with other unknown students, but I never imagined that such decision would lead me to a living hell.

Living in a different country, speaking a different language, sharing a house with four other people, each one from a different nation, sounded cool and modern. The house was packed in the middle of many other houses with the same layout and architecture. The only shared spaces were the kitchen and the bathroom. There was no place to hang out and relax by yourself or with friends except for your own bedroom, which was filled with a naked bed, a desk, a chair, and a tiny wardrobe incrusted in the wall. It was a sad and claustrophobic space to live in for almost 500 pounds a month.

The problems started to rise when I realised that personalities, study goals, and age were very different among the people I was living with. Being an introvert, I need space and quietness to recharge. My housemates were younger and were having a one-year experience away from their parents’ control; probably the first one in their entire life. In the UK, master degrees are only one year long. I was there for a PhD though, so I had at least three more years ahead of me. Because of this, I believe, I had a different perspective about my stay and I also had different needs. I wasn’t there to make the most out of it, partying and meeting new people on a daily basis – but they were.

Soon enough, I was sleeping four-hours a night and struggling to keep myself awake during the day. Many times, I had to come back home earlier for a nap and chill, so that I could go back to work later in the day and stay there as much as possible to avoid the chaos that my house had became. There were late poker nights and strangers coming in and out of the house. There were doors banging constantly and shaking up the whole building. Sometimes I would fall asleep to wake up minutes later with a big bang downstairs. With these conditions, waking up early in the morning became an impossible mission; a good night sleep became unknown to me.

We had a housekeeping team coming by every Wednesday, but other than that no one would clean the kitchen or vacuum the floor. Using the shared kitchen became a traumatic experience, not only for the filthiness but also because I had never time to be alone or knew who would show up. The other girl in the house, with whom I tried to be friends with in the beginning, didn’t tolerate the fact I didn’t want anything else to do with her once I saw we weren’t compatible at all.

She would open other people’s laundry machine, take the clothes out and put hers in, so that her clothes could dry for free. She used other people’s ingredients and kitchen wear without asking. Eventually, she would even steal other people’s kitchen tools and store them in her cabinet. Actions say a lot about people and I started to find her behaviour disgusting to the point I didn’t even want to talk to her anymore. With her spoiled 21-year-old attitude, she started to come in the kitchen when I was there just to make herself noticed. She would be in the way, she would bang the cabinets’ doors, and funny enough she would even lock me outside the house whenever I decided to take fresh air and a break from her presence.

At some point I asked my housemates to be more considerate about the noise and more careful with the kitchen door which was banging all the time. I also asked them to limit poker nights to Fridays and Saturdays. Needless to say that I was perceived like the grumpy bitch of the house and, afterwards, things only got worse. By Christmas time, I asked to meet up with the college master responsible for my accommodation so that I could get help and get out of there. I was told how the accommodation policy worked and how I could and should call campus security every time my housemates were being loud and disruptive at night. I explained that doing such thing would put me in a more awkward position. The call was obviously anonymous, but my housemates weren’t stupid at all. They would know who had called. I was also told that in order to break free from my accommodation contract, I had to find some other student who was studying at the university and staying until the end of the academic year. That seemed very unlikely to happen since we were already at the end of December and, on top of that, I couldn’t afford to pay two rents a month. I walked out from that office feeling powerless.

I started to have very strong peaks of anxiety whenever I walked in or out of the house. I never knew who I would find in there and I was always craving space to breathe. To avoid people, I would make sure that the way was free before I went out. I also stopped using the kitchen at all and started consuming packed food, which in the UK feels much less nutritious than back home. Sleep deprived and nutritionally deficient, my mood and overall motivation suffered a great deal. My sunny and positive spirit faded away gradually and I felt physically destroyed by the first time I returned home for a conference.

As I couldn’t rest at my university accommodation, I spent as much time as I could in my office. I often stood there until midnight and I tried to focus on work. When I wasn’t there, I tried to be at my neighbours’ house, who knew about my problem, who were older and also doing their PhD. Although my empirical work was a total mess at the time, I managed to roughly draft five chapters. These drafts weren’t perfect, but since I was working on at least four different theoretical ideas, I swapped between topics whenever my brain was tired to focus. My first review meeting came up and I made sure I had stuff done to present. I also attended numerous training sessions, which seemed to be quite valued and promoted to PhD students. I knew for a fact that, at that time, I had more written material than any other first year PhD student I knew in the department. I had been struggling personally, but I had been working hard to prove my worth.

Nonetheless, because I had no published paper, I didn’t get an excellent. Just because of that. I received a pass instead. How was I supposed to have a published paper if I was just in my first year? How could I have done that? It was just a label, excellent, but I got truly disappointed, especially when I realised that no one had really read what I had written in those documents, not even my supervisor, and that was soul crushing. I felt unseen, unsupervised, and I left with a question inside my head: will it ever be enough?

The academic year wasn’t finished for me though as I had applied for a paid position as a lecturer in the psychology summer school. I was happy about it and I had been waiting for it all those months. It was something I could use to think and be motivated about. I designed the curriculum with another colleague who would be teaching it with me. In the meantime she decided to apply for something else and she was replaced. That can be stressful, but it’s something that happens.

It was the first time I taught to university students and, although I didn’t have much energy due to my nutrition and sleeping problems, I wanted my students to have a great time. They were from all over the world and I wanted to make sure they had a good learning experience but also a good perception of the university. It was also nice to collaborate and communicate with staff from a different department, because my own department seemed rather dull. I never felt that ideas and creativity were welcome there. Even the whole summer school idea didn’t seem valued by staff. Moreover, you were supposed to do as you were told, follow the political game and kiss-ass the people who had more power.

The summer school didn’t go smoothly. My department’s staff didn’t seem to know what they were supposed to do and I often felt that sometimes I was expected to know what they should know. Were they supposed to provide bakery goods to students? Were they supposed to organise something nice for the students, other than what classes offered? They didn’t know and I didn’t know either, all I knew was that I had students to teach and that it was my job to make them enjoy psychology as much as I did. At the end of the two teaching weeks, .no one from the department came to the closing ceremony and let students know more about the school of psychology as programmed. The only ones showing up was me and my other teaching colleague. Everyone asked us whether someone else would come and what had happened, but we were clueless. I felt ashamed, sad, and honestly disappointed, because no one responsible from the school came to the ceremony and worse – no one ever came to meet the students and ask them whether they were enjoying the experience.

I finished my first PhD year knackered. I was exhausted and feeling noxious about the school. I started to realise that I was in the middle of people who endured political games and hidden agendas. The quality of teaching was perceived as secondary and the most important seemed to be the numbers. The number of incoming students, the number of published papers, the number of satisfied undergraduates, the number of grants received, and the number of controlled costs. Kindness, positivity, nurturance, team effort, inspiration, motivation and wellbeing were not that important. From then on, I always lived conflicted and misaligned between what I perceived to be my organisational environment and what my values and expectations were. After my first year, I only spiralled downward and I reached a point of almost no return.

TO BE CONTINUED

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7 thoughts on “Academic Burnout: The Beginning

  1. I’m feeling sleep deprived just reading this. It brings back some college memories, although mine was a great experience overall with just one or two crappy roommates during my four years. I guess experiences like these make us the people we are today.

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    1. In a weird way, that’s comforting, thank you. I thought less of myself many times for not being able to endure instead of realizing it was beyond human limits. I’m happy you had a good experience overall, it’s such a considerable amount of time in our lives to have bad memories of! I agree with you, these experiences shape who we become too. Thanks for sharing, Theresa! 🌻

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  2. …but you did return (or rather, you carried on)… Woah, that sounds awful, Vanessa! I have always found it difficult to live with other people, and your story has brought back memories of my own shared student accomodation. I vividly remember opening the fridge to a ‘Boys’ milk’ taped onto a milk bottle. I think that milk bottle just about summed up my experience of sharing a living space. Eurgh! Thank goodness that part of our lives is behind us! Good riddance to it!
    It’s amazing that you got anything done, but you did! Well done!

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    1. Boys’ milk? I’m not sure what it really means but I’m guessing it is very bad for the punch I got in my stomach. I’m very thankful it came to an end. There is more about it once my mind feels ready. It’s not great to be living with my parents now, but it’s much more peaceful; I would say heaven, even though I don’t have a single private space for myself. When I write these memories down, I can finally see how I ended up as I did. My memory suppressed some of the stuff so that I could go on for so long. Our human mind is a funny thing…

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  3. Sorry. I wasn’t very clear about the milk thing. Basically, I guess there were a few issues in the shared house about sharing items in the fridge, people not taking turns (with buying milk as well as the washing up, etc.). And instead of communicating well, it ended up with house’mates’ becoming just house sharers and writing each other snide messages – oh dear!
    Indeed, sometimes the mind hides things for our own protection until we’re ready to deal with it. xx

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  4. I never shared a house when I was at uni, instead I lived at home with my parents and commuted in. I was fine with that as I heard the horror stories and they were similar to yours! I’m disappointed that the university didn’t put you with other PhD students – they need to take more responsibility for people’s welfare. I can see why it was the beginning of your burnout. I’m glad and happy for you that you are free of it all now and are doing what you are doing! Sharing your experiences! Thank you and take care of you xxx

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    1. Lucky you!!! 😀 When I was studying for my BSc and MSc I lived with my parents too though. I think I was too naive, I didn’t believe in the horror stories, I thought they were meant for cinema! 😂 I lived with PhD students the year after, but I still had problems – not about noise, but other stuff. Overall, I basically only had problems abroad. I’m sure it was karmic but there would be no blog if I hadn’t had them, so HAPPY ENDING and that’s all that matters 😂 😂 😂 xxx

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