Your days are tinged by irritability and your nights by obsessive, restless thoughts. “How can there be stacking faults in my X-ray patterns? Did I expose
my samples to air? Oh my goodness, will I ever graduate!?”
It’s currently 1:00 a.m. You were “asleep” for three hours,
driven by the physical and mental exhaustion of TA-ing, lab
work, and group meetings. But then you shifted states: Your
fatigue transformed into anxiety, and you’ve been bouncing
between wakefulness and troubled sleep, horrific images of
water molecules hydrating your crystalline solid and atrocious
Rietveld Refinements embellishing your dreams. You toss and
turn until 5:30 a.m., when you consider it socially acceptable
to embark on your daily five-mile run. Somehow, instead of
undertaking your usual route through the scenic countryside,
you sprint to lab.
“How did I get here?” you ask yourself, seeing the early
morning café staff sending you warm, sympathetic smiles as
you trudge through the chemistry building atrium. This is an
all-too-familiar scene: your 5:45 a.m. harried demeanor, your
face un–made up, and your hair in utter disarray, your tired
body outfitted in your jogging gear. Do the people setting up
the coffee service see you as a runner on a five-mile mission,
or a possessed fourth-year graduate student, tormented by the
air sensitivity of your materials and the unstructured Ameri-
can Ph.D. system?
Reflecting on your life, you realize you’ve made an appearance in the lab every day for the past month before 6:00
a.m. You saunter over to the glove box and examine your
samples: “So beautiful and metallic in luster,” you mutter under your breath, admiring your own chemical intuition and
synthetic handiwork. “I need to finish the entire rare earth
series by Friday. I need to get this out before anyone else.”
You’ve always been excellent at setting hard (harsh) deadlines,
and where better than in grad school, where scooping the
competition is a ubiquitous goal and results are everything?
You’re convinced that working harder will usher in success.
“I’ll get that [insert competitive postdoctoral fellowship of
your choice] and then become a world-renowned professor at
[insert stellar university of your choice]!” But you’ve been saying that for the past four years, and now you’re more stressed
than ever before. You refuse to relent, but how much more can
you actually take?
Unremitting, unchecked stress can lead to burnout. Ph.D.
burnout is a prevalent issue among graduate students and can
manifest itself in a variety of ways. In the above hypothetical,
worst-case scenario, let’s say four weeks have passed, you’re
Defying the Odds
Marisa Sanders, Ph.D., freelance writer