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I Should Probably Be Doing Homework Cartoon

 Are you struggling with stress and burnout in graduate school?

You might be creating your own grad school burnout if you try to be “too productive”

“I want to be more productive, but I just keep disappointing myself. It’s like I am always feeling burnt out and end up getting distracted and procrastinating.”

Sheila was in her 10th year of graduate school, and she really wanted to graduate.

She wanted to be more productive, but didn’t know how.

When I asked her how she defined “more productive” she hesitated.

She is not alone in her constant uphill battle of trying to be more productive while feeling burnt out.

Many students tell themselves that they “should” be more productive, but they have a tough time defining what it would take to reach their desired level of productivity.

It is tough to achieve something that is not well-defined. 

Besides the pressure that students face in academia, the most common source of grad school burnout is the lack of structure.

In college most students have classes back to back and one exam after another.

While college is a busy time, short-term deadlines keep you on your toes.

If you have ever worked at a typical job, you know that most supervisors expect very quick turnaround times.

You usually have a few days to complete an assignment, or maybe just a few hours.

Completing assignments in college and jobs are similar to running sprints.

You give all you can for a short burst of time, and then you recover on the weekends and during vacations.

In graduate school your deadlines are very long, typically months or maybe years.

Instead of a sprint, you are running a marathon, which requires a completely different strategy.

You cannot “give it all you got” for 5-6 years and 7 days a week, and get a PhD at the end.

Yet, this is what many students try to do, because they don’t have a well-defined structure that helps them set reasonable hours and realistic goals.

Driving yourself so hard for such an extended period of time can lead to a grad school burnout.

Does the cartoon below seem familiar?

When you experience a burnout it can last for weeks, maybe even months.

Once you are in a burnout cycle, it is very difficult to regain motivation.

Each time you go through a burnout cycle, you become more and more exhausted and frustrated.

Some students who started graduate student with enthusiasm, decide to drop out due to exhaustion, lack of motivation or loss of interest in their project.

How do get out of a burnout cycle, or better yet, how do you prevent yourself from falling into one?

Myths That Create the Grad School Burnout Cycle

Nobody intends to have a burnout.

We just want to be more productive and get results faster.

Yet, a combination of an unstructured environment, lack of guidance, and poorly-defined projects can lead to long hours at work without getting results. 

In addition there are many myths about graduate school that actually prevent students from reaching their full potential.

Most of these myths are silent, and even many senior students don’t realize that they aren’t true.

Myth#1: More Hours at Work Leads to More Progress

This is true to a certain extent. Of course you need some minimal amount of time to do your work.

Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” can be especially dangerous in  graduate school where you have long stretches of unstructured time.

In an effort to generate results and publish, students commit to long hours at work, even at the cost of their health and relationships.

If you give yourself an entire weekend to complete a presentation, you will probably take up the entire weekend.

However, if you only give yourself 2 hours, you will be so focused that even if you don’t finish it you will probably make good progress on it.

One of the most life changing concepts I heard about is called the “Default Mode of the Brain.”

The default network of your brain becomes active when you are not focused on a task, and this is time when you become creative and come up with unexpected insights.

Do you ever wonder why you get your best ideas in the shower, during a walk, or when you are having fun?

It is because at these times your brain is not focused on the problem, and the default network becomes active.

If you chain yourself to your desk for the whole weekend, trying to force yourself to come up with ideas for a presentation, you will exhaust yourself and the quality of your work will suffer.

When you are force yourself to focus, the default mode is deactivated and your creativity shuts off.

You are much more likely to achieve your desired results if you structure your day so that you have frequent breaks and regular exercise. 

Myth #2: My work needs to be perfect

Perfectionism is one of the vestigial attitudes from college, and it is a very common source of grad school burnout.

We are used to striving for perfect SAT scores, perfect GRE scores, and a perfect grade point average.

Research works a little differently.

Yes, you should be meticulous, but a “perfect” thesis does not exist.

Experiments are not perfectly reproducible.

In fact, one expects a 10-20% error between data sets. Perfectionism can also take its toll during the writing of a thesis.

I advise students to “let go” of their thesis when they are confident that is it 95-98% complete.

How do you know if you have written a thesis that is good enough?

Consult with your advisor and read other theses from your department to see what constitutes a doctoral dissertation.

You might be surprised at how much you have already accomplished.

Myth #3: I am great at multitasking

Actually it is impossible for your brain to multitask.

When you think you are multitasking you are just switching back and forth between tasks.

When you do task A, you are ignoring task B and vice versa.

The constant switching between different tasks actually leads to reduced performance on all of the tasks and exhaustion.

That’s why you might feel exhausted after a busy day, when you actually did not accomplish much.

Our inability to “truly” multitask, is the reason why it is not a good idea to drive and talk on the cell phone at the same time, or to try to read a journal article while watching TV.

You might be able to get the gist of the journal article while hearing the latest news, but it impossible to get into depth in your article if you are also trying to process information from the TV.

Myth #4: I need to abuse my body to get work done

This is a silent myth- you might be doing it without realizing it.

Do you ever skip lunch, cut down to dangerously low levels of sleep, or deprive yourself of exercise in order to meet a deadline?

As a former student I am very familiar with the concept of “crunch time.”

Sometimes, there really is no time for exercise, and loss of sleep is nearly inevitable.

However, you cannot keep this pace up for long periods of time.

If you try to work at 120% efficiency for extended periods of time, you are creating your own grad school burnout. 

A consistently poor diet that is high in processed carbohydrates can also lead to a burnout.

Foods that contain high levels of processed carbohydrates (donuts, bagels, pasta) lead to fluctuations on your blood glucose levels.

After you eat a meal or snack that is high in processed carbohydrates, such as pastry, there will be a spike in your blood glucose levels.

This can give you a quick burst of energy, also known as a “sugar high.” 

However, the high levels of glucose in your blood stream will send a signal to your body to release insulin to remove the excess glucose.

Once the glucose is removed from your blood stream, you will experience fatigue and lose your focus. 

While our bodies are amazing, they cannot take abuse for extended periods of time.

Many students in their twenties experience stress-related conditions due to lack of sleep and poor nutrition that lead to poor performance and even chronic health problems. 

 Myth #5: My thesis has to be groundbreaking

Many students are very enthusiastic and ambitious when they enter graduate school and carry very high expectations from themselves.

While ambition does motivate you, unrealistically high expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration and burnout.

Simply put: if you expect yourself to do pioneering work in graduate school, you will probably make your life harder than it needs to be.

A distinguished professor at a prestigious university put it succinctly:

“My students usually think that they have to do more than they actually need to.” 

He did not expect groundbreaking work from his students (even though he was one of the world’s leading experts in his field).

However, he did expect carefully thought-out theses that showed his students were able to carry out independent research.

The idea that you have to create groundbreaking work to succeed in graduate school is a myth.

Focus on taking advantage of graduate school as a learning opportunity and you will feel less stressed and make more progress.

How to Break (or Prevent)  The Grad School Burnout Cycle

The best way to prevent or break the burnout cycle is to refute the myths that are the root cause of it.

Simply bringing awareness to these false beliefs will help you to break habits that lead to fatigue and productivity.

Tip #1:  Structure your day so that it includes frequent breaks away from your work

One of the biggest mistakes students make is to make “reading email” their break from work.

In order to give yourself a real break and activate the default mode of your brain (that will lead to creative solutions), you need to be away from your desk. 

I remember that when I was interviewing for graduate school programs, one professor told me that the most useful advice he ever gives to a student is to:

“Just go and sit under a tree.” 

As most graduate students are already overachievers, it is not helpful to tell them to work harder.

When you are away from your desk, you are giving the default network in your brain (the back burner) to get activated and solve problems while you are relaxing.

What could be better than that?

Tip #2: Give yourself permission to make mistakes

When I was in the third grade I started to become self-conscious about my spelling and grammar, which actually stunted my ability to write creatively.

My teacher, who was one of the most respected teachers in my school, told me:

“I have been teaching 3rd grade for 28 years and I still make mistakes every day. Just write from your heart and we will correct your mistakes later.”

While at the time neither my teacher and I thought I would get a PhD, her advice helped me to get over my tendency to try to make everything perfect.

Allowing myself to make mistakes (at least on the first draft) was essential to help me complete my thesis by the deadline.

By not letting perfectionism get in the way of my creativity, I was able to get my ideas on paper for the first draft of my thesis without being concerned about the spelling, grammar, or even the data analysis/interpretation.

Whether you are still designing your studies or are writing your thesis, give yourself permission to just go for it, even if it is not perfect.

You can always correct your grammar/spelling and data analysis later.

However, you need to have a starting point, something on paper, in order to be able to create high quality work. 

Tip #3 Set up your daily structure so that you minimize the necessity to multitask

I know, I know…this sounds impossible, especially if you have a family.

The good news is that most of the skills you gain as a parent are transferable to academia too – talk about efficiency!

If you are a parent, I understand your challenges.

I had to write my grant for my postdoctoral fellowship while taking care of my newborn daughter.

I actually submitted all the necessary information for grant before my due date.

Unfortunately, I got a notice the day before my due date that I had to revise my grant within the following two weeks.

Sometimes it seems impossible to avoid multitasking

However, once I realized that I was less efficient when I multitasked, I was able to restructure my days so that I reduced the number of occasions when I had to multitask.

For example, I set aside specific times to check my email, rather than jumping back and forth between my work and email. 

I also set aside some days to run experiments, and other days to write manuscripts, rather than try to write while experiments were running in the background.

While some people might claim they can multitask, in most cases you will be more efficient if you fully put your focus on one type of activity (running experiments vs. writing), versus trying to do them in parallel. 

As a parent, I also “compartmentalized” my schedule.

When I am with my kids, I commit to being 100% with them (anyone who has tried to work while watching kids run around knows how futile this can be). 

Tip #4: Nurture your mind and body unconditionally

We are all familiar with the concept of “rewarding” ourselves for doing great work.

In fact, using rewards (eg going out to the movies or dinner with friends), can be very motivating to help us complete our work.

However, if you only nurture yourself when you do good, you are creating a vicious cycle.

Neglecting your mind and body by depriving yourself of “food, folks, and fun”, will inevitably lead to a burnout. 

Your body needs rest, fuel, and a supportive community to stay health and productive.

Of course, you can reserve special treats (such as going to your favorite restaurant) for special occasions, but you always need to provide yourself with a sufficient sleep, nutrition, and recreation  regardless of your performance. 

Tip #5: Reach out for support to help you keep your thesis on track

 I interviewed over 100 PhDs who are now successful professionals in academia in industry to find out how they would advise current graduate students. 

The #1 thing they would do differently if they could start graduate school all over again was to join a support group.

A support group can be formal through your university, or informal with your friends and hobby groups.

Of course, when you have technical questions your thesis advisor or committee members are the best to turn to for advice.

The reason that most PhDs would join a support group if they could start graduate school all over again, is that the biggest challenges they experienced were not technical. 

They could get support for technical questions from professors, but they had few people to turn to when they experienced loss of motivation, personal conflicts, writing blocks, or a full-blown case of a burnout.

A support group can help you to cope with grad school burnout, isolation, and loss of motivation.

They can also provide you with accountability, so that you stay focused and follow through on your commitments.

For many students the best part about being part of a community is they get the opportunity to support other students who are going through the same challenges that they faced in the past.

While members of your support group might not be withing your technical field, just knowing that there are people who are there to listen and provide you with insights, can help you regain your focus and stay on track, even you are experiencing loss of motivation or a burnout.

When it comes to preventing a grad school burnout, what’s the #1 challenge you face?

 Please share in the comments below and I will respond to you directly.

Click here to get on the waiting list for the online “Finish Your Thesis Program” and get a copy of my free book “Finish Your Thesis Faster”

Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.

I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?

'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework

Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.

A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.

Working memory?

When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.

Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.

But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.

Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.

The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”

The right type of work

The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.

His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.

The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains

So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:

  • Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.

  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.

  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.

  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.

While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.

Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community

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