grad school · mental health · people pleasing · PhD

Fighting Extra-Academic Burnout

Are you experiencing scholar date burnout?

Let me explain. A recent article posted in Inside Higher Ed asks scholars experiencing such burnout symptoms as physical exhaustion, depression and/or anxiety, and cynicism to take themselves on weekly scholar dates. Grad school, particularly the dissertation-writing phase of grad school, can be painfully isolating. Often students take on off-campus jobs or teach at a different school, some prefer the hermitic lifestyle of working at home, others (like me) function as nomads, drifting from library to library for fresh thrills and different local coffee blends. As I blogged about almost a year ago, writing a dissertation is as much a psychological battle as it is an intellectual one, and depression and anxiety are endemic to academic departments: something many of us deal with, but few of us talk about, because to admit mental distress is to admit weakness and inadequacy and inability to cope with the ubiquitous strains of the profession. It’s survival of the fittest, and in this climate, “survival” might mean living out the rest of one’s life as an underpaid and overworked contingent laborer ( I am a jaded sixth year PhD student, hi!).

With the intellectual and social paucity of late stages of the PhD, what Heather VanMouwerik calls “scholar dates” sound like great ideas: these are outings, such as movie nights, park wanders, cultural experiences, and cafe lingers, that feed our intellectual and creative sides. I appreciate that the Scholar Date seems here to meet the Self Date; VanMouwerik instructs us to “Do it alone” rather than feeling distracted with the needs and experiences of other people. The concept of selfdating transforms hanging out alone and feeling sorry for yourself into a deliberate, intentional, and personally rewarding choice. Friends have told me that just giving alone-time this label seems to make a difference.

What makes self dates and scholar dates so useful is that my only obligation is to myself, and this time becomes sacred and restorative. But I’ve found that there’s somewhat of a slippery slope between scholar-dating and succumbing to professional obligations. Lately, I’ve possibly been overcompensating for the aforementioned mental health stuff by overloading my schedule with what might clumsily be categorized as scholar dates (all conducted of my own volition, though not always alone). There is a point at which the scholar date becomes avoidance, and I fear I’m hovering around that threshold.

It’s easy for this to happen, because scholar dates are often justifiably important, and I am lucky enough to live in a city that affords ample opportunity for intellectual engagement through cultural field trips. In the last week alone, for example, I travelled out of the city to sit in on a friend’s lecture on King Lear and the public humanities; I saw Henry IV Part I at BAM after a sick friend offered me a free ticket; and I spent an afternoon at an academic conference unrelated to my dissertation. I did a minor in early modern drama, right? So I should definitely keep up with the Renaissance drama scene in New York (see also: Revelation Readings at Red Bull theatre). I’m trying to develop a DH profile, right? So these sessions on teaching with digital maps are totally necessary to my intellectual development. And then: I care about maintaining a vibrant intellectual community in my department, right? I should definitely attend this talk on racial politics, since I can tell they are worried about getting bodies in seats. I care about the future wellbeing of this country and entire world, right? I should probably attend this Bernie Sanders rally and perhaps sign up to do some phone-banking and flyering and house calls and omg, possibly the whole election that I can’t vote in rests on my shoulders!! Oh, yeah, and I should go for a solo walk to the river because it’s spring and whatnot. And, and….the list goes on.

I know that I may not be able to remain in academia forever, and if I don’t (or even if I do), I don’t want to look back on my time in New York City and remember only the uncomfortable subway encounters and cockroaches creeping out from underneath my fridge. Not only do my extracurricular scholarly activities feed into my constellation of personal and scholarly interests, but they also mitigate anxiety and despair about the future, and help connect me with various local communities. But even these activities can be taken too far and become more about obligations and people-pleasing than self care.

Let’s not forget that as women, we face pressure to say yes to everything–to live full, rich, balanced, lives, to spring out of bed and go to sunrise yoga classes before heading to campus, to stay connected with our friends and communities while keeping on top of our research, remaining available to students, and grading dozens of final papers. Yeah. That’s not happening. Let’s let slumptimes be slumptimes, and learn when to say no to even those activities that might help expand our intellectual development in new ways. Let’s learn how to view “no” as not only a perfectly acceptable but also commendable choice. The bernout is real.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s