I was hoping for some advice on long-term mental health in academia. First off, I am a 3rd year PhD economics PhD in a high-ranking school in the US. Before anything else, my experience has been great. I have done extremely well and I am well on my way to publishing several high-level papers. The department has been supportive every step along the way, from my thesis advisers and co-authors to the more senior members who have helped me grow as a person.

On the other side, I am also the youngest person in my PhD class. Often times, I set almost unrealistic expectations for myself. My goal is to make assistant professor at a research school before the age of 30. I've told this to many professors in the department, and they all told me it was possible. The problem is that I often get upset with myself when I cannot perform at 100% of my best, and even when I do I cannot get myself to take a break. For example, today I sent out my work by 11am, ideally this would mean I would get a free day until tomorrow. But I decided to pick up a side project and now am taking a break to write this. I have discussed about burnout with my advisors. They all just say take a break. Might sound strange, but I do not know how to do that.

The question, in sum, is then: if you have been very successful in this field, have you ever had the feeling that the only person your work is not good enough for is yourself, and that you will always want to push the extra mile, no matter what? I feel this way because my family, and the entire department, especially my PhD advisor, have always gone the extra mile for me. These include: extra study sessions with professors, helping me design my own field, and making sure I would be in the best position to succeed as a researcher. I feel if I do not put in my absolute best on a daily basis, that would be disrespectful towards them and myself.

Thank you for listening, I needed to get this off my chest

1 Answer 1


I suggest that you take up some stress reducing activity that you can perform for an hour or more several times a week. It shouldn't be a completely mindless activity or you may wind up just working when you should be giving your mind/brain a rest.

Burnout is a terrible thing.

On the other hand, periods of intellectual "rest" can actually enhance your work since the mind works on its own when you aren't constantly pushing the 'starter button'.

There are a lot of possibilities for this. When in grad school I used to ride a bike with a group of mostly faculty members. We would ride at a fast pace for 35-50 miles a few times a week. The physical activity helped and we didn't talk math on the ride. The grad students I studied with had a weekly softball game for themselves and spouses. Nothing like a little competition. Something like Chess is fine for the mind part, but a bit of physical activity will keep you healthier.

Currently I use Tai Chi for stress and general fitness (but not aerobics). The fact that it is a mind-body activity, not just body, helps give the brain a rest from whatever it is doing.

Many people notice that they wake up with new ideas in the morning or after a quick nap. That is the effect of giving the brain a break.

Stress can kill you. Find a way to do something (a) enjoyable and (b) not work related. Taking a walk now and then probably won't be as effective as an activity that does engage the brain but in a different way from the rigors of your field.

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