So I'm a first year PhD student in the UK working on an applied mathematics project. Excluding weekends I put in about 37/40 hours a week of work which leaves me pretty tired to say the least.

Normally I'll also work on weekends to keep the momentum going but lately I've been feeling really burnt out and despite the breaks making me feel more refreshed, I still feel guilty for "missing" out on work I should be doing. How do I combat this feeling and am I alone by feeling this way? I rarely take breaks.

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    The first year of a PhD is not a time to work during the weekend, that will happen in the last 6 months before your thesis is due. You have to put in perspective that crunch times should be far and in between otherwise you will burn out. Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 14:05
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    @Robbie 37-40hours are normal working hours and would be the expectation for any full time position.
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 3:17
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    @H98 If you get to the point of feeling burnt out or lacking ideas, it is a very clear sign that a break is overdue - especially if you were productive. (Says the person who himself is useless as taking holidays...)
    – DetlevCM
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 3:21
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    Whatever hours you are "excluding [over] weekends" seems crucial to list here ... Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 15:56
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    Indeed. If you're burning out from 37h a week of work, this is a problem because that's sort of a normal minimum for a typical working job. If you're spending 30h working over every weekend, though, that can't be sustainable. The weekend hours are the ones that we need to know.
    – J...
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 18:32

4 Answers 4


Firstly, you are certainly not alone in feeling like you are missing out on work. In the competitive world of academia, everyone feels this way at some point or another, though it is rarely because they are actually not doing enough work. Also, I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to start a PhD while working remotely, as you have no colleagues or peers around you to gauge the "normal" level of work. Once we are all allowed back to our offices, you will see that plenty of PhD time is spent not working at all... my office had regular badminton matches during the working day, or we'd all stop for a cup of tea together, or go out for lunch or to the pub as soon as the clock hit 5pm (or before) :).

You will honestly be more productive if you stop trying to force yourself to work solidly for eight hours a day. One of the great benefits of academic work is the flexibility: if you're having a terrible day, there's nothing to stop you working for a couple of hours and taking the rest of the day off; conversely, if you're having a great day, there's nothing to stop you working late, chasing the solution to your current problem.

Furthermore, you're a first year PhD student, meaning if you started in October you're about five months into your PhD, which is likely going to take you between three and a half and four years to complete. During an undergraduate degree, it's common to work intensively for short bursts, while completing coursework or preparing for exams. A PhD requires a completely different strategy.

It's often said that a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. In my personal experience, this is very true. You have to learn to pace yourself, since you don't have external deadlines any more (possibly excluding things like submitting a paper to a journal, but that is likely a self-imposed and flexible deadline). The only one you have is your thesis submission, still more than three years away. You can't keep up the high intensity work for that long. As you correctly recognise, you will end up burned out.

My strongest piece of advice is to stop working at the weekend. Your brain needs a break to be able to think productively and creatively when you are at work. Try to prioritise other, non-mathematical activities during the evenings and weekends -- go for a walk or run, read a book, draw, practice a musical instrument -- what ever you can do to relax under the current restrictions.

If you are worried about losing momentum, try writing a short paragraph or list of bullet points every Friday afternoon before you stop work, detailing where you are and what the next step in your work should be. You can even do this at the end of every day, to help you get started the following morning.

Finally, do you have anyone close to you who you can talk to about this? I suggest mentioning it to your PhD supervisor, as they can probably help you with time management or prioritisation strategies (and if they're a good supervisor, I expect they'll reassure you that you are working hard enough, and can afford to relax). If you are not already in touch with the other PhD students in your department, then perhaps send them an email and organise an online meeting, perhaps a virtual pub session on a Friday afternoon, where you can all chat and relax together. You will soon learn that everyone has gripes and complaints about their work, and how busy they are etc. It can be good to let off steam in this way.

In summary: take breaks (as many as you think you need times two), stop working weekends (unless you really, really, really need to, and I mean "PhD thesis is due in a week and I just found a huge mistake in my analysis" need to), and try to talk to your PhD peers at least once a week if you can (and don't just talk about work!).

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    The end of the first paragraph sounds really very British ;-) Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 12:59
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    @MassimoOrtolano guilty as charged haha ;) Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 13:00
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    Not sure if that's still on-topic for this answer, but: How do you tell whether taking a break would actually be more productive or not?
    – lucidbrot
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 22:24
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    @lucidbrot I think this is something you have to learn over time (I only really got to grips with time management in the final year of my PhD), as it is probably different for everyone. Personally I have never taken a break that I subsequently regretted. The benefits to productivity may not be immediate; rather, I find the effect is cumulative. Over weeks and months of letting your brain and body relax and recharge, your time spent at work is probably going to be more productive. Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 9:23
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    @lucidbrot plenty of senior academics demonstrate that's it's possible to have an academic career without being able to judge when to take a break, but that doesn't make it a good idea. I've tried to give a sort of beginners' guide
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 1, 2021 at 13:03

I came to my PhD from a job where weekend work was all but impossible (no remote access to the systems I needed) so it was quite a shock having to decide to switch off. That's going to be harder these days when much more work is done from home (I'm an experimentalist so I'm in the lab a lot).

Something I found that really helped, and that I still use as a postdoc, was to categorise weekend work, roughly as follows.

Good reasons:

  • Inspiration strikes - make plentiful notes and revisit in the week, probably telling someone about it.
  • A little work for a lot of return, e.g. starting an experiment or simulation that's then going to run for hours to days unattended.
  • Time sharing of lab space or equipment (probably less applicable to you) - but take a break to make up for it.

No-so-good reasons, but necessary ones:

  • A hard deadline. This could be internal (progress review, group meeting presentation) or external (conference submission). Consider whether the deadline inherently means weekend working or whether you put it off until the last minute; if the latter, try to start earlier next time (we're all guilty of that).

Bad reasons:

  • You feel like you need to put the hours in.
  • You're stuck and feel that the only way out is effort. That works up to a point, but so often doesn't - it's much more effective to forget about the problem for the weekend. When you return to work mode you may even start with some broader reading and discussions to get the ideas flowing.

It's always worth noting down your thoughts before downtime (I still prefer a physical book for this), but just enough to prompt you on your return then shut the notebook. Don't spend your downtime writing the world's most comprehensive to-do list

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    I like that answer. In many ways I feel telling people "there's good and bad reasons to work weekends" is more productive than telling them "never do it", because most people inherently know that, well, sometimes you do have to. It's the part about not knowing when you really have to that gets people.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Mar 2, 2021 at 16:25

There's mountains of evidence (research, studies, documented cases of overwork, expert interviews/articles, etc.) to suggest that overworking leads to disastrous results (we've seen that even more in 2020) and increased health problems (hypertension, weight gain, smoking/drugs/etc.). There's a reason there are laws, in the US at least, for limiting the time an individual can spend working; it's not only for safety and reliability but the general culture/health of the population.

There is absolutely no reason to feel bad about taking time off and not working during off hours. That time off is actually built into your schedule (incl. professional schedules and academic schedules). You are human and not a robot, you need to give your mind a rest and do other things (sociable, recreational, exercise, personal hobbies, personal health, etc.) so that you can get different input and stimuli in your life. The mind is a muscle and like all muscles there's a time to exercise it and a time to let it rest. I have seen people put off doctor appointments, dentist appointments, vacations, etc. just because they got addicted to "work" culture and the love of being "busy" (social status). They are not happy or health people.

Your #1 investment, #1 tool, and #1 asset is you and you only get the one. There's no undo, redo, eraser, or next time if you don't take care of yourself. Life is too short to only work. Work to live, not live to work.

Best of luck! :)


Normally I'll also work on weekends to keep the momentum going

Simple answer - do not do it. Weekends are for the rest and free time, during these days just forget about your work activities - hang out with your friends, read a good book, watch a film, whatever. You are not a robot, job is not your life. Focus on yourself.

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