I'm a first year PhD student and the last month has been nothing short of a crucible of stress. I had to do 2 exams, wrote a 3k approval thesis, finalise my research objectives, plan the project and prepare a 30 minute presentation for a Q&A session. And I've had to write a bunch of code to produce the plots needed

The presentation is due to be done next Thursday but in the meantime I need to find the time to get a new desk because mine is falling apart. I'm at the point now where I'm feeling incredibly burnt out and I'm balancing so many plates.

I'm pressuring myself to work over the weekend even though I've drilled the presentation and know it'll fit precisely in the time I'm allocated. How do I stop my project taking over my personal life?

  • @Buffy see the last line too "How do I stop my project taking over my personal life? " Commented May 26, 2021 at 21:00
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    Sorry, I misread it. But, who is pushing you? Is it yourself, a schedule crunch, a too-demanding professor? Something else?
    – Buffy
    Commented May 26, 2021 at 21:03
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    Balancing demands is something we all work through, differently at different times of our careers, and subject to our own temperament, talents, goals, and environment. There's no pat answer. Maybe start with a list of the three things you value most at this point of your life. Use that as a basis for prioritizing what you work on. The crucible doesn't go away, it simply changes shape. Commented May 26, 2021 at 21:17
  • As far as your question to @Buffy goes, maybe start by working through the advantages and disadvantages of allowing a project take over your personal life. I've known people perfectly happy being completely immersed in an endeavor, to the complete exclusion of other things, things I myself value highly. In your case it appears you don't prefer to operate in the manner you have been. Commented May 26, 2021 at 21:37
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    One trick that works (surprisingly) is to reduce what you do by 10%. Take the step back and decide what happens when. Having a plan and sticking to it (at least for this critical week) will take some anxiety away that you are missing out. I also recommend a separate sheet of paper for each of the tasks that you have to do and collect everything there, then sort by priority. It also works on the computer, but paper is more tangible and you can take it around. Commented May 26, 2021 at 23:00

2 Answers 2


Start by embracing an uncomfortable truth: If you continue on an academic career, work will never ever be done. In the past, it may have been a viable strategy for you to work until you have completed everything you needed to do, and to then have sufficient time to recover before more work materializes. This will no longer work, and it will probably get worse in the future.

There are very different strategies that work for different people. I know colleagues in academia who have strict rules on when is and when isn't work time. By reserving a reasonable amount of time off (and sticking to it), you can obviously prevent work life from expanding to encompass everything.

A more flexible strategy can be to self-monitor for signs that you need a break (whether its 10min, an afternoon, a week, etc), and then to take it. If you are in it for the long haul, sacrificing your physical or mental health just isn't worth it. Whether you take time off on a schedule or when needed, be clear with yourself that you need and deserve time off, and avoid feeling guilt about not working.

Of course, when carving out time off, you also need to make some decisions about how to prioritize tasks for the remaining work time. This is in itself a massively complex topic, but some basic notions are:

a) Plenty of things just need to be good enough. This includes qualification exams and initial documents.

b) Just because someone wants you to do something does not necessarily mean that you need to do it. This holds even more for the "by when"-part.

c) The vast majority of academics is going to be aware of these struggles, and few of us are superhuman. Reach out when needed.


My answer might look too late now, but it will help those who find it later. I will try to keep it in few bullet points.

  1. first of all, reach out for help. As you just did, ask for some help, emotionally or motivation wise.
  2. Try to explain your topic to few people, for example, any family member ot one of your friends. This will help you to relieve some of the stress.
  3. Try to reduce the work load by noticeable amount that makes a difference in reducing stress level, crediting @ Captain Emacs, 10% is reasonable in my opinion.

you earn my respect for not letting your academic work load take over your personal life.

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