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I am pursuing a PhD in theoretical physics in Europe, meaning I already have a Master's and I have currently done 2.5 out of 3.5 years of my research project.

My question to the more advanced people here is: How do you deal with patience exhaustion during your research work?

Let me better explain. I like thinking to have a patience reservoir that helps me dealing with day to day difficulties. The level of patience in this reservoir goes up and down all day, every day, according to how both my research and private life are going (I suppose that there is some restoration rate as a function of time). However, I lately feel that because of my research the depletion rate of my patience is way higher than my restoration rate, meaning that my patience level has hit the bottom of the reservoir and doesn't go up anymore.

The reasons for that are many. During my first year of PhD I was accumulating a lot of frustration because my advisor was leading my research (I was not sure myself how to do research), but their time was short and they were always giving me opposite ideas (first do A, then undo A, then do A again, and so on). I can say that I was "conducting" my research tasks the same way a headless chicken goes through a labyrinth.

At the end of my first year I was forced by my supervisor to move to a different city (several hundred of km away) to continue my research there. In that period I was struggling a lot, because I was terribly missing my family and colleagues, and the life in the new research institute was very bad. I had such a different topic that the other people would not really talk to me about work, so I had no support at all. I was feeling kind of betrayed, so I decided to become (almost) completely independent and do my own research, in absolute solitude, without letting my advisor telling me what to do anymore. It turned out to be a good strategy, and my advisor surprisingly accepted this way and encouraged me to continue. There were weeks in which I have completely lost my voice, because I was not talking or emitting any sound for weeks. The almost completely independency brought some order in my mind, but also a lot of difficulties: I had to search the literature, find scientific questions, and then organize the paper that would have answered those questions. And to be in my second year, that was pretty overwhelming.

At the end of my second year, I was allowed to come back to my old institute and my life has greatly improved. However, even if now I feel much more comfortable in conducting my own research, I have started struggling in many other ways. First of all, my advisor in now expecting me to publish several papers before I finish, that is a workload higher than those of the postdocs in my group. Second, I have to babysit the younger students, which leads to a huge time consumption from my side. Third, I have started questioning if all we do (as a group/field/community) is not just a waste of energy, time, and public money. Fourth, I am trying to finish as soon as possible to escape academia, but first I need to learn a few other things (e.g. the language of the country where I am currently based), which adds to the previously-mentioned workload. And lastly, all the other PhD students are struggling with burnout, and I can't help them much, so I feel powerless.

Right now I feel I do not have the patience to cope with this enormous pressure. Every time my code is crashing, I would rather burn the computer rather than start debugging as always. Every time something else is happening, I would like that problem to disappear rather than solve it, and this is not me. I try to take some time off, and maybe do some sports, but this helps only a little. As I don't have any possibility to lie down on a beach for six months, is there any trick to raise patience levels that you would like to suggest (I thought about quitting, but after all this mental investment it's not an option)?

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    It sounds very hard. Do you mean that you literally didn't talk to anyone for weeks when you were in the other city? I understand that you judged it was good for your research but it sounds very bad for mental health. At least you are back in the city that you prefer now. But I think you should seek counselling or therapy and talk to a doctor about your problems. Also I am not sure that it is a question of levels of patience. I think there are other better ways to describe these problems - maybe stress, depression, overwork, exhaustion.
    – toby544
    Commented May 4 at 19:22
  • Are you a part of graduate school? How your progress is documented?
    – yarchik
    Commented May 6 at 5:48
  • You say ‘At the end of my first year I was forced by my supervisor to move to a different city’ and ‘At the end of my second year, I was allowed to come back.’ Your phrasing suggests to me a bit of counseling could be helpful. Commented May 27 at 15:00

2 Answers 2

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Short answer: Seek out a mental health professional, take more breaks, and find a stable work-life balance

A few sentences jump out as suggesting you're experiencing severe burnout and negative mental health consequences due to overwork and the circumstances you described:

I was forced by my supervisor to move to a different city...I was terribly missing my family and colleagues...do my own research, in absolute solitude...There were weeks in which I have completely lost my voice, because I was not talking or emitting any sound for weeks.

Humans are social creatures. The negative mental health consequences of solitary confinement are well known. It seems clear to me that you are experiencing burnout, e.g., when you write:

First of all, my advisor in now expecting me to publish several papers before I finish, that is a workload higher than those of the postdocs in my group. Second, I have to babysit the younger students, which leads to a huge time consumption from my side. Third, I have started questioning if all we do (as a group/field/community) is not just a waste of energy, time, and public money. Fourth, I am trying to finish as soon as possible to escape academia...Every time my code is crashing, I would rather burn the computer rather than start debugging as always.

Ideally, research is meant to be a fun and rewarding activity. When negative emotions, anger, and the desire to escape are the first reactions, it means you're overworking yourself. If your advisor's expectations are unrealistically high, you can raise that with a trusted mentor (e.g., someone on your committee or the department chair). It is not necessary to work yourself this hard in order to succeed. Give yourself permission to focus on what's best for your own life, i.e., a sustainable work-life balance. Developing that will have positive ramifications for the rest of your life. It will take time to get back on track in the non-work side of your life. Give yourself that time and make it a priority. Cut from non-essential activities like babysitting the younger students. Don't stress about finishing as fast as possible: you have a long life ahead of you.

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    I am less patient with my children when I am stressed. Irritability is a sign to focus on mental health.
    – NWMT
    Commented May 6 at 18:41
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    Yes, absolutely. Commented May 6 at 19:18
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@David is correct about what you need to do: cut non-essential activities and don't stress.

But we all know that's really hard to do, so i was hoping to give you a bit more on how you might do that. And the way to start is by realizing that you are the problem, nobody else. This might sound harsh at first, as your situation sounds shitty and you're used to people offering support, but you have done this to yourself.

You have done it to yourself the way i've seen dozens, if not hundreds, of students and employees do it over the years. (I have spent a decade in academia and the last decade or so in industry) Namely, you have done it by not knowing when to say "no".

Academia is notorious for pretending to be a polite and nice place where we all hold hands and sing kumbaya. That generates an enormous pressure on students especially to overcommit and try to get way too much stuff done just to please their supervisor or compete with peers.

But it is not impolite to say: no, i will not do that. It is not rude to set boundaries and value other things than work. These are boundaries that you must set. It would have been easier to do so in the very beginning, but it is still doable now. (Though if you let stuff like this fester for too long it becomes a bit like enforcing the pre 67 boarders ;) ).

Bottom line: Do some resource budgeting and accept tasks up to 80% load. Don't take more than that, to have a buffer for estimation errors. All the extra time you've gotten, enjoy with friends, family and riding a bike.

Last thing, to put your mind to rest on the question of "is my research useful", the answer is definitely no. The vast majority of it is a waste of time and money. But that's a good thing... less pressure to put on yourself. Enjoy poking around an insanely complicated systems. It's fun! Remember how it was fun at some point?

Good luck mate!

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    Thing is, I have many short contracts during my PhD, meaning I am always either in probation or waiting for extension. If I say no to my advisor, or if I behave not as they want, I will not get the next prolongation (it already happened to other students). So the only way I can diminish my workload would be to quit. I must say there is no competition among students, we all want to go to industry so the atmosphere is supportive and not competitive. So as you see I am not competing with others, but not even try to please my advisor. I just try to arrive at the end! Commented May 5 at 17:01
  • And of course I know a lot of the stress it’s just me, don’t worry. But I find it difficult to enjoy research when the working conditions are in general very poor. Commented May 5 at 17:10
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    @BlackPhoenix the fact that there are multiple contracts is insane. Normally, at least in my country, there is just one go/no-go decision. Even working at McDonalds has more job security. Om the positive note: the longer you are working at your PhD, the more likely it is to finish. For a supervisor a finished PhD looks so much better on your CV compared to a dropout. Multiple dropouts will even raise red flags. Commented May 6 at 5:44
  • That sounds a lot more terrible than i imagined, sorry you're in the middle of that @BlackPhoenix.. New advice then: fight your way to the end and then get the hell out of there! Also, might wanna complain to university admin stuff or something like a stunden union, cause your contract situation sounds borderline illegal. Read you own argument from before: you sound seriously trapped. Than is not bueno... Commented May 6 at 18:22

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