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I finally realized that there is a term for the situation I am in,"burned out". What can I do to recover from a short term burnout?

I am at the the last four months of my MSc program and I haven't started my thesis yet. The reason was complicated, the MSc program was quite different from the one I had in mind. So, from the start I felt I was wasting my time by continuing at the program. The only reason I didn't quit is because the scholarship is sponsored by the company I used to work. I am still their employee and I am expected to join them once I finished.

If I quit, I wouldn't get promotion not to mention the "he wasn't able to graduate" rumor. Besides, I am supposed to serve three years as a pay back for the scholarship they gave me.

Despite my adviser's genuine effort to help, I am not able to pull myself and do something. I continually failed to see my adviser despite having an appointment with him. The only thing that crossed my mind for months as a solution is SUICIDE. I am deeply stressed and have presumably stress initiated headache that lasts for weeks.

What would you do if you were in my position?

  • You already found that question. Did any of the answers to that question help you? Try some of the suggestions people made. For example, I personally like Dave Clarke's idea - take a few weeks vacation. If you cannot afford to three weeks, at least take a few days off, go somewhere else, refresh your mind. It's not the end of the world, trust me. – scaaahu Apr 13 '13 at 5:57
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    I'm sorry that you're feeling this way: it's a difficult situation to be in. Does your university have a counselling center ? If so, it might be good to drop by and have a talk with them as well. – Suresh Apr 13 '13 at 6:32
  • Trying to work as a volunteer for an NGO would be a great step in order to find your motivation to study again. – Naresh Apr 13 '13 at 9:03
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    Very anecdotally, I had a similar thing when finishing my undergraduate studies, I even wrote an essay on that Zapaleńcy i wypaleńcy (Flames of passion… and of burnout, or: about loss of motivation during studies; in Polish, yeah, I should translate it one day, but there are many place-specific things), as I observed I am not the only one. However, what saved my thesis (and perhaps much more) was one prof. mailing me about a side project (on a very different topic), which I enjoyed a lot (and then, I got energy to finish my thesis). – Piotr Migdal Apr 13 '13 at 11:18
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  1. Talk to people. Here, elsewhere on the internet, but most importantly in real life, whether it's with people from your program (if you feel like opening to them) or at a local discussion group or whatever. Don't isolate yourself.
  2. Recognize what you are experiencing: describe its symptoms, put a name (or names) on it, identify it. Recognize that it is quite common, and that there are solutions.
  3. Make some time, even if it's not much, to do something else (vacation, volunteer work, some time with family, …) to put things in perspective. This should help you evaluate your overall goals, and decide what you are willing to do to achieve them.
  4. Talk to key people involved (advisor, your boss at the company), and let them know in a professional way that you have hit a bump in the road.

From you post, it sounds to me that you've made a great deal of progress on that path already! You'll get through that hard time, believe us.


I'll maybe add something more personal, regarding the “if I quit, I wouldn't get promotion” part: advancement in your work is not the ultimate goal, it is only worth pursuing if it makes you (and the people around you) happier, directly or by achieving other goals. If it makes you miserable, you have to realize (and accept) that failing is an option.

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    That last sentence is quite enlightening. Thanks. – Abraham Apr 13 '13 at 15:42
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First of all, suicidal thoughts are very serious. Many universities have counselling centres that are free for students. Walk in and tell them you've been contemplating suicide and they will get you immediate help. The International Suicide Prevention Wiki might also help you find resources in your area. If nothing else works, go to the emergency room. Suicide qualifies as an emergency!

Next, be honest with your adviser about what's going on. If you've been avoiding meetings, it's possible that he thinks the worst: you aren't interested in the work, or you're lazy, or whatever. If you tell him that you're depressed and struggling, he will be much more sympathetic and will try to help. (You mentioned that he's already trying to help, but if he doesn't know the real problem, his help might have been ineffectual.) If you don't think you can say it in person, send an email.

Third: curing burnout. One common suggestion is to take a vacation, but I don't recommend this. If you're already stressed out about the work you aren't doing, sitting on the beach thinking about it will probably make it worse. I would instead suggest diving into something totally new, and preferably not related to your thesis at all. Learn how to make a perfect omelette, or read a photography book and go out and practice (even if your only camera is your cell phone), or learn how to change the oil in your car. The specific thing you learn doesn't matter that much as long as it's new to you. Universities often have clubs for people interested in rock climbing, chess, learning languages, you name it, so you might see what your university offers. This can also help you make friends -- isolation is a big problem for grad students and can contribute to stress and depression. Do your new activity for a week or two and you'll probably find yourself getting interested in your thesis problem again.

Try to exercise and eat reasonably well. When you're depressed, exercise is the last thing on your mind, but even a walk around the block can be helpful. Eating nothing but ramen is depressing in itself, so although you might not have a lot of spending money (I don't know exactly what your scholarship is paying for), buy ingredients for some healthy meals if you can. Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, etc. If you don't know how to cook, make that your project.

Finally, to echo F'x, remember that the worst case scenario is manageable. If you are truly miserable, dropping out is an option. The completion rate for most grad programs is low, often in the neighbourhood of 50%, so many other smart, hardworking people decided it wasn't for them. There's no shame in that.

I hope some of this advice helps you. Good luck. You aren't alone!

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To me it sounds as if you might have depression. I'm no expert though, I just have a few friends with depression and so have read a little about it (most effectively by playing a game called Depression Quest, actually!). It might be worth seeing a doctor about it if you think that could at all be a possibility.

I'm hesitant to give any further advice because of this. A lot of advice that ordinarily might be helpful just for burn-out might turn out to be unhelpful if you are actually depressed. (Although all the advice given by F'x looks fine as far as I can tell, except potentially you would have to be quite careful with what you chose to do for 3, as some options might make things worse.)

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    +1 if you are really depressed, get professional help ASAP. – Paul Hiemstra Apr 13 '13 at 10:09
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    You seem to be having suicidal ideation. This is a significant indicator of depression. Go get professional help ASAP. – Mikael Vejdemo-Johansson Apr 13 '13 at 10:40
  • @Paul: You mean "if you really are depressed" rather than "if you are very depressed", right? – Tara B Apr 13 '13 at 10:40
  • @TaraB Border between deep burnout and a depression may be very thin to non-existent. Or perhaps, there may be very tightly related processes, supporting each other. – Piotr Migdal Apr 13 '13 at 11:20
  • @Piotr: Yes, I read a little more about burnout since I wrote this, and you are right. – Tara B Apr 13 '13 at 12:12
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I continually failed to see my adviser despite having an appointment with him. The only thing that crossed my mind for months as a solution is SUICIDE. I am deeply stressed and have presumably stress initiated headache that lasts for weeks.

Based on this, I would strongly recommend seeing your university's psychologist or counselor immediately.

Do not rely on advise over the internet. Probably, no one here is qualified to help you. Even if there is a qualified mental health professional here, he/she will not be able to assist you without talking to you in person.

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While others have commented on the number one concern you should have right now (get professional help, be it in the counseling centre at school, a clinical psychologist, or whomever), I will make one comment with respect to the academics:

You probably have more time to finish than the "four months" you mention. Even if you miss that deadline, you will probably be allowed to turn in your thesis later (especially because this is a health related delay).

Talk to your advisor. He will probably appreciate you coming clean with him. Many students finish later. It's not a race.

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