It’s finally time to respond to this article that has been making the rounds for the past few months. The article – “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation” by Anne Helen Peterson – is an all-encompassing theory of the intense anxiety my generation feels. Peterson talks about how the combination of a structured environment, unfulfilled promises, financial instability, and changing norms have created a generation that not only feels sad, but feels pushed beyond its limits, constantly and for the foreseeable future.
Aside from simply agreeing with Peterson – although I found the article extremely depressing to read and yet couldn’t tear myself away – I want to write about burnout because it was something that I was bracing against from the start of grad school. When I first decided I wanted to get a PhD in history, I immediately went to my undergrad advisors and asked them what I should do next. Because they are good advisors, they told me to do literally anything else I could think of. But once they (and the rest of the faculty in my department) were finished telling me horror stories, they started to give me sincere advice. I got a few really important guiding principles from these conversations, like how I shouldn’t be afraid to cold-email people I was interested in working with (which I still do when I have a question about someone else’s field of expertise), but I also got a real warning: don’t spend too long in grad school, or you will risk burning out. Two of my three advisors (yes, I had a lot of advisors) had spent ten years in grad school, and while they both enjoyed aspects of it, they felt they had put their lives on hold for too long.
Burnout was something I started to notice among my more advanced peers. People who were on the verge of finishing or in the midst of their dissertations looked tired or talked in jaded tones about their work or were always going out for drinks, as if alcohol were the only fuel that kept their bodies moving. I heard it second-hand from children of professors and women who had all but received their PhD – women had kids and suddenly couldn’t muster the energy to finish their degree. I pieced together an image of the later stages of the PhD – after a race to get to the dissertation, people find themselves totally untethered and free-floating among research, just as their lives are finally picking up now that they have free time again. This muddle can be overwhelming, emotionally and in terms of time management. And I knew I needed to avoid the burnout as much as I could, while still achieving my goals.
It’s pretty obvious from my mental health posts that I put a lot of thought into how I respond emotionally to my life circumstances. I think this comes from having experiences in which I felt my personal life or my emotional state was preventing me from being who I wanted to be or doing what I wanted to do. But when I was considering how to avoid burnout, I had to think a lot more carefully about how I might feel in a given situation, and discovered that I frankly had no clue. It’s one thing to have a bad experience and say “I never want to feel that way again”, but it’s another to concoct a scenario and try to imagine how you’ll react. It’s in thought experiments like that that people will start to spout useless truisms about themselves like “I have a really strong fight response”. If you’re encountering something truly new, I think it’s impossible to know exactly how you’ll respond. For me personally, I also had to throw into the mix that I tend to experience my emotions on a delay (I suspect another holdover from painful past events), and so I had to consider how I might feel in the aftermath of these future hypotheticals as well as learn to express my emotions even when I didn’t know what I was feeling (like someone who’s just had botox and needs to verbally confirm that they are happy or angry).
So I made plans based on my conversations with more advanced PhD students. I entered both my MA and PhD programs with a set of goals (attend x number of conferences a year, submit an article for publication by x date, etc). I had determined that burnout happened in part because people would linger in their programs for too long, so I wrote out a timeline for what it would look like to finish the PhD in five years (the current average in my field is seven to eight). I set these goals as guidelines, not deadlines, so that I could work up to them, and I made them ambitious so I could move them if necessary without falling behind. And then I thought about when in all of this I would want to do other things, like have kids. I was told repeatedly that the best time would be after I finished my orals, since there’s a natural break, regular work slows down, and your schedule becomes more flexible. I repeatedly communicated this timeline to my husband, who listened and absorbed, but largely didn’t chime in to tweak anything.
Why was I so afraid of burnout? Partially it was the idea of failure that I was trying to avoid. But driving that fear was two past experiences with burnout, one at the end of high school and the other between the end of college and the start of my non-degree graduate program. Both times I had rallied to push ahead and achieve a goal, and then had no idea what to do next and felt immediately disheartened when I received any kind of criticism (to be fair to myself, there were other things going on that were also not great, but I think this was the core problem). I was trying to think of my life as a continuum rather than a finish line.
My goal-setting was on track through the second year of my PhD program – I was hitting my stride, feeling energized, and starting to receive really substantive recognition for my efforts (I also learned how to accept criticism along the way). And my husband and I started talking more seriously about having kids. This was the most major confrontation with my emotional limits in this entire process thus far. Confronting my emotions around doing a lot of work or receiving rejection was easy – I had learned my work habits and knew what was too much or too long or how to triage things when necessary, and it’s not hard to just take an hour for yourself to cry or yell or have whatever necessary response to rejection and then move on. But nothing is quite as famously emotional as having kids. And I needed to figure out for myself the seemingly impossible timing of kids and research – how could I possibly do research and also have kids and also write a dissertation and also apply for jobs without the kids interrupting anything? Without abandoning my children for six months or putting off writing to care for them or simply accepting that I would be passed over for a job because I was visibly pregnant or clearly breastfeeding. Or without just waiting until after I achieved tenure to have kids, because I decided I wasn’t going to put my life on hold. But I couldn’t predict how I would respond emotionally to being pregnant or being a caretaker – I knew to some degree that I would get bored or tired – but I didn’t know if I would feel overwhelmed or energized or how these emotions would manifest.
Eventually, my husband and I just dove into having kids. We talked about it a lot – he finally became involved in the planning and made me challenge myself and really consider how I might respond emotionally. But at the end of the day we decided there was a limit to planning – there wouldn’t be a right time.
To be honest, there have been times in the last 16 months since I became pregnant that I’ve felt burnt out. There were a couple of times that I toyed with the idea of quitting my program. I’ve developed a lot of anxiety amidst the massive amount of planning I’ve had to do to make all of these plans come together at once. I recognize that I put myself in this situation because of the exact culture of burnout Peterson’s article describes. Maybe it’s my generation’s version of “having it all”. And maybe it’s part of our sickness that getting through this crucible is a point of pride. But to Peterson’s point, even though I made the choices that put me here, I don’t really feel that I’m to blame for how hard it’s been. I think it’s unreasonable that my field expects me to pick up my life and leave for months at a time, and that during that time I only deserve to be paid for exactly the expenses I accrue while gone, as if I don’t exist outside of the work I’m doing. I also think it’s absurd that it’s still a choice to have a career or a family for all but the wealthiest women (and, really, why should those women have to pay for something their male peers can get for free?). There’s an institutional, structural issue here. The choices were mine, the planning was mine, but the burnout is not. The burnout is the responsibility of people and systems that demand that I only fill one role at a time.
I spend a lot of words advocating for a particular kind of self-care. Be in tune with yourself. Know your limits. Do what makes you happy. I spend a lot of time reflecting on how I feel, and even consuming media to help trigger the emotions that I stop myself from experiencing. But at the same time I think it’s important not to blame yourself when your pain is someone else’s fault. It’s not that I recommend wallowing. But part of the problem with burnout is that it results from not having control over your actions and emotional response, either intentionally or unintentionally. Planning can help prevent burnout by maintaining that control. But ultimately you have to put yourself in a position of trust with your surroundings. If you operate in a system that you suspect will abuse you, it is inevitable that you will experience burnout.
So keep fighting the good fight, millennials. A revolution a day keeps the burnout away. Also kittens.