Is It Academic Burnout or Are You Bored with Your Dissertation?

December 5, 2023

BY KATHRYN PETERSON, PHD

It is happening again. You are sitting at your computer, and you are sighing loudly. You planned this time for your dissertation, but now you are facing the dreaded blank computer screen. Or maybe it’s endless interviews that you need to code and resistance to doing the work is high. Maybe you are struggling with your literature review and can’t bring yourself to read another article or do any drafting. Maybe your gut is screaming “no” to working. And the biggest problem is that this is not a new feeling. You’ve been feeling this way for a long time. In fact, you have not been productive for a while.

Long-term projects are difficult to sustain, especially those that take years to complete. Even a six-month-long project can be frustrating to work on if you are working on it intensely for hours a day, more days than you have “off.” It’s easy, in these circumstances, to become tired of the work, even to the point of burnout. But how do you know if you’re burned out completely, to the point where nothing is appealing or motivating, or if you’re just bored with your work? It might be helpful to check in with yourself. Do you experience this frustration in other areas of your life, or is it specific to the dissertation?

Signs of Academic Burnout

  1. You’re exhausted all the time, and the exhaustion is both mental and physical.
  2. You no longer have an interest in your long-term academic project, like your dissertation or book project, and you also aren’t interested in working on anything else.
  3. You are experiencing physical symptoms, such as frequent illnesses.
  4. You do not feel alert or creative and just feel bland.
  5. You find yourself procrastinating in many aspects of your work, even non-academic tasks, like tasks around your house or apartment. In general, you just feel “wiped out.”

These symptoms can overlap with depression, so it is important to see a mental health professional to make sure you are not dealing with something besides burnout. Even if you are dealing with burnout and your symptoms are situational and not primarily physiological, it can be important to check in with someone and develop a treatment plan.

You may also want to see our other post on academic burnout for ideas about how to handle academic burnout, particularly if you are working toward a deadline and feeling uncomfortable pressure.

Boredom With Dissertation

  1. You find yourself procrastinating and doing everything BUT the dissertation. Maybe this procrastination is even productive (you’re doing other things and working on other projects, just not the dissertation).
  2. You are tired mostly when you are working on the dissertation, but if you’re not, you don’t really feel that tired.
  3. You open the files and you feel a bit nauseous, but when you are doing other reading, research, or writing, you’re fine.
  4. You are happy to talk about other academic or intellectual subjects and interact with other people in your field with whom you vibe, but your gut twists when the subject of the dissertation comes up.

What to Do If You’re Bored

Get to the heart of the resistance to the dissertation.

Is there a particular reason you are resisting? Is it because you have reached a particularly difficult point, and you can’t figure out how to move forward? Do you need to stop and discuss the sticking point with another person for perspective? Is it because you have done the same task too many times and just need a change? If that is the case, can you change things up? Can you do something else dissertation-related for a while to get some distance from the current task?

Take a little time away.

Have you been overworking? If you have been working on your dissertation day in and day out for weeks, months, or even years, then of course you are bored. Your brain’s tired of it! And that is normal. It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes a vacation is what you need. Even if you can just take a weekend or half a week away, taking time completely off from anything dissertation-related can go a long way toward refilling those batteries.

Schedule time for small, doable goals

On the other hand, if you have not been working on it, then maybe you are bored with the idea of working on it and not the work itself. If that is the case, then it might be good to block out a specific time to go back to it and start with a task that feels easy. It will help ease you back into the work.

Reconnect with your existential “why?”

Why did you start this work? How has it changed? Can you reclaim it for yourself in the here and now? Is there any way to reconnect with the initial excitement of the project and remember why you began to do the work in the first place? Our needs and goals change over time, and sometimes it is hard to see the connection between who we are now and who we were when we first started the project. It is okay to admit that your goals have changed and reconsider your approach to the work.

Can you make strategic changes and just focus on finishing?

Is it possible for the scope of the work to change? Perhaps you were too ambitious at the outset and now you can streamline the project in the interest of finishing. What strategic changes do you need to make to move forward in the project? Can you focus on what you absolutely must do to finish and worry about publication or other manuscript-related goals later? Remember that no one publishes their dissertation as is unless they are doing a three-article dissertation and have already published all the articles. But even then, the actual artifact of the dissertation is going to be different from what is published as a book or an article in a journal. Make a list of what must happen to get it done and resist doing more. When in doubt, leave it out!

Remember that the dissertation is not the culmination of your academic work, and even if it is, it is not the most important thing you will ever do in your life. You will move on after the dissertation. Your life will transform as you grow and change beyond the Ph.D. Once you are on the other side, hardly anyone is going to ask you about your dissertation. What will matter is that you did it.