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Is First Year Burnout Normal? | BenchFly
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Is First Year Burnout Normal?

Dear Dora: Is first year burnout normal?Dear Dora,

I am a first year PhD student from a foreign country, and I work 12 or 13 hrs a day in a molecular biology lab. I get no guidance from my advisor and the people around me are unfriendly. I used to cook and play the ukulele but now I work all the time. I am exhausted and feel guilty, because I do not get good results. I am doubting this career choice, wondering whether I can do it, and approaching first year burnout.

A hopeless PhD student


Dear Graduate Student,

If you work 12-13 hours day, it is no wonder that you are already exhausted as a 1st year student! After reading your question, I wonder whether this lab is a good match for you. It sounds like you would benefit from an advisor who gave his/her students more guidance. My advice is to talk to your boss, and to tell them why you are frustrated. He/she might not expect you to work such long hours, and your guilt could be self-imposed. Perhaps you could talk to him/her about their expectations, and see how you can work together to get your research going.

Or, maybe they do expect you to work beyond your limits, in which case you might want to consider switching groups or departments. One of the most important aspects of graduate school is to work out a schedule that is sustainable and leaves sufficient time to pursue hobbies. If you are always exhausted and unhappy, you will not be productive either. I also recommend talking to students in your department. They might seem antisocial at first, but if you keep on trying, they will probably become more friendly. It is important to form a support group, because they can suggest resources and give you advice. There is probably an international student group in your university, and they are usually very supportive of each other.

The first year of graduate school is essential for forming supportive relationships with your advisor, students and other professors, so they can advise you when you need help. This is also a good time to evaluate whether this is the right career choice for you. What do you want to do after graduation? If you aspire to be a professor or research scientist, you are on the right track. If your future career does not require a PhD, it is worth reconsidering your options and talking with your advisor about it.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to DearDora@benchfly.com and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


Stay tuned for the next Dear Dora in two weeks!  In the meantime, check a few of Dora’s recent posts:

Submit your questions to Dora at DearDora@benchfly.com, or use the comment box below!


2 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. andreas

    wrote on October 15, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Year 4 was almost my breaking point. The first and second years I was distracted from the lack of results by classes and teaching, but the third year there was no excuse. After a year of 12 hour days with little to show for it, I seriously questioned if I was in the right place. Eventually, things started to move forward but it can be very tough when your body just doesn't want to go anymore.

  2. Publishing Without the Boss' Blessing? | BenchFly Blog

    wrote on October 22, 2010 at 5:39 am

    […] Is Burnout in the First Year Normal? […]

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