How to prevent burn-out? About staying sane in academia

Provides twelve suggestions on how to prevent burn-out and keep your sanity


Just like any job, academia has a fair proportion of people suffering from burn-out. In fact, simply because for many academics their job is such an important part of their identity and many of us are so wrapped up in our work, some level of burn-out during a particular stage of your career is quite likely. This is my personal take on how to prevent burn-out or simply diminishing levels of job satisfaction and motivation. Please note that I have no medical or counselling qualifications and the below should not be taken as medical or psychological advice.

My top-3 remedy to prevent burnout

So here is my top-3 remedy to prevent burnout:

  1. Don’t get involved in university politics.
  2. Don’t get involved in university politics!!!

Ok, I think you get the point. In my view, getting involved in university politics is the worst thing an academic can ever do, worse than marking hundreds of exams, worse than dealing with rejections and nasty reviewer comments, and worse than doing pointless committee work.

Office politics are a drain on both your time and energy. Getting wrapped up in them also runs the risk of leaving you seriously cynical and even paranoid. I know of very few people who engaged with university politics and came out better at the other end. Of course sometimes you cannot avoid them, but if you can: run, hide, stay under the radar, do whatever it takes!!


More constructive suggestions on staying sane in academia

Now on to a, fairly random and non-exhaustive, set of ten slightly more constructive suggestions to stay sane in academia.

  1. Focus on the 10%: In class, get your energy from the 10% students who are truly interested, engaged and responsive. If you do get negative student feedback (and you will!), talk about it to get it off your chest. You will discover that everyone (even your most experienced and popular colleague) gets nasty comments. Some academics might be lucky enough to teach in subjects where more than 10% of the students are truly engaged. If you are one of them that's great, but you can get by even with 10%.
  2. Be careful with admin work: Do administrative work if you want to, but only do as much as you need to gain an understanding of that particular aspect of university life. Try to focus on admin jobs that complement your main passion. Move on from any role after 3-4 years. Only exceptional individuals make significant contributions to a role after that length of time, most of us are worn out by the practicalities after a few years.
  3. Don't take rejections personally: I know it is hard! Early on in my career, I had a reviewer saying I would never amount to anything as a researcher, so I’d better stop trying. Fortunately, nowadays most editors would be conscientious enough to filter out comments like that, but you might still get the occasional shocker. Remember, reviewers are only human. They might be having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year, and might be less constructive than they should be.
  4. Take time for journal decision letters: Don’t read decision letters until you have the mental space to cope with them. In the old days, you could leave the envelope unopened. These days, ignoring the email is more difficult, especially if the decision is implied in the first words (We regret to inform you…). But just try not open the email once you see the subject line. Then once you have a couple of hours, clear your mind, remind yourself what is the worst that can happen, and think what you will do in that case. Only then read the decision letter, it might well be a positive surprise.
  5. Work with junior academics who have a passion: Nothing is more rewarding than working with young academics (PhD students, postdocs or junior colleagues) who are still passionate and starry-eyed about the contributions their research can make to society. Don’t spoil them with your cynicism please; they need to make their own discoveries.
  6. Avoid chronic over-commitment: Once you really do need to make a decision to commit serious resources to a particular project (research, academic service function, PhD supervision) take a day to carefully scope what would be involved. Then think about it for 3 days before you make a decision. Most of us commit too easily to a project thinking that we will find the time somehow. Seriously scoping a project often makes you realise better what the project might involve.
  7. Don't become institutionalised: Unless both your employment conditions and work climate are superb, don’t stay in the same university for more than 5-10 years. It is easy to lose perspective about what is universal to academia and what is university-specific if you become institutionalised.
  8. no

    Learn to say no: Have standard refusal emails for requests for e.g. reviews, references, committee memberships, and public appearances. Only say yes because you want to or have a very good reason for it, not because you don’t dare to say no (see also: When to say no?).
  9. Have a list of acceptance criteria: Have your list of criteria for deciding what requests to accept. Early on in your career many of these criteria might be related to building up your academic portfolio. When you are more established you can be a bit pickier. My current list of criteria is activities that: a. are intrinsically meaningful to me, b. I enjoy doing, c. involve something I haven't done before, d. in some way help those who are important to me.
  10. Remember why you entered academia: Remember why you decided to work in academia. For me it is freedom, flexibility, working with intelligent people, being independent, working on things you really love, not having to report to a “boss”. Then think about the alternative, not with rose-coloured glasses, but in the cold, hard light of the day: would you really like it better? And would you still like it better after the novelty has worn off in the first few weeks or months?

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