Some news: I finally have been granted the leave to supplicate for my DPhil degree i.e. I have officially passed my DPhil! (And just to clarify, DPhil is Oxford’s PhD and my PhD is in obstetrics and gynaecology, not philosophy!). It has been a long and tortuous journey, especially in the final year of my DPhil where I had to combine clinical work, write up my thesis, and perform last-minute experiments. This meant using all my annual leave allowance (all 28 days and Bank holidays) from my clinical work for my DPhil. One could argue that I should not have started clinical work whilst writing up my thesis but not earning would put me into further financial instability – not that I did not have the grants to fund my DPhil, just that the growing list of expenses meant that I should look into earning. On top of my heavy workload, I had to work far from Oxford (and far from J) and at that point, I had not seen my family for three years, and I worry about J’s health.
This is a recipe for burnout. I am not a robot, although J sometimes thinks I am. So today, I am sharing with you my evolving strategies to cope with burnout:
- Celebrate every single achievement: No matter how small, I take time to celebrate every clinical milestone that I have achieved. I never compare myself to others in a way that belittles my clinical skills. Sometimes, you are ahead of the game, sometimes you are not. But most importantly you are doing things right and you are a safe doctor. Medicine has a brutal way of demeaning you and trying to pit you against each other since medical school. I have learnt since then not to be too bothered with rankings. Coming from a large family, I had my own familial responsibilities, and subsequently, achievements that I cannot / do not share on my CV. I am proud of my experiences though I admit that I sometimes lament the fact that I could have done better in medical school and my postgraduate degrees if not for my unique experiences. It is easy to look at me and see the things that I have achieved and deduce that my life had been smooth-sailing. I am grateful that I took multiple calculated risks to be where I am now. Challenging the status quo is what I do. But this is not an easy path, so you must celebrate every single milestone to keep you going. When I first started my specialty training, I celebrated being able to do difficult speculums. I love getting beautiful enamel pins to signify my progress in obstetrics and gynaecology, so I got myself a speculum enamel pin from Rad Girl Creations. Medicine is a tough career choice even without adding the complexities of life to it. No one will pat you on the back for a smooth Caesarean section – you need to do that yourself. Unfortunately, people are more likely to point out your flaws or mistakes – this is not a bad thing, you need to learn from your mistakes, just that it can be too depressing if that is all you hear.
- Understand yourself: If you need rest, then take that rest. It is not sustainable to keep working all the time especially if there are other factors contributing to your stress. It is rare to find someone whose only problem in life is just their work. I wish that is the case for me because medicine is not that hard, you just need to devote your time and energy to it. But that is not the reality for many of us who may be troubled by student loans, debts, family issues, health issues, etc. At the end of the day, work is work, and you are replaceable. If you die today at work, someone will replace you the next day. So value your physical and mental health. Understand your limitations and use them to gamify the situation for a successful outcome. For example, when I was doing A levels (Advanced levels), I had to sit for my November AS exams (Advanced subsidiary, the first exams before the full A level exams). My A levels college decided to organise their in-house A level trial exams in the same month. I was a student who wanted to do everything – passing my exams and doing all those extracurricular stuff (important for my mental health). I also knew that I am no genius. I was also burdened by the stress of knowing that I needed to do well because my dad paid for my A-levels college fees. Therefore I prioritised my November AS exams because they counted towards my real A levels exams for medical school and decided to deprioritise the in-house trial exams. However, I knew that the in-house trial exams were used for UCAS predicted grades (UCAS is the UK university application online platform, and medical school offers were based on predicted grades, so what happens is that you will get a conditional offer based on predicted grades and to make the offer unconditional, you have to achieve the grades in the real A level exams). So I explained to my teachers my strategy and thankfully, they predicted As for me and I got straight As in the real A level exams and the rest is history! The bottom line is, to find out what works for you.
- Understand your vision and mission statement: In my opinion, what causes burnout is a lack of vision. Or that once you have achieved something you wanted for a long time, and it does not pan out to be what you had imagined, or feeling “what is there left for you to achieve since you have achieved something you had obsessed over for a long time”? First of all, it is normal for high-achievers to feel disillusioned with life because high-achievers want more in life, and sometimes despite all the effort you put in, the returns are below your expectations. Therefore it is important to also realise that there are many other factors beyond your control that contribute to a particular outcome, as long as you know you have given your best. Secondly, you need to go back to the drawing board and reflect on your initial goals, outcomes, and strategies and see whether they still fit in with your life vision and mission. Most importantly, once you have achieved a goal, you need to dream way bigger than everyone else to keep yourself going! To do this, spend time with people outside of your specialty and keep an open mind (Read: Networking: The Power of Your Outer Circle).
Tip: I use a lot of physical reminders to keep me motivated. This includes rewarding myself with a personalised gift (a publication mug from GeekTwins on Etsy) following my DPhil success, ticking off “finishing my DPhil” on my mini vision board in my diary, and printing a hard-bound copy of my DPhil thesis. It is very important to pat on your back!
p/s: Do share me your tips, happy to learn from others!
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