Tips for Beating Burnout in Graduate School
Claire Dunphy, MA; Doctoral Student in Clinical Psychology, Fordham University
Jennifer Mandelbaum, MPH; Doctoral Student in Public Health, University of South Carolina
Mary Martinelli, MA; Doctoral Student in Clinical Psychology, Drexel University
Graduate students in the health field are typically expected to balance many roles and responsibilities involving mentally and often physically taxing work. Therefore, it’s no surprise that so many grad students experience burnout, which usually takes the form of emotional and physical exhaustion in response to chronic work-related stress. While burnout isn’t a new concept, its prevalence in higher education settings is a relatively new area of focus. Therefore, it is very important to stay healthy during graduate school. Here are some quick tips for preventing, recognizing, and addressing burnout in graduate school health programs and beyond:
Tips for preventing burnout:
When it comes to life balance in graduate programs, look for long-term strategies that will have a deep impact on the way you allocate your time.
Say “no” to the culture of overwork
In academia especially, we often view overwork in a positive light and wear it as a badge of honor. At any career stage, though, it’s important to set firm boundaries. If you feel that you are overworking, have an open conversation with your advisor around expectations and priorities. Do you always make yourself available, no matter how full your schedule is? Do you work through the weekend? These habits can fuel burnout. Be wary of overextending yourself, and learn how to say “no” or delegate tasks. Remember, saying “no” to one thing might allow you to say “yes” to something more meaningful.
Consistently prioritize your mental and physical health.
Prioritizing wellbeing allows us to approach our daily tasks with energy, focus, and enthusiasm. Establish healthy habits while you are obtaining your graduate degree so you can carry these habits into your post-grad life. Regular exercise will provide you with increased energy and productivity, as well as help you get a good night’s sleep. Eating a healthy diet low in sugar, refined carbs, and caffeine can also improve your energy levels. Meditation, deep breathing, yoga, and other relaxation techniques can reduce the impact of stress on your body. Above all, don’t wait until you feel overwhelmed to make time for self-care.
Find activities that feed your soul...
...rather than drain your energy. You might embrace your creative side or get back into a favorite hobby. Having outlets that allow you to explore or rediscover interests during your graduate studies can be a powerful motivator and stress-reducer. Slow down and give yourself time to reflect on what’s important to you.
Tips for recognizing burnout:
Check in with yourself mindfully and nonjudgmentally: how are you feeling?
Take frequent inventory of how you’re feeling physically and emotionally. Burnout can take the form of persistent negative feelings which reduce your ability to work efficiently. Look out for feelings of physical or mental exhaustion, loss of motivation, decreased satisfaction, apathy, frustration, resentment, detachment, or cynicism, especially in relation to your work.
Check in with yourself mindfully and nonjudgmentally: what are you doing?
Notice behavioral signs of burnout, which can include reduced productivity, procrastination, withdrawal from others, or frequent mistakes.
Tips for addressing burnout:
Take time off
When faced with the high demands of being a grad student, you may feel pressure to work long hours without taking time off. However, overworking increases the risk of burnout and may even harm productivity. If you’re struggling with burnout, ask for time off to take a trip somewhere. Even to just take a few days off to “unplug” from work and focus on activities you enjoy is great for your mental health. Another tip is to make changes to your day-to-day work schedule, by setting a time each day when you will stop working and disconnect from email.
Seek social support
While in grad school health programs, one of the best ways to relieve stress and beat burnout is to connect with others. Reach out to a trusted loved one or join a graduate student support group to talk about your experience with burnout. Carve out time in your calendar for social activities (e.g., schedule a weekly phone date with a friend or family member, sign up for group exercise classes).
Talk to a professional
If you are struggling to beat burnout on your own, it may be beneficial to seek treatment with a licensed therapist. They will work with you to make gradual changes and develop strategies for addressing burnout. Check out your university’s counseling center or health services (most schools offer free services to students). Additionally, you could search online for nearby providers in your insurance network or if you are unable to attend face-to-face therapy, consider online therapy options like BetterHelp or Talkspace.