Grad School Burnout...What's That About?

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Some students are at a greater risk of burnout. Those individuals who should be acutely aware of the warning signs: those who are full-time students while also working full-time; those who are caregivers to a sick family member while enrolled full-time; students who are also parents; and those who must travel a great deal for work while enrolled in school.

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But, grad school is life, and life is unpredictable. Typically “tough” students without outside stresses can find themselves facing burnout if any number of variables change. One scenario: a formerly healthy student with a previously unknown or undiagnosed health condition suddenly cannot meet deadlines or focus on schoolwork. Or, an unexpected turn in finances makes paying rent and tuition an impossibility. Graduate school is a big financial commitment and many students worry about how to pay for it–sometimes, more than have anxiety over post-graduation job placement. One University of Chicago study even proved this statistic, with 21 percent of students responding that the financial cost of grad school was the most immediate concern, while 18 percent stated that finding a job was most worrisome.

These are only some of the many causes of burnout. How do you know if you’re a burned out grad student? You probably don’t care about grad school anymore. You’ve lost focus in class, drive in projects, and creativity in your work. Simply put, you’re no longer giving it your all. The more extreme end of burnout can look and feel like depression, so it’s important that all graduate students pay attention to general emotional well-being.

It would be fantastic if you could just avoid graduate school burnout altogether, but the reality is that the course of graduate school is not predictable. Another known cause of burnout for some students is isolation. Regardless of whether you work best alone–or even if you’d prefer to be alone most of the time–try to be social. The key to success for all graduate students is to find balance; that balancing act just varies from student to student.

All graduate students should have off days, some down time each day and events to look forward to on a regular basis. Some students find that meditation and relaxation exercises are helpful, while others go for long walks. Exercise might feel counter intuitive–it’s time away from work, away from the computer. But, all of that time at the keyboard is not good for the body or the mind. A friendly and competitive game of basketball or racquetball could be just the thing to break out of a month-long funk.

The best way for many students to avoid burnout is simple: have a sense of meaning in life. Find passions and work on improving as a person and in your career; feel that you are working hard toward a career you will love and that you will contribute to that field; develop relationships that are healthy and rewarding; strike a work and life balance that fits for you; have love in your life. And finally, laugh.


  1. Tips for Beating Burnout as a Working Grad Student (2013). US News & World Report.
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