Keeping the Spark Alive in Graduate School

Submitted on November 11, 2019

By Elizabeth Labiner

Graduate school demands hard work and tenacity from the day students enter their program. At the dissertation stage, those demands remain and are typically joined by the added stressors of a lack of structure, nebulous or vague project outlines, and distant deadlines. In such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that many graduate students experience burnout.

Burnout takes different forms, but often manifests as feeling exhausted physically, mentally, emotionally or a combination of the three. In addition, someone who has burned out may experience any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Loss of motivation
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Missing deadlines or a decline in academic performance
  • Isolating yourself from others or experiencing loneliness
  • Difficulty sleeping, changes in eating patterns, or an increase in substance use
  • Experiencing feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, or irritability

These symptoms can make it difficult or even impossible to make progress and meet one’s goals, which entrenches the anxiety and can lead to feeling trapped in a burnout cycle.

Recognizing the problem after it’s occurred is important, but taking steps to prevent burning out may help you avoid the pain and frustration altogether. Some common methods to preempt burnout include:

  • Creating structure for yourself, including daily time limits for work and frequent deadlines for specific tasks/production
  • Letting go of perfection in favor of completion
  • Prioritizing 7-9 hours of sleep every night
  • Eating healthy foods and staying active
  • Scheduling down time and days off, during which you see people you like and engage in activities you enjoy
  • Being open about your mental and emotional state with people with whom you feel safe
  • Regularly meeting with your advisor to maintain focus and accountability

These tips may seem basic to the point of being facile, but they do have an impact on mental and emotional well-being — not to mention physical health. I fully acknowledge that some of these behaviors are difficult for me, particularly creating structure and letting go of perfection. On the other hand, I’m great at scheduling time off for myself and making plans in order to have things to happily anticipate. Be honest with yourself about what is or isn’t effective, or what you can or can’t actually seem to get yourself to do. Consider what is likely to actually motivate you and keep you energized. Perhaps it’s a system in which you reward yourself for meeting specific small goals, or perhaps a daily structure that incorporates both work and relaxation. The key is to find what works for you and implement it.

If, despite your best efforts, you do burn out, there are many ways to address it. First and foremost, take a step back and take care of yourself. It’s easy to castigate yourself and try to force yourself to work through it, but this is likely to lead to more negative feelings and further failures. Remember that UArizona has campus resources devoted to students’ health and well-being; don’t hesitate to utilize Counseling & Psych Services. CAPS now has two full-service clinic locations offering triage, individual and group counseling, psychiatry, and care coordination services; their website also provides direction to additional non-campus resources. Communicating honestly about your feelings with family and friends will help, as will talking to your advisor, provided you feel comfortable doing so. Don’t feel ashamed to rely on your support system! One of the best pieces of advice I got when I was feeling isolated was, “you only get the support you ask for.” As soon as I reached out, I was met with absolutely unwavering support from family, friends, peers, and my advisor.

In addition, make sure you take care of yourself physically as well as mentally. Some people may prefer this self-care to be in the form of relaxation or meditation, others might prefer a more active break in the form of a sport or other hobby. As with prevention strategies, focus on what you enjoy and what creates positive feelings for you. Keep in mind that many of the strategies to reset and re-energize will feel stressful at first, because they often intentionally take you away from your work. This separation is vital not only in reminding you of the things you value, but also in helping you reassess your work-life balance and circle back to prevention strategies when you’re ready to delve back into your work.

In their own words, here’s how some of your fellow graduate students and postdocs handle burnout:

“I talk to my sister on a regular basis, and she listens to me without judgment. I also try to prevent the feeling of being burnt out by having an unreal number of to do lists; I write and re-write lists, on my phone, computer and a few handwritten ones. Crossing items off my to do list gives me a sense of accomplishment and keeps my goals and expectations for myself more realistic. Also, I love to travel. I definitely plan trips after big deadlines as a mechanism to treat myself!”

           — Khadijeh Alnajjar, Cellular and Molecular Medicine

“I try my best to deal with burnout by taking walks, drinking lots of water, and eating green vegetables. Sometimes avoiding burnout comes down to basic self-care. It's easy for me to drink too much coffee, sit for too long, and juggle too many things at once.”

           — Heidi Wallace, English Literature

“To avoid burnout, I give myself time to work out and cook. When I do that, I basically disconnect from everything. It takes me more time than if I cooked during the weekend for the whole week, but it is not common for me that these hours affect my schedule. If I do burn out, I take my bike a do a long ride in the Tucson loop. Also, to take care of myself mentally and emotionally, I try to find a way to remember what my plan is for the future and that everything I’m doing now will be worth a lot in the following years. Also, I try to talk to my friends and family.” 

            — Jose L. Ruiz Duarte, Systems and Industrial Engineering

“When I’m burned out, I move to another section of my work that has more clarity, something that I feel like I can make progress on. Also, I like to break up the day with mini-goals. It is like planning, implementation, and evaluation. So, I start with making a plan. Then, for example, I outline, then organize literature, then work on writing up that research. In between, I take mental health breaks to exercise or something. At the end, I go back and review my progress to see what worked and what didn’t.”

            — Lynn Rae, School of Natural Resources and the Environment

“Starting a big project, like I’m starting an F31, can be daunting because it feels like such a lofty goal. To make it more manageable, I talk with friends who have done it before, which is really helpful. To prevent burning out once I’ve started a project, I exercise and make to-do lists with both big and small items. Being able to check off little things helps. For example, if I have emails to write, I write that down as a thing to accomplish; then I can check it off. Sometimes I have to reevaluate where my time goes. I think I tend to say yes to too many things, so I have to scale back on the things that I want to do but are not as necessary to do, like volunteering.”

            — Eliza Short, Nutrition Sciences

“If I get to the point of burnout, I feel like that is sometimes a spiritual issue. So, sometimes I sit in silence, pray, stretch. Doing things like yoga and being silent puts things back in perspective for me.”

            — Kim Parra, Epidemiology and Biostatistics

“Making time for things that you enjoy is really important in keeping a positive attitude. I need to have things to look forward to, whether it’s spending time with family or friends, or even just cooking a healthy meal to stay balanced.”

            — Margarita Acedo, Chemical and Environmental Engineering