How to Combat Grad Student Burnout

Emily Coleman
Emily Coleman
ELL academic support specialist; Ph.D. candidate in Strategic Leadership and Administrative Studies with Education concentration
Tired college student sleeping at a desk with books and notes.

Ready to expand your instructional abilities, become the go-to literacy expert, or take that first step into leadership? Diving into a graduate education program is a worthwhile undertaking, but it doesn’t come without its fair share of hurdles. One hurdle best avoided: grad school burnout.

What is Student Burnout?

Assignments, readings, essays, group projects, deadlines. In a blink of an eye, a semester can become completely overwhelming for graduate students. Student burnout is a real thing and should be taken seriously. Students who are experiencing burnout and choose not to do anything about it will most likely fail their courses, lose scholarships and assistantships, and even be asked to leave the university.

Signs of Burnout in College Students

Balancing life, work, and school can be incredibly challenging. Once a student begins to feel overwhelmed and misses assignments, the burnout cycle begins. There can be many causes of burnout for students. This can happen right when the semester begins because the student has taken on too many classes. Having an excruciating course load can cause a student to not even know where to begin when starting assignments.

Once the student feels like he/she is drowning in assignments, the balance of school and life will be gone. This takes another toll on the student. He/she will feel depressed because they feel they do not have time to spend with friends and family. He/she will feel as though he/she never has enough time for enjoyment nor his/her schoolwork. Lack of sleep may also cause burnout. The constant weight of assignments will be on the student’s mind and prevent him/her from sleeping at night. This can then lead to extreme fatigue and loss of energy during the day. The burnout cycle continues.

Fatigue and lack of energy can make the student not be able to concentrate. Assignments will be even harder and focusing in class may seem impossible. These can lead to another common sign of burnout – missed deadlines and poor grades. A student dealing with burnout will find it exceedingly difficult to get assignments done on time. They will not be able to organize their thoughts and get the work in on time. They will have poor time management and may have many overdue assignments at the same time. Professors who see a student’s grade going down and missed deadlines should reach out and find out what is happening.

The feeling of loneliness is another sign of student burnout. Students might feel that they are missing out on fun activities and are the only ones feeling this way. Insomnia can increase this feeling of loneliness. When someone is wide awake at night and he/she thinks everyone else is sleeping, that can provoke feelings of sadness, depression, and loneliness. Burnout is so cyclical and can be extremely hard to break. The student may even lose interest in social activities. This loss of interest would make the student feel isolated from the rest of the world.

The exhaustion that follows sleepless nights can then cause a student to be very irritable. A sign of a student experiencing burnout is that he/she might snap more quickly than usual. He/she becomes annoyed by things that never bothered them in the past. Friends and family should be aware of this change in behavior and personality, as it is a sign of burnout.

Ways to Combat Grad School Burnout

  1. Analyze course syllabi. At the beginning of each semester, be sure that your workload is not going to be completing overwhelming. Look ahead and see what assignments you are going to have throughout the semester in all of your courses and make a decision as to whether or not you will be able to handle it. If it seems like it is going to be too much, it probably is. Speak with your advisor and see which course you can drop and not have it affect your course plan. You will be happier in the long run for doing this.
  2. Find activities that you love and make time for them. If you feel as though all you do is work and study, then take a moment and find something outside of classwork that makes you happy, that gets you excited to write it on your calendar. Fit it into your schedule no matter what. Having a distraction like this will actually give you more energy and will help you focus on your assignments.
  3. Eat nutritiously and get enough sleep. We all know how we feel after days of eating and drinking unhealthily. Once you get into this habit, it is hard to stop it. Make a conscious effort to choose healthy foods throughout the week. Of course, do not limit yourself from your favorite desserts or junk food. Just be aware of what you put into your body and balance the bad with healthy food. Additionally, try to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. Do not pull all-nighters. Use time management and break large assignments down into smaller pieces throughout the week. Do not forgo sleep to get an assignment done.
  4. Take time off. There is absolutely nothing wrong with realizing that you may need to take a semester or year off. If you have no motivation, have become pessimistic about school, and just can’t seem to get assignments done, it is time to take a break. Meet with your advisor and find out any rules or regulations for taking time off. Be sure that any scholarships or financial aid will not be negatively impacted. You will be more focused and ready to jump into a new semester while giving yourself the much-needed break from school.
  5. Surround yourself with a great support network. Supportive family, friends, and classmates could be all that you need to get through a stressful semester and prevent student burnout. Share your feelings with them and let them know that you are feeling overwhelmed. They may have great solutions you may have never thought of. They can also be great listeners for when all you need to do is vent. They will also be able to see when you are suffering from burnout and help you through those difficult times.
  6. Exercise and get outside. Take breaks from challenging assignments. Do not spend a ridiculous amount of time sitting at your desk or in the library. Get up and walk around. Go to the gym. Go to a park and take a walk. Fresh air can do wonders for a mind block. You will be able to attack an assignment with fresh eyes and most likely will get it done faster.

No matter what, students need to recognize that burnout is real. Take the time to self-reflect on how and why you are feeling negatively about school and assignments. Do not wait too long, otherwise, you may end up failing courses and dropping out.

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