5 Tips to Disrupt the Burnout Cycle

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College

A woman lays outside with a book over her face.

Several weeks ago, we asked our GradCurrents readers to describe their emotions at this point in the semester. A staggering 48.4% answered “tired,” and another 24.2% responded “burned out.”  Unfortunately, this figure is not all that surprising when considering the nature of graduate school; research shows that PhD and master’s students worldwide experience anxiety and depression at rates more than six times higher than that of the general public. Graduate students experience stress at a higher rate than undergraduates, and studies have found that as many as 75% of graduate students report being “stressed” or “very stressed.” Scholars suggest that this may be due to the multitude of competing demands that define graduate education; in addition to the typical pressures of higher education, graduate students face additional stressors including pressure to publish and teach as well as family responsibilities, financial pressures, and lack of campus social community. 

Burnout is real, and yet the demands of school and that final push towards the end of the semester loom. How do we manage burnout? Read on to learn about what burnout actually is, and how we can fight back against it to rediscover the joy in our studies. 

What is Burnout?

By understanding exactly what burnout is, we can figure out how best to combat it. Conceptual models of burnout tend to classify it into three key dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of personal ineffectiveness/lack of achievement. Essentially, when we are feeling burned out, we feel a deep, all-encompassing sense of tiredness, both emotionally and physically; we lose enthusiasm in our work and begin expecting the worst out of the people around us; and our negative feelings turn inward, making us doubt our abilities and contribution to a bigger mission. Because these feelings pervade both our perceptions of our environment and our own capabilities, burnout can make it very difficult to function and fulfill our responsibilities, which can perpetuate feelings of ineffectiveness. Sounds pretty bleak, but the good news is there is plenty of research to inform us how we can deal with our burnout and return to our optimistic, motivated selves. 

Burnout Tips 

  1. Sleep. It sounds like a no-brainer, and many of us are probably tired of hearing it, but making sure we are well-rested is absolutely critical in disrupting the burnout cycle. One study of almost 3000 master’s, doctoral, and professional students found that the relationship between stress and exhaustion lessened significantly with length of sleep as well as increased quality of sleep. Essentially, being well-rested makes you more resilient and able to take the stressors of graduate life in stride. Check out these sleep hygiene tips for some expert advice on improving your sleep schedule and getting better quality rest. 

  2. Connect with your peers. As discussed above, the graduate student experience comes with its own unique stressors, one of which is the siloed nature of program and dearth of opportunities to connect with other graduate students across the university. It’s unfortunate that the very people who are best suited to understand our graduate student struggles are difficult to connect with. Taking the leap to ask someone in your class out to coffee can make all the difference in the world. Additionally, consider the Graduate Student Support Peer Group, meeting every Monday with both virtual and in-person options (visit their website for more info)

  3. Connect with your advisor. Research shows that students who are satisfied with their advisor display lower levels both the cynicism and inefficacy aspects of burnout. Try connecting with your advisor and being honest with them about your concerns. If you and your advisor just don’t mesh, consider a little bit of self-advocacy in switching advisors or connecting with a different faculty member in an informal mentorship capacity. 

  4. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion. Because burnout makes us feel useless and incapable, it can be difficult to be a cheerleader for ourselves, but at the end of the day we are the only ones who can disrupt our own burnout cycle by reconnecting with our strengths. A helpful place to start is to give yourself the same kind of encouragement and support that you would give a friend who was struggling with a similar situation. Even when feeling poorly about ourselves, we can usually muster up some kindness and support for a loved one. Learn to recognize your negative self-talk for what it is—a symptom of burnout—and what it is not (rooted in truth). If you are struggling, try to first reframe your negative thoughts to be neutral, since that is less challenging than jumping directly from negative to positive. When you think something like, “I’m behind on my dissertation writing—why am I such a bad student and terrible procrastinator? I’ll never finish it;” think, “I’ve fallen a little bit behind, but this isn’t the first time I’ve had to play catch up. Finishing on time will be stressful and challenging, but it is definitely possible.” This kind of thought is easier to adjust to than “I’m doing amazing on my dissertation and will finish it early.” Counseling can help you learn healthier thinking patterns; consider making an appointment with CAPS today; their 15-20 minute “Let’s Talk” sessions can be a good first step and can be accessed virtually for any UC student.

  5. Consider your options. It can be scary to think about making changes or taking time off when graduate school is such an investment, but if your burnout feels so deep seated and intense that your efforts to deal with it haven’t helped, perhaps a change is needed. At the very least, thinking about your reasons for starting graduate school in the first place can help you reconnect with your motivation and make what you’re doing seem more meaningful. As higher educational expert Andrew Crain writes, “A serious contemplation of the value of staying versus leaving is an opportunity to remind yourself of your core reasons for pursuing a graduate degree in the first place. Often, the pain and frustration you are experiencing are merely temporary, and you can manage them by refocusing on the long-term vision you hold for yourself. Conversely, I know many graduate students who have engaged in this serious reflection only after beginning their programs, ultimately concluding that completing the degree is not the best path forward for them. Persisting and leaving are both completely reasonable choices depending upon your own personal circumstances.” Also, remember that changes exist between the two extremes of “staying” and “leaving” graduate school – options include switching to part time status or a leave of absence; talk to your advisor or program direction about these options. Other adjustments can also likely be made – consider the full breadth of your commitments and tap into the emotions behind each one. Does a particular extracurricular give you an inexplicable sense of dread? Think about quitting! Take stock of your life, figure out what sparks joy, and trim the things that don’t.