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Graduate School Burnout Is Real — How Do We Handle It?

In the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, many within academia and research have observed and published on physical exhaustion among students, better known as burnout. Psychologist Dr. Hernert Freudenberger defines burnout as "failing, wearing out or exhausting due to excessive demands on energy, strength or resources." It is important to note that since 2019, the World Health Organization categorized burnout as part of the International Classification of Diseases Vol. 11, describing it as an occupational phenomenon. However, it is not classified as a medical condition.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, in its origins, the burnout worker syndrome was identified to a greater extent in those careers that are related to the treatment of the public and clients (also called social exposure). However, it can occur in any career when there is any inconsistency between the worker's expectations and the reality of their daily tasks, or there is an environment with excessive tension and degradation amongst work relationships.

A burnout worker may present emotional and physical exhaustion, low self-esteem, a permanent state of nervousness, and aggressive behaviors often reducing the person's capability to work.

Graduate students are expected to balance different roles and responsibilities that involve mentally and often physically exhausting work. Therefore, it is not surprising that graduate students experience burnout, usually in the form of emotional and physical exhaustion in response to chronic work-related stress.

How do we handle it?

Look for short-term strategies that will have an impact on the way you allocate your time. These techniques and activities have personally helped me balance my lifestyle:

1. Establish working hours

The life of a graduate student inside a lab is not the traditional academic life of an 8 am – 3 pm student. Mentors often expect strenuous work nights and weekends, a direct ticket to burnout. You will always have a never-ending workflow as a graduate student, but one way to take control is to set work hours for yourself. Establish a daily schedule with specific hours to help you to have better organization and productivity.

2. Learn to say "no"

Are you always available, no matter how busy your schedule is? Do you work tirelessly on the weekend? We view overwork as a badge of honor, fueling physical and emotional exhaustion. However, change this false interpretation about academics and workload and learn to say no, or delegate tasks.

3. Set realistic goals

Ambition and high aspirations are motivating, but they also add pressure to your environment. Choose goals that are achievable given your time and resources. Set short-term goals that help you see the progress you are making toward your long-term goals. This prevents you from feeling overwhelmed and working to no avail.

4. Look for activities that benefit you physically and emotionally

There is robust evidence that aerobic exercise benefits general well-being. Aerobic exercise can improve our physical fitness, emotional health, and social life. It can also prevent chronic diseases and allow us to maintain a healthy weight. Explore your interests during your graduate school to reduce stress. Slow down and take some time to reflect on what is important to you.

Graduate students experience depression and anxiety six times more than the general population. If you are facing an emotional and/or psychological problem and need support, contact the counseling and mental health services at your university. These professionals can provide resources, support groups, will help you to improve your lifestyle, and counseling sessions to help students assert themselves.



Jailenne I. Quiñones-Rodriguez, PhD (she/her/ella) Jailenne's LinkedIn

Dr. Jailenne Quiñones-Rodriguez, is an Assistant Professor of Anatomical Sciences at the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Sam Houston State University. Before joining SHSU, she taught human gross anatomy and histology to medical students at the Universidad Central del Caribe School of Medicine in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Quiñones-Rodriguez received her undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Puerto Rico at Ponce, her master's degree in Anatomy and Biomedical Sciences, and her Ph.D. from Universidad Central del Caribe School of Medicine. She received didactic training in higher education pedagogy through graduate studies and strategies to develop effective communication with students. These experiences and extensive scientific training have been fundamental in understanding the dynamic role of science and leadership in decision-making and evidence-based medicine.

A part of her research interests lies in studying anomalous vascular and nervous human anatomical variations. These anatomical variations are a typical presentation of body structure with morphological features different from those classically described in textbooks.


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