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

One year after the coronavirus pandemic, many entities within academia and research have published articles 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 for the year 2019, the World Health Organization categorized burnout as part of the International Classification of Diseases Vol. 11, which describes 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 6 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 (she|her|ella)

Jailenne I. Quiñones-Rodriguez is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Universidad Central del Caribe – School of Medicine (UCC-SOM) in Puerto Rico. She is a first-generation scientist, passionate about human anatomy and through science communication she promotes an inclusive and diverse life sciences system.

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