The intense routine of a working grad student can be a sun-up to sun-down affair, drowning out any hint of a personal life. "Graduate school really is more of a lifestyle," says Dr. Jane Bost, associate director of Prevention and Outreach Services at the University of Texas at Austin's Counseling and Mental Health Center. "It is just all-encompassing."
While getting into graduate school alone demonstrates a degree of academic toughness, once there, even the most studious can be confronted with circumstances that lead to severe emotional and physical exhaustion. And while holding a full-time job while going to school is admirable, it does present challenges that can lead to burnout.
Isolation. Your social habits rarely extend beyond all-business interaction with co-workers and fellow students.
Although you're initially unfazed by this, after months of basing your existence around work and school, it begins to take a toll. Bost notes that isolation can lead to depression and anxiety.
Financial strain. Warnings from parents and friends about how expensive graduate school would be have long filled your ears. Already faced with mounting debt, you become increasingly discouraged by the low-paying job or internship you have.
A recent survey of past graduate students from the University of Chicago showed that financial concerns (21 percent) was the most pressing issue they faced, with career prospects (18 percent) and academic and job performance (17 percent) coming in second and third, respectively.
Your work collides with academic expectations. You were always a star student in high school and as an undergrad, but those periods weren't accompanied by a full-time job. As you're discovering, 40 hours spent working doesn't allow you to academically flourish like you're accustomed to.
"[Graduate students] tend to be high achievers … they tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves, and a lot of pressure to work or study to a heavy extent," says Bost.
Physical well-being has taken a back seat. As double-digit-hour work days become the norm, ingredients for a healthier lifestyle, like sleep and exercise, barely register as priorities.
Bost compares a punishing routine to an overworked car. If you run the vehicle in high gear all the time, she says, "it's going to break down."
Your family life has begun to deteriorate. Along with work and school, you have obligations to your spouse, child or both. The result of your hectic schedule has lead you to neglect the important relationships in your life. "The more people in the picture, the more challenging [graduate school] gets, because it adds more responsibility," Bost says.
Whether you're currently experiencing (or on the verge of) graduate school burnout, there are measures you can take to recapture your emotional and physical strength.
1. Find a proper social outlet. While earning a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, Prosanta Chakrabarty, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Services at Louisiana State University and author of "A Guide to Academia," spent up to 80 hours per week fulfilling his obligations as a student and instructor. Still, he says spending time with his then-girlfriend (and now wife) Annemarie, walking his dog, playing poker with classmates and assisting the department with events were simple but important escapes from his duel roles. "I think sometimes students are working so hard that they forget to go to the social events or forget to help out when the department needs someone to help arrange events," he says.
If you spend enough time alone, your isolation could veer into depression. In that case, reach out to services on campus. "It would be rare or unusual to have a university that didn't have campus resources that can help," Bost says, noting that the University of Texas features career counseling centers, counseling centers and graduate student support groups, among other services.