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Burnout and Your Master’s Degree: Strategies and Tools for Prevention

Burnout is real and it can negatively impact graduate school performance if not dealt with. Keep reading for a number of strategies to implement to prevent burnout as well as how to navigate it should burnout happen to you.

Exhaustion and overwhelm are common for graduate students. Being unable to shake exhaustion and make progress on your to-do list is something more serious and may mean you’re experiencing burnout. Before you can overcome burnout, you need to understand what it is and how it might show up in the life of a graduate student.

Burnout, according to Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, is “failing, wearing out or exhausting due to excessive demands on energy, strength or resources.” For master’s students, burnout often includes insomnia, high levels of stress, depression, and lack of motivation. In severe cases, students drop out of school.

While burnout is common among graduate students, each person deals with it differently. Depending on its severity and an individual’s coping mechanisms, burnout can cause:

  • Feelings of imposter syndrome
  • Lower academic performance
  • Long-term mental health issues
  • Patterns of sustained burnout post-master’s
  • Long-term physical health issues

Fortunately, you can recover from burnout or prevent it from happening and feel more fulfilled, energized, and content with your academic career. To help in this effort, this guide provides strategies and tools for identifying the warning signs of burnout. It also gives advice for creating a self-care routine to help you manage stress in the long term.

What Does Burnout Look and Feel Like?

Burnout looks and feels different for everyone. Some people lack motivation while others struggle to focus. Burnout ranges from mild with just one or two symptoms being present to severe with symptoms so unbearable a student considers dropping out of school or giving up hobbies. Burnout usually results from working too hard for too long, and identifying and fixing the problem can be difficult. To help you decide if you’re experiencing burnout, watch for these common warning signs.

Fatigue

Feeling physically exhausted is a common sign of burnout. As it can also be a symptom of other conditions (like a viral infection), it’s hard to determine if a person’s fatigue is caused by burnout. If your fatigue seems directly tied to your studies, it’s likely from burnout.

Mental Exhaustion

Intellectual exhaustion can feel like brain fog, making new information difficult to process. Because graduate students must learn and think critically at high levels for extended periods, they are at a higher risk of intellectual exhaustion than most people.

Physical Symptoms

Like many mental health conditions, burnout often manifests physically. If you’re burned out, your body is probably telling you something isn’t right. While these sensations differ from person to person, common physical symptoms include headaches, indigestion, tightness, and tension. Many of these physical sensations are common for those experiencing high levels of anxiety or stress.

Difficulty Retaining Information

Struggling to absorb information may also be a sign of burnout. While it’s normal to struggle taking in any new information after a five-hour study session, it’s unusual to feel that way all the time. Struggling to retain information from lectures, constantly rereading paragraphs in your textbooks, or other difficulties absorbing information may be signs of burnout.

Procrastination

Procrastinating on school assignments and other projects also may be signs of burnout. Coming up with any excuse to not study, like deep cleaning the apartment to avoid homework or jamming your schedule so full of social activities you have no time for academics or research projects, are examples of avoidance and procrastination. Watch out for these warning signs that can indicate burnout is right around the corner.

Declining Academic Performance

A decline in academic performance can also indicate burnout is headed your way. Maybe you used to get straight As but are now often getting Bs and Cs, or maybe you used to love your weekly meeting with your research mentor but now find yourself wanting to cancel. Anytime your academic performance slips like this and there’s no other obvious cause, consider burnout as the culprit.

Apathy Towards School

A newfound apathy toward learning is another burnout warning sign. Being apathetic toward learning might mean you’re no longer excited by your studies, may seek easier classes, or not try as hard on assignments. You also might struggle to focus in class. If you used to love learning and apathy is a recent development, burnout may be the cause.

Anxiety and Depression

Burnout is closely related to depression and anxiety. If you have symptoms of either, burnout may be the reason. Common anxiety symptoms include restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and uncontrollable worry. Depression symptoms, which overlap with burnout symptoms, include a lack of motivation, continuous low mood, and loss of interest in passions and hobbies.

Whether you’re experiencing one or all of these burnout warning signs, implementing self-care strategies is essential for preventing burnout. Not a condition you definitely have or don’t have, burnout exists on a sliding scale that ranges from mild to severe. On the mild end, you might have just one or two symptoms, while on the severe end your symptoms may be so overwhelming you consider dropping out of school. Identifying signs of burnout in your life allows you to recover before burnout gets extreme.

10 Big Burnout Causes and How to Fix Them

Knowing the causes of burnout and how to fix them gives you strategies for preventing a crash-and-burn situation. Like most physical diseases, it’s not enough to treat the symptoms of burnout; you must eradicate the causes. While there are many potential causes for burnout, some are more common than others for graduate students. Below are the top ten causes of burnout among master’s students along with tactical approaches to fixing each.

Cause #1: Lack of Sleep

For many graduate students, it’s hard to complete their master’s thesis, term papers, and TA work and still get enough sleep. While skipping out on sleep may seem like an easy option, doing so can bring far more harm to your health and mental well-being than any positives you gain. Remain sleep-deprived long-term, and burnout will likely find you.

The Fix: Make Sleep a Priority

  • Stick to a healthy sleep schedule
  • Sleeping in a quiet, dark room
  • Limit food and alcohol intake before bedtime
  • Establish a nighttime routine
  • Avoid your phone, computer, and even television the hour before bed
  • Have a set time each night when you stop studying and begin to unwind
  • Wake up at a consistent time each morning

Cause #2: An Overburdened Schedule

A manageable schedule is difficult when you’re in graduate school. Between classes, being a TA or RA, completing a master’s thesis, and trying to get research published or accepted to conferences, your calendar is most likely full even before you add in other life responsibilities and searching for your future job. Having too much to do for too long can lead to a lack of motivation and fatigue and eventually lead to complete burnout.

The Fix: Seek Balance and Learn to Say No

Fix an overburdened schedule by learning to say “no” to what doesn’t serve your primary goals during this season of your life. Maybe you need to drop participation in a club, say “no” to another research project, skip out on some social events with friends, or stay in on a Friday night to study. Limiting your schedule in this way is temporary. You won’t have to give up social time or interests forever, but you may have to say “yes” to less in the short term to allow you to maintain a manageable schedule and avoid burnout.

Cause #3: Poor Diet and Exercise Habits

For many graduate students, working out and eating healthy feel like luxuries they simply cannot take time for. Making time for your health when you’re juggling so much can be difficult for master’s students, but not investing in diet and exercise leads to consequences that leave you feeling depressed and burned out.

The Fix: Find Simple Ways to Integrate Activity and Eating Healthy

To keep your health in check, find simple ways to exercise and eat healthy. This could include scheduling going to the gym or for a run three times a week, committing to a weekly yoga class, or preparing five healthy meals every Sunday for the week ahead. Start by picking one or two healthy habits to prioritize and intentionally integrate them into your schedule.

Cause #4: Poor Time Management

Some graduate students seem to effortlessly complete their thesis and classwork on time, never miss a social gathering, are always discussing their last gym session, and already have an internship lined up for the summer. Most likely, they can juggle so much without feeling burned out because they intentionally manage their time. When someone has poor time management, though, they likely feel overwhelmed by their to-do list.

The Fix: Learn to Organize Your Schedule & Track To-Dos

Fix this problem by prioritizing organization and time management. Invest in a system for organizing your schoolwork, life, and time that allows you to take control of your life and academic career. A solid time management system looks different from person to person. Ideas include using Google calendar, having a handwritten planner, or using task management software like Notion or Asana.

Cause #5: Lack of Planning

Like poor time management, lack of planning can also cause burnout. When you don’t plan ahead, you’re more likely to miss assignments, pull all-nighters and cram for exams, and rush to class after you’ve pressed snooze too many times.

The Fix: Start Using a Planner or Journal

Eliminate the consequences of a lack of planning by taking time to set up a journal, planner, or online project management system can help you eliminate the overwhelm a lack of planning manifests in your life. Create a plan to get your schoolwork done in time, so you don’t have to rush and feel the pressure of last-minute projects, papers, and test prep. Start by writing down deadlines, test dates, and other deadlines. Also include time for burnout prevention activities like sleep, exercise, and healthy meal prep.

Cause #6: Unrealistic Goals

While it’s great to have big goals, unrealistic ones often lead to exhaustion and disappointment. Sure, you want to get your dream job lined up for after graduation and get as many research grants as possible, but unrealistic goals only set you up for failure, sleepless nights, and overbooked days, all of which can lead to burnout.

The Fix: Set Smarter Goals

Instead, be realistic about your goals. Try to set SMART (i.e., specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-constrained) goals. For example, aim to submit two research papers for publication each semester instead of 20. This is a specific, measurable goal relevant to your academic career and attainable in the set time frame.

Cause #7: Prolonged Stress

Stress – from any combination of the above or other stressors in your life – is the leading cause of burnout, along with fatigue and lack of motivation. Graduate students in particular experience a significant number of stressors, putting them at higher risk for burnout and physical problems like chronic conditions and a weakened immune system.

The Fix: Find a Stress Relief Practice

Prevent prolonged stress by doing regular check-ins with yourself to evaluate how you feel physically, where you’re at emotionally, and what needs to change for you to lower your stress levels. Also consider science-backed measures like daily meditation, weekly yoga, and reading for pleasure as ways to reduce your stress.

Cause #8: Not Taking Time to Relax

When your to-do list seems to grow whenever you check your email or attend class, it’s hard to find time to relax. After all, watching a movie, going hiking, or meditating is hard to prioritize when you’re juggling deadlines for multiple classes, several research projects, and a part-time job. However, not taking time regularly to relax depletes your energy levels, steals your motivation, and leads to burnout.

The Fix: Prioritize Self-care and Downtime.

You don’t have to set aside an entire weekend to go hiking or commit to an hour-long daily meditation when smaller sessions will do the trick. Self-care can be going for a walk as the sun sets or taking five minutes to stretch and breathe deeply. Figure out what relaxes you most and give yourself small chunks of time throughout the day to indulge in self-care activities.

Cause #9: Not Making Time for Fun

Not making time for fun also contributes to overwhelming stress and burnout. While it can be hard to fit in social gatherings and hobbies you enjoy around your master’s degree, it’s important to make time for what makes you feel alive. When you don’t, you’re more likely to feel drained, unmotivated, and anxious.

The Fix: Add Intentional Fun Time into Your Schedule

Plan time for hanging out with friends and other activities that you consider fun. Examples include going to dinner with friends, taking an afternoon canoeing trip, and exploring a new city where you’re attending a research conference. Be intentional about making time for fun by putting them on your planner or calendar.

Cause #10: Not Leaning on Your Support System

When you’re under a lot of stress from an overburdened schedule and unrealistic goals, isolating yourself from friends and family might seem to save you time. In reality, though, it negatively impacts your mental health and can lead to depression. No one is an island, and leaning on your support system gives you energy, motivation, and solidarity, all of which help combat burnout.

The Fix: Accept Help When You Need it

Lean on your support system by asking for help when you need it. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of burnout, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or mentor. Ask them for advice or just to go out for coffee to escape constantly thinking about work and school. Spending time with those who support you is one of the quickest ways to relieve stress and feel less overwhelmed. No one is an island, you’ll be surprised how many people in your corner want to be there for you.

Burnout Prevention Resources for Master’s Students

While your university most likely has some great burnout resources, they might not always be accessible or obvious to online graduate students, especially with your busy schedule. Luckily, there are some free resources online to help you prevent burnout, and they’re designed specifically for graduate students.

Interview with an Expert on Burnout

Lienna Wilson

Dr. Lienna Wilson is a clinical psychologist in Princeton, NJ who specializes in anxiety disorders and working with university students. She has trained in several college counseling centers, including Princeton University where she completed her postdoctoral fellowship.

Q1: What are some often-missed signs of burnout?

A1: Most people think of burnout as feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. However, isolation can be a more subtle sign of burnout. For example, when students spend all their time and energy doing schoolwork, they have no energy left to socialize. Replying to a text from a friend can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. So, burned-out students will often disappear from the social radar of their peers. Avoidance is another sign. Burned-out students often feel that they are not accomplishing enough despite their hard work. When a professor or advisor emails them asking for an update, they often avoid replying. Unfortunately, the longer they wait, the more difficult it becomes to provide a good reason for a delay.

Q2: How can grad students specifically address burnout?

A2: Imposter syndrome is prevalent among grad students and can easily lead to burnout. While they thrived in high school and undergrad, grad students often doubt their knowledge and accomplishments and feel like they were accepted into grad school by mistake. Feeling that their work is not good enough compared to their peers, they may overcompensate by putting in more hours than their peers. To resolve burnout, they first need to address their insecurity of feeling that they don’t belong.

Q3: What is an underrated way to prevent burnout?

A3: Most grad students are used to staying up as long as it takes to finish their assignments. Unfortunately, after hours of staring at a book or a computer screen, they become less and less productive. Yet, they force themselves to stay up despite their lack of productivity. It can be difficult to go to sleep with an unfinished assignment. However, when they stay up late, they miss out on being able to finish their work in the morning after they’ve had a full night of sleep. Having a regular sleep schedule with a hard cutoff for bed is a good way to prevent burnout.

Q4: What are some strategies to recover from burnout?

A4: Students need to assess their burnout holistically, looking at how it affects them mentally, emotionally, and physically. They can seek mental support from their advisor or colleagues if they are struggling to come up with a new project idea or need additional feedback. While they may become socially withdrawn, they might need emotional support from their friends more than ever. Additionally, they might seek therapy at the university counseling center or ask for off-campus recommendations. Lastly, they need to pay attention to how burnout has affected their health and may need to visit a university health center or a primary care doctor if they continue to experience headaches, back pain, stomach issues, or other physical discomforts.

Q5: How can grad students better balance their academic, work, and life obligations so they don't face burnout?

A5: One of the best ways to manage burnout is for grad students to set better boundaries with their advisors and peers. Students often bring work home or feel obligated to check their email and reply late at night. It may be helpful to announce that you turn off email notifications when you are not at work but will be happy to get back to everyone in the morning. That way others will not expect an immediate reply, and you will not feel obligated to constantly check your email and think about work.