Hitting a Wall: On Burnout in Grad School

Burnout: I am not sure if there is a word that is more common across university campuses than this.


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Burnout: I am not sure if there is a word that is more common across university campuses than this. Its causes can vary from the complex to the simple, with little more explanation than a whisper of a shiver running down your back as you clock in Hour 10 on the computer for the day. The numbers or letters blur together into an incomprehensible mess, even if you yourself wrote them. This is burnout.

When you give yourself some planned time off but can’t stop working, no matter how worried your family looks and how many texts you get from your friends wondering where you are. This is burnout.

The very thought of returning to your desk for another round with an invisible demon telling you that “you will never be enough” makes you want to run for the hills of low-paid, ‘unskilled’ labour. This is burnout.

For me, burnout has been a near life-long companion. A perfectionist introvert that, like many, is constantly trying to keep Imposter Syndrome at bay, I have worked longer hours than needed and gave up time and fun with those I love for the sake of perfection. This is what has driven me to burn out on more than one occasion. It seems ironic that procrastination is my most common symptom when facing burnout, where meeting a deadline is akin to facing a monster with a textbook for a head. After graduating with a BA degree from the University of Alberta in 2018, I had grand visions of burnout being a thing of the past. My work life quickly proved me to be incorrect and the stress of balancing my work, volunteer tasks, and personal life quickly became overwhelming. In my return to academics in 2020 in the pursuit of a MBA, some self-actualization was called for.

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The burnout monster that I visualize can take on different appearances for anyone. But what has made me able to face it head on is to remember that the monster is a manifestation of my own self-doubt with some stress and lack of sleep sprinkled on for some flare. Self-doubt doesn’t necessarily have to be this monster. It is an evolutionary advantage to be able to recognize your own weaknesses so you can better prepare and defend yourself. But when that voice is given too much free range to stomp over your self-confidence– combined with other previously named factors– you are diving face first into disaster.

It is ironic to me that the strongest weapon that I have found against this beast has been the fortification of friends and family; an internal threat being conquered externally. Sometimes your self-worth can use some major buttressing and knowing that those who love you still will, no matter your grades or accolades, will always make me breathe easier.

It is important to recognize that burnout does not disappear in a day. To continue with my admittedly slightly dramatic analogy, the beast may be gone, but the land is still ravaged. Taking time to heal the mind and refocus not only on the what, but the why you are doing what you are doing can be the best medicine.

I don’t think there will ever be a complete cure for burnout, but learning how to see the early warning signs and cut them off before it becomes too much to handle will certainly lighten the load.

When your friend calls you when you are half-way through writing and paper and you take the time to answer, that is beating burnout.

When you ignore an email from your professor at 10pm and commit to answering tomorrow, that is beating burnout.

When you take a moment to self-reflect and know that your projects will be excellent and you are enough, that is beating burnout.

For additional tools on beating burnout, listen to Alle on the third episode of the Grad School Confidential podcast.Grad School Confidential podcast.

About Alle

Alle specializes in Arts and Culture and has worked with both the Art Gallery of Alberta and Royal Alberta Museum. Her undergrad degree is in Anthropology and Classics from the University of Alberta, where she is currently in her first year of the Masters in Business Administration Program. She values the importance of community connection and its applicability to business. Alle currently holds Director positions with the Walterdale Theatre and Fort Edmonton Foundation. She chairs the Walterdale Theatre’s Mentorship Committee and is engaged with Community Outreach, Sponsorship Acquisition, and Equity Development. Alle has previously served as VP External for the University of Alberta Anthropology Undergrads group, and was recently featured on the Grad School Confidential Podcast.