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Tips for Beating Burnout as a Working Grad Student

Aaron Guerrero

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.

[See: 7 Work Habits That Are Making You Sick.]

Isolation. Your social habits rarely extend beyond all-business interaction with co-workers and fellow students.

Although you're initially unphased 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.

[See: 17 Signs You Might Be a Workaholic.]

Course Correction

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.

She adds that those suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts should immediately see a mental health professional.

2. Tap into alternate financial resources. While your job or internships don't nearly cover your expenses, take advantage of your status as a working student. Find out what stipends, scholarships and grants are offered through your program.

Chakrabarty was paid a yearly stipend of $18,500 for both his teaching and student duties. To supplement that income, he sought out and received internal scholarships and outside grants. But for those who do acquire some debt, he suggests taking the long view: "Sometimes you have to run up your credit card to foster your future a little bit. That's one of the sacrifices if you really want to get ahead."

3. Take courses that will accommodate your work schedule. It's commendable that you want to take the most challenging courses your program has to offer. But you must also consider how doing so will affect your job. "I've really tried to deal with this by taking classes that I expected would not have a crazy amount of work," says Joseph Galvin, a fourth-year law student at Fordham University and legal intern at Andre Balazs Properties, a hotel and residential development company. A course with a final exam, rather than a 30-page paper, he notes, is much more hospitable to his 30- to 35-hour work schedule.

[Read: 4 Ways to Figure Out Your Future.]

4. Know when to call it a day. While the correlation between sleep and productivity is different for all, a consistently low baseline could catch up to you at some point. Far from a night owl, Galvin notes that once 10:00 p.m. hits, he's reached his limit. "If you're going to be doing work that's very important on very low sleep, you're going to be careless," he says.

5. Make your loved ones a priority. If seeing your child and/or spouse during work hours is out of the question, Bost suggests looking into family-oriented events and on-campus day care at the university you're attending.

You may be fortunate enough to work and attend grad school with a significant other by your side. Rely on that relationship as a source of strength and an escape from the everyday pressures you face. Chakrabarty says Annemarie was his "foundation" during the trying period. "I hope everyone can have someone like that," he adds.

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