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Can You Recognize Doctoral Student Burnout?

Has your graduate students' behavior changed? Perhaps they are late to meetings, disengaged, not showing up for their lab shifts, or just acting differently.

According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that often involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.

Going through a graduate program can be highly stressful, and the pressure can overwhelm even the best graduate students. Therefore, as mentors, we must keep our eyes and ears open to supporting doctoral students progressing through their postgraduate programs.

As seasoned faculty, it's easy to forget that graduate students are usually in their 20s, in the middle of preparing for a new career, and often are in the early stages of establishing long-term relationships or starting families. Then, add the pressures of the graduate program, possible financial concerns, lab or teaching duties, and class work. With these demands placed upon their shoulders, it's easy to see how a student can become stressed and burned out.

As a graduate student mentor, if you see your doctoral students acting "different," how can you help mitigate the effects of burnout on your students and your lab?

Here are a few suggestions

Communication Is Key - It goes without saying – you must maintain good communication with your graduate students. You will know their stressors by talking privately about how they are doing in the program and in life! When chatting with your student, check in on how their life, in general, is going. These conversations will give you insights into how your student(s) handles the stress of the graduate program and their own lives.

What To Talk About - Your conversations should give you some hints as to why the student is burnt out or disengaged. If you know your student is having challenges, a weekly chat can support them. Once you have insight into what is happening, you and your student can develop solutions.

  • Are they having family or financial stress? If so, point them toward counseling (almost all Universities provide free counseling for students).

  • Are their lab or teaching responsibilities interfering with their coursework and causing stress? Work to give them time away from the lab or classroom so they can catch up on their courses.

  • Is something in their personal life causing them to falter in the lab or classroom? Here again, suggesting counseling or reducing their responsibilities may be the solution to getting them back on track.

What To Do When It's Not A Good Fit

After having conversations and looking for workable solutions, if the student is still disengaged and exhibiting signs of burnout, it may be time to consider transitioning the student out of the lab. This transition is challenging and must be handled with delicacy, sensitivity, and the student's best interests in mind.

Several students have transitioned out of my lab during my career, either going to different labs, changing programs, or just taking time away. As a result, each transition plan was decided upon after considering the needs and desires of the student, and each student flourished in their new environment.

Higher education should lead people upward to new experiences and careers. Yes, stress is involved – and often, pressure can increase what a person gains from experience. But, higher education should not burn people out in the process.

As mentors, our goal should be to make the graduate program experience a healthy understanding that simultaneously teaches, elevates, and helps individuals stay mentally well!

Keep Moving Forward

Cheers, Tim


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