Grad School Burnout: Three Tips for Prevention

When I was a communication master’s student at Purdue University, I found the online program to be interesting, exciting and challenging on many levels. I enjoyed learning about the subject of strategic communication, especially those areas that academically were new to me since my time as an undergraduate. I liked thinking about the questions posed by the professors and interacting with my fellow students as we discussed the assigned topics. I even found a great deal of satisfaction in writing the term papers we did for each class. As a PR professional, much of the work I do has a short timeline attached to it; I don’t usually have the luxury of spending dozens of hours researching, thinking about and writing on an interesting topic of my own choosing. So working on the big projects for school was a welcome opportunity to dig into something stimulating and dive deep into the subject matter.

As much as I loved the program, though, the biggest challenge I found was trying to stay engaged in my studies for an average 18-20 hours a week -- each and every week -- for 20 months. The time commitment was exactly as billed, and I had no expectation it would be otherwise. Still, I found the weekly grind started getting to me as I began my fifth straight course in the Fall I term of 2015 (August to October). Then it really hit hard as I worked through the sixth consecutive course of the calendar year during Fall II (October to December). I had grown weary of hitting the books nearly every night of the week for nine months straight without a break. My self-diagnosis was burnout, and it started making the program less fun for me.

In reading about how I felt, I learned the term “burnout” was first introduced by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger (1974). He defined it as “to fail, to wear out, or become exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength or resources” (as cited by Jacobs & Dodd, 2003, p. 291). As I said, I liked the school work I was doing, but I was incredibly tired and very worn out. As we headed into the holidays, I found it pretty tough to keep motivated and keep going. So to overcome the burnout, I offer the following advice:

1. You Must Surround Yourself with a Strong Support Network

First, my family. My wife, in particular, was a great motivator as she constantly reminded me how close I was getting to reaching my goal of earning a communication master’s degree. She noted that at the conclusion of that term, I would have only one more semester left -- and then I would graduate!

2. Accept Support & Encouragement From Others That Are In The Same Shoes As You

Second, my fellow students. After having spent a year and a half in the program, I had gotten to know a couple of classmates, and we talked offline from time to time. They, too, were feeling tired, and we helped motivate each other to finish the calendar year strong. We knew we could get the work done because we had been doing so much of it for so long. So it was just putting one foot in front of the other – or in our case, putting one word after the other -- to complete the assignments for that term’s courses.

3. Allow Yourself a Break If You Need One

Looking back now, I wonder whether driving straight through the program in five consecutive terms with only a four-week break from mid-December to mid-January each year was the right approach for me. Like many others, I worried that if I stopped or slowed down that I wouldn’t finish school. But I now realize that such fears were unfounded. They may have been valid when I was 22 years old, but at more than twice that age in grad school, I shouldn’t have worried. Purdue allows each student five years to complete the online master’s degree, and in hindsight, I might have felt less stressed had I taken one term off each summer. It would have only “delayed” graduation by a single semester, and it might have been the right thing to do.

As it turned out, though, I did just fine. I persevered with the help of family and friends, and I finished strong. I pushed through the challenge of burnout and earned A’s in both courses that fall – proving to myself that I could overcome the difficulty I had faced and succeeded.

Graduate school isn’t supposed to be easy, and I can assure you, it’s not. It offers amazing opportunities and enormous challenges that must be embraced simultaneously to make it through. Thankfully, in my case, I didn’t find the challenges to be completely overwhelming. And overcoming them made it that much sweeter when I finally arrived at graduation day last May.

References
Jacobs, S.R., & Dodd, D.K. (2003). Student burnout as a function of personality, social support and workload. Journal of College Student Development, 44(3), p. 291-303. DOI: 10.1353/csd.2003.0028

Learn More
John Hoffmann is an alumni of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.

About the Author
John Hoffmann is Vice President of Corporate Communication for Think Finance, a fintech company in Dallas. He has been in the public relations field for 25 years after working nine years in broadcast journalism. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Communication from the University of Michigan in 1982 and a master’s degree in Communication from Purdue University in 2016.  

*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.