top of page

How do we take care of our mental health in Grad school?

If you’re applying to graduate school (especially a PhD program), chances are you have heard the term ‘burn out’. The definition of a ‘burn out’ is when a student experiences extreme mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion ( A student who is experiencing burn out will undergo fatigue, low motivation, inability to focus, and a decrease in their normal level of performance (academic Did you know that graduate students experience depression and anxiety at 6 times the rate of the general population (academic


Rethinking 'Burnout'

Check out our forum for our latest posts on the experience of 'burn out'

"I propose we rethink ‘burnout’ to mean not a career-ending phenomenon, but rather a fixable, normal phenomenon that students of all levels (undergrad, masters, and doctorate) undergo several times throughout their experience. I was a burnout, and I will be a burnout again. This doesn’t make me less motivated, less intelligent, or less capable, but rather it makes me a human that was simply pushing myself too hard."- Isabelle Johnsen, Nvz.customs forum

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

What is Burnout?

     The dictionary definition of burnout is “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” But what does that actually mean? In short, I don’t believe there can be one collective definition of burnout because, in reality, burnout looks different for each person experiencing it. The general understanding between the resources I used to research this topic is that burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that results from a combination of exposure to environmental and internal stressors and inadequate coping and adaptive skills. 

       To clarify, burnout does not mean you are just ‘stressed out.' Stress is a short-lived sensation and is usually tied to a specific goal or deadline. Burnout can be longer than this, it can feel like the stress is never-ending and this stress is usually accompanied by feelings of anger, irritability, emptiness, apathy, and hopelessness. It may be accompanied by feelings of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion, and depression. Burnout can appear in physical symptoms as well, like headaches, fatigue, heartburn, and gut irritation. Those experiencing burnout are more vulnerable to becoming reliant or addicted to substances like alcohol or drugs, and even harmful eating habits. 

      I found one definition of Burnout that defined it as “a psychological state of physical and emotional exhaustion thought to be a stress reaction to a reduced ability to meet the demands of one's occupation” (Burnout | definition of burnout by Medical dictionary ( I found this definition a little demeaning, vague, and makes it sound as if the person who is experiencing burnout is at fault. Adversely, I found a definition that defined burnout as someone who FEELS as if they are unable to do their job. If you ask me, this chicken and egg situation seems to be focusing on the wrong problem: the person’s occupation or studies. Just because you experience burnout doesn’t make you incapable of completing your doctorate or master's or doing your job, it just means that your approach to your professional life might need reevaluating. 

Where can I seek help?


It is possible that your University may provide counseling sessions free of charge, but the quality of the treatment and the number of sessions you can attend for free varies depending on the University. Other than your university, you can also seek to discuss your experience in online forums or seek free counseling sessions. 


Here are some resources that may help:

  1. BetterHelp | Professional Counseling With A Licensed Therapist

  2. Talkspace - #1 Rated Online Therapy, 1 Million+ User

Izzy's research
Burn Out Facts and Figures
Rock Maze

Warning Signs of Burnout 

My internet deep-dive research session on burnout provided various common symptoms of burnout. Including (but not limited to):

  • Fatigue

    • Feeling mentally, emotionally, and phsycially exhuasted (or all three)

  • Insomnia and changes in appetite/eating patterns

  • Impared work performance

  • Increased susceptibility to physical illness and substance abuse 

  • Sense of dread about work

  • Feelings of emptiness, apathy, and hopelessness

  • Loss of motivation 

  • Difficulty concentrating 

  • Missing deadlines or a dramatically decreasing academic 

  • Self isolation and feelings of loneliness

  • Increased substance use 


I do not believe there is “one” sign or even a concrete list of signs to look out for when you are worried you or a loved one are experiencing burnout, because as with most things regarding mental health, burnout might look different for each individual. For me, my burn out looked excessively procrastinating by crafting so much that my friends started calling me “the factory.” For someone else, a burnout might look like forcing themselves to work on their thesis for hours and sitting there staring at the computer without actually getting the motivation to start the work. Everyone’s different, and you know yourself better than anyone. If you think you might be on the brink of burnout, it may be a beneficial exercise to start observing or write down your actions, thoughts, and emotions during the day? Are you motivated to start your work? How productive do you feel you are on a daily basis? What hobbies do you have outside of your research that make you happy? How do you relax after a long study session? DO you give yourself time to relax? Even asking yourself questions such as these can start to give you a better idea of what burnout might look like for you specifically. 

Recovering From Burnout

Recovering From Burnout...

Reevaluate your work approach

work smarter not harder

1. The phrase work smarter not harder, unfortunately, would be a very very good lesson for me to learn… and I know I am not the only one

2. I like to apply what I call a ‘one for one' strategy. What this means is that every time I do something either for someone else (like a stressful favor) or for something else (school work, research, exercise, etc) I also do something for myself! I learned that this concept stresses me out when I set the bar too high for ‘something for myself.' For example, if I tell myself “Hey I just completed this whole outline for my paper now I am going to completely go ham with crafting and make 100 necklaces” then not only is the system not productive, but it stresses me out because I constantly think about the time I am wasting. However, I am learning that if I set low, flexible boundaries of ‘one for myself (like a 5-minute reading break or a 30-minute nap or a 3-minute meditation) then I am much more likely to take a healthy approach to it! 

Learn How To Take Care of Yourself


1. I know everyone says this, but everyone is saying it for a reason!

2. Self-care looks different for everyone… so make a combo that works with your time frame, resources, what fits your personality, etc. Some ideas to get you started include: yoga, mindfulness meditations, massages, exercise, dietary changes (ideally healthier changes), and practicing self-compassion

3. Create your own relaxation or mindfulness routine: what relaxes you? If you don’t have time to do a full routine, what is one small step (even lighting a nice smelling candle) you can do that might take your stress down at least one notch?

4. Conduct regular self-check-ins: When you feel yourself getting stressed or overwhelmed, being able to recognize it is crucial to being able to stop the spiral that can contribute to burnout. (In my DBT group therapy, we did a “feelings check-in” to get the hang of recognizing our feelings→ I made a notepad that you can download for free on the mental health resources page that might help with this). 


Learn to Priortize YOURSELF

Take time to recharge and feel like yourself again

1. Prioritize getting enough sleep 

2. Eat right

3. Try physical exercise 

4. Take time for hobbies

5. Utilize stress management techniques

6. Try to set boundaries between your personal and professional life. What would this look like? 


    • Setting “you time” weekly and daily

    • Avoid only talking and thinking about your work on your days off

      • Try to ‘actively participate’ (the DBT skill I discussed above)

      • Try setting a timer to limit the amount of time you talk about your work

      • Try having a friend or partner point out (very gently) when you go overboard with rants/complaints about work 

        • You can even have a silly code work that’ll make you laugh, this way you don’t get offended

      • Remember to self validate…. Your stresses, tension, and struggles are VALID and you are not the only one experiencing feelings associated with burnout. Reminding yourself every in a whole that ‘its okay to feel sick of my research at this moment’ or ‘I am a grad student, I am in an extremely demanding environment, and it's OK to feel stressed or overwhelmed; … this statements might help you remind you that your feelings are valid. 

        • This may help you from eating up your *me* time or your *social/fun* time with complaints or anxiety about the work you have waiting at home 

Structure, Structure, Structure 

Avoid Multitasking and Structure Your Day

1. Avoid multitasking Or try to minimize multitasking if cutting it out completely seems overwhelming to you 
Structure your day
2. A good to-do list helps me! 
Check out my free to do list and schedule planner’s if you need some ideas (click the Buttons Below)

3. Make sure to check in with yourself: are you scheduling in too much in a day? Are you constantly feeling behind? Remember to keep your goals smaller and more manageable, and spread larger tasks out over a period of time. 

"When that paper came out showing that 40% of grad students suffer from mental health problems, it felt more and more important for me to talk about my experience and to help normalize other peoples’ experiences, and validate them. You don’t have to be this perfect version of a student. Nobody’s life is all positive, and we can talk about the negatives, because that’s what it is to be a human. I also wanted to break down the stigma of seeking help for mental health. Going to therapy is part of taking care of yourself, just like going to the doctor for a physical illness. We’re all on a spectrum of different amounts of physical and mental wellness. I want to talk about those things if it will help other people get the help they need."- Karuna Meda

(9, Karuna Meda   October, et al. “A Voice for Mental Health in Academia.” The Nexus, Thomas Jefferson University, 1 Nov. 2019, )


More Mental Health Resources

More Mental Health Resources

Mindfulness practices to try out: 1. Sit in the morning and take a few moments to yourself 2. Eat Mindfully 3. Spend time outside 4.Focus on one task at a time 5. Feel Feelings 6. Meditate 7. Create Something 8. Engage in Physical Activities (your favorite sport, a nice place to walk, etc)

3 Easy Mindfulness Techniques for Busy Grad Students

3 Easy Mindfulness Techniques for Busy Grad Students

1. Mindful Breathing 2. Mindful Body Scan 3.Mindful Appreciation

bottom of page