The 6 year marathon

The saying goes, “graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint”.

This saying is intended to reduce rates of burnout in graduate students. However, this saying forgets that a 26.2 mile run (or in this case, a 6 year program) can still be incredibly tiring in its own right.

Student burnout is extremely common in PhD programs of clinical psychology. One study found that 60% of doctoral students in clinical psychology experienced significant burnout with little direct training on how to handle stress (Zemirah, 2000).

Throughout my graduate career, I have found a few strategies to be helpful for myself to reduce burnout. For those experiencing burnout/have experienced burnout, I would encourage you to keep reading to see if any of these suggestions resonate well with you to try out in your own life!

#1 Focus on what’s important to you

Most students in graduate school tend to be overachieving and perfectionistic – that’s what got them the grades and accolades to get into grad school in the first place. However, this trait can backfire in grad school when there is no shortage of readings and work to do.

In graduate school, many of my mentors have stressed that “good is good enough”. Do reasonably well in your classes, but do not strive for perfection.

In my classes, there were many students who would spend hours upon hours ensuring that their reflection papers and presentations were done to complete perfection. This approach to work led to a significant amount of distress and was a one-way ticket to burnout.

In my graduate studies, I did my best to calibrate the amount of work needed to perform reasonably well, and was able to focus my time on activities I really wanted to pursue in graduate school.

For example, I was able to travel to attend conferences, conduct guest lectures, and engage in university affairs in my first-year, which is known at my program to be typically dominated by coursework. At the expense of a few A+ grades, I had a lot more time on my hands for myself and was able to do things that I was passionate about.

When you enjoy the work you do, burnout becomes less likely. In the same vein, be choosey in deciding which additional responsibilities to take on and ensure that they are things you enjoy or will have a positive impact in your future vocational career.

#2 Do the good things for your health even when it’s hard

As trite as it sounds, it is truly important to take time out of your day to engage in practices that are beneficial for your health. For example, I try to take some time every day to exercise, engage in a mindful meditation, and practice gratitude. The latter two activities take no more than 10 to 15 minutes (and can be shorter if you wish – some mindfulness practices are only a few minutes).

Some individuals may counter this by saying that they do not have enough time to engage in these types of activities. Personally, I would argue that engagement in these activities paradoxically leads to more time – both in terms of work efficiency and time to enjoy the rest of your day.

The Pareto principle (known as the 80/20 rule) states that 80% of work is completed in 20% of time. Activities like meditation and exercise can be helpful in increasing concentration for deep work to be conducted, rather than switching between work, TikTok, messenger, Netflix, and Reddit for 12 hours. Moreover, these activities nourish you with added resources that can be helpful for work and beyond.

Even if it can be tough, I would encourage you to experiment adding a few nourishing activities in your life (starting with a few minutes a day) to see the benefit it has on burnout. Atomic Habits by James Clear can be a very helpful resource to setting healthy habits.

The PLEASE skill is a set of emotion regulation skills that can also be helpful to learn about behaviours that are helpful to nourishing ourselves to feel less emotionally vulnerable, which could be a pathway towards reducing burnout.

#3 Have a strong social support network

Graduate school, especially in clinical psychology, tends to have a small close-knit cohort because the training model only allows for a limited number of spots in each year (~somewhere between 5 to 10 new students).

Therefore, you tend to develop strong friendships with people who are going through the same journey as you and are able to empathize and validate your experience. Being open and vulnerable with these individuals can be a great way to reduce isolation and strengthen your social circle.

Beyond students in the program, I would encourage you to stay in contact with family members, friends outside of the program, and other loved ones. Make sure to keep some time for these people in your life – set up a brunch with a friend; call your mom once in a while (if you two are on agreeable terms). These types of interactions can ensure that grad school does not completely envelop your life.

Another graduate student described grad school as a gas that takes up as much room as you allow it. I agree with this statement.

#4 Engage in enjoyable self-care activities

One of the best things about graduate school that I have found is the flexibility it confers. Although long hours can be common, many of the activities of graduate school (e.g., assignments, readings, writing manuscripts/research grants, etc.) tend to be done at your own pace. Depending on your program, scheduled hours (courses, clinical work, meetings, etc.) probably do not take up more than 15 to 25 hours of your week.

Personally, I take advantage of this to be able to enjoy parts of my day during the typical 9 to 5 hustle bustle – I go try out restaurants, take a walk in the park, sleep in once in a while, and go to the gym as examples of self-care. Other examples include:

  • Reading a novel for fun
  • Watching a movie
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Planning a get away with a friend or a romantic partner
  • Cozying up and watching a fun show

Taking advantage of this flexibility also means I also work in the evenings and weekends, but it’s a freeing schedule that works well for me because I try to be efficient with my work time and do not second guess the quality of my work. Other students prefer to keep to a strict 9 to 5 and have evenings and most weekends to themselves for destressing – that works too. I would encourage you to reflect and determine which strategy works best for you!

#5 Give yourself a pat on the back

Sometimes, we’re so busy second guessing ourselves and feeling overwhelmed, that we forget that we have done a lot a good work with the students we mentor, the patients we see, or the people we collaborate with.

Consider times in the past where you might deserve a pat on the back. Perhaps a grateful patient that you have recently finished up with and have seen some really improved outcomes throughout session. Or a student who felt a lot more confident about their paper after speaking with you in an office hour session. Even some strong feedback from a supervisor or another professor about your research idea. Take a moment to know that you are incredible just by virtue of being in graduate school and working hard to move towards your goals.

We’re all living the dream – at least in someone’s eyes.

#6 Engage in counselling or therapy

Many of us in clinical psychology provide counselling and psychotherapy, but may never have had experienced it on the other side of the table. Given the increased rates of anxiety and depression in graduate students (Garcia-Williams et al., 2014), we may be a specific demographic that requires it the most!

It’s definitely encouraged to try out counselling at least once in your life to see if it has benefits for you. Moreover, understanding therapy from the patient’s perspective can be useful to improving your own clinical awareness.

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Best wishes,

P

References

Garcia-Williams, A. G., Moffitt, L., & Kaslow, N. J. (2014). Mental health and suicidal behavior among graduate students. Academic psychiatry38(5), 554-560.

Zemirah, N. L. (2000)Burnout and clinical psychology graduate students: A qualitative study of students’ experiences and perceptions. Indiana University of Pennsylvania.