A Grad Student's Guide to Burnout

What is burnout?

Burnout is an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion (physical, emotional, or psychological) and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.


(Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that cool)

Burnout symptoms

Lack of motivation, having a negative attitude about work or school, feeling sad or easily irritated, having low energy, and not feeling invested or interested in your work are all common symptoms. As grad students, we have to wear a lot of hats, so burnout might look differently in different areas. For example, burnout in your clinical work might be when you’re too invested in your work, or you feel that you can’t maintain the boundaries between practicum and the rest of your life. Maybe you find it’s much more difficult to leave your caseload at work, or you’re becoming too emotionally attached to your clients. Dissertation burnout? Perhaps you avoid reading emails from your advisor, or you get really anxious whenever you have to start writing.

What causes burnout?

Lots of factors can contribute to burnout. Chronically high stress, working at a job you don’t enjoy, being in a position you aren’t qualified for, lacking social support (especially from a supervisor, advisor, or peers), taking on more responsibilities than you can manage, or working for a long time without a break or vacation are just a few.


Strategies to prevent burnout

  • Self care! Get adequate sleep, maintain a healthy diet, and get some sort of exercise. But don’t forget about emotional, mental, and spiritual health. Try to have a fun hobby outside of school. Devote part of every day to just relaxing. Grad school is also a great time to do your own therapy.
  • Maintain your boundaries. When you’re at school, focus on school. When you’re at practicum, focus on your clinical work. Homework is unavoidable, but try not to take your clinical work home with you. A ritual that worked for me: I allowed myself to reflect on my experience at prac during my drive home. Once I got home, I took off my dress clothes and put away my thoughts/worries about practicum. Of course, you can still talk about some of those experiences with friends, peers, partners as a method of processing. But try not to let one aspect of your life consume more than it’s fair share of your energy.
  • Know your limits. We are challenged every day in grad school, whether it’s with assignments or clients. Learn to recognize what your capable of and know when you need to ask for help. There are lots of opportunities available in grad school. That doesn’t mean you need to take up every single one. Learn when to say not now and when to say no.


  • Find support. That can be other people in your program, your advisor, your family, and your friends. My best friend doesn’t understand my program at all, but she still listens to my rants about frustrating professors or difficult clients, and usually that’s all I need. Know what you need from your support system and learn ways to ask for it. And develop a good relationship with your supervisor. You will probably learn more from your supervisors than anyone else in your grad school career.
  • Remember your purpose. Obviously, we don’t have to like everything about grad school. Writing papers can be monotonous, classes can get boring, and there will be clients you aren’t overly fond of. But keep your goal in mind. What are you trying to learn? Why are you in this program? What is your passion? If you can keep your goal in mind, you can endure anything,

1. Baby Beluga - Raffi
2. Let Go - Frou Frou
3. Gravity - John Mayer
4. Yamaha - Delta Spirit
5. Shake it Off - Taylor Swift
6. Free Bird - Lynyrd Skynyrd
7. Be The Song - Foy Vance
8. The Luckiest - Ben Folds
9. Paradise - Coldplay
10. Blackbird - The Beatles
11. America - Simon and Garfunkel
12. Stay With Me - Sam Smith
13. I Want it That Way - Backstreet Boys
14. Waiting for my Real Life to Begin - Ben Harper
15. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
16. The  Blower’s Daughter - Damien Rice
17. Call Your Girlfriend - Robyn
18. Hallelujah - Jeff Buckley
19. The a la Menthe - Nikki Furie
20. 83 - John Mayer
21. Tupelo Honey - Van Morrison
22. I Wanna Dance With Somebody - Whitney Houston
23. Fancy - Iggy Azalea
24. Do Something - Britney Spears
25. Levon - Elton John

Specifiers for Depressive Disorders

Specifiers for depressive disorders are to help mental health professionals narrow down subtypes of depressive disorders for a proper diagnosis. Many people do not realize that there are many different subtypes for each depressive disorder.

With Anxious Distress

Anxious distress is defined as the presence of at least two of the following symptoms during the majority of days of a major depressive episode or persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia):

  1. Feeling keyed up or tense.
  2. Feeling unusually restless.
  3. Difficultly concentrating because of worry.
  4. Fear that something awful might happen.
  5. Feeling that the individual might lose control.

Mild: two symptoms; Moderate: three symptoms; Moderate-severe: four or five symptoms; Severe: four or five symptoms, plus motor agitation

With Mixed Features
  1. At least three of the following manic/hypomanic symptoms are present nearly every day during the majority of days of a major depressive episode:
    1. Elevated, expansive mood.
    2. Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity.
    3. More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking.
    4. Flight of ideas of subjective experience that thoughts are racing.
    5. Increase in energy or goal-directed activity.
    6. Increased or excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.
    7. Decreased need for sleep.
  2. Mixed symptoms are observable by others and represent a change from the person’s usual behavior.
  3. For individuals who meet full criteria for either mania or hypomania, the diagnosis [of a depressive disorder should be revoked and] should be Bipolar I or Bipolar II.
  4. The mixed symptoms are not attributable to the psychological affects of a substance.
With Melancholic Features
  1. One of the following is present during the most severe period of the current episode:
    1. Loss of pleasure in all, or almost all, activities.
    2. Lack of reactivity to usually pleasurable stimuli (does not feel much better, even temporarily, when something good happens).
  2. Three or more of the following:
    1. A distinct quality of depressed mood characterized by profound despondency, despair, and/or moroseness or by so-called empty mood.
    2. Depression that is regularly worse in the morning.
    3. Early-morning awakening (at least two hours before usual awakening).
    4. Marked psychomotor agitation or retardation.
    5. Significant anorexia or weight loss.
    6. Excessive or inappropriate guilt.

With Atypical Features

This specifier can be applied when these features predominate during the majority of the days of the current of most recent major depressive episode or persistent depressive disorder.

  1. Mood brightens in response to actual or potential positive events.
  2. Two or more of the following:
    1. Significant weight gain or increase in appetite.
    2. Hypersomnia.
    3. Leaden paralysis.
    4. A long-standing pattern of interpersonal rejection sensitivity (not limited to episodes of mood disturbance) that results in significant social or occupational impairment.
  3. Criteria are not met for “with melancholic features” or “with catatonia” during the same episode.
With Mood-Congruent Psychotic Features

The content of delusions or hallucinations is consistent with the typical depressive themes of personal inadequacy, guilt, disease, death, nihilism, or deserved punishment.

With Mood-Incongruent Psychotic Features

The content of delusions or hallucinations does not involve the typical depressive themes, or the content is a mixture of mood-incongruent and mood-congruent themes.

With Catatonia

The catatonia specifier can apply to an episode of depression if catatonic features are present during most of the episode.

With Peripartum Onset

This specifier can be applied to the current or, if full criteria are not currently met for met for a major depressive episode, most recent episode of major depression if onset of mood symptoms occurs during pregnancy or the four weeks following delivery.

With Seasonal Pattern

This specifier applies to recurrent major depressive disorder (used to be called Seasonal Affective Disorder).

  1. There has been a regular temporal relationship between the onset of major depressive episodes in major depressive disorder and a particular time of the year. This does not include cases where there is an obvious effect of seasonally related psychosocial stressors.
  2. Full remissions (or a change from major depression to (hypo-)mania) also occur at a characteristic time of year (after the “season” of depression).
  3. In the last two years, two major depressive episodes have occurred that demonstrate the temporal seasonal relationships defined above and no nonseasonal major depressive episodes have occurred during the same period.
  4. Seasonal major depressive episodes substantially outnumber the nonseasonal major depressive episodes that may have occurred over the individuals lifetime.

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder: includes no specifiers
Major Depressive Disorder: includes all nine specifiers
Persistent Depressive Disorder: includes all specifiers except “with catatonia” and “with seasonal pattern”
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder: includes no specifiers
Substance/Medication-Induced Depressive Disorder: includes specifiers not listed above (“with onset during intoxication” and “with onset during withdrawal”)
Depressive Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition: includes no specifiers
Other Specified Depressive Disorder: includes no specifiers (only subtypes)
Unspecified Depressive Disorder: includes no specifiers

American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Adapted with permission. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The use of this information is for informational purposes only; to guide those experiencing mental distress and to educate those who are interested in the topic. diagnostic criteria alone is not proper grounds for a diagnosis; professional evaluation and diagnosis is critical for proper treatment of mental disorders.

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