PhD, Semester 4: An Inventory of Exhaustion

At the end of last semester, I stopped telling people I was “good.” Instead, when they asked, “how are you?” my answer went from “tired” to “so tired” to “exhausted.” I settled on exhausted for the rest of the semester; it sounded simple and relatable, especially in the week before finals on a college campus.

But “exhausted” didn’t just mean I was “really tired” or extra stressed about the increased workload that accompanies the end of every semester. I couldn’t quite explain what was happening, even to myself. But I knew I truly wasn’t “good” because:

  • I’d come home at the end of the day, plop down on my couch, and stare into space. No phone, no TV. Of course, I sometimes engage in mindless social media scrolling, but this staring at nothing was new and concerning.
  • I didn’t feel rested after resting. I’d try to spend a full day or even an entire weekend not working. During these “rest” days, I’d cook myself good meals, exercise, get enough sleep – do all the right things. But I’d wake up the next morning and feel no different.
  • I’d look at readings, syllabi, and upcoming events that would usually be exciting for me and instead, feel miserable. There was stress-induced crying involved.

My response to this new “not good” state was to analyze myself, a habit that comes either from being in academia or my hobby reading self-improvement books. There is power in naming a problem. You can’t address a problem you haven’t identified. So I called my problem “exhaustion,” broke it down into multiple facets, and wrote. I wrote pages just trying to figure this out, feeling a sense of urgency. I thought I needed to get this out and fast, but the writing ended up wearing me out even more. So I stopped.

But now, after winter break, one month into a new semester, I’m finally back to writing about exhaustion. I would have preferred to write about my goals for rest in the new semester, but it seems I have to deal with exhaustion first.

Thesis Statement (I see you, skimmers, and I respect that)

In this post, I will attempt to create my own extensive definition of exhaustion, as academics do.

Others have written about similar topics, using terms like burnout, graduate school fatigue, and activist burnout. I felt like I could check yes to all of the above, but also needed an “other” category with multiple lines to explain.

My definition of exhaustion is intersectional, as most things in life tend to be. Below I’ll list some elements of my exhaustion, organized into 6 themes, and at the end, offer no solution. Let’s start!

1. Physical Exhaustion

Cause: Accumulation of various forms of harms to one’s physical body. The easiest form of exhaustion to understand and witness.

Academic life isn’t exactly physically strenuous. But the physicality of grad school has surprised me. Some elements are particular to my program and own experience, like needing to walk a mile across campus to get from one class to another, or a required course scheduled at 9:30am with its corresponding lab ending at 7:30pm. That’s 10 hours on campus. That’s physically taxing.

But the more common experience of physical exhaustion in graduate school is probably the impact of mental fatigue on the physical body. Here a story might help.

Last September, I was on a roll. I was working extensively on two different papers and a fellowship application requiring me to propose a third project. For all three projects, I was doing “heavy thinking,” not just describing my methods and findings or making edits to language, but working through concepts, trying to figure out why these topics matter, and how I could communicate that to others in a format acceptable to journal editors and review committees. I was so excited about all these projects that I kept pushing, rapidly switching between them, sometimes working on all three over the course of one day. And as an early-stage graduate student, this was all “extra” work. I was also keeping up with my main responsibilities – coursework, required readings, teaching assistant duties, grading assignments, and attending meetings. I met my three deadlines, immediately caught a cold, and was forced to rest.

Physical exhaustion accumulates in less apparent ways too. It’s easy to sacrifice sleep, which builds up over time and can’t be solved with a weekend binge. A lack of time also makes it easy to skip cooking and tight graduate stipends encourage cheap rather than healthy options when eating out. And do I even need to get started on finding time to exercise?

Finally, it probably comes as no surprise that graduate school involves with high amounts of stress. It also shouldn’t be surprising that stress has physical consequences. From stress eating to not eating, a compromised immune system, and difficulty with basic functions like eating and sleeping, sustained periods of stress = physical trouble.

When we talk about stress in grad school, we could discuss both the immediate (high workloads, pressure to publish, high-stakes deadlines) and the long-term (program deadlines and milestones, doubts about career path and job security), but I do want to move on to the next point.

2. Mental Exhaustion

Cause: A prolonged overexertion of mental capacities. Often manifests in physical symptoms.

Mental exhaustion is the most predictable. We’d expect graduate students to experience periods of mental exhaustion, given that their primary work is to think and translate their thoughts into words that are convincing to others.

It’s hard to describe (or see) mental exhaustion. The first hurdle a student might face is the adjustment to graduate level coursework while simultaneously trying to figure out what “graduate-level work” actually means. Recently, I’ve found it entertaining to draw comparisons between my adjustment to living abroad and my adjustment to living in academia. For me and my intersection of identities, transitioning to academia has involved more culture shock than living in a new country. No question.

Then there’s the mental strain revolving around how much work there is to do, how many different types of tasks you need to switch between, how work is expected all the time, and how overwork is such a norm that it’s a running joke.

Fortunately, graduate students’ dismal mental health is a growing conversation. A 2018 article seemed to revive this topic, finding high rates of anxiety and depression among graduate students. A later study emphasized environmental factors, arguing that we need to not provide more counseling and “self-care” tips but consider how the structure of graduate school hurts students’ mental health. Yet although we know this, most solutions and suggestions remain individual. Meditation, counseling, and even efforts to destigmatize conversations around mental health do not address the root sources of harm.

Mental exhaustion from being deeply engaged with your work is one thing, but exhaustion from a culture of overwork, hazing, and rigid hierarchies is quite another.

3. Emotional Exhaustion

Cause: Excessive emotion management and policing, whether from self and others, especially around and from those in authority.

Being in a workplace involves keeping up appearances. We call this professionalism. But often “professionalism” is also code for emotional labor.

Service jobs usually involve labor such as emotional management in front of customers. But being a graduate student seems to require a constant self-management that’s distinct from my experience in service sector jobs. And the degree of emotional management required of graduate students follows patterns of inequality.

Of course, if you’re in a position of very little power in your workplace hierarchy, you have to do the most emotion management. Faculty on the other hand – particularly tenured, high-prestige faculty with privileged identities – can do almost anything they want. The amount of information I retain about faculty personality quirks is ridiculous. It also feels necessary. Rather than just workplace gossip, information that allows students to cater to professors’ minute preferences helps students navigate the treacherous terrains of a graduate department.

I refer to this terrain as “treacherous” because the right knowledge and connections can secure funding, career advancement opportunities, and further connections…or limit them. Graduate students cannot possibly know of all the steps they can (or should) take to build their careers, so the graduate school model relies on advisor-advisee mentorship.

Securing the right advisors and mentors then becomes a high-stakes affair.

While the quality of your work matters, as anyone who’s ever had a job interview could tell you, personality and likeability matters.

4. Exhaustion Stemming from Disillusionment

Cause: Realization and subsequent grappling with the fact that the narratives you internalized or were explicitly taught about your department/field/academia are incorrect and are perhaps at odds with your own values. Put plainly, what you expected was wrong.

I came to sociology to study race. That’s what had me hooked – realizing that in this sociology thing, people acknowledge that race exists and can even study it for a living! How cool! Of course, there are other fields where you can do this, but sociology got me first, and after Hava Gordon’s Social Movements course, I was committed.

My particular disillusionment then, was to realize that sociologists’ treatment of race is often horrifically inaccurate, flippant, or misinformed. This was my naive mistake. No sociologist who studies race has shared my surprise. This is academia after all, a space largely and historically populated by wealthy white men.

I am also disillusioned with some images I’ve been fed. I am now immediately suspect of spaces that so adamantly claim to be collegial. The position and identities of the claim-maker (collegiality-claimer) are also important. An important follow up question is “collegial for whom?”

5. Exhaustion Stemming from Oppressive Practices

Cause: Experiencing harm (see also, bias, prejudice, microaggressions) on the basis of one’s identities (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, etc.) or from limited or unsuccessful efforts to dismantle oppressive and unequal practices in one’s institution, city, and/or country.

This one is catch-all for all the -isms and phobias. You know, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ableism, xenophobia – aspects of your identity that you cannot change.

So many writers have already published many powerful (and disheartening) accounts of topics like racism and sexism in academia. I’ll just leave a few here:

6. Personal Exhaustion

Cause: Instances when “life happens.” Strain resulting from a variety of challenges not perceived as directly related to the workplace, but potentially exacerbated by workplace conditions, including financial constraint; inadequate social support systems; and insufficient time for rest, recovery, or play (a natural human activity).

Sometimes life happens. Actually life always happens. Life doesn’t stop going on because you’ve started graduate school. Yet we often seem to pretend it doesn’t.

One semester into my program, I concluded, “Grad school is manageable until life happens.”

The problem is that life has happened every semester. (The audacity.)

  • Semester 1: Multiple car issues & a need for new tires.
  • Semester 2: Old laptop died. New laptop needed multiple repairs.
  • Semester 3: Death in the family.

I happened to get an especially tough “life happening” last semester. Grief really is a unique form of exhaustion. We know that grief causes changes in your brain and manifests in physical symptoms. But smaller fires crop up all the time. If you’re already in a state of stress and sleep deprivation, even small stressors push you toward exhaustion far more quickly than they normally might.

In Sum

Naming my exhaustion, and its multiple facets, seemed to be a helpful exercise. It made my reactions – like my new evening pastime of staring at nothing – seem legitimate and understandable.

I said I’d offer no solution, but currently I am less exhausted and have ideas. So we’ll give solutions a shot in part 2: Taking Rest into the New Semester.

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