PhD Student Burnout


PhD Student Burnout

Doctoral study is associated with high levels of anxiety and depressive symptomatology, and poor wellbeing overall (1) . Unsurprisingly, the prevalence of burnout is also high among this population (2) . Along with PhD students, nursing and medical students also suffer from disproportionate rates of burnout (3) . This is not a great omen for PhD students in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences.

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as ‘‘a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy’’ (4) .

Exhaustion may include fatigue and low energy due to the draining of emotional resources (5) . Cynicism may refer to an attitude of distancing from work or feelings of indifference towards work. Inefficacy refers to lower rates of success at work or reduced accomplishments.

It’s important to note that burnout is not a failure of the individual. While precise definitions of burnout may vary, the core issue is chronic workplace stress due to poor management. Most of all, burnout reflects a failure of the system.

Universities should take note that the experience of burnout is linked to attrition intentions among PhD students (6.7) .


For PhD students, burnout may feel like high levels of chronic stress. PhD students often serve in a variety of roles as teachers, students, and researchers, and this unclear delineation of roles may in itself be a source of burnout stress.

Students experiencing burnout may feel under constant strain, unhappy, and experience depressive symptoms. Students may experience sleeping difficulties due to worries and an inability to overcome difficulties.

Additionally, burnout feels like emotional exhaustion. Students experiencing burnout may feel increasingly irritable and strained. Students might feel resentful, taken for granted, and with nothing left to give. Depersonalization, or a feeling of detachment, may be experienced such that students appear emotionally cold. 

Feelings of worthlessness and lack of accomplishment are typical during episodes of burnout. Students may feel an absence of motivation to complete their work.

Finally, physical symptoms may accompany the psychological symptoms of burnout. Fatigue, exhaustion, headaches, gastrointestinal disturbances, hypertension, colds, and flu are among the physical symptoms associated with burnout (8.9). 


I think I’m getting better at recognising burnout because it’s happened so much and it’s getting quite normal. For me, I just tend to feel tired a lot and start to experience apathy and anhedonia. For me, recovery requires taking long breaks (at least a few days) from work, and finding time to reconnect with the people and things that I love.

What contributes to burnout?

Key predictors of burnout among doctoral students include:

  • Chronic stress (9, 10) 
  • Low frequency of supervision (7) 
  • Lack of satisfaction with supervision (2, 7, 10) 
  • Lack of equality among researchers (7) 
  • Poor sleep quality (11)
  • Bullying by faculty members (12) 
  • Feeling a lack of belongingness to a team (13) 
  • Conflict in work responsibilities (2, 13) 
  • Low autonomy (13) 

Perfectionism, subjective appraisal of employment opportunities, and an existing psychiatric disorder may also increase risk of burnout (6, 14). 

What reduces risk of burnout?

The risk of burnout may be decreased by:

  • Doing PhD in hometown (2) 
  • Quality supervision- emotional, social, and informational support (7, 10, 15, 16) 
  • Equal treatment as part of research community (7) 
  • Regular supervisory meetings (7) 
  • Sense of belonging (17) 
  • Social support (18) 

Of the predictors and risk factors, supervision appears to have a consistent and powerful impact on burnout for doctoral students. Quality supervision has a buffering effect on stress which social support from family/friends cannot match (16) .


I think the key to avoiding burnout during PhD is 1) setting realistic milestones, and 2) making sure you meet them along the way. Often PhD students set unrealistic milestones and feel like a failure if these are not met. The best way around this is to check in with your supervisor and your peers who may have more experience in how long tasks may take. And secondly, three to four years seems like a really long time but it will really be over quite quickly. Therefore students should work consistently throughout the PhD to ensure that these realistic milestones are met. Making progress in small but consistent increments should help avoid overload and risk of burnout. Remember it is a marathon not a sprint!


The prevention of burnout is not an individual responsibility, but a collective one. Universities should identify risk factors for burnout and attempt to mitigate these. These efforts might include specialised training to aid doctoral supervisors in developing constructive and supportive leadership styles; clear and comprehensive information on the roles and responsibilities of doctoral students; and fostering of a cohesive community for doctoral students, faculty, and staff (1, 10, 15, 16, 19).

In the absence of power to drastically change university systems and culture, an individual doctoral student might be able to slightly reduce burnout risk by:

Engaging with peers.

Peer support has been shown to help with motivation, identification of stressful tasks and workloads, and confidence to talk with supervisors about changes that are needed to prevent burnout (20). 

Active involvement in the academic community.

Students are more likely to feel empowered when they actively engage in the research community (17) . Students may attend conferences or participate in academic events or seminars to increase their involvement.

Avoid overload.

It can be difficult for students to say no to extra work due to several factors including the power imbalance between supervisors and students. But if students can cut down on tasks that don’t serve them, this would be beneficial (19). 

Prioritise sleep.

Sleep was frequently mentioned in studies of doctoral student burnout. Better sleep quality and duration is a modifiable factor that may reduce the risk of transitioning from ‘stressed’ to ‘exhausted’ (11). 


  1. Levecque K, Anseel F, de Beuckelaer A, van der Heyden J, Gisle L. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy. 2017;46(4):868-879. doi:10.1016/J.RESPOL.2017.02.008
  2. Sorrel MA, Ángel Martínez-Huertas J, Arconada M. It Must have been Burnout: Prevalence and Related Factors among Spanish PhD Students. The Spanish Journal of Psychology. 2020;23:1-13. doi:10.1017/SJP.2020.31
  3. Bullock G, Kraft L, Amsden K, … WGC medical, 2017 undefined. The prevalence and effect of burnout on graduate healthcare students. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  4. Maslach C, … WSA review of, 2001 undefined. Job burnout. Accessed August 1, 2022.
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  6. Nagy G, Fang C, Hish A, … LKCS, 2019 undefined. Burnout and mental health problems in biomedical doctoral students. Am Soc Cell Biol. 2019;18(2):1-14. doi:10.1187/cbe.18-09-0198
  7. Cornér S, Löfström E, Doctoral KPIJ of, 2017 undefined. The relationship between doctoral students’ perceptions of supervision and burnout. doi:10.28945/3754
  8. Symptoms of professional burnout: A review of the empirical evidence.: EBSCOhost. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  9. Meis L de, Velloso A, Lannes D, … MCBJ of, 2003 undefined. The growing competition in Brazilian science: rites of passage, stress and burnout. SciELO Brasil. 36(9):2003. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  10. Allen HK, Lilly F, Green KM, Zanjani F, Vincent KB, Arria AM. Graduate Student Burnout: Substance Use, Mental Health, and the Moderating Role of Advisor Satisfaction. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. 2022;20(2):1130-1146. doi:10.1007/S11469-020-00431-9/TABLES/3
  11. Allen HK, Barrall AL, Vincent KB, Arria AM. Stress and Burnout Among Graduate Students: Moderation by Sleep Duration and Quality. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2021;28(1):21-28. doi:10.1007/S12529-020-09867-8/FIGURES/2
  12. Goodboy A, Martin M, Johnson Z. Communication Research Reports The Relationships Between Workplace Bullying by Graduate Faculty with Graduate Students’ Burnout and Organizational Citizenship Behaviors. doi:10.1080/08824096.2015.1052904
  13. Kusurkar RA, van der Burgt SME, Isik U, et al. Burnout and engagement among PhD students in medicine: the BEeP study. Perspectives on Medical Education. 2021;10(2):110-117. doi:10.1007/S40037-020-00637-6/FIGURES/2
  14. Chun KH. 의과대학ㆍ의학전문대학원생의 학업소진 양상과 관련 변인들과의 관계 Relationship between Academic Burnout of Medical and Graduate Students and Related Variables. Korean Medical Education Review. 2014;16(2):77-87. Accessed August 1, 2022.
  15. Devine K, Hunter KH. Innovations in Education and Teaching International PhD student emotional exhaustion: the role of supportive supervision and self-presentation behaviours PhD student emotional exhaustion: the role of supportive supervision and self-presentation behaviours. InnovatIons In EducatIon and tEachIng IntErnatIonal. 2017;54(4):335-344. doi:10.1080/14703297.2016.1174143
  16. Kovach H, Nancy C, Murdock L, Koetting K. Predicting Burnout and Career Choice Satisfaction in Counseling Psychology Graduate Students. The Counseling Psychologist. 2009;37:580-606. doi:10.1177/0011000008319985
  17. Stubb J, Pyhältö K, Lonka K. Studies in Continuing Education Balancing between inspiration and exhaustion: PhD students’ experienced socio-psychological well-being. Published online 2011. doi:10.1080/0158037X.2010.515572
  18. Galdino MJQ, Martins JT, do Carmo Fernandez Lourenço Haddad M, do Carmo Cruz Robazzi ML, Birolim MM. Burnout Syndrome among master’s and doctoral students in nursing. Acta Paulista de Enfermagem. 2016;29(1):100-106. doi:10.1590/1982-0194201600014
  19. Rigg1 J, Day2 J, Adler2 H, Rigg J. Emotional Exhaustion in Graduate Students: The Role of Engagement, Self-Efficacy and Social Support. Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology. 2013;3(2). doi:10.5539/jedp.v3n2p138
  20. Peterson U, Bergströ G, Samuelsson M, et al. Reflecting peer-support groups in the prevention of stress and burnout: randomized controlled trial. Journal of Advanced Nursing. 2008;63(5):506-516. doi:10.1111/J.1365-2648.2008.04743.X

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