What to Do About Summer Burnout

By Kristen Herbert |

As a graduate student, summer can be hard. The relentless pace of the regular academic year vanishes, classmates leave the area, as do the numerous deadlines that have just become part of everyday life. After submitting your Spring quarter grades, you might be ready to 'take off' work for a while, yet at the same time, shouldn't you be working on your dissertation? 


[Image Description: A woman telling her colleague that the dissertation is not going to write itself.]

Pictured: Summer 'break'? What's that?

It can be difficult to organize academic tasks when you don’t have the typical structure of the academic year. You may also have other responsibilities that require your attention, be it family duties, off-campus jobs. So, how do we carve out time for ourselves, and more importantly, how do we keep ourselves from becoming isolated or zoned out?


[Image Description: A man staring off into the distance as he is deep in thought.]

Pictured: Checked out.

A third of the way into the second summer of my MFA career, I find time moving at high speed, often faster than I can find my bearings. While I would like to plan more time for my manuscript, I’m often falling behind on concrete deadlines for off-campus work, and personal responsibilities to my family and friends. With all of my campus tasks remote, I have more time to visit family, to find a new living situation, to see friends—and before you know it, a month has passed. I want to make a few suggestions—as I try to find the answer myself—about how to stay afloat, not only in one’s academic life, but in one’s overall well-being during the summer months.

Firstly, as an advisor once told me, it is important to take concentrated time off school. During the academic year, we often have to push necessary tasks from our personal lives to meet all of our responsibilities for external collaborations, research, writing, teaching, and schoolwork. We follow an intense pace from week-to-week on a tight, 10-week schedule. Once that pressure is removed, it’s possible to refocus, whatever that may look like. Answering messages, returning phone calls, making a real dinner, or finally going to the post office. At the same time, it’s easy to become comfortable in that pattern, to try to compartmentalize or bury one’s academic life, despite having personal goals to do more writing or research in the ‘off’ months.


[Image Description: James Corden telling you to stop working so hard and take a break.]

Pictured: Relax!

A second suggestion: to lean into the tasks that are related, but not the same, to your yearly academic tasks. For an MFA student, this might look like research into background information about our character’s hometown or habits. It might be writing short stories instead of a novel, essays, fanfiction, reviews, blogs, or in my case, translating. In sports, we’d call this conditioning—when one does workout routines that are tangentially related to one’s sport in order to build strength in other ways. Just as this makes an athlete stronger, an academic may release pressure around their main task (likely a thesis, a manuscript, or a dissertation) by using similar skills for a different purpose. This allows one to finally see their project from new angles that may be impossible to view from up close.

A third suggestion: making concrete goals. To say, ‘I’m going to write more this summer’ does not give much of a framework for what progress might look like. It makes it easier to push off those tasks until September, when you might be disappointed in not achieving what you hadn’t clearly outlined for yourself. Try setting goals that are manageable and enjoyable (i.e., I’m going to revise three chapters, proofread what I have so far of my manuscript). It is summer, after all—you will have the rest of the year for the regular grind.

A fourth and final suggestion: to, in as much as you can, relax and have fun. Life isn’t about schoolwork, and an abundance of schoolwork can make it hard to live life. So, take advantage of what your summer schedule provides, be it more time with friends and family, or maybe even checking out more local places, like some of the wonderful parks and nature areas near Riverside.

That’s all for now. Take it easy—but stay focused.