How can I deal with looming burnout as a mature student?
February 18, 2014 2:54 PM   Subscribe

I’ve been doing a kind of post-bac for the past couple of years and am in the home stretch, but I’m feeling burned out, given a long commute and care-taking obligations. What can I do to help myself push through?

For two years straight (all semesters) I’ve been switching between part-time and full-time studies and PT and FT work. Right now I’m just studying FT.

My damnable commute to campus is 3-4 hours round-trip and is my biggest stress. As in, I can barely move when I get home. Unfortunately, I can’t change this for a couple of months – I live where I do so I can afford to study. I’ll be going back to PT study to finish off two courses after this semester, and will be free to work FT without major tuition worries.

Where I live also happens to be far from where friends live, and isolation is part of the picture. (Even if I lived more centrally, I’d be studying most of the time. But I can’t just meet someone spontaneously for a quick drink or coffee, it’s got to be booked way in advance.)

I have also been caring for an older parent, and my responsibilities there have sharply increased over the past few months. Time with the parent not only involves more driving/transit but is also incredibly emotionally draining. I find it hard to switch from the emotional stuff to being productive. I am with this parent most days I’m not on campus, and same thing – I just want to drop at the end of it. I do have help from siblings with related practical matters (which are taken care of), but I am the only one able and willing to spend much time at all with the parent. (I am the person who helps with groceries, cleaning, and medical appointments. Not a lot of money for outside help with this and external resources are pretty much tapped or non-existent.)

I’ve been finding it impossible to get my head where it needs to be in order to do what I have to do. Most of my profs have been incredibly understanding and have offered extensions, but I just can’t seem to put myself in the right place to think clearly. I’ve been procrastinating all over the place (often here on AskMeFi). The idea of going back into the feeling that accompanies writing papers – that high-level alertness, the stress, even the physical postures of writing on a computer [hunching] – is highly aversive. (Writing while referencing various documents in an upright position is different from writing casually while lying on your stomach.)

This is dangerous – if I don’t maintain my 3.9 GPA, all will have been for nought. I’m in my late 30s, and there’s a lot on the line.

I'm still interested in my studies, and enjoy actively participating in classes; I just can't get into productivity mode.

From May, a good chunk of my stress will change for the better. My plan for the year my applications to professional schools go through is to get a job doing absolutely anything that pays enough to move closer to friends, and just relax and enjoy life. I find myself daydreaming about this (on the days I can muster the energy to do that).

I’ve been working on scheduling my time and use the Pomodoro technique with intermittent success. Fixing my eyes on the goal has worked well until now, but it's not enough anymore.

Thoughts are very welcome on anything that might help me better manage my time and emotional resources. Thank you in advance!
posted by cotton dress sock to Education (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You're seriously overextended, and that's why you're burning out.

What really does happen if you don't maintain that 3.9 GPA? "All will have been for naught" is pretty dramatic. Can you withdraw from one of your classes? Is it too late to get your schedule rearranged so that you're only on campus two or three days a week? Is there one class that's less important that you could flake out on a bit and get a nice B- in?

If you really can't adjust your schedule (academic or caregiving), the only thing I can think of for you to do is just constantly, constantly remind yourself that this is only until May. It's going to be hard.
posted by mskyle at 3:07 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You can do this.

I started a doctoral program at 38 with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old. I can understand some of your stress.

What has helped me a lot with the writing stuff is really being careful to schedule writing time early in the day. I have learned that the kind of attention and focus I need to write (citing sources) is much easier to come by in the morning than in late afternoon or night. The late-night writing I did at 20 or 21 just doesn't happen anymore (and honestly, it was pretty crappy writing then). I really try and plan my schedule accordingly. For me, that has often meant going to bed as soon as humanly possible, and getting up early (5 am sometimes -- before the kids are up) to get that "good brain" energy into the writing. Afternoon and late evening can be used for the busywork -- tracking down citations, cleaning up formatting, maybe reading -- whatever is slightly lower-concentration for you.

Can you get up in the morning before your parent needs you? Or before your need to catch that transit into campus?

You can do this.
posted by pantarei70 at 3:17 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You mention that you will move when you start professional school. I'm assuming that means you will stop caring for the parent at that time too and someone else will take over? If that's the case, why not expedite the someone-else-taking-over part? It sounds like you really need it, and like you've done as much as you can already, so no need to feel guilt over transferring duties now if it's in the inevitable plan.
posted by joan_holloway at 3:22 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

What really does happen if you don't maintain that 3.9 GPA? "All will have been for naught" is pretty dramatic.

If this is a post-baccalaureate in preparation for a competitive professional degree (e.g. medical school or even a "lesser" allied health degree) which the poster is not otherwise qualified for because their undergraduate degree was some combination of the wrong subject/from an undistinguished school/too long ago/completed with a low GPA, it's very possible that they will not be a competitive candidate if they don't keep their grades up. Admission to many of these programs often isn't a slam dunk even for traditional students who graduate with good-but-not-stellar records, and post-bacc programs on their own rarely do anything to make you more employable.
posted by pullayup at 3:24 PM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Pullayup is bang on. I’m looking at allied health programs. The trend in entry cut-offs for my target programs has been 3.7-3.8 (over the last two academic years of study). It’s a long-shot, for sure.

joan_holloway: I appreciate your thoughts, thank you. My parent has experienced a lot of changes very recently, and it will take some time to establish new routines, which I’m hoping I’ll be able to pass on to the right people when the time is right. Just for the moment, we’re kind of easing out of crisis mode. Things are calming down a bit, though, which is good.

pantarei70: Thank you! You’re right, I’ve been relying on now unhelpful studying patterns (late nights, etc). I’m a night owl by nature but there is definitely room for change here!

mskyle: My current schedule reflects the availability of required courses (these are ones offered in alternate years and only during the day), but you may be right, I may well have to drop one class or figure something else out that way.

I really appreciate everyone’s thoughts and support.
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:43 PM on February 18, 2014

What's your support network like? You mention siblings, but it sounds like they aren't very supportive. Do you have other close family, friends, significant other, religious leader, hair stylist, or anyone who can help you deal with the multiple stressors in your life? For me, this has been key to my survival in my graduate program.
posted by gumtree at 3:45 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

This might not be enough, and it also probably is obvious, but one thing that has helped me in high-stress academic situations in the past is to focus on the expiration date of the stress. If much of the stress is ending in May, that is only three months away, which - in the grand scheme of your life - is not much, although it definitely feels like a long time away at the moment. I wonder, when you feel stressed, whether you could consciously shift your thoughts towards the future - how good it will feel to graduate in May with a stellar GPA, how awesome it will feel to be accepted for an allied health profession, what a thrill it will be to start a new phase of your life that you've been looking forward to and working hard on for such a long time, etc. The more concrete your visualizations here, the better (actually imagining your graduation, cap on and everything; imagining getting your acceptance letter, etc.). I know all too well how all-consuming academic stress can feel, but for me at least, aggressively visualizing the end goal helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel and feel motivated to work towards it.
posted by ClaireBear at 3:54 PM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Gumtree: well, the truth is, my parent has always been difficult. One sibling is still pretty angry about the past (though the other has found his way to resolving his issues through this mess – something I’m really happy about). Both work full-time. Everyone’s sort of offered what they’ve been able to offer, and I’ve actually been amazed and impressed at how well we’ve pulled together to manage recent events. I do have a good friend who’s also a caregiver for her parent, and talking with her (when we can meet!) has been a great help. Most of my other peers are not yet dealing with these kinds of issues (or may never).

Lately I've been drawn to Buddhist ideas. I've not really been able to read for study on buses, but maybe I'll get a couple of the more accessible books on the subject and dip into them when I can. Acceptance, forbearance... valuing these does help.

Working out is something that’s helped me get through a million things, and I try to at least get some moderate cardio in on the weekends.

ClaireBear – I haven’t yet tried the kind of elaborate visualizations you describe, but will try them out! Thank you for the suggestion!
posted by cotton dress sock at 4:20 PM on February 18, 2014

I probably don't have quite as demanding a schedule, but one thing that works for me that might work for you is the pomodoro method. You work for 25 minutes, you break for 5 minutes, you repeat the cycle 5 times, and then you take a longer break. The hardest thing about getting academic work done for me is putting boundaries around how much time I'm going to spend and what needs to be accomplished, so these types of time structuring tricks really work well for me.

I make lists of how many pomodoros I'm going to dedicate to which tasks, etc. If you can't do the task itself, dedicate your time to writing down how you think the task can be accomplished--this gets you in the right mindset to actually accomplish things pretty quickly. Like any other discipline, you start off slowly (1,2,3 pomodoros) and work your way up from there.

Any similar method can work. I like this one because it gives me a definite beginning and end to the workday with periodic internet breaks.
posted by _cave at 4:43 PM on February 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Been there. (Am there). I sympathise, and wish for both of our sakes it wasn't so goddamn hard. Is your commute actually a long way in distance or are you just spending a long time stuck in traffic or taking multiple modes of public transport? Switching to bike commuting has made a big difference for me; maybe it's an option for you? Riding saves me a bit of time compared to public transport but the main positive effect had been on my mood. My commute serves as a sort of soothing transition between work, study and home, and the increased exercise has made a big difference to my sleep.

If you're interested in Buddhist ideas, you might look into whether MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive thereby) or MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) classes are available in your area. Although they're broadly secular, they draw a lot on Buddhist notions of tempering discipline with compassion, acceptance and gratitude.
posted by embrangled at 6:14 PM on February 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

Man, I'm sorry you're dealing with the same situation, embrangled. I'm glad you've found a reliable coping mechanism / mode of transport (only biking could offer this!). In my case, I take buses across two systems. I'm not a confident biker in our aggressive traffic, but maybe it's something I could try when I do move (because I will do everything in my power to never again find myself in a similar set-up.) Wishing you strength :)

_cave: I've slipped a bit with the Pomodoro technique, but I think you're right -- a more structured schedule will surely help!

Thanks for the kind and helpful thoughts, everyone!

Just realizing how odd it is that I keep saying, "my parent". A distancing thing, I think, and a probably irrational way of trying to maintain anonymity. Sorry for that bit of weirdness.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:25 PM on February 18, 2014

I'm also in a PB program. While I don't have the huge demands on my time that you do, I can share with you a few things that have helped me stay productive.

###Breaking studying down into a specific pattern###

Most people don't have a plan when they start to study things, they read, they mender, they look back and forth at notes. Learning each subject should be broken down into tiny little parts like creating things in a factory. What we are looking for a system that guarantees you that you'll be ready for exams without any uncertainty. Before we begin, "studying" we must know what we are responsible for knowing - a knowledge inventory. For many professors, it's just the PPT slides - and that makes the rest of this super easy. Really press your professors to know exactly what you are responsible for knowing. This is our starting point A. Our end point (B) is a high exam grade.

So how do we get from A to B for every single subject?

*** Knowledge = understanding + confidence ***

To be sure we understand our subject, we take notes in class of course and read our books, but does that guarantee understanding? Maybe, but probably not.

Understanding Technique 1:

The main methods that to use for understanding are summarizing each page of notes (ala Cornell Notes) and summarizing each page in a book. So when reading a book, after I read a page - I wrote the main jist of each page as we go along. Likewise with class notes.

Understanding Technique 2:

Have another, unassigned, textbook. Don't just use the assigned textbook, get another a just out of date edition textbook for five bucks from Amazon and use that to supplement hard topics.

Understanding Technique 3:

If you are still sure you don't understand the subject, we can lecture the wall, or the dog, or a rubber ducky. I have a rubber ducky. Explain _out loud_ the topic. Out loud is vital, even if you feel silly. If you stumble, you can go back are reread.

There are many other understanding techniques, but these work for me. Of course, doing any practical (for example math, physics) problems should be part of this as well


Confidence Technique 1:

You know how you are going to be evaluated, practice it. I don't believe there is a better way to practice for taking a test than by making your own test. If you don't know the structure of the tests, favor fill in the blanks. Focus on relationships and processes.

Confidence Technique 2:

Overlearn the subject. You are learning this subject for a reason, find out why. What's the next step to take with this knowledge - answer that and explore that.

###Personal Kanban###

This is the most evolved of "to-do" lists. You can read about personal kanban here.

Personal kanban vs other to-do list managers is like night and day. You know the rule, "a place for everything and everything in it's place" for clutter? It's like that, but better. I talked about it a bit more in another question.

###Writing Papers###

All writing is an argument, or even it is not specifically an argument - it will likely be better received as an argument. Check out the Toulmin method for making arguments, it's very easy to write papers with this model in mind.


This has been covered by others. I think Pomodoro's work great when you are doing low motivation tasks or have low energy - other times it is just something to fiddle with and is not productive.

###Energy Based Tasks###

I use color coding to rank tasks according to how much energy and focus they require. I know at the end of the day, my focus is going to be crap - so I save those tasks for then. Additionally, at the beginning of the day I pick one task, the ugliest task - The Frog - that I don't want to work on, but needs to be worked on. That is the most important task for me to complete and I do my best to get that done.

###Vitamin D, melatonin and eating on waking up###

I am also a night owl. Left on my own, I'd prefer to wake up at 11am. I probably have delayed sleep phase disorder. So to change that, I take a small dose of melatonin every night at the same time every night. When I wake up, I take a Vitamin D tablet and eat something as quickly as I can.

###You aren't strong all of the time###

It's important to know when you aren't going to be making good decisions. Like many, I lie to myself in the morning - I know that I am incapable of making a good decision upon waking up. So, I decide ahead of time, that I'm getting up when that alarm goes off. That may sound like some weird Jedi nonsense, but I've already made that decision, beforehand - so I *can't* make that decision in the morning. If this sounds like something you'd like to explore, look up Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions. The technique is astoundingly helpful.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:18 PM on February 18, 2014 [8 favorites]

I have been in your shoes too. My own big regret was that I allowed the person having a health crisis/demanding care taking to run/ruin so much of my life. They, like your parent, are an adult who should have been active in creating their own support network instead of draining mine.

I know guilt is a horrible thing to live with, especially from someone that knows how to press all your buttons, but take a hard look at how much of your care taking is necessary vs them avoiding their own responsibilities. There is just no way a caring and loving parent would impose that much on their own child knowing the consequences to the child's future.

Sadly, a lot of very damaged people will take down the empathetic people around them, literally drowning their caretakers, so the the person demanding care can come out on top. If they can do it to you, they will easily find someone else to latch onto and drag them down. instead.
posted by saucysault at 9:54 PM on February 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Saucysault, I’m so sorry you’ve had this experience. Thank you for helping me to reflect on boundaries. I need to get better at these, big time.

There’s no question they can be a gigantic pain in the ass – sometimes moody, definitely stubborn and stuck to certain habits -- what I find draining is the effort involved in engaging them in particular tasks that need to be accomplished. (Gaining agreement on eating at least twice every day and working towards getting them to cook their own meals; getting them to work with me on sorting and doing laundry; consenting to taking one route to the store and not the preferred one when it’s not feasible; ensuring medications are taken.) All this takes time and means acknowledging and adjusting to their mood. When I can pitch it right, everyone’s on board and things go smoothly. Other than that, it’s just hard for me personally to see the impact of age and illness on someone I love very much. Despite being a gigantic (but sometimes funny) pain in the ass, they are hugely supportive of me and my goals, and the second I mention school or coursework (which I only do at the very last minute – must work on this, maybe it’ll speed things), they say, “You have to study! Go! Why are you wasting time on me?” And it’s because I’m scared for them, maybe more than I need to be, and I want to be there. I probably don’t need to stay quite as long as I do. And maybe it’s a little because it’s an unimpeachable reason for me to take a break from my anxiety around writing papers.

Brent Parker, you’re a machine. The Oettingen and Gollwitzer paper is fantastic, so much to dig into there! Coding tasks according to energy is ingenious too! And I will look into personal kanban. You’ve given me a proper manifesto to work from and I will use it!

Such great suggestions and thoughts and support all around – thank you all so much.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:00 PM on February 19, 2014

Update for the interested: a serendipitous medical test revealed that a physiological component was contributing to the fatigue / mental inertia -- namely, severe vitamin D deficiency (after the coldest winter in my area in 20 years). Who'd have thought? I am supplementing and feeling better/more energized. One lesson learned: test yourself before you wreck yourself.

I also moved, which shaved 30 minutes off my commute each way. I have a whole extra hour a day. It helps.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:06 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's crazy. Glad you got it a portion of it figured out. This goes to prove that I'm not nutty for taking my Vitamin D every morning.
posted by Brent Parker at 9:23 PM on July 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

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