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Academic Exhaustion Syndrome: Four Recovery Strategies

The semester’s over.

If you’re anything like the academics I coach, you feel like death warmed over.  Those last stacks of grading got done on sheer will, determination and fumes. And this is before considering your writing deadlines, committee responsibilities, and other demands.  You are suffering from Academic Exhaustion Syndrome. 

Academic Exhaustion Syndrome (an advanced, more scholarly state of burn out) is a state of emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress, ending with grading, over the course of the semester and academic year. As the stress continues, you begin to lose interest and motivation to work, you have fantasies of standing up and screaming in the middle of a meeting, and you wonder what temporary loss of reality testing made you decide to become an academic. 

This dreaded Syndrome can:
  • Reduce your productivity and saps your energy
  • Make you irritable and have thoughts of strangling an undergraduate
  • Make you feel like you have nothing more to give.
  • Create physical symptoms including fatigue, overwhelming exhaustion, weariness, tension, insomnia, physical illness, and low energy.
  • Produce emotional/psychological symptoms such as feeling out of control or overwhelmed, resentful, moody, frustrated, angry, helpless, hopeless, drained, and powerless.
What can you do to recover from Academic Exhaustion Syndrome?

Here are four Academic Exhaustion Recovery Strategies:

Take some time off! 

Give yourself some downtime – whether that means getting out of town for a vacation or having several days at home taking it easy, and doing things you find relaxing and enjoyable. 
  • Plan time off.
  • Give yourself permission to rest and renew.  There is a pernicious aspect of  ­academic culture that makes you feel as if you don’t have the right to take a break; that if you’re not working to your fullest capacity, you should feel guilty or embarrassed for being slothful.   A true academic always suffers.
  • Think about your time away from work as ‘sharpening your saw’ so that you can be more productive over the summer.   
  • Once you’re feeling better, select a date on your calendar for when you want to start back on your research and writing, and schedule it.  
  • For the first day or two back at work, think about some simple things you can do to “ease back in.”  Perhaps it’s re-reading what you last wrote, or pulling out an outline you’ve written and adding to it. 
Stephen Covey, wrote the following parable in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
"What are you doing?" you ask.
"Can't you see?" comes the impatient reply. "I'm sawing down this tree."
"You look exhausted!" you exclaim. "How long have you been at it?"
"Over five hours," he returns, "and I'm beat! This is hard work."
"Well why don't you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?" you inquire.  "I'm sure it would go a lot faster."
"I don't have time to sharpen the saw," the man says emphatically. "I'm too busy sawing!"

Reevaluate your goals and priorities. 
  • Evaluate your priorities for the summer
  • Make sure these are realistic and doable.  Be aware that if your goals for the summer are overly ambitious, you risk feeling like a failure for not completing them, or having summer burnout if you take on too much.  
  • List the steps involved in each of your projects and estimate how long each step will take. 
  • Place the steps in a calendar so that you can see if your plans are possible. 
Slow down. 

In order to recover from burnout, it is just as important to make time for relationships, relaxation and recreation, as it is to schedule time for your work. 
  • Write Moderately and Consistently.  If you do this throughout the summer (say just two to three 45-minute sessions a day, 4 days a week for 12 weeks), you will have done about 90 hours of work.  Did you write that much last summer? 
  • Productive writing habits will enable you to have those picnic lunches, go to the beach or the woods, get exercise, and lead a balanced home and personal life.
  •  Don’t try to sit at your desk and work all day.  You will find that you are getting in about 2-3 hours of writing and 4-5 hours of staring at a blank screen.  Instead, plan your couple of hours of writing, do some reading, and then enjoy the rest of your day.
  • Get adequate nutrition, sleep and exercise. 
Reflect and re-evaluate. 

Spend some time looking at your past semester and think about what brought you into this state of burnout.
  • Are you trying to work past your human limits? 
  • Are you trying to be too many things to too many people?  
  • Did you do things you didn’t want to do because you had a hard time saying ‘no?’
  • If you don’t have one already, create a ‘statement of availability’ which sets boundaries as to when you will/will not be available, when and how often you will be checking email, etc.  Setting up limits now will help you to keep them in effect come the Fall. 
This process of recuperation, self-care, moderate work, enjoying life, and planning ahead for the Summer and Fall, will ensure that you recover from Academic Exhaustion Syndrome and that it doesn’t turn into full fledged Academic Psychosis.


  1. Thanks Gina! It helps to know that the brain-deadedness is a shared experience... =) I'm only finishing a graduate Master's thesis but what a journey it´s been... and it's not even over yet! X)p Thanks for all the encouragement... and keep up the good work!


  2. Hi Gina,
    I managed to submit my final grades just 15 minutes before the deadline (5 p.m. last Wednesday). Most of my colleagues have their grades completed and submitted the weekend before. I can totally relate to what you wrote in this blog entry. I am going to try to find ways to implement the strategies over the summer.

  3. Hi Gina,
    I managed to submit my final grades just 15 minutes before the deadline (5 p.m. last Wednesday). Most of my colleagues have their grades completed and submitted the weekend before. I can totally relate to what you wrote in this blog entry. I am going to try to find ways to implement the strategies over the summer.

  4. Hi Gina,
    I managed to submit my final grades just 15 minutes before the deadline (5 p.m. last Wednesday). Most of my colleagues have their grades completed and submitted the weekend before. I can totally relate to what you wrote in this blog entry. I am going to try to find ways to implement the strategies over the summer.

  5. Believe me, Tennis Prof, I know professors who have not made that deadline. Grading is universally hated. It's the ultimate insult to the nervous system to have to grade so much at the end of a long academic year. I hope you get some good tennis playing this summer!

    Eve, believe me, you don't have to be a professor to be brain dead! I think everyone involved with academia are crawling to the finish line. Thank you for your acknowledgment of Academic Ladder and our efforts!

  6. You know, sometimes I wonder if part of the problem is that we expect too much out of ourselves and our students at the end of terms. I think I may start experimenting with "front-loading" the semester--giving major assignments early on and then allowing for time to revise and resubmit near the end. I wonder if we shifted our approach if that might help us all?

    And thanks for this. You've encouraged me to try to build in some time for myself. It's hard, because I have a pretty immutable self-imposed deadline of having my manuscript done by July 31. This doesn't allow for much "off" time, but this post has convinced me that I need to take at least a little.

  7. I think you're absolutely right, Kathryn. If you come up with a system that works, as you're suggesting, you'll be famous. Students are so exhausted by the end of the semester, just like the profs. So maybe another system would help on a lot of fronts.

    Of course, I love to see you taking care of yourself. If you don't (you in general, not you, Kathryn), then your body will pay you back eventually. I've started meditating lately, and I must say, it's very refreshing. Just an idea!

  8. Nice blog entry. I write about leadership in universities, and it strikes me that the most most important leader in the daily life of most of us in academia is in fact ourself. Your tips here are essentially self-leadership tips. Very nice.
    2 you might like, after looking at your blog:
    The virtue of weak leadership:
    A nudge to write:
    carry on! curt

  9. I agree with the most of you, we should take time for ourselves and pamper our body.

  10. Hi Carlton,

    I'm glad you left a comment here, because it led me to reread my own advice. I just realized I'm not following it!

    I hereby commit to practice what I preach. I will set aside some time every day for relaxation, fun or exercise (which may all be the same thing). :)

  11. GATCAT4:19 PM

    Do you think academic exhaustion syndrome applies to graduate students? After four stressful years with no time off, I finally submitted my approved dissertation. After commencement last month I think finally hit the wall. I've had a very difficult time staying focused on publishing the remaining manuscripts and looking for work. A few weeks of down time have really helped but I still feel really listless and unmotivated. Hopefully this won't last too much longer

  12. GATCAT, it totally applies to graduate students. You have fried your brain cells (not a medical diagnosis, but probably something like that happens to those overworked cellular networks). A few weeks off may not be enough. A lot of people have a kind of letdown syndrome after defending their dissertation, which leads them to feel depressed, confused, exhausted, and/or unmotivated. It will take you a while to feel normal. Congratulations on what you've achieved. Rest on your laurels as long as you can!

    Be aware that it doesn't get easier as you get older, so it will be more important than ever to give yourself time to rest, to learn how to relax, and "un-focus" your mind, to do a medium amount of work regularly instead of huge amounts that lead to burnout, and to have non-work, non-academic activities that give your poor brain a rest.

  13. Like. I'm at an academic medical center, so it's kind of like this, except there are no semester breaks and occasionally you have to watch helplessly as someone dies in front of you. [/worldssmallestviolin]

    But we love it a little, don't we? Because we get to think, teach, and nudge the world forward a bit from time to time.


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