NU Declassified: Breaking through burnout with professors

Anita Li, Reporter


In the words of Sean Kingston, “Somebody call 9-1-1/ Shawty fire burning on the-” Weber Arch? As students approach finals week, many are feeling burnt out. In this episode of NU Declassified, Northwestern professors share their experiences with academic pressure.

ANITA LI: If academic burnout is making you question everything, you’re in good company. Northwestern economics Prof. Piotr Dworczak experienced the same thing in graduate school, especially during his fourth year.

PIOTR DWORCZAK: You’re no longer taking classes, and so like every day kind of looks the same — you go the office, you think about your problems, often times you’re just stuck. And it’s unclear why you’re even doing this because there’s nothing coming out of your research in that early stage.

ANITA LI: It was the toughest over holiday vacation.

[nat sound of sleigh bells]

PIOTR DWORCZAK: The first day of the holiday, you kinda feel great, cause like it’s holiday. And then the third day, you suddenly start feeling a bit depressed. The moment you have those extra three days to kind of take the big picture perspective and think about your life, then you kind of realize, is what I’m doing, does it even make any sense, is it useful for other people, am I not just wasting more time?


ANITA LI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Anita Li. In this episode of NU Declassified, we’re looking at how Northwestern professors have experienced burnout. Like many Northwestern students, Northwestern religious studies and African American studies Prof. KB Dennis Meade also struggled with academic pressure and extracurricular commitments during her senior year at Bowdoin College.

KB DENNIS MEADE: I was very much involved in campus life through my work with the African American student group and other affinity groups on campus. It was Black History Month and I was, of course, in charge of planning a whole lot of things, plus trying to just manage graduating and looking for a job. And my burnout looked like just literally 24 hours of me being unable to just move. And it was a very terrifying time because I really didn’t know what was going on, but my body told me what was going on — I needed to sit down, I need to be still. I think that experience is a defining moment for what I never want to go back to. I never want to feel like that again.


ANITA LI: Similar to Dennis Meade, Asian American studies Prof. Ray San Diego said their experiences with burnout encouraged them to set boundaries and value their mental wellbeing, especially when completing their PhD in 2018.

RAY SAN DIEGO: I finished September or October, and then within a six-week period, three people around me had died. And then my partner was sick, and there were all these other things, but you’re expected to keep going. It seems like, at this point, two paths: You shove that all down and say you’re going to deal with it later, and get back to being quote un-quote productive, or I say, “I need to stop, otherwise I’m going to die by the time I’m 45,” and so that’s kind of what I did. I was like, “No, I’m not going to do this anymore.”

[sound of disk scratching]

ANITA LI: But what is burnout? According to the American Psychological Association, burnout is when extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload takes its toll. Sam Conway is the assistant director of mental health promotion at Northwestern’s Health Promotion and Wellness department. She agrees that burnout happens when we go beyond our limits.

[sound of fire roaring]

SAM CONWAY: Burnout in a less obvious way can show up a lot in a university setting, where folks might feel like they can keep going, and they’re like kind of okay, but you’re just not really you. You’re not able to be genuine, you’re not able to give things your all, you’re not able to live your values.

ANITA LI: Dennis Meade added that experiences with burnout can vary depending on an individual’s identity, including obstacles like racial aggression, microaggressions, sexism and homophobia. She has experienced this herself.

KB DENNIS MEADE: I’m a Black woman in the academy, I’m the only Black woman in my department. And I have a very supportive environment here. But statistically, it’s been shown that the path to tenure for Black women tends to be more rocky than for others. The kind of work that I do, you know, the pressure of feeling that the academy doesn’t always take our inquiries and our topics with the same weight that they would, quote unquote, more traditional humanities disciplines.

ANITA LI: Dennis Meade also recommended finding methods of relaxation and building in time to be around community.

KB DENNIS MEADE: Burnout happens mostly when people feel isolated, like they have to do everything by themselves all at once. Schedule time for activities that replenish you, set firm boundaries around how often you engage with folks who might be taking more than they give. Learning not to catastrophize as well if something doesn’t get done in the time frame that I wanted it to get done. Cultivate a practice of mindfulness — and I know that sounds really heavy — but put your headphones in, pull on a little meditation music on your playlist, and you sit for two, three minutes, and you breathe.

[meditation music]

KB DENNIS MEADE: The burnout, it will ultimately get in the way of you accomplishing your goals. Give yourself that time to restore. It’s really, really important.

ANITA LI: San Diego said that sometimes dealing with burnout requires taking unnecessary responsibilities out of your life.

RAY SAN DIEGO: If it doesn’t spark joy, then why are you doing it? Your resume is not going to be on your tombstone. It’s understanding that rest and sleep and joy and fun are just as important as the opposites.

ANITA LI: As for Dworczak, he found having kids helped reduce his burnout.

PIOTR DWORCZAK: I’m not recommending students to immediately go out and have kids. But when you get kids, you just worry much more about them compared to your job, and I think this is very healthy — just having something else in your life that is equally important, if not more important, than your job or your studies, just as a counterbalance.

ANITA LI: You don’t get burnt out from your kids?

PIOTR DWORCZAK: You do, but then you go to work. You have to balance it out, that’s the whole point. You should not condition your happiness in life on just one single thing because you are going to get bored, or tired at some point. When you have a couple things in your life that you care about, then when one thing frustrates you, just focus more on the other part.

ANITA LI: So if you don’t see raising children in your near future, don’t worry, not all is lost.


ANITA LI: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Anita Li. Thanks for listening to this episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The Audio Editor of The Daily Northwestern is Lawrence Price, the Digital Managing Editor is Angeli Mittal and the Editor-in-chief is Jacob Fulton. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

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