Feeling the Burn(out)

In the summer of 2016, I quit my full-time, salaried job with benefits, packed up my belongings, and moved to Denver to begin my Master’s in Library and Information Science at the University of Denver. This move was the culmination of a decision that was a year-and-a-half in the making. I wanted to change what I was doing and find a career path that was more fulfilling. I took a hard, introspective look at my interests and abilities, found the MLIS program at DU, and decided that librarianship was the career for me. I was leaving a stable and financially sound job in lieu of a more expensive city and even more expensive tuition fees. Despite this, I was excited by the prospect of receiving my Master’s degree and starting something new. A year later, I wish I could recapture that feeling of newness and anticipation, that I was going to absolutely kill it as a librarian and get all of the jobs after graduation. Writing this right now, a year later, all I’m feeling is burnt out.

There are hundreds, probably thousands of blog posts and articles describing burnout amongst graduate students and methods for coping with burnout, including several great posts written for HLS. This blog post is not going to be one of them. Instead, I’ve been thinking about both the controllable and seemingly uncontrollable aspects of grad school that lead to the feeling of burnout. Why am I feeling this way? For a variety of reasons, it turns out. Am I the only one feeling this way? No, I can’t be. I know many MLIS students feel the same for a variety of valid reasons.

My biggest stressor, and one that absolutely contributes to the feeling of burnout, is the current and future financial strain of graduate school. I left my salaried job, and I took on two, part-time jobs that amounted to less than half of my former pay. What I did not leave behind were common costs of living such as rent, a car payment, food, transportation, and healthcare. On top of that, tuition has to be paid. Though I did receive scholarships and grants, the money amounted to only half of my tuition bill. The other half has been subsidized by student loans and money from my savings account. Graduate students leave school with an average of $57,600 (a number that has not been updated since 2012) of student loan debt, so it’s almost guaranteed that students pursuing an MLIS, a degree with slim funding, will graduate with a large, financial burden. The prospect of paying current bills while worrying about future, financial standing creates a constant and ever-looming amount of stress. My debt isn’t going away, and I doubt the stress associated with it will either.

To pay for these expenses, students work two, sometimes even three, different jobs. My program heavily stresses the need to have library experience before graduating, so many students seek out part-time, library positions. Not all library positions that fit a student’s schedule pay well, however. I previously wrote about the plight of unpaid internships, which contributes to difficulty in paying bills. Low-paying library jobs for students, in general, contribute to financial stress woes, as do part-time jobs that refuse to be flexible with another job or with classes. I am incredibly lucky that my current library position pays students well and is very flexible; however, this position alone is not sufficient to pay the bills, and I am limited to a set amount of hours. To supplement my income, I have a work-study position on campus, freelance edit when I have the opportunity, dog sit, and attend focus groups for extra cash. Some of my classmates work as brand ambassadors on weekends, babysit, or tutor on the side. Essentially, in addition to classes, students are cobbling together several, money-making opportunities in order to receive an MLIS.

Along with financial stressors are the time commitment demands of graduate school. My classes are at night, so I typically work for most of the day and then attend my classes. This has the benefit of allowing me to work all day, but can amount to many 12+ hour days. After that, there’s homework to do (and if it can’t be done during the week, then it has to be completed over the weekend). There’s also pressure to attend networking events, present at and attend conferences, volunteer, get involved with student groups and clubs, explore research interests, and stay up-to-date on literature. While it’s probably not necessary for a student to attempt ALL of these activities, it’s heavily implied that getting involved as much as possible is the only way to obtain a competitive edge in the job market. Funding for activities like conferences or networking events on a grad school budget can get tough. For the big, out-of-state conferences, airfare, hotels, and food have to be accounted for. Even in-state conferences can cost hundreds of dollars. Between obligations for work, class, and extracurriculars, it can be hard to find enough time to refresh and unwind.

Contributing to feelings of burnout are constant worries of future job prospects. Will I find a job after I graduate? Will that job pay enough to cover my loans and my basic finances? Many people with the same qualifications are applying for the same jobs. I’ve watched friends and co-workers go through the interview process with varying amounts of success. There’s also an influx of less-than-ideal jobs that require an MLIS. Some jobs are only part-time or temporary positions. Others boast salaries that seem insufficient for someone with a Master’s degree. In fact, I’ve seen MLIS level positions that pay less than I made while working in food service. Though median pay for librarians is $57,680, that number does not reflect entry level salaries, nor does it account for location, type of library, or job type. I understand that librarians aren’t exactly millionaires, and no one goes into the profession to make a load of money; however, I didn’t go into the profession to live off ramen the rest of my life either. I have to balance my desire to work in the profession with my need to achieve financial security.

Burnout does not derive from a single source but rather from a slew of different stressors. These are my experiences, I think they might be some other people’s experiences as well, and there are other factors that I haven’t touched on, such as mental health, that also lead to burnout. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by worries over money, if I’m doing enough to get hired, if I’m even going to get hired, and if I’m going to make enough once I actually have a job. I’m tired of worrying, and I can’t wait for the day where I have a secure position, and instead of going to classes, attending club meetings or networking events, I can just go home and watch Criminal Minds.

Has anyone else experienced burnout? What strategies do you use to combat burnout?


Note: I do acknowledge that I’ve placed some of this stress on myself. I can sometimes take on too much and have a hard time saying no. Others, I can’t change. For the moment, I’ve taken the summer off from classes for a recalibration. I’ll return to classes in September, refreshed, and with a more positive perspective. I’m sure, eventually, everything is going to work out.

Cover photo: “Burned Matches” by fuangg. Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0


Melissa DeWitt is an MLIS student at the University of Denver. You can find her on Twitter

8 replies

  1. I find it very hard to feel sympathetic for your situation, given that you already had a “salaried job with benefits.” Do you think that pursuing an MLS–along with the associated burnout, debt, and other hardships–was truly worth leaving your previous job over? Haven’t you read all the articles about MLS graduates being unable to find work after graduation? If you do find work, there are even more stressors to deal with.

    People make too big of a deal about finding fulfillment through work when you can do that in areas outside of work.

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      • Did you read the whole article? Melissa is writing about the very points you mention: whether it was the right decision to leave a stable career and take on the challenges of graduate school, student debt and a difficult job market.

        I don’t read the article as a plea for pity, but as a blogger being very open and honest about their challenges and doubts in a forum for fellow graduate students in the interest of sharing experiences. Melissa, I personally found that very helpful! Also, the loan vs. compensation imbalance which Melissa describes raises the question, in my mind, how educational institutions can justify charging such high tuitions in comparison to what employers (which are in many cases these very instutions) are currently paying librarians.

        In the US we talk about high tuitions as if they’re dictated by unchangeable laws of nature, but in other countries such as Germany, where I’m in grad school, you can attend library school for free. Before blaming the author for the untenable student debt situation in the US, which applies to many fields outside the natural sciences, I think we should take a hard look at the higher education system itself.

        Finally, I am amazed that you write off “people [who] make too big a deal about finding fulfillment through work.” Among my friends, family and colleagues, it seems clear that one type of person is happy looking for fulfillment outside of work, whereas the other type need their work to be fulfilling too. In my experience it’s pretty unhelpful to try to change someone from one type to the other. This has also been documented in psychology.

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    • I disagree. I’ve learned that job fulfillment is a really important factor in my life. When you’re spending 40 hours a week working, don’t you want to enjoy what you’re doing? Have you ever had a job that you felt dissatisfied with, and wished that you were doing (almost) anything else? I used to dread having to go to work every day. I’ve had 2 “great” jobs on an interesting career path, but I wasn’t happy. On my off-time, I made sure to burn off stress by doing activities that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t enough because my job consumed a lot of my life since it was the main event of my day for at least 5 days a week. Even with the stress of graduate school and the hustle for money to pay for bills, I feel far more satisfied now because I’m doing something that I enjoy and believe in.

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  2. I just wanted to touch upon something in your article, regarding securing employment after graduation in the field. I work at a very small private liberal arts college in a very small town. We had an entry-level librarian opening recently, and while we interviewed many wonderful candidates, we had a difficult time filling the position. I would recommend to a new grad to think outside of the box or outside of your comfort zone when looking for a new position. It might not be at a huge place in a popular metropolis paying a typical median salary. But, you may surprise yourself at where you find your niche, or at the very least, get solid professional experience.

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  3. I totally sympathize. I left a full-time job (in a library!) to pursue an MLIS. A big part of my decision had to do with career flexibility. I used to think that any job in a library would do, but it just wasn’t the case. It turns out I wanted to work in a larger institution, in a library with a budget for programming and collection development. Without those things, I was depressed and frustrated. I knew that that job couldn’t be my whole career. Even with library experience, so many library jobs require an MLIS that I felt I’d never have a chance to change. That said, it was really scary to make the leap and go for my degree. Kudos to you for making the tough choice!

    I get anxious about my future pretty much daily. But to cope with stress, I spend as much time outside as possible, even if that just means walking to work. I take lots of deep, calming breaths whenever I need them. And, I make time to hang out with my classmates. Even if it’s just once or twice a month, commiserating with people going through the same program really helps.

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  4. I think a lot of my coping mechanism was simply continually acknowledging to myself that I was doing hard things. I really struggled during school with comparing myself to others (either in the program or in other seemingly more difficult/prestigious programs), and I finally reached a point where I needed to simply say to myself and others “This is hard. Maybe not the hardest, but still hard.” I also took some time (inspired by Strengthfinder results in a library leadership class) to do some self-exploration, which helped me to see the places where I was allowing myself to burnout the fastest and gave me some habits to practice that really helped slow that down in my last year in school.

    Also, “no” is not a bad word. I have a note on my computer (possibly from an HLS post??) that says “Don’t you dare say yes to something just because it’ll look good on your CV.” I think most of us come to LIS because we find fulfillment in some aspect of the field (because if you’re not looking for fulfillment in your job, crab-fishing pays way better), and I have found it useful to remember that my experience/qualification building should reflect that desire for fulfillment as much as my hopeful career path.

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  5. Melissa, thanks for writing this thoughtful piece. I worked full-time while I was in graduate school doing a distance program–and, like many people in my cohort, I chose the distance option so that I could continue to work. And I still graduated with a lot of debt. For what it’s worth, I try to hold on to this mantra: “This is all temporary.” The stress is, anyway. Debt is forever. But at least no one can repossess your degree? 😉 Keep shining, star.

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