Graduate students have a lot on their plates at the end of the semester. They are finishing up courses and final projects, working hard in the lab, and completing teaching and grading responsibilities. Some may be preparing to travel for the summer, and students with families may be anticipating summer break plans for their children. These many responsibilities could leave students feeling frazzled, overworked, and overwhelmed. What can you as a mentor do to help?
Check in with your students
You are a great resource for your students, in your academic expertise and your knowledge of campus resources. At this time of year lots of questions or needs might come up.
- Consider offering extended office hours so that students can reach out with final questions. This doesn’t mean you have to be on-call 24/7. Think about what you can reasonably offer and make that clear. For instance: “I respond to email three times a day at 6 a.m., 1 p.m., and 8 p.m.”
- Check in when you observe overwork. It is not your job to stop overwork, but if you see it happening, have a conversation with the lab member about it, and discuss their plan moving forward. There are times when a lot of work is needed, but time for rest and recovery is needed, as well. You could say “I see you working really hard through this window of time, do you have a plan to take a break when you’re done?”
One key way to avoid burnout is to encourage your students to take breaks. Even short, 15-minute breaks are a great way for students to clear their heads, get some fresh air, and return to work stronger than they were before.
- Normalize the act of taking breaks. Some students may feel that their professors expect them to be working non-stop. Share some of the things that you do when you take a break. Consider organizing a weekly meet-up to check-in. If you notice students spending a lot of time in the lab or classroom, invite them to take a walk with you or to grab coffee.
Graduate education can sometimes be a long slog with few significant marker moments. Behavior scientists agree that noting and celebrating progress, even in small ways, helps us see progress and create more forward momentum. As faculty mentors, you can bolster students’ progress by finding ways to mark achievements along the way to degree completion. I had an advisor who took every one of his students out to a really fancy dinner after defending their dissertation. But you might also think about milestones along the way – maybe this is a “You Did It!” card when a student takes final credit of coursework or a piece of cake after they complete exams. Maybe it's a plant from the grocery store to commemorate the start of the thesis writing phase. Or maybe your celebration style is less confetti and air horn and more a kind email or text message. It doesn’t have to be fancy – what is an authentic way for you to express congratulations and celebrate achievement?
As a quick reminder, here are some of the campus resources available to students: