Posts Tagged ‘burnout’


A pre-med wrote to me with some questions, which I’ve listed in bold, followed by my responses. I hope that this conveys some of the parental pressure and fatigue that is often experienced by students in intense majors.


“I can’t tell you how many times others would simply wave off my concerns and give me trite advice such as “no pain, no gain”, and “suck it up, you’re an adult now”.”

That pretty much echoes the feedback that I got as well, from my dad, my profs, and my advisors. I remember once when a student complained to the organic chemistry professor that the exams were obscenely difficult and his grades were jeopardizing his chances of getting into med school. The professor’s response was, “Well, the world needs ditch diggers too.”


“I’m lucky because I have parental support for my college education (so I’ll be graduating debt free), and also fortunate to have a good amount of financial savings on my own, so I can afford to take time off to travel.”

Awesome! You can at least be glad that your finances are stable. The most brutal stories seem to come from students who are in over their head with debt when they graduate… and then still can’t find work. I was somewhere in the middle – my parents covered my first two years at Duke, and I paid for the remaining two with a trust fund from my grandparents, which at the time had about $100K in it (suffice it to say, I spent the entirety of it on college). So I also graduated debt-free, but I was left with no savings, so when I couldn’t find work after graduating, I was forced to move out of North Carolina and into my mother’s basement on the other side of the country.



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In a few weeks, I’ll be setting foot on campus at Princeton as a freshman. Luckily, with financial aid and scholarships, my education turns out to be more than free, so I’m not overly worried about the prospect of undergraduate debt. However, I would still like, when I graduate, to be marketable to some extent so I don’t have to incur mountains of graduate debt. What advice do you have for someone in my situation? What would you have done differently?

My response:

Thanks for writing, and congrats on the scholarships. You’ve dodged a major financial bullet and one of the most compelling reasons not to attend a private school.

Some of the advice I would offer depends on what you study and what you choose to pursue as a career. It depends also on what you’re looking for in a college experience, and what you want your life to look like afterward. But I can at least make some general suggestions, based on what I like to think is 20/20 hindsight.

1.       Remember that, for all its fame, Princeton is still just a school – nothing more, nothing less. Whatever your experience ends up being, remember that it’s only four years, and regardless of what happens, you will have options in the future. If you’re bright enough to get into Princeton, then you’re bright enough to shape your destiny beyond it. So if for whatever reason you find you’re not enjoying the experience, don’t let it get to you. Your life is not over if you don’t get straight A’s, and it does not reflect badly on you if you find the experience less than stellar, or don’t fit in with your peers and professors, or don’t enjoy your coursework. I took college far too seriously, and wound up totally burned out and miserable by the end. The intense classes, the competitive students, the blood, sweat, and tears that went into getting my diploma – they just weren’t worth Ultimately, I ended up hating the classroom and resenting formal education in general, which is really not a healthy perspective to have.


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In fact, it could well wind up being the worst four years of waking existence you’ll ever encounter… Unless, of course, you’re one of the unfortunate souls who faces the post-graduation fate worse than death: that of chronic unemployment and crippling student debt. In that case, every four years after you graduate will probably be your worst, until and unless you manage to regain some financial and emotional stability. Welcome to hell, but no, don’t call it that: you’re living the American dream.

For me at least, the private school experience was a nightmare. The curriculum was obscenely difficult and massively time-consuming, the students were competitive – no, cutthroat describes them better – the classes were impersonal, and for the most part, the professors (assuming the classes weren’t taught by a teacher’s aid) came across as indifferent to the success of their students. The curriculum matrices that had to be satisfied for graduation were ridiculously elaborate, and left me in a position where I almost never had the freedom to enroll in a course without first considering which graduation requirements it would fulfill. By and large, I felt like a bee in a hive, an unpaid laborer in a fool’s-gold gulag, a cog in a superficially dramatic but ultimately profoundly overpriced machine. By the end of four years, I was so burnt out that the strange malaise of perpetual exhaustion which set in roughly 10 years ago has never lifted. The stress, the frustration, the anxiety all penetrated too deeply, and left a scar that will not fade. But the real salt in the wound is the realization that the four years you just spent in college, busting your chops to get straight A’s (and spending your half your parents’ life savings in the process) is totally useless, no one cares what you studied or how well you did, and you have to start over.

In fairness, not everyone has this experience, and in spite of what you’ve just read, even for me there were some good experiences mixed with the bad. I certainly met some very smart and fairly interesting people, I made some lasting friendships, I had more than a few wild and crazy and unforgettable experiences. But the outpouring of negativity you read in the previous paragraph – that accounted for 90% of my time at Duke: the perpetual grind. Thousands of hours spent memorizing textbooks and writing lengthy essays about obscure scientific factoids that in hindsight are laughably irrelevant and of no real interest to anyone but academic fools and immature students who don’t know any better. Thousands of hours wasted fighting to climb to the top of the curve, to achieve the most and be the best in what, it turns out, is really nothing more than a pointless game which no one gives two shits about in the real world (i.e. the next 60 years of your life).

Certainly much of my pre-and post-graduation experience owes to aspects of my personality and decisions that I made, including choice of major, study habits, values, and personal pursuits. Yes, I could have done things very differently, and could have had a better experience. But on the flipside, a lot of what left me feeling bitter was external: the pedantic and unnecessarily difficult coursework; the oversized and impersonal classes; the random hodgepodge of immature, nerdy bookworms, stuck-up rich kids, arrogant profs, and TAs that couldn’t speak a word of English; and the jaw-dropping price tag for what was, in the grand scheme of things, a stunningly mediocre experience.

College doesn’t have to be like this. Unlike me, some people I know actually look back fondly on their university years. Most of us are familiar with the saying that college is the best four years of your life. It’s cliché and I doubt it’s actually the case too often, but no matter how college plays out for you, there’s simply no reason to make catastrophic sacrifices investing in what may turn out to be a disappointment. If you attend a public school, at least you’ll save money and enjoy comforts like a moderate workload and less-than-fiercely-competitive peers – which in turn, will leave you with less stress and more time to spend making friends, building positive experiences, and figuring out what you really want to do with your life. And even if college doesn’t turn out the way you would’ve liked, hopefully you’ll at least graduate with enough energy and cash to find a way forward. The things which matter most in the end don’t require the phony glitz of an Ivy League diploma. Take it from a guy who gave up everything (like social skills, mental stability, life savings, and the opportunity for a normal childhood) for the sake of pursuing an “elite” education: it simply isn’t worth it. No, really, it isn’t. So save yourself the hassle now (and the heartbreak later), and throw that application to Harvard in the trash.

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