Burnout in STEM majors is inevitable


Alex McLean

Any college student will recognize the exhaustion experienced after taking a test that you studied greatly for. The feeling that “I do not want to go through this [stress] again” is consistent with likely any STEM student. The familiarity continues for these students into thinking: “I really don’t want to study and test-take for the next 10 years of my life.”
STEM is the area of study for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Although, I do recognize non-STEM majors experience burnout as well, since I am a double major in STEM I will give my ‘twocents’ on burnout in STEM students.
Post-graduate programs are extremely competitive. Medical schools for instance, expect GPA’s ranging from 3.5-3.9. The higher GPA’s are expected for Harvard and Johns Hopkins, and lower GPA’s in less prestigious schools.
Not to mention test scores in entrance tests like the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) or the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) are expected to be in the top 80th to 90th percentile to even be considered for an interview.
Given all of these large and foreboding requirements for getting a leg-up in the job world, getting a B- on an exam is nothing short of devastating. Even doing very well on an exam yet having spent the last 6 days studying every night is cause for impending exhaustion.
As an anecdotal example, I spent our Christmas break at Augustana studying for a Zoology exam. This required me to memorize a forty-element phylogenetic tree, along with two PowerPoints of information. I spent more of my break studying than relaxing with family because I had gotten a C on the previous exam and I was terrified to get anything less than an A.
When I finally took the exam, I had stressed myself out so much and lost sleep that not only did I feel worse after the exam, I felt exhausted. I did not want to spend an extensive period studying for this exam or any exam again.
Yet myself and other STEM students, know that studying hard for every test is inevitable. Anyone going to a post-graduate program knows that their life will be full of exams, reviews, and loss of sleep for at least the next 10 years.
How do we fix this? We can’t. Burnout is inevitable. Getting poor grades or writing a bad lab report will happen. No one is perfect; no one gets stellar grades all the time. However we can lessen the stress by realizing a few things: failure is okay, making mistakes is human, and you are going to be okay.
Burnout is dangerous. Medical student depression and suicide rates are significantly higher than others their age and higher than the rates of students in other post-graduate schools. That being said, STEM students will inevitably experience burnout.
During a Pre-Medicine conference at the University of Iowa, an Emergency Physician spoke at one of the sessions. He made it clear this is a hard road to go down and that students are often discouraged by bad grades and poor results. Yet, despite any discouragement he made us realize one thing above all – it is worth it.
So to the STEM students: keep at it. Recognize burnout will happen, but you’ll need to combat it. Don’t let it win. Don’t let it discourage you and don’t let it spur a “mid-life” crisis at the age of 20.
I get it, you don’t feel like people understand the level of stress you’re under.
Few people understand the stress of a STEM student going into post-graduate schools. To the family, friends, professors, and roommates of STEM students, know that they’re going through a lot and all they need is a few kind words and a hug. Give them a break. Let them know they aren’t numbers – they are human.
To the populace, don’t let your students be numbers, especially don’t let STEM students be numbers – that is how burnout begins.
Featured Graphic done by Noah Robey.