How to Avoid Burnout in PT School


Name: Brad Fenter, Class of 2019
Undergrad: University of Texas at Tyler, TX
Hometown: Vernon, TX

Burnout is an interesting thing, mainly because it only happens with things that we love. No one gets burned out on things we hate or even things we just feel a little “meh” about. The concept that we no longer want to be around or indulge in something we love is very unsettling . No one has ever gotten burned out on onions; no one loves onions. We tolerate them and can even enjoy them, but love them? No. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “I love onions!” Then you’re most likely an alien trying—unsuccessfully—to assimilate with human society.

No, burnout is only possible with something we love. For me, I love Clif Bars—specifically the white chocolate macadamia flavor. If you think another flavor is better, that’s completely fine. Just know I’ll be judging you until the end of time. Unfortunately for me and my love of Clif Bars, I went on a backpacking trip a few years ago with an entire case in tow. Every day I crammed those delicious little bars in my face until, one day, I just couldn’t eat them anymore. I wanted to eat them, but I just could not do it. I was burned out.

Big Bend.jpg

My sadness is palpable.

After the trip, I had just one bar left and it has stayed in my pack as a sad, dilapidated reminder of what once was. I want you to learn from my mistakes and avoid burnout. Since this is a PT blog, here are 3 ways to ensure your time in PT school does not become a macadamia Clif Bar.

1. Pace Yourself

This is most important for when you’re first starting out in PT school. That first semester you tell yourself you’re going to read all the textbooks, watch all the online videos, and take excellent notes. If you do everything at top gear, you’ll be out of gas by October. Then what will you do? There are approximately…all of the semesters left at this point. Instead, take the time to learn good study habits and you won’t have to worry when you feel a little fatigued halfway through a semester.

When we discuss long commitments, the analogy of a marathon is always used: “Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint!” When I ran my marathon, though, it took only part of 1 day and I was finished by noon. To contrast, PT school is 8 semesters—which is around 3 years—which equates to…A lot of days. A better saying would be, “Remember it’s a 3-year commitment.” It may seem long right now, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a long time. If you start with the right pacing in mind, then you will be better off. Do not be the brightest star for the first month only to flame out spectacularly for the next 32 months.

Had I paced myself a little better, Clif Bars and I would still be going steady and I would have my first love second love. My wife, of course, is my first love (as the bruise on my ribs proves after writing that previous sentence).

2. Get Involved (but not too much)

This point may seem to run counter to my previous one, but it will all make sense in the end (just like neuroscience except for the sense-making part). There are many opportunities to get involved with things outside of the main curriculum. You can run for a position as class officer, you can be a part of the puppy program, you can join a student interest group. You can go to conferences (quite handy since some of them are required, anyways) and get to know practicing PTs. All of these things are important. Getting involved in more than just schoolwork can remind you of why you started PT school in the first place.

The way I stay involved with my classmates is through Ultimate Frisbee. If there’s a pickup game going on after class, I’m there. I get to interact and stay engaged with my classmates outside of the lab or lecture hall; it’s great. I enjoy the exercise, competition, and group aspect of the whole thing. But all of those other things I listed before? I do exactly NONE of those things because I’m antisocial and don’t like new situations. Now, that may sound like the ramblings of an angry old man who wasn’t hugged enough as a child, but it is actually a larger part of my point. I have time to play a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee and enjoy a drink at the brewery afterwards. I don’t have time to attend the fellowship meeting after class, play frisbee, participate in the puppy program, volunteer to pass out flyers at commencement, and also do well on my finals.

You may be thinking, “I can do all of those things and still be successful!”

Is it possible to do? From a strictly physical standpoint, sure. If you want to end up like this:

Clif Bar.jpg

The point is not that all of these things are impossible. But, you will be drained by the end of each semester—just in time for finals.

3. Keep Perspective

This is, I believe, the most important point. I put it last to weed out the unworthy people who get scared of words milling about in groupings of greater than 140 characters. Now that they are gone, we can discuss the most important tool we possess to avoid burnout.

Perspective goes both directions in time. It’s important to remember the future we are working towards as practicing clinicians, but it is also important to see where we came from. If I were not in PT school I would still be plugging away at my old job with little satisfaction and a feeling that there is something more I could be doing. Anytime I feel a little down on myself, I think about how stressed I was beforehand; this serves as great motivation for the present. If you’re one of those young folks and have not had a previous career, then your perspective should be forward. Most people in life will never have the opportunity to work in such a fulfilling field as physical therapy or even get into PT school! When we zoom out from our studies, case assignments, skill checks, and lab practicals, we can see just how great we really have things.

You may be thinking, “I know this is important! But how do I actually accomplish this?” My most important tool for keeping perspective is to prioritize time for myself. Whenever a day is available, I will try to get outside and hike. Or bike. Or camp. Really, anything outside will do. Even when it’s just a weekend and there are exams on Monday, I will take a long bike ride to a coffee shop to study. That way I get to study with the addition of sunshine and exercise thrown in. If you hate all of these things for some unfathomable reason, there’s still hope for you. Maybe you like going to the movies or reading books. That’s great. Make time to do those things because if you do, you will be more successful.


Making time for myself on a hike to Handies Park


For me, outdoor activities allow me to see the wider world and keep perspective on how insignificant many of the major stressors in my life really are. Regis’ DPT program is very good at pushing you to the edge and then pulling back just in time. But what happens when you feel like you’re going over the edge? What happens when you feel you’re on the road to burnout? Do you have the tools to pull back from the bleary-eyed, emotionally drained abyss? If you can pace yourself and get involved (but not too much) and keep perspective, you will be better equipped to avoid burnout. Remember, life doesn’t get easier once we are done with school, but this experience will prepare us to handle the difficulties that come our way.

Mt Sherman.jpg

Here’s me, fellow student David Cummins, and more friends after tackling another one of life’s difficulties


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s