I am burned out and exhausted and need a place to rant and get advice. =(

I am an undergraduate student majoring in Information Systems who was hired a few months ago to work in a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research lab at my university. My job consists of reviewing academic papers before submitting them for publication, conducting experiments using a variety of HCI equipment, giving lab demos to classrooms, as well as working on my own research paper that is to be submitted to an academic journal in a few months.

When one of the professors in my department asked me to take this job, I was hired to assist in the lab for 10 hours per week. About two weeks later, she increased my weekly hours to 20 because there wasn't enough time to complete everything she was giving me. I was flattered that she was happy enough with my performance to continue giving me projects to work on. Sometimes the work was very boring (performing a literature review on a topic you have no interest in is a nightmare) but I thought it would be a good experience.

As the semester went on, the professor (she's in charge of the lab) just kept giving me more and more projects. She went to HR and increased my weekly hours to 29, which is the maximum amount allowed for students at my school and it's only given in special circumstances, without even asking me if I was OK with it. However, there are many weeks where I have worked much more than this. The worst was last week, which was the week before finals, when I was in the lab 42 hours conducting experiments for her. I only got about 4 hours of sleep each night that week and could barely concentrate on my schoolwork. Since it is against HR policy to have students work more than 20 or 29 hours in one week, she told me to arrange my time sheet to make it look like I worked only 29 hours that week and then claim the additional hours later. I'm pretty sure it's illegal to do this.

While I am flattered that she is pleased with my work performance to continue giving me these projects, I feel like she is taking advantage of me. On the rare chances that I had a few hours of free time this semester, I usually used them to catch up on much-needed sleep or tried to do some sort of task that would get the research work out of my mind. It's been very difficult to enjoy myself. With winter break coming up, I thought it would be a great time to recover. However, she has already given me enough projects that will take about 30-40 hours per week throughout the break, with deadlines for each one.

I realize that the simple solution is to tell her that the work is too much and that I cannot handle everything while focusing on my classes. But at the same time, I do not want to disappoint her. She is the most prestigious professor in my department (in terms of publications, awards, experience, etc.) and is very happy with my performance. She would be an excellent reference to have and I do not want to risk harming that relationship. It's hard for me to determine if this amount of stress is worth getting a (hopefully) better job in the long run. Every company I've talked to has been very impressed by what I've been doing in the lab.

FYI, I am purposely trying to keep my job responsibilities vague to avoid revealing too much information. However, hopefully this example will give a better idea of the types of projects she gives me: In September she introduced a new research area to me (it was also new to her). She gave me 1 month to perform a comprehensive literature review and write an extended abstract to submit to an academic conference. I struggled a lot with it because she gave me no training and could not provide support due to being new to the research area as well. After submitting the abstract, she gave me many other projects to work on, and I never had a chance to work on that research again. Today the extended abstract was accepted for the conference, but the reviewers criticized it quite heavily. She told me that in the next 1-2 months I will need to come up with a research question and hypothesis, improve the literature review, create a methodology, conduct experiments to collect/analyze data, and finish writing the majority of the paper. Then, next summer, she wants me to miss out on my internship to attend the 1-week conference and give a presentation on the research. I feel like this is unrealistic for an undergraduate student. It might be a little different if she had some experience in this research area and could assist me, but she does not.

I've always wanted to go to graduate school, but if it's going to be anything like this, I'm not even going to bother applying.

Someone please tell me this is abnormal advisor behavior.

  • 6
    @Alexandros Papers and scientific results are by no means related to the mere amount of hours put in.
    – gented
    Dec 11, 2015 at 22:58
  • 5
    Nothing wrong in saying you are overworked... everybody has limits, make sure you don't overdo yours... Dec 11, 2015 at 23:55
  • 5
    @aparente001 Questions about undergraduate research are firmly on topic.
    – ff524
    Dec 13, 2015 at 0:22
  • 27
    I was hired to assist in the lab for 10 hours per week. About two weeks later, she increased my weekly hours to 20 — Repeat after me: "No, I can only work 10 hours a week."
    – JeffE
    Dec 13, 2015 at 1:40
  • 3
    If there's one thing I've realized as I've aged, it's that my time is important. And more importantly, it's my time. Set your terms, and do not feel any guilt or feel the need to defend your decision. Have an open discussion about this with your RA and stand firm on what sort of work/life balance you need for a happy and successful life.
    – zahbaz
    Dec 13, 2015 at 2:02

12 Answers 12


If this behavior isn't abnormal, sadly, it is certainly abhorrent.

It is not acceptable for your boss to expect you to do more than the maximum allowable hours and then lie about it on a time sheet. Your university's human resources department would take a very dim view of this if they found out about it, I expect. You are being taken advantage of and I suggest that for the same of your health and academic record, you put a stop to this behavior. It is essentially an abusive power relationship.

I fully appreciate that telling the top professor in your school/department that you won't do all the work demanded of you appears suicidal. But unless you set the boundaries, and demand they are respected, this isn't going to stop.

Your first duty is to yourself and your studies. If you feel that you need some backup, go talk to your faculty/school/department head prior to laying down your boundaries to your boss. No head of department will do anything other than take your side if he/she hears that one of their students is being asked to work beyond their contracted hours and then to lie about it.


The very first thing you need to do here is stop being flattered. Seriously. The professor is mopping the floor with you and is not considering you enough of a human being to even ask before bumping your hours. And she is telling you to lie about it, and it is your ass that will be the line for your lies, because there will only be a written record by you. You have no written proof of her conversations, and because it's your neck on the line for lying about your hours, you will not get recompensated for it either in money or in time: this professor will not, I repeat not give you any time off while you are being paid since she obviously has limited amounts of funds (or she would not be leaning on an undergrad in a haphazard manner like that) and an overallotment of work. She will not give you backpay when she has nothing more to gain from it. Particularly since she has no respect whatsoever towards you as a person.

So stop being flattered immediately. You let yourself be maneuvered into a situation of complete exploitation and you need to stop this or you will never finish your studies. So sit down and make a reasonable plan of what time you need for studying and getting your real work done, the work for which you are paying tuition either in cash or by meeting targets that allow for your studies to continue.

This is your first priority. Then figure out how much time and energy that leaves you realistically to work on this professor's tasks.

Then schedule a talk with your professor. Tell her how much hours you can put in for her work since she did not bother asking. That's the number she can hire you for and that's the number you can deliver and sign for.

Be prepared that you will not get compensated for your "overtime" so far. Be prepared also that you might lose your "job" picking up everything after behind the professor on the spot and lose her goodwill. Someone as self-absorbed and egoistic as she is may well retaliate in absurd manners and pick up her next chew toy of which there seems to be no shortage. But you should be able to continue your studies in a sensible manner. Either because she accepts what you can offer, or because she declines it.

Even if she accepts, it will be your task continually to ensure you only work the times you are paid (or at least in reasonable relation to them) and to tell her "no" when some tasks she wants to throw at you cannot be done in the time you have available.

Don't put too much importance to what kind of reference she may or may not give you: undergrad references will not interest anybody at some later time. They are a possible talking point for future interviews, but a talking point not worth prolonging your studies significantly.

  • 2
    You make a good point about being flattered. I think my main reason for that was because I have high respect for teachers and researchers. When she entrusted me with all of these projects, I was honored that someone with so many achievements was taking notice of me. You are right that I need to sit down and talk with her to get this worked out. Our winter break just began today, so for the next few days I am going to collect my thoughts and process everything and prepare what I want to discuss with her. Then, I will get it worked out. Thank you for your answer! Dec 15, 2015 at 3:59

According to what you are describing it seems that they are by all means abusing your performances, which is not to be allowed especially when creating discomfort for the people in question (you, in the case at hand). The simple reason why this happens is that you are much cheaper than a PhD student or a PostDoc doing the same things you are currently doing. It is evident that the supervisors need research (or whatever other project it is) to be done and want to have it done sparing as much money as possible: this translates into addressing the job to undergraduate students who demand little (if not even none at all) pay per hour. It is unfortunately common behaviour.

Especially if you are passionate about your field do not allow such attitude; it will end up draining you out and you will associate the discomfort to science, whilst instead science is what you love and the discomfort is being caused by your advisor.

As an undergraduate student your own responsibility (for yourself) is to complete your master thesis in a affordable limited amount of time: all the rest is superfluous. Only then go into research and start doing it properly: you will have a decent salary (i. e. you will be at least paid decently for all the work you put in) and everything will be fully documented.

The above said, doing research is nevertheless complicated as it asks to conciliate your personal life with (in general) a lot of pressure of strict deadlines, lack of funds, lack of time and so on and so forth. Despite so, I believe that whoever is passionate about their topics should try to pursue the academic career.

  • "all the rest is superfluous." I don't agree with this. Research as an undergrad, particularly doing things above what people at that level typically do, can be hugely beneficial on a CV (assuming the student is getting proper recognition). I agree with the rest of your answer though.
    – user24098
    Dec 12, 2015 at 8:49
  • Doing research is totally different than being abused on (in quotation marks). I assume that a master thesis is research anyway (and that is what matters), whilst writing conferences proposals, abstracts, preparing apparati to run experiments overnight, writing papers in few days because of someone else's grants is politics rather than science (of course I am exagerating, but I believe you see my point).
    – gented
    Dec 12, 2015 at 9:14
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    The OP doesn't mention a thesis and their undergrad program may not involve any published academic output. Many of the activities the student describes should lead to authorship on papers/abstracts, which would be exceptional for an undergrad in many fields. I agree that the level of time input being asked of the student is a big problem, but still this sounds like worthwhile stuff to be involved in at some level.
    – user24098
    Dec 12, 2015 at 10:29
  • This isn't for an undergraduate thesis, but yes, there will be a handful of papers that include my name as a co-author, and in one case as the primary author. There are a lot of benefits for me to maintain this position which adds to the trickiness of how to handle it. However, I have decided that something needs to change, and I will be meeting with my professor in a few days to discuss the issues with her. Dec 15, 2015 at 4:08

Have you discussed this with your supervisor?

An alternative perspective could be that your supervisor sees you as a highly driven, promising young researcher who deserves opportunities commensurate with your potential. The work that you are doing will indubitably help your career: industry is taking notice and you're producing publications. It may very well be that your supervisor is impressed with your level of work and your work rate, and willing to push you as far as you want to be pushed. She may simply not see that you may both be over-reaching.

You should arrange to chat with your supervisor about your career ambitions and what is needed to realise them. That would be the open, communicative, constructive way to show her that your workload is too high, but that you genuinely wish to continue in a scaled-back format. If she really is trying to abuse you for cheap research labour, it would become clear from such a conversation, but more likely you will come to more mutual understanding of each other's intentions.


Your health and well being is the number one thing you should look out for in all circumstances. If you are not getting 8 hours of sleep a night, whatever is causing that is extremely seldom worth it. You can get into grad school, or get a good job, or do WHATEVER you want without that specific job. Unless you need the money to live (in which case, I'm sure privately tutoring or working a nonacademic job would be better), you do NOT need this job.

That doesn't mean you should give up on the job. Talk to your adviser and explain the situation. Be firm if you need to. Either they don't know what the job is doing to you, or they don't care. If it's the former, then talking with them will remedy the problem. If it's the latter, being firm will likely remedy the situation.

If they don't care and even after talking to them and being firm, you have a few options. You can either stay and put up with it, ruining your health. You can quit. You can talk to someone higher up.

If all else fails (which it shouldn't. Most professors are reasonable. It's likely that they just don't know), I personally would put in the hours I agreed to (which is 20 in your case) and not a minute more. No matter what project doesn't get finished in time, no matter what crumbles, no matter how badly they need me, once I put in 20 hours I'm done. If a super important deadline was approaching and I just needed 20 hours and 30 minutes, that deadline just wouldn't get met. I would either get fired or they would take the hint. Either way, it's better than ruining my health. I'm not saying to do this right away of course. But if nothing else works, this is always an option.


One of the skills you have to learn is work-life balance. You feel that your job takes up a better part of your life, and this needs to be addressed. Cut down on the job you are doing and work on that no more than 30 hrs/week. I believe you'll still have duties to get you solid 60 hrs/week total workload.

I would only advice working more than that in case of emergencies, that is, life-changing deadlines. Even then, it shouldn't last for more than two weeks.

As for the relationships with your advisor, a reasonable person should not object to you setting up your work/life balance. It might be that your advisor is pushing your limits to see if you have found this balance. It might be that you are being taken advantage of. Either way, refusing to take more tasks than you are comfortable with is a good thing to do.


Say no.

There is really nothing more to it than that.


As a fellow undergrad, I can relate to you. I got to an ivy league university and have family needs, and severe anxiety. I do not go announcing this to the world, but I make it known that I am very interested in opportunities to work with certain faculty and what hours I can work and if I can work more, that I will. So far having approached, and sought out people who are very well known on campus has let me have more control over the situation. It seems it may be the other way around for you. Never in any case should you kiss butt. I'm telling you that's a one way ride to no respect land. One job is not worth your life. You literally have NO life. Your health is deteriorating. And I don't know what you program policy is, but students at my university cannot suddenly go from an A+ to a B- in one semester without their advisor asking them what's up. Your grades should be a top priority alongside your health. The work you've done so far has gotten your name out there and people will be more than willing ot work with you in the future. If your advisor truly values you, they will work with you. I work with the head of the crop and soil sciences department and he literally trusted me from day 1 to work with his colleagues on major research projects and the more I showed him I could do the work, the more he let me work on anything I asked and when I could. He never dictated my work schedule and I could work from home if need be because he respects and trusts me. This is the type of relationship you want. I realize your tasks are less independant and require a lab, but ideally you should be left alone to work at your own pace. Not hounded for more and more hours. Considering it costs probably $2 an hour to hire you (I'm assuming you use fed. funded work study), I also would errr on the side of caution that this may be the case. My boss was very upfront that if it were not for me, his side projects would never get done because he has NO time and can't afford another full time worker in his department. So hiring me is cheap, but he treats me well, and I have no issues maintaining an A+ average and having time for my partner, friends and family. Sleep is crucial for mental and emotional well being and without it, I'd probably go crazy and kill someone :P so I don't know how you're doing it. I mean I would have literally collapsed due to anxiety attacks. So take my advice and put your foot down. If they aren't concerned about your academics...they're very selfish in my opinion. My boss is ALWAYS asking me how my semester is going.


Looks like riding her students till the last drop of blood made her the top professor at the faculty.

I found myself in similar situations a couple of times. My way out was to find a reason beyond my control why I can't go on like that. The best "excuse" that worked for me was saying that I was feeling sick and the doctor I visited said I have to slow down, get 8 hours of sleep per day, etc. Another one was saying that I had to prioritize some other work (my personal research project, internship, finals, another job, etc.) because my family presses me to do so or because I had set a certain goal and I made a promise to myself to reach it no matter what.

It would also help a lot if you could find or recommend another student to take a part of that workload from you. Then you will be approaching your boss not with a problem, but with a solution.

  • I would just make sure that the finding another student doesn't sound like the questioner is quitting. Jan 5, 2016 at 20:49

The worst was last week, which was the week before finals, when I was in the lab 42 hours conducting experiments for her. I only got about 4 hours of sleep each night that week and could barely concentrate on my schoolwork. Since it is against HR policy to have students work more than 20 or 29 hours in one week, she told me to arrange my time sheet to make it look like I worked only 29 hours that week and then claim the additional hours later. I'm pretty sure it's illegal to do this.

Work as a graduate student can be trying, the hours long, the remuneration poor, and the value of a successful outcome is increasingly suspect. However, that is not the problem here. You are presumably legally an adult at this point in your life and if you decide that working outlandishly long hours is acceptable then the opinion of no one else matters.

No, the problem here is that you are being asked to knowingly utter a fraudulent document. And that is, quite beside being the antithesis of academic integrity, a criminal offence. You are in a position where you have no choice but to refuse this demand/request. Because if you do not then you are completely compromised with respect to future requests or similar, and perhaps more exploitive/illicit natures.

Frankly, I have some doubts about your judgement in this matter. Forty-two hours in the lab doing somebody else's research during the week before finals? What were your results like?


Who do you submit your time sheets to? Is there a departmental secretary who handles them? I would recommend going to her/him for advice. They'll likely know how your supervisor would react to you telling her that you can't handle the work load and could potentially give you advice on how and when to have the conversation with your supervisor. If that doesn't work or isn't feasible, consider going to HR.

I've been in this situation recently, so here's what I ended up saying.

[Name], I appreciate how pleased you are with my work. I am really grateful for the opportunities that this job has given me. However, I am concerned that this recent increase in my hours is interfering with my ability to perform well in my courses. I can only work X hours a week. I understand that things need to get done by a certain time, but I cannot work Y hours a week. I am uncomfortable with not reporting my time accurately.


As an undergrad, I did absolutely crazy schedules, sometimes even worse than you described (yes, sometimes down to 2 hours of sleep, sometimes none at all). But it was my decision. And, when I realised that, on the long run, it was not such a good style of life (I did that for about a year), I pedaled down.

What I do not think is that I would have run for such a long period on such an externally driven pressure. You're an absolutely admirable student, one that anyone would like to have. However, I strictly send my group members into weekend, and never, unless it is an emergency, I call or contact them on the weekend with the expectation to respond (I may send off emails on Sundays if that's the time I have to process them, but I do not expect a response before Monday). And, when I do actually need their help on a weekend, I invite them to a dinner afterwards or let them take a day off during the week. Accepting the need of one's people rest is essential, no matter how ambitious one may be.

If you decide, on your own, to work far over hours, that's fine. But self-destruction is not, and even less so when on external behest, ambition or not.

I suggest saying that you need to increase focus on your studies and will have to reduce the workload at this stage until it's over. But don't promise you will increase it later on if you have no intention to or are not sure whether you would do it.

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