Question from Reader: Burnout

Reader Burnt-out Postdoc (BoP) has a question for the blogosphere. Please help BoP by sharing your thoughts in the comments!

I’m now in my third year of postdoc. After moving to my current position I started working on a new, challenging and very interesting project, for which I had to develop many new skills. It was a somewhat risky endeavour and I put all my soul into it, working long hours, weekends, even some holidays. This effort payed off and the project turned out to be very successful: I got interesting results, published several papers, got some invitations to conferences and such, and in general became slightly more visible (in my tiny niche, but nevertheless). This fall I also had to apply for jobs and grants. The job search was overall quite successful (no doubt, as a result of the success of my project). I landed several interviews, including one for a tenure track position (which I didn’t get but spent a ridiculous amount of time preparing for the interview), got two offers for postdoctoral positions (both from very strong groups), and accepted the one that seemed to better suit my interests. So far, a classical example of how hard work and dedication pay off. (btw, doing two postdocs is perfectly normal in my field)

However, I now fear all of this came at a price. Immediately after the last job interview was over I fell into a strange state of apathy, probably best described as a burnout. It’s not that I’m tired (I’ve taken a few days off here and there) – I just completely lost any interest in my work. I have to drag myself to University every day, then force myself to actually do something useful. Needless to say, I don’t feel even the slightest urge to work on the weekend. I can only do something very technical, as I feel that no creative juices, so to speak, are left in me. I’m no more interested in reading papers and attending talks. The mere idea of going to a conference is depressing (and I have several of them lined up in the coming months). The results of my project, that seemed so cool a few months ago, no longer excite me. I’m constantly thinking about quitting science altogether, and the only thing that is stopping me is that I don’t really know what else I can do at this point to make a living. In fact, I would rather not do anything at all, so maybe trying to win the lottery can be a good option.

Perhaps if I could take a really long, say month-long vacation, this apathy would go away, but I clearly cannot afford it. On the contrary, I know perfectly well that I should work as hard as ever in order to publish even more papers and to be prepared for the next round of job applications (but what is the point if I don’t even enjoy doing science anymore?). On the other hand, a month-long vacation would only convince me that not working is much better than working, so not sure it would be helpful. I’m really worried that I will never regain that passion for science I used to have. I always had other interests and hobbies, but I don’t see how these could be turned into gainful employment.

If you have experienced or witnessed a similar condition, is it at all reversible?

With best regards,
Burnt-out postdoc

21 comments

  1. I went through a phase like this after my faculty job search. The search was highly stressful, as we had a two-body problem to deal with in addition to the usual stresses. At the end of it, I didn’t feel like doing anything creative for a little while. While there was a bit of pressure from my new department to start teaching and writing my NSF CAREER right away, I just could not bring myself to do it. I ended up taking that summer off and that fall off teaching, and while I was nominally doing some research, I didn’t end up being very productive.

    My advice to your reader is to take that month-long vacation. At the end of the day what matters is what you produce; she will find herself producing much more in the long run if she takes it and feels energized.

  2. Take a break! It’s amazing how you can go back to something after a break and you’ll suddenly remember why you found it interesting in the first place. Also, I find that if I sit idle for too long, I get antsy and want to get back to things. Sometimes it just takes a couple days, sometimes a couple weeks.

  3. This feeling is why I have two completely opposite lines of research. I started the second because I was burned out on the first. It went away after about a year and I went back to my original line of research. I still powered through the motions on the first line and presented and got things published, I just didn’t start anything new. So maybe this will naturally solve itself in the form of collaboration at the new place.

    Can you take a two week vacation if not a month long one?

    Also, it’s good to take a day off each week. Sometimes even the entire weekend.

  4. You must take a break! Or completely leave the profession, and I don’t think you want to make that decision without first trying a significant break/vacation first.

    I feel as you do, but I am a full professor, tenured, and thus in a different situation. I have started taking off most weekends, and it does help substantially. I think both you and I need a much bigger break though, and I bet at least for myself that if I do that, at some point I will become bored with the vacation, and miss having that purpose in my life, and come back refreshed, at least again for a while.

    I don’t know if I will ever regain that passion I once had for science. And that does scare me. But really, I can’t find out until/unless I take a break and give myself time to rest. I understand that is difficult to do! I too, have a fully loaded plate, and just when am I supposed to take this time off?

    I understand your stress, all I can offer is to suggest that you look at your schedule and remove or postpone anything that absolutely is not required, take time off, rest, recover your creative juices, and make a commitment to do that for yourself more often (weekends, holidays, regular time off), and maybe you will get thru this rough spot and also find a better way forward. Good luck!

  5. I’m also from a field where doing two postdocs is totally normal. That being said, you do have to ask yourself: what do you want to get out of this second postdoc? In my case, my second postdoc was the more successful one. Hence I was naturally growing towards more maturity and independence. In your case, it seems like your first postdoc was a great success. So not to rain on your parade, but ask yourself (because this is about you!) what you want to get out of this second postdoc. In reality it is frequently “another paper”. But for you it may turn out to feel like you just are being asked to repeat the same trick again (after all, you showed you could be successful in your first postdoc, you got from scratch to papers) and that becomes old after a while. So, find something that also helps you grow as a scientist and as a person. That may be more financial independence/grant writing skills, that may be taking advantage of your newly developed network (more collaborations), that may be more mentoring/teaching/supervision: whatever is right for YOU (that could of course just also be giving it your all and develop a new project from scratch to publication or picking up new experimental skills).

    Otherwise, indeed – take some time off. The fact that your first postdoc was a success, doesn’t mean that it has been easy sailing. And interviews/job hunts/starting new positions are totally draining energy suckers – even when all goes well in the end. Of course you are tired! You worked your ass of for a couple of years!

    In addition, I think you are also experiencing the feeling that comes with having accomplished a goal. No matter how hard the ride, the journey towards the goal is usually more fulfilling than reaching the destination. I always get hit with a “now what” feeling.

    So rest, recharge and take the time to think about where you are in life and what you need to grow as a scientist and a human being. Than go out and get it – even if it means slightly (or dramatically) changing course. Good luck!

  6. I experienced a severe burnout during my postdoc (only did one), during the interview process for tenure track jobs (I got one). My spouse and I had been working so hard for so many years (and had kids in the middle of it) and I was just worn out — not acutely, but chronically — like what you’ve described. I had trouble understanding exactly why I was burned out, but there was no denying that I sure was!

    I echo a lot of the advice other people are giving here. In my case, I was able to scale back my efforts at work, and cut myself a huge break in general. I treated it like I would a mental illness, and took really good care of myself, and also received a lot of support from my closest family and friends.

    The most helpful practical thing for me was to ask myself, MANY times a day, “what can I do right now that will help me feel better at the end of today?” and then doing that thing. Sometimes that was watching TV, playing music, exercising, or working. That helped me balance nicely between the extremes of doing things for instant gratification vs working myself to death.

    Cut yourself some MAJOR slack, just roll with it, and I promise your science mojo will return. But you have to accept your current state with compassion for yourself (which it sounds like you have) and patiently let yourself heal.

  7. I should also add that discussing this openly with other selected academics helped me a lot. Some of my other academic friends also experienced mini burnouts or mega burnouts at different stages. If you have academic friends in real life that you can trust (i.e. not your coworkers or anyone who could harm your career), talk to them about your struggles.

    It made me feel so much better when I would find out that other academics who I respected so much experienced similar things. My spouse and I periodically get long emails from our high-achieving friends across the country saying “holy crap I’m so apathetic, help me, what do I do?!”

    It’s very common, and it’s nice to have co-supportive exchanges with those who understand exactly what you’re going through.

  8. Re: what coldoneder suggests, the other half of my blog and I regularly remind each other that one alternative to getting work done is living in an unairconditioned van by the river. YMMV. 😉

  9. Take a month-long vacation. I promise you will not lose interest, but come back invigorated, ready to continue with your work and with manh new ideas. All Europe does that every year and it does work.

  10. Have had a few of those. One came a little after my PhD. Not immediately, I powered through the first year after PhD, but then mostly procrastinated for up to 9 months (somewhere half way those 9 months, my second child was born). After that period, I changed my research topic and went to a conference, where I didn’t present anything, just to get inspired. It worked … While, looking back, I haven’t had an interlude that long again. I notice that periods of hard work, typically result in me going into a state where I am not passionate and I just the work done. If I don’t have pending deadlines during such times, I will mostly procrastinate. The deadlines are also just about getting things done, no inspiration, no love.

    It always requires time off. Away from emails, away from computers and away from work. I know this and have tried to build in mini-breaks (I took up running again, as physical activity sometimes helps). I need a decent break, but I don’t know if the one I have scheduled will be enough (it is only a week). Or a break in the research problem I am dealing with, would be great. Feels like I am up against a wall (which is normal in research) and so breaking or climbing this wall will also provide the necessary lift.

    Sometimes a new challenge will get me going or a new idea. However, to be receptive to either of those, my mind needs to be empty. It shouldn’t be bugged down with administration, teaching or what I will be cooking for dinner (or just the open question on why the code doesn’t do what I want it to do …)

  11. Yep, +1 for month long vacation and a complete switch off. By the end of which, hopefully, will remind you once again why you chose this career in the first place. If it does not, well, then the path forward is very clear. One month is nothing in the larger scheme of things.

  12. All great advice, esp by coldoneder. While I certainly agree that a long break might help, I would like to add two things. (1) Its okay if you don’t see immediate results. It could take a bit of time for the mojo to return to full form, be easy on yourself. (2) Don’t hesitate to seek professional help. We, academics, often underestimate the impact our work life has on our mental health. If one of my close friends described what you have described, I would ask them to consider talking to a professional.

    Some background about me – I am a PhD student, soon graduating. I went through several such cycles of burnout, anxiety and mild depression. It was only during the last such cycle that I sought help. It helped me identify why I was feeling the way I did and I believe it helped me get back in shape faster and better.

  13. I face burnout about every 15 years. The solution is not just to take a vacation, but to change fields fairly dramatically. (From age 11 to 20, I wanted to be a pure mathematician, then I switched to computer science, ending up in VLSI design and CAD for VLSI for about 15 years after my thesis, then I switched to bioinformatics and protein structure prediction. Now I’m mainly involved in teaching electronics to bioengineers and trying to manage an interdisciplinary bioengineering BS program. In another 4–6 years I’ll retire, and probably continue teaching electronics (though I’m not sure how) for another 5–10 years after that.

  14. +1 to wanda’s advice to talk to a therapist if you’re not doing so already. What you are going through is normal (unfortunately) and common amongst academics – we don’t talk about it enough. Having a safe space to talk through what you’re feeling can make a big difference.
    My other advice would be to have compassion for yourself. Do what you need to do to get yourself into a better place and forgive yourself for whatever it takes to get you there. I struggle all the time with being overly self-critical and hard on myself whenever I take time off or feel like I’m not living up to my own skewed perception of success. Don’t be like me 🙂 Your mental energy is better used elsewhere than self recrimination.
    A wise woman once said to me that your career is like a tide, with ebbs and flows. Be patient with yourself and all the best to you.

  15. I had a severe burnout after the (successful!) conclusion of this year’s job search, almost exactly as the reader describes. If it’s over, it’s ended pretty recently. My friends on the job market pretty much all said something similar – it’s as if you are putting all of your energy into pushing on a wall, and it suddenly disappears, and you just collapse into a pile. My personal estimate is that it cost me four to six months of productivity.

    A vacation would be nice, but I suspect a monthlong vacation at the start of a new postdoc is not going to be a plausible option, and I didn’t end up taking one either. I did two big things: 1) started taking weekends more seriously – trying to do things that take up most of my attention so I don’t feel super guilty about work. 2) ate my dessert first at work – I gave myself permission to do whatever work sounded most interesting, independent of what I thought was important. That might be making new toy models, starting new fields, or reading papers.

    This has helped some – I’m not 100% out of it, but better.

    Best of luck to you!

  16. I’m late to this but I want to add something to the “take a break” suggestions: if you can’t swing a long break, another thing you can do is downshift your productivity expectations for yourself. Figure out what is reasonable to produce in a not very intense 40 hour work week, and expect that AND ONLY THAT from yourself for awhile. And think about what type of leisure activity really rejuvenates you. Getting out in nature rejuvenates me more than sitting around reading (even though I love to read), so if I’m feeling close to burnout, I try to get more outside time. But everyone is different, and what matters is what makes you feel more refreshed.

    I am long out of academia, but had a period of burnout last year. It was a really tough year for a lot of reasons, and I also started at a bit of a deficit for some personal reasons. However, I couldn’t swing a big break financially. Also, I have two kids and a husband who had just started a new job, so a month off just wasn’t going to happen. I did eventually start feeling better, though, and I think what helped was that I stopped feeling bad for the burnout and instead of trying to “catch up” I picked some things to just drop from my to do list. Then I spent a month or so just doing the minimum work-wise and also focused on spending more of my non-work time on things that made me feel better. It was not as fast a “cure” as time off would have been, but it did work.

  17. Burnout has been a big problem for me in my 20+ career as a professor and research scientist. In fact, I feel like my entire career has been a series of accomplishments and burnout, and then recovery and accomplishments, followed by burnout again! I wish I could be more consistent…I’m not sure anyone else notices the variability but I sure do.

    I personally don’t think burnout is caused mainly by internal, personal things – I think it is a response to external situations staying static even when you work very hard and accomplish a lot. I think burnout is a type of “adaptive” behavioral conditioning, caused by the rewards just not coming as you expect/deserve. After a while you rebel due to the deficiency in the rewards, and your superego can no longer drive the rest of yourself to keep on doing all that stuff.

    Although I discuss burnout often with my BF, I would never discuss it with any other faculty here…it feels like it could backfire tremendously. I would caution anyone from doing this at their institution, especially if they are a woman! Women already are usually stereotyped as “not being able to handle the pressure” especially if, like me, you have kids. So complaining to anyone here about burnout is not something I can do—way too risky.

    In the past, it helped me to get out of the burnout phase by aggressively taking on new leadership roles in addition to running my lab – kept me busy and learning new stuff about politics and administration, and it gave me a chance to try to change things here and be an activist, to excel in a new area, interact with new people, which was challenging & satisfying.

    I think I’m struggling with burnout yet again now because, despite my achieving something big yet again, there are still the same old institutional roadblocks/disparaging old senior faculty guys here, hanging onto all the power and running down everyone else for no good reason. I’m realizing now that this will never change…so that is very de-motivating to me. Also it’s really taken me aback to find out how rude and awful many of our faculty are to any other faculty members in leadership roles – I know it’s just because they feel powerless, but the unprofessional behavior and name calling is just off the charts and it’s hard to take.

    So now I’m thinking about curing my burnout by taking a leap to another institution…a change in faces, and some new challenges – sounds really great to me! And maybe my institution has a uniquely terrible departmental culture – maybe someplace else will be better?

  18. I’d add: take a couple days (and don’t go to lab) and think about what your victory conditions are. What would make *this* postdoc okay? If you were also teaching a class? Doing some kind of volunteer work? Kill your current project and start a new one? Set your postdoc advisor metaphorically on fire/ tell her to take this project and stuff it? It doesn’t have to be just *one* thing. It could be new project + class or gardening + taking up unicycling or whatever. Maybe it’s “quitting and going to work in _____”.

    (What Artnsci discusses seems to overlap with learned helplessness: you keep working, and nothing happens, and after a while you don’t want to try any more.)

    And also what everyone else said. 🙂

    (I have a biosciences PhD from 8 years ago, worked in industry, now teaching and child wrangling.)

  19. Dear commenters, Burnt-out Postdoc here 🙂

    Thank you so much for your advice, it is tremendously helpful to read the stories of real people who experienced similar feelings! And thanks for xykademiqz for posting my question on her blog!

    I completely agree with the wall analogy of Rheophile. Perhaps this whole situation reflects a strange characteristic of our brain, and demonstrates just how dangerous it can be to invest EVERYTHING in one (however big and important) task. It is also interesting that this comes in cycles for some people (it will be rather annoying to have this again a few years from now!).

    biobrains, thanks for raising some important issues. I do have a general idea of how this second postdoc can improve my CV (I will be able to learn some particular experimental techniques which will very nicely complement my current bag of tricks) but in general, I was a bit caught up in the race and did not pay enough attention to the final destination, which still remains rather vague.

    A month-long vacation is not going to happen, but I can take about two weeks off, and will also try to relax during the weekends. All of your suggestions seems great – I will try them and see what works for me, in particular trying to set specific, not overachieving goals for the next few months.

    It is interesting that there are different opinions as to whether to share this situation with fellow academics. In my case, I don’t see how it can work. On the contrary, I’m certain that many people in my department (the faculty at least) will think I’m some sort of a weak lazy weirdo. But maybe (hopefully!) the situation is different in other places. I only shared my feelings with a few close friends, but they were unable to offer any advice other than to wait until I’m over it or quit science right away. In fact, this is why I reached out to xykademiqz.

    Thanks again for the advice, so much wisdom pointed at me is bound to help! 😉
    And I hope that all those having similar problems will also find some useful advice here and start feeling better.

    Cheers,
    Burnt-out Postdoc

  20. It’s tough to deal with burnout.

    I have a different suggestion, from something that works for me when I had burnout: I read A LOT of science. I spend hours reading everything, from Scientific American to serious scientific journals. Browse many papers every day. Watch documentaries about nature, science, the world. Slowly, but surely, this re-awakens my excitement for science. The world is incredible, and people are doing amazing things. I cannot believe the things that some people accomplish! Last time I went through this, I discovered some cool papers on optics. Started reading them, then the references, and so on. I found this whole new field with people doing unbelievable science. I was just excited to be so lucky as to be learning about it. The ideas kept popping in my head of things I wanted to learn and do. After a while, I was again waking up super excited to go back to the lab. Now I have a new area of research, which is helping my career. Looking back, it was probably one of my most productive times ever in terms of ideas.

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