The Blahs

I’m so bored at work (yes, again). Specifically, with my research. Some of it is probably burnout, but I think much of it also has to do with doing the same thing over and over again in terms of the mechanics of the work (write paper, submit paper, get reviews, work on revisions, resubmit; write grants, get grants rejected, write again or differently, submit again; get new students, teach them all sorts of low-level things then medium-level things until they can finally get to some higher-level stuff and become sort-of capable of doing science, then enjoy working with them as colleagues for a little while, then they graduate and then everything all over again, from the very low-level stuff).

I can see some new trends emerging in the field and I so don’t give a $hit. There were two major fads that the field went through in the past 10+ years. I’ve taken part in both and they’ve both been cute but mostly just exhausting. Following fast trends with a group that doesn’t have 15 postdocs is exhausting. We did some good work that I am proud of, but most of what the field produces bores the living daylights out of me.


Anyhoo. Perhaps it’s just exhaustion after all the grant writing (two grants in the last two weeks). I will feel better soon, one way or another. At least the undergrads are always adorable and I get to write some code for class, which I enjoy.

In the meantime, the evergreen question:

Wise and worldly readers, especially those in academia, how do you fight work blahs/boredom? What do you do to amp your enthusiasm? 



  1. Sabbatical helps. So does changing fields and starting from the bottom in something new and exciting.

    Eventually, though cycle of pouring your soul into a grant proposal and getting it rejected for trivial or spurious reasons (like the panel thinking you are already funded when you are not) burns you out completely. (Or, more accurately, it burned me out.)

    I now teach a very intensive course (taking 40–50 hours a week of my time) and make writing the textbook for it my scholarly contribution, rather than burning out on grant writing that goes nowhere.

  2. Oh dear. Grant-writing is one of the main things that’s driving me out of academia, so no good advice from here. Fingers crossed that the grass actually is greener on the “other side”.

  3. Sorry to hear you’re feeling bored. Grant-writing and getting rejected is hard!

    I am a theorist and my cure for the blahs is to work on a pet highly mathematical problem on my own. Every year I keep a pet project where I do most of the math — even though a student, usually an undergrad or a first year PhD, may be involved. Doing actual math always cheers me up.

  4. Mentally fire yourself. Then look at your income problem. Then decide what the new person hired to take your job would do and not do. Next re-hire yourself (you need the salary!!!) and let some job functions change because you are the new person. You now have a new job with no financial interruption period. DO NOT tell anyone at work that you fired and rehired yourself!!!!

  5. Hmmm definitely happens to me too. I complain sometimes about the intense pace and having too much to do, too many study sections, student and faculty crises to manage, too many late nights working, too much getting up a 3 am to hit deadlines, etc. But then when it’s just me and my lab and our research that is moving slowly and nothing urgent? Yup – I quickly end up bored and un-motivated.

    I thinks that such a lull is part of a natural cycle of this type of job/career and tell myself to take advantage of the change to catch up on non-urgent stuff which I usually ignore. I try to make a list and focus on checking things off – they aren’t urgent things, but if I make it a goal to do them it usually gets me motivated again.

    – Organize my office and computer files, update my office workplace tech (research, purchase and setup a new laptop, digital projector, phone, ipad, digital pencil, printer), learn and test new software (videoconferencing, citation, imaging, or online teaching software)
    – Meet with our department’s administrative assistants, to ask for feedback and modify procedures in order to fix issues they bring up – before they become crises.
    – Take care of time consuming but non-urgent stuff: update the course catalogue, update the
    student handbook, update the websites, prepare key information file sets to send to prospective students, new enrolled students, or new faculty, draft new policies.mission statements and hold meetings with faculty to discuss and modify.
    – Personal career chores – update my personal and workplace cv and biosketch files, check my government online CV for accuracy and completeness, update my professional social media accounts, update my “about my lab research” documents that I share with prospective students and postdocs.
    – Do work-associated social things that I otherwise never have time for – purchase cupcakes for a lab meeting, take my lab out to lunch, show up at a student Q&A /meet the faculty type event, show up at a grad student event such as a picnic or happy hour.
    – Check my work-associated personal financials such as optimizing my tax withholding or automatic 401K investments
    – Schedule routine dentist, eyeglasses, and medical appointments for me and/or my kids.
    – Take the afternoon to go shopping for myself and buy a sharp looking business suit for high level work events or meetings with drug company executives
    – Take some personal time off in the middle of the week to get my nails done, work in my garden, take one of my kids to lunch or shopping for shoes for some one-on-one parenting time, or take a vacation.

  6. I am neither wise nor worldly, but I find that working with very junior trainees is the hardest part for me. I wish I were more excited about mentoring and teaching. Instead I get sad that I pour so much into getting someone up to speed in an area, only to see them leave. It’s the perfect recipe for limiting momentum in a group. Private industry doesn’t do this, and I’m not sure academia should so much either. I am trying to shift more to postdocs, especially people about whom I do not have to worry so much. Research is not fun when I’m worried about competence and accuracy all the time.

    I’ve stopped pressuring myself to be interested in much of my colleagues’ work and various trends. À chacun son goût.

  7. @assistant prof, it sounds like you want to work for a research institute or a national lab, rather than a university. The main function of a university is teaching, and your product is the students you send out—the research is a side benefit.

  8. I’m with you, gasstationwithoutpumps (in that students are what makes a university a university), but I fear we might be a minority. There’s a colleague with whom I recently had a discussion on this topic. He believes that the purpose of a research university is research, with a little bit of teaching on the side, and he wouldn’t mind not doing any teaching other than mentoring grad students. I didn’t want to go too much into it, mostly because he exhausts me (he’s like a conversational bulldozer, in that it’s so hard to get a word in and he interrupts so much that by the end I feel bulldozed over), but most of our salary is hard money (so from the state and undergrad tuition) and in my opinion we owe good undergraduate teaching in return; this is as a core part of our mission. The fact that we don’t have an onerous teaching load and have plenty of time for research on this hard money is already a large perk. Saying we are here mostly to do research while teaching is a nuisance sounds like a call for all-soft-money salaries. Somehow, I don’t think my colleague would like having to raise his entire salary from grants.

  9. @gasstationwithoutpumps and @xykademiqz, I know. I recently pursued a potential opening at a major soft-money private research institution because I fantasized about being able to focus better on research. I wonder if being pretenure at a R1 (one where tenure is far from guaranteed) and my dependence on NIH funding has me a little too focused on research outputs. I also take seriously the fact that the taxpayer money is supposed to produce useful knowledge in an area and could (truly) save lives as soon as next year.

    Maybe paradoxically, I think my fatigue may also be a consequence of the fact that I hold high-ish standards for myself as a mentor. Others have advised me to spend less time with my trainees. I meet with them each weekly for at least an hour and am constantly revising mentoring plans with them and giving them feedback on everything. I let them do things slowly, even when it would be faster if I did it myself. I gave them way more feedback than I ever got. They all want to be PIs and I want to do the best I can for them. But it is demoralizing some weeks because I want to move faster.

  10. Others have advised me to spend less time with my trainees. I meet with them each weekly for at least an hour and am constantly revising mentoring plans with them and giving them feedback on everything. I let them do things slowly, even when it would be faster if I did it myself. I gave them way more feedback than I ever got. They all want to be PIs and I want to do the best I can for them. But it is
    demoralizing some weeks because I want to move faster.

    This is one of the toughest parts of being a capable and ambitious new PI. Things simply cannot move as fast with trainees as they could with experienced personnel. I know a person who left a full-professor position in academia to go to industry in a high-level technical position so she’d be able to move forward as fast as she could.

    You don’t have to be the world’s best mentor; I certainly also didn’t get nearly as much feedback from my advisor as my students get from me. But the point is: I got enough. Maybe not all your trainees need you to spend so much time and effort with them? Detailed and continuously evolving mentoring plans are probably not necessary for the most capable of your group members; they could likely do with less structure and more freedom, perhaps more chances to make their own decisions and mistakes along the way. Especially if they want to be PIs, they need to be able to come up with original ideas and run with them. See if you can give them more responsibilities and have them mentor each other in some lower-level stuff, thus freeing up some of your time.

    Good luck!

  11. Thanks for the ideas. I’m still figuring out the right amount of “productive struggle” with each of them. I will try to encourage more exchanges between them too. My sense is some want to take a full 60-90 min with me just because they like the contact, but the availability wears me out some weeks. I might cut back.

  12. Beyonce agrees!

    When I’m looking off the edge, I preach my gut it can’t help but ignore it
    I’m climbing up the walls cause all the shit I hear is boring
    All the shit I do is boring, all these record labels boring
    I don’t trust these record labels, I’m torn
    All these people on the planet working 9 to 5 just to stay alive
    The 9 to 5 just to stay alive, the 9 to 5 just to stay alive…..

  13. Hobbies, changing the work environment (shifting your desk, new equipment, working outside, etc.), and general reading of cutting edge research keep me going when things get boring. If all else fails, fix up that CV and head to industry or a national lab!

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