Burnout Is Inevitable if We Don’t Address It Preemptively—Balance Is Necessary
Published September 21, 2022
Burnout is inevitable if we don’t address it preemptively. I learned this the hard way. During my senior high-school years and undergraduate degree, I put an immense amount of pressure on myself to excel, studying almost non-stop day in and day out. End of semester exams were my weak point—the fear of failure was perhaps unreasonable, but real, and the resulting anxiety was crippling. It took a combination of appointments with a psychologist, sitting my exams in a separate room, and anti-anxiety medication to make it through, but I emerged on the other side, and with flying colors.
This experience taught me that nobody can remain switched on or stay focused 100 percent of the time, and the mental state created in trying to do so is nothing but debilitating. In academia, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of pushing ourselves to overwork. There is never “nothing that needs doing,” and though it is a fiercely competitive industry, it doesn’t take a PhD to know that a healthy work-life balance is crucial to being a successful and fulfilled researcher.
Throughout my grad school and postdoc, I’ve come to learn that having a goal to work towards is a huge driving force for stimulating my productivity. This could be a new scientific discovery, or that result you’ve been holding out for, but of course we all know that science doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve endured for months without a single experiment working! During these times, it can be all too easy to drill down on yourself, but in reality, that reflexive response is the only thing that can make you even less productive. I’ve come to realize that during these times doing something outside of work has been critical for my mental health and maintaining balance—at least I could get to the end of the day and say to myself, “Well, at least I went to the gym today!” But exercising, having hobbies, and socializing aren’t just support mechanisms for when things aren’t panning out in the lab; they’re also how I motivate myself to push extra hard in science during those so-called critical periods of “crunch time.” I strive to live by the motto “Work Hard, Play Hard, Rest Hard.” I work hard when I have to, and when I do not have to work hard, I do not. If that means a late night or weekend in the lab, or a flat-out month smashing out a grant, it's okay, as long as that’s not the status quo and there is always something fun to look forward to. Be it a trip to Yosemite, attending your sister's wedding, or simply brunch with a friend, you have to give yourself a light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s not always easy to remember the importance of this balance, and it can be easy to succumb to the mentality that there’s “not enough hours in the day.” As an international postdoc from a big family, I struggle with finishing work in New York in time to phone my family back in Australia at a reasonable hour, and deciding between whether I should spend my time off visiting home or taking a genuine vacation to a new destination. As a wet-lab scientist, I struggle with the physical ties that bind me to the bench, with my hours dictated by my experiments rather than myself. As a woman in my early thirties, I struggle to even conceive of when and how I’ll ever be able to juggle raising a family, furthering my career, and finding time for myself in parallel. The women (and men) who manage that are truly superhuman. Work-Life balance can also become further complicated as a postdoc because part of the job is getting another job, and it can be tricky to know when to shift focus between your research and your career development. This is where good mentorship is critical. A good mentor can provide you with an environment in which you can capitalize on critical moments in your career and invest time and energy in building your future.
Striking the right chords at the right time is a tricky thing, but I constantly remind myself that creating balance in my life provides me with an ability to enjoy science and think more creatively, because if that’s not what we’re here to do, then what are we doing at all?
Rosemary Cater is a Chemistry Finalist of the 2022 Blavatnik Regional Awards for Young Scientists. You can learn more about her and the Blavatnik Awards at Blavatnikawards.org
This piece was originally published on the National Postdoctoral Associationmember blog as part of 2022 National Postdoc Appreciation Week. Current Academy Members can receive a 20% discount on a National Postdoctoral Association postdoc individual membership by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and requesting the NPA membership discount code