Category Archives: burnout

A mini pre-retirement pause

I’ve decided to take the rest of December off from work. After straining through these last projects with little progress, I’m attempting a different approach. I finally recognize that I need time away — even if I’m staying at home — hoping that that will help lift my sense of complete burnout. Can I regain a more positive mindset after only a month?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever allowed myself to do this. I’ve never taken a sabbatical or a break longer than about a week, except when my Dad died years ago. Every year I donate copious leave that I’m unable to use — literally thousands of hours over the years. But not this year. I’m taking every flipping hour that I’m entitled to.

And I feel super guilty about it.

By virtue of our research positions, we aren’t supposed to use our leave. It’s there. It’s available. But we get the side-eye when we dare to take time off. As if taking a break to refill ourselves makes us less dedicated to our profession. Administrators love us for this trait, even when it threatens our ability to care for ourselves. The inability to cope is taken as a sign of weakness, and so it is further buried in our psyche. I can’t help but believe that this is planned to maximize what is taken out of us.

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I also thought that I could use this month off as a mini trial-run for my retirement in 2021. Will I still want to retire this early? How will I feel at the end of this trial? What if I am still depleted and burned out?

It’s only Monday of the first week, so it’s a bit difficult to predict if this will have any effect. I noticed that I was stressed yesterday because I sensed that the weekend was drawing to a close and I would soon have to face the job again. Then I remembered that I was taking leave today and literally felt a physical release. My brain felt a “whoosh,” and muscles that were tense relaxed. Absolutely amazing that this has such a strong physical connection.

I have to remind myself that there is no need for guilt. I absolutely deserve this.

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The burnout is palpable

I’m trying to keep upbeat about my work as I continue to hurtle toward retirement. But it’s hard right now. Man, is it hard. I’m burnt. Drained. Exhausted. I’ve approached the stage where I wonder whether I have anything left to offer. This feels like third-degree burnout — to a point at which I fear there is little recovery.

I do have periods where I feel less stressed and anxious and think that I can endure the frustrations to the end. And then something happens, and I wonder how much longer I can keep doing this. Facing this computer, generating graphics and repeated analyses. The nuanced writing and endless editing. Knowing that it is all on me at this point because there is no help to be had. The only relief is to finish or quit. I don’t know if I care to which end it is at this point.

This feeling isn’t new — it’s been building like this for years. I’ve felt increasingly marginalized and disconnected from my program and from the work that I once embraced. I hate that I’ve come to detest my field. I’m fighting for a last bit of respect by pushing on these final reports and publications. All with a foreboding sense that no one actually cares.

Three bad days. That’s all it will take for me to finally make the jump. And they don’t even have to be in row.

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I sometimes wonder if burnout a mechanism to protect oneself from excessive stress. When there is no way out, is this forced inaction a way of keeping myself safe? When coping strategies are ineffective, do our bodies and minds simply stop working and make us address the situation? We see burnout as a sign of weakness — but is it a sign of strength instead? The strength to stop “going along” and actually address the problems?

I also wonder if late-career burnout is inevitable. I have had more than one conversation with colleagues lately who have nearly quit their jobs or are actively looking for something else. Those close to me in age are also preparing to retire early. We all share an intense sense of disappointment with our positions and careers. In a way, I’m grateful for these conversations, knowing that I’m not alone in feeling this way.  

But it’s not getting any easier.

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And still, I feel a slight stir of excitement as some new opportunities have developed for our workgroup. Is it enough though? There currently is no shared sense of purpose amongst my co-workers, and we are at a hunger games level of competition. It will takes years to get back into a functional working group where we treat each other with any semblance of respect. I sense that we simply too far down to possibly recover. 

It’s probably best to leave this job to some one less jaded than I. 

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Watching a pandemic crush my goals under its foot

I opened my planner the other day and found a note on a sticky tab that I had written in January. It was a list of goal times that I was aiming for by August to qualify for the National Senior Games. Sad to say, our state qualifying games were canceled due to coronavirus concerns. Even sadder to say that I’m nowhere near those ideal times. Perhaps I set my sights a bit high in January, particularly with the virus on the horizon.

While I’ve been knocked off track for achieving my swimming glory this year, I need to recognize that I made progress, even in these weird times. Our pool was closed for nearly two months and, short of building something in my backyard in the dead of winter, there was nowhere to swim. Since the pool re-opened, I swim 3-4 times a week for an hour each time (assigned lanes and times, of course*). Depending on my plan for the day, I can do between 2000 and 2500 yards. I’ve not done this much swimming in years and plan to push further if the pool continues to stay open.

I worry a bit about what will happen in the next few months with coronavirus, especially as it gets colder and people head back indoors. Epidemiologists predict a second major wave at that point. It would pain me to stop swimming come fall, just as I’m starting to make progress. But I also need to be realistic about the changing virus situation and plan ahead for the next corona-wave. Will I ever hit those times on the sticky note though?

My cycling distances have been less than what I planned, primarily because we’ve had some pretty crappy wind lately. If I have the choice between swimming or cycling in a 20 mph headwind, swimming will win every time. This next week should be better, weather -wise, and I can up the miles then (hopefully).

I’m also considering trying to run again. Other than dog walks, I haven’t been rambling on two feet for any appreciable distance in some time. Running is more convenient than either swimming or cycling, which can chew up 2-4 hours a day. It also meets social distancing requirements, for when the pool shuts down. It may be painful to start, but it seems a necessary next step.

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I have to say that I’m starting to feel a second wind in my work with the renewed exercise intensity. I’m feeling more successful physically, and that seems to translate into feeling less burned out. This is a good thing. I’ve been struggling with writing lately, but the writer’s block is loosening. And I’m less likely to spill my guts about frustrations with my job. The disappointments, microaggressions, and push-backs are still there, but I can now shut-out those aspects of the work because I’m having success elsewhere in life. I have a singular work goal at this point: finish these project analyses and reports. Nothing else really matters for this short-timer.

I also continue to see slow, but continued weight loss — a total of 15 lbs since March and 35 lbs since I was training for a bike tour last summer. Not rapid, but steady. While I’d love to see the needle move faster, what I’m doing now is sustainable over the long term. Plus, I’m happier and feel fitter. I might not be able to turn back time and undo the damages, but I’m putting things in place for a productive future after finishing this phase of my career.

At this point, my clothing is looser and I’m starting to fit into smaller sizes. I have a whole wardrobe of fitness clothes that I’ve bought over the years but couldn’t wear them. Cycling shorts and jerseys that didn’t fit last year are perfect this year. I actually look like I might know what I’m doing on a road bike with the proper outfitting.

So while the coronavirus has crushed many of our plans for this summer, it has also created new opportunities to improve my fitness and endurance. I have to believe that this pandemic will end someday and I plan to be ready for when it does end. The best I can do is to continue to put things in place for when that happens.

*Side question: why do old guys disregard assigned lanes and times in the pool? More than once, I’ve had to ask one to leave the lane when it was my assigned time. And they act like I’m putting them out when they are cutting into my swim time. How do they come to expect this level of entitlement? I can only imagine them shitting a brick on the deck should some one cut into their pool time. Rant finished.

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If I could go back, what would I tell my younger self about a career in research?

I often get questions from students that I work with, asking if they should pursue a Master’s degree or doctorate. While I believe that the Master’s degree is a significant educational and professional goal, I’ve coached more than one student away from doing a Ph.D. For most of their life goals, a Ph.D. simply wasn’t necessary. In fact, it would have been overly confining and damaging. While they may have had the intellectual capabilities to complete such an undertaking, I was pretty certain that they would have been distressed in the long run.

I’ve been thanked more than once for pointing them away from that career path.

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So I thought I’d write a few things to my former wide-eyed, young self who was about to embark on her career in a research arena. I want to tell her somethings that I wish she could have known and braced for along the way. I want to give her some advantage in a system that would ultimately be stacked against her.

And so here it goes — some advice on weathering that research career.

Research isn’t exactly the noble profession that you thought it might be. The notion of generating knowledge for the sake of improving society isn’t always at the forefront of scientific endeavors. There is a lot of selfishness amongst scientists, and the competition for increasingly reduced funding will be cut-throat. Not all successful grant proposals are based on merit. Sometimes it IS about who you know and how well the game was played. You will need to network like crazy, and find your way into the good graces of those controlling the monies. This will be one of the more difficult tasks for you, an introvert. But it will be so, so crutial if you are to get ahead.

You will need to do an ungodly amount of fundraising. This will become increasingly critical over time. At some points in your career, you will spend more time on contracts than on research. You will begin to wonder why you are fundraising when the organization that you work for isn’t all that helpful in the process. You will wonder why you are — at times — actively fighting your organization to get the job done.

Hamster, meet wheel.

It is all about publications. Anyone who tells you differently is leading you astray. They may tell you that public outreach and consultation are viewed as equally important outcomes — but this means crap when you are up for review. Sadly, you will be writing papers for maybe a couple of hundred people in your field. No one else will read them. It’s a hella lotta work for such a small reach. You can do better than this. Stick to your guns when thinking about what is most important in your work and who your audience should be.

You will need to choose between having a life and doing research. It will be impossible to do both. Your work life is always on — it cannot be turned off. There is no such thing as work-life balance. This is an idea thrown out by administrators to put the blame back on you while you are struggling to do it all. They will tell you that you need to find that balance somehow, while dumping another data call on you as they leave at 5 pm. 

Relatedly, think twice about having a family if you stay in research. You will end up regretting giving your boys the short shrift.

Scientists are human and display common fragilities. Some scientists you will meet are insecure. Most are socially inept. Some are just plain assholes. There are a lot of them out there, and it will be difficult to avoid them. Be aware and do not trust any aspect of your career to them.

Sexism is very real in research and will cost you a great deal. It is embedded in everything, and it will range from heinous acts to everyday microaggressions that will tear at you. You will be passed over for opportunities and will never see the same level of support as your male colleagues. You will have a few disgusting supervisors, one who will physically threaten you. Take a lot of notes and have witnesses.

The power disparity as a student is immense. But remember that your advisors rely on you to get things done, to expand their publications record, and provide another notch on their scientific belts. They will need you more than you need them.

People will take your stuff and not give you credit. This will come as a shock to you at first, that others in your field would actually do this. Yet it will happen more than once. You will find entire sections of your papers lifted and put into project reports — word for word. You will find your data in other’s papers and realize that it was shared more widely than you had intended. Sharing is important, but so is getting credit for your work.

You have to be able to do it all. In addition to producing new research paths, you will need to understand statistics and mathematics, follow cutting edge technology, write well — and do it all quickly. You will continuously read and evaluate all the other works in a growing and overly broad field. People will expect answers from you that you simply do not have, from parts of your field that you do not directly work with. If you are unable to answer a question from the top of your head or, worse, be wrong, you will forever be seen as incompetent. There is no “do-over.”

Don’t expect to be praised. Ever. Sometimes it will happen and someone will pay you a compliment. But then you can never actually believe that they meant it — there may be something else that they want from you and they are just buttering you up.

Not all criticisms are valid. Some people will have a stake in seeing you fail. Ironically, these same people will later use your data to support their work. They will fail to see the irony. Mainly because they are assholes (see above).

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And most important to my former wide-eyed, young self:

It really would be okay to do something else.

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Perspectives while barreling toward retirement

Wow, is it ever hard to keep my writing on track these days. I often blog about something I see that jogs a memory. It’s hard to see something new when you face the same walls day in and day out. And now, everything in the news is so disheartening: pandemic, race-baiting, protests, and riots, all on top of the day-to-day natural disasters. The world seems on fire, and I write largely about my career past and transition toward a new phase of life in retirement. It seems a little mundane and soft by comparison.

I have a nagging sense that my writing has become irrelevant. But it’s what I have to work with, so here we are.

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Sage advice from me?: I started my workday reading a couple of e-mail messages from students asking for my advice. I hesitated in my response. Situations keep changing and any answer I might give today could be wrong in less than 24-hours. And yet, I have to offer up suggestions to those who still depend on me. We still need to make progress, even if in fits and starts.

One message was from a student asking if I had gotten a request for a reference for a post-doctoral position that she had applied to. I had to tell her no, but the search might be delayed due to coronavirus and workplace disruptions. I didn’t tell her that it is unlikely that the position would be filled any time soon. And that she was probably competing against at least 50 candidates and may never hear back from them at all. This is a horrible time to be entering the workforce with an advanced degree. She probably already knows this, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her how badly her reality sucks.

Or how all of our realities suck right now. The threads in our collective tapestry have been severed and pulled apart. Our social fabric needs to be re-woven in a way that supports people. But until we are willing to address grotesque inequities and face the real perpetrators of these disparities, we are just diddling at the edges. 

But that’s a post for another time. 

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Reliving old times and not-so-fond memories: I recently started clearing some old folders on my hard drive in anticipation of my retirement. These are folders for projects that went nowhere. I had tried to flesh out these studies, spending much effort to get buy-in and funding — sometimes for years, but all for naught. I saved these proposals in case they could be re-ignited, but they are useless thought exercises at this point. I might as well get rid of the unnecessary files now before it all becomes too much.

I start to tear up as I do this. So many gut-wrenching memories of failures and shortfalls. One reason that I’m retiring now is that I’ve grown tired of fighting my own workplace to move things forward. I no longer know how to make things work. I came across one recent project that went unfunded, only to be picked up and initiated by a potential collaborator without me. This study plan is on the ground, but I’m nowhere to be seen in it because I wasn’t able to get buy-in. On the one hand, I feel encouraged that the work is being done, and that somebody saw value in the study. I would have appreciated a little credit though.

This transition is hard — so much harder than I ever imagined. I feel like I’m in mourning at a year-long funeral. I know that I need to let all of this go, but I’m stuck on what I could have done without the imposed limitations. I shouldn’t take this personally, but it’s tough not to. 

I think about leaving on my last workday with two middle fingers fully extended as I walk out the door. While I chuckle at that vision, I know that I won’t do that. I will continue to silently internalize my frustrations. 

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Retrospectives: I’m planning to start a series of posts that are a bit retrospective as a means of coping with all of these feelings. These are things that I wished I knew when I was young and just starting out. Perhaps this might make me feel a bit more relevant as if I’m giving sage advice to the students who contacted me earlier.

Something positive has to come from this internal and external turmoil.

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