Hello my dear readers! Sorry for the long lag in new posts. It’s been a tough year with COVID-19 and other personal challenges.
I want to come back to the mini series on “Burn-out”. In this post, I would like to focus on the somewhat abstract part of our work as academics that we don’t often think about as a contributing factor to burn-out — and that is the nature of our work.
Passion or poison?
Many of us do research on difficult subjects such climate change, inequality, armed conflict, etc. We work with victims of violence and injustice. We also work with the people who are seeking some justice for these victims and their communities. We share in their sometimes futile battles for justice and a bigger share of the pie.
Some of us work more on the policy side of things. We study policy makers, corporate executives, institutions and how decisions of governments or organisations get made. Even this type of research is difficult because we see how good data, good science and good evidence so often gets ignored or manipulated to justify decisions that have been made based on a different set of interests.
From where we sit as the “fly on the wall” researcher, sometimes the answer is so painfully obvious and simple that it is frustrating when no one wants to listen. Other times we see how complex the problem is and the best we can do is describe the problem. That we have no answer and no solution can make us feel that our own work is futile.
I’ve had many moments in my academic life where I’d questioned what it is I’m doing all this for. Why publish in academic journals that only a few people will read and have no impact on the communities and people that these papers are supposed to be for?
It is easy to get jaded, more so in academia than in any other profession because many of us chose to this profession out of a passion for our subject. We like to believe that our work has some kind of impact if not on society, then on the communities that we study.
Added to this, as an early-career researcher, you have little control over your own research trajectory. You may feel like you’re abandoning your topic and the people who helped you with your previous research project when you have to leave to start another post-doc in another country and work with another community.
The passion that once drove us to pour ourselves into our work can quickly turn into deep cynicism about what we do and why we’re doing it.
I also want to address the elephant in the room for some of you who are researchers based in countries or organisations where you perhaps have less freedom of expression.
Being a researcher in such an environment, particularly in the social sciences, is like walking multiple tight ropes with added weights on your shoulder. The fear of accidentally saying something wrong or in the wrong way places a real strain on you as a researcher. You fear losing your job or not be able to get another when your contract is up by saying the wrong thing. Yet, to be a good researcher and a respected scholar, you need to be critical and name the flaws in the system. To produce the ground breaking kind of research that pushes the boundaries of current modes of thinking, you need to have that freedom to think, to question, to critique and to spa with other brilliant minds.
It is very difficult to both toe the line and think out of the box at the same time. That puts a strain on you as you try to figure out your identity and your role as a researcher. Self-censorship can lead to deep cynicism about your work and contribute to burn-out over long periods of time.
Early warning signals
Here’s some warning signals that you’re burning out because of the nature of your work. Remember, this is not an exhaustive list and I’m not a specialist. But I’ve selected some basic indicators from the workshop with Dr. Peel (see earlier post “Burn-Out I“) and from my personal experience.
Symptom 1: Increasing cynicism and distance
Don’t get me wrong, at multiple points in my academic career, I’ve had numerous moments of deep cynicism. And that’s normal, especially for a job that requires critical thinking. But the difference with cynicism linked to burn-out is when you constantly feel a strong sense of negativity towards your job to a point where you’re so mentally distanced from your job, you’re not able to actually do your job.
This is not the same as maintaining objective distance from your work. This is darker in nature. You no longer see the point in writing up that paper or chapter — “no one’s gonna read it anyway”, “there is no point”. The sight of another grant call makes you feel sick physically. You feel like you’ve already lost before you’ve even started the race. We all feel a bit like this from time to time. But if you’re feeling like this ALL the time for prolonged periods, then you should treat this as a sign of burning out.
Symptom 2: Reduced efficacy
This can manifest through a number of ways. It could be that you’re taking much longer than usual to produce that chapter or paper. Or taking one week off is no longer enough for you to feel rejuvenated and ready to get back to it. It could also be that you’re no longer inspired to write up that grant proposal or even an abstract for a conference.
That churn in your stomach from the excitement of putting together a novel research idea and imagining what that project would look like and what it could do is no longer there. Instead, the churn in your stomach is from anxiety of simply putting words on a the template. Again, we all have moments like this, but if these symptoms are prolonged, then check yourself.
Symptom 3: Self-doubt and the “Imposter Syndrome”
I heard this term “Imposter Syndrome” very early in my PhD days. We all feel like a bit of an imposter even years after our PhD; years after we have proven ourselves to be experts in our field. But this doesn’t mean that you’re on the brink of a burn-out.
I think when it should raise alarm bells is when the “Imposter Syndrome” manifests itself in your work and your actions. This is when you’re so paralysed by your self-doubt that you are unable to write; when you start turning down invitations to speak and present your work; and when you are consistently unable to articulate your thoughts and arguments.
This is when you need to stop and realise that this is not you being self-reflexive but self-destructive.
Coping 1: Fighting distance with distance
Academics often feel guilty about taking breaks, partly because of the relatively un-structured nature of our profession. But when you’re feeling distant and cynical about your work, you need to stop and physically distant yourself from it.
When you start to find that your mind is running in circles and you’re getting nowhere, you have lost perspective, that’s when you know you need to get off that wheel, go somewhere else, change your setting at least for a week or more. If you need to stop reading, stop reading or read something else like a novel, preferably something funny. The point is you need to get out of your headspace.
I realised that in COVID-19 conditions, this has become particularly difficult. Especially those of us who live in highly dense and urbanised settings where nature is hard to find, it is difficult to “get away”. But even if you’re unable to physically change your settings, you can “logistically” change your settings by changing your daily routine. Starting the day with some exercise is always good to get the endorphins going early in the day.
Coping 2: Look at the facts
When you’re feeling like an imposter, stop and look at the facts. I really like the set of questions that Dr. Peel raised in the workshop so I’m reproducing them here:
- Where is the evidence for how I am feeling?
- What am I ignoring, forgetting, or making up?
- Are my expectations of both myself and others realistic?
- What do I have the power to change?
This is why it is good to track your own work, your diet, your exercise regime, even your emotions.
Coping 3: To-do lists
I cannot emphasise how important it is to have a daily-weekly to-do list. Writing a thesis or running a project is a HUGE task and it can be easy to think that you’re making too little progress for how much you need to get done at the end of three years. So you need to break it down. I will probably write a separate post on to-do lists, but a key tip here is to make your list specific, for example:
- Read paper A + reading memo
- Read paper B + reading memo
- Complete intro for chapter 1
I personally find immense satisfaction from crossing out items on my to-do list and that gives me a sense of having accomplished something for the day or week. And when you’re feeling doubt that you’ve done very little all week, look back at your crossed out list — there’s your facts.
Coping 4: Remember you’re only just starting out
When you feel like writing journal articles or book chapters are pointless or have little impact, let me tell you, THEY DO. Don’t be discouraged that only 21 people have downloaded your paper since it was published. That’s normal! You’re just starting out, no one knows who you are and so no one’s searching for your papers.
It takes time to get known in the field. It takes time for that one person to read your paper and think this is interesting and invite you to speak at a conference or seminar or workshop. Then 20 more people will read your paper, and you get more invitations and then 40 more people will read your paper. Your publications are your springboard and your credibility. So keep at it.
Coping 5: Think about the long game
When you feel like your work has no impact on the people that matter, you gotta remember producing research impact is not like making fast food. This too takes time. It took me over six years after finishing my PhD before I could see some baby fruits of my labour in terms of impact and I’m just getting started.
And yes, jumping from one post-doc to another and working on different projects in different countries may sometimes seem like you’re a boat tossing about in the sea with no anchor. But rest assured that you’re picking up useful skills along the way that will place you in stronger position to make an impact later down the road because you have this unique set of global skills and experiences. That said, it is important to keep in touch with people, write them from time to time, invite them to give talks at your new department and maintain those important links.
Coping 6: Self-censorship? Big picture, find your people and give space to grow.
I saved the hardest part for the last. I don’t really have good answers for how to deal with self-censorship. In many ways, self-censorship is, in itself, a coping mechanism for other hazards of the job. In this kind of situation, think about the bigger picture — your bigger goal.
If your ultimate goal is to be able to work in that country and serve the communities there, then working within the boundaries of that place is just what you will have to do. We cannot win every battle and we cannot change a culture over night, not even over a decade, or two. So hold on to that bigger goal and don’t let yourself get too jaded. Focus your energy on building alliances that can help you make that change rather than burning bridges. FIND YOUR PEOPLE.
One thing I’ve also learnt over the years is that I’m still learning. There were things I was very critical of a few years ago. But as I mature as a researcher and learn more about a particular topic, I come to appreciate the complexity of the issue. My critical view may not have changed, but my understanding of why things are the way they are has. This helps me be more precise in my critique and also more strategic in how I present it and who I present it to. So give yourself space to be wrong and to learn. That’s how you grow. And that’s how you can carve out a bit more space for yourself and your fellow academics.
Whatever your research area, where ever you’re doing your research, I hope you find this post helpful. If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address in my future posts, please leave me a comment below.
Take care and be well!