Not your typical burnout story

If you google the word burnout, you will find many articles with help on how to identify it or cope with it. The goal of this post isn’t really to give you yet another list for coping with burnout. This post contains an actual burnout story. My story.

At the beginning of the semester, I would come in to my lab seven days a week, and pull really long days, except maybe for a short Saturday or a Sunday off to do laundry. I was doing at least 3 major experiments a week, on top of teaching and sitting in on a class. I did not pretend to be having a life, nor did I intend to have one. The zeal of having a publication soon out-competed everything else in my life, so yeah, everything else in my life became secondary on my list of priorities. Now, you’ll probably think that it’s no big deal, that you’ve had to do the same and you survived at the end of the day. If this is your case, kudos to you, and please share your tips. But I am the type of person who tends to overdo everything, only to find myself overworked, exhausted and, burned out. Yes, I did burn out. Miserably so.

Now, I had experienced a glimpse of burnout last year. That only lasted about a week and I was able to return to normal life, write a research proposal, do research, take and pass my comps. But somehow I had managed to survive and stay moderately sane in the process. This time it was different. This time it wasn’t just dragging my sorry self out of bed and putting on a grumpy face about how much work I had to do. This time it wasn’t just about trying to talk myself into how I soon would have my first publication in a prestigious journal and everybody would finally know who I am and how awesome my science is. This time it hit hard. I couldn’t bring myself to do experiments… for weeks, until I could no longer hide it from my PI and everyone else in the lab.

When I finally found the courage to talk to my PI (more like, when she asked to meet with me to get an update of my progress), I could no longer prolong the agony I had been in for the last couple of weeks. I could not conceal my misery to her anymore. “I’m burned out” I said. And we both attempted to find reasons why I was burned out or how it all happened. Now, I do have to warn you that my PI is not your typical PI. She didn’t give me a pep talk about how great the science we’re doing is, how important my experiments are, or how having that high-impact paper out would mean a lot to both of us. She didn’t press on any of my bleeding wounds. Her first response was “what can I do to help you.”

I hope that with that last sentence you are starting to understand why my PI is not your typical PI. I’m not too surprised about her response, because she has continually shown me her support, and I know that she genuinely cares about the people in her lab. She cares about the people, she makes me and the other people in the lab feel like we are humans. I know, right?

I didn’t want to make the whole post about myself and about how miserable I’ve been in the last month. The response of my PI deserves all the attention in the world and I honestly believe that academia would be a much better place if we had more PIs like mine. She is the kind of person that inspires, not pushes, others to be better, with her love and enthusiasm about science. And for someone like me, she helps me believe in myself.

The conversation went on about the pressure I’ve been feeling lately, and what I could to decrease my stress levels and to bring myself back to being normal. I did mention that I have been proactive about my situation, and I have been actively seeking support from my family and friends, and also counseling. “Most importantly”, she said, “this is about yourself”. And she’s right. Nobody can force me to stay in a program I don’t like, or to pretend to be someone I’m not. In all honesty, I’ve been entertaining the idea of quitting for quite a while. I don’t know if quitting will be the answer to my frustrations. I don’t know if I want this bad enough to put myself through so much emotional strain and isolation. There’s a lot of things I don’t know. But I do know that there is still good people in the world (of academia) and that gives me hope.

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