Scientists have a seemingly impossible but crucial task: discovering and uncovering a fundamentally novel insight to drive humanity forward. In striving for innovation, scientists can often encounter burnout. Late nights, loneliness at the lab, depleted materials and morale, insignificant results, unreproducible experiments, and looming deadlines come together to create stress and emotional and physical exhaustion.
We put together 10 tips to prevent and ameliorate burnout for scientists.
Lab culture is crucial, just like corporate culture is. In many cases, you are spending the majority of your waking hours in the lab working closely with these people. Get to know them as people, make water cooler talk, and gain their trust. The long hours at the lab will be much more enjoyable with friends than with mere colleagues.
Know exactly who to go to for different issues that may occur along your research journey. When a problem does arise, you want to solve it as frictionlessly as possible. Knowing who to turn to is a great first step.
Balance high level projects with more “low hanging fruit” projects to make progress when you feel stuck on your larger goals. In this way, you can procrastinate more productively!
When you have an idea for a new avenue for exploration, it is easy to want to jump into things right away and be carried away in that process. Instead, articulate your long and short term goals but break these out into more manageable hourly, daily, and weekly tasks to pace your research progress.
Develop contingency plans for when you encounter sometimes inevitable challenges or roadblocks. Beyond the practical utility of these, you will get peace of mind and feel calmer in the face of obstacles when you know you have backup plans to pursue.
Connect with friends, friends of friends, fellow alumnae, or former colleagues who are also in the research sphere. Sometimes it helps to have someone outside of your core team to vent to when you face challenges in your lab or even to be a sounding board when you experience internal conflicts or cultural problems. You can even create a community around these people for them to also meet and support each other. Have weekly or monthly dinners or happy hours to further build community and strengthen these relationships.
Create diverse support groups. If you are an experimentalist, find modelers and theorists. Find people outside of your direct lab or field.
In research, you can sometimes feel helpless at the lack of control you have over your outcomes. Some days, it may feel like no matter how many hours you put into an experiment, nothing seems to stick. While outcomes do of course matter, when you feel frustrated, try to focus on the output and give yourself credit for the output. Give yourself small rewards based on output, rather than outcomes. For example, force yourself to take a walk in your favorite park, get your favorite snack or meal, call your best friend, or listen to your favorite song after putting in a certain number of hours of work.
Discover and pursue your interests, even if they do not seem “productive” at first. Having a way to clear your head before going back to research is actually one of the most productive and beneficial things you can do.
When you feel your mental or physical health suffer, know it is a sign to pull back. By pushing through, you can certainly be more productive for a few hours or a few days, but remind yourself that research is a marathon not a sprint. Putting in a bit of time each day to truly take care of yourself. Even a quick run, an extra hour of sleep, or a nourishing meal can make a world of difference.
We are each drawn to our work because of the mission we think it embodies, but day in day out and especially during the late nights and the busy work, that mission can slip away. Without the mission, we are only left with the challenges. In the darkest moments, remind yourself of your why, both for your research and your broader professional goals. Doing so takes you back to the first time you fell in love with your work, and drawing upon this can continue to provide a source of light, hope, and inspiration.
. . .
The next time you feel overwhelmed, come back to these steps. Research is important and exciting but life and your wellbeing is much more so. Put yourself first and play the long game, and your research and your future will be better for it.