I did it. I followed my PhD mentor’s 10-year plan to the letter to build a successful research career. I found, however, amidst the global pandemic, a challenging parenting journey, and competing demands for my time, that I was chronically unhappy with work and burning out. Over the last few months, I’ve taken a lot of steps to examine why, how, and the best way forward. Here are a few tips from a burned out psychologist: 

  1. Advocate for the research you actually care about and want to do. I made the mistake of writing (and getting) a K23 that I really didn’t like out of strategy and pressure from my primary mentor. When writing a grant, pause and ask yourself, “Will I be happy thinking about this project for 3-5 years? Do I believe that this work really truly matters or does it just sound good on paper?”
  1. Expand the voices you’re listening to. There are many different paths one can follow to have a successful career in academic medicine. One person’s path is just that – one person’s path. Through putting myself in different contexts, I found new voices to speak into my career. Broadening my perspective helped me realize that I have options other than striving to become a 3-R01s-at-a-time kind of researcher. Knowing your options is a powerful antidote to burnout. 
  1. Change your perspective and expectations for work. There will almost always be someone doing and achieving more than you. Figure out what works for you.  If you only want to go to 1-2 conferences a year, that is okay. If you have a week where you are absolutely overwhelmed and need to hike in the woods and binge watch Netflix on a weekday, do it without guilt. Research careers are all about the law of averages – don’t wear yourself out trying to keep a pace that isn’t sustainable.
  1. Dare to dream. I found that the more I was honest with myself about what I really wanted in my career and said it out loud to people I trust, the less self-judgement I had and the more freedom I experienced to truly dream. Through dreaming out loud, I was approached for some leadership positions that aligned with my values and have helped me envision a new path forward.

Although I would love to say that my burnout problem is fixed and I magically now love my K23 project, that’s not quite the case. However, these steps helped me start to build the foundation for a career that I feel truly hopeful and excited about. It is okay to be in the process.  

More Resources

Acting on the Essential

Celebrating “The Climb”

Read This: Insights on Priorities Including Doing Less

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1 Comment
James West says:

I think the last piece of advice you gave here is critical. There’s lots of ways to be a scientist – teacher, clinician, staff scientist, industry, advocacy, et cetera, in addition to running a big lab. The set of psychological traits and skills that make one good at one, will be bad for another. It’s important to do what will make YOU happy, and make the best use of YOUR talents.I remember a few years back, I was having a conversation with a friend in industry. I told him I couldn’t stand the thought of my project being pulled by higher ups on a moment’s notice. He said he couldn’t stand the thought of being responsible for 20 peoples’ salaries. It’s an issue of what stresses bother you the most.

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