Surviving burn out and the post-paper blues

I published my first paper at the end of February. I won’t beat about the bush: writing this paper was exhausting. I’d had unrealistic expectations for how quickly I’d get publishable results, and consequently every delay to our draft felt like a disaster. At first we were going to be ready by July (2018). Then October. Then Christmas. Then the end of January (2019).

In the end, the week we ended up submitting coincided with show week — the performance week for the University’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I was playing in the pit orchestra, and that week consisted of a gruelling 5 hour tech rehearsal on the Tuesday evening, dress rehearsal on the Wednesday evening, followed by four shows (Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, with a Saturday matinee).

Couple this with the string of early mornings I’d been pulling to get the draft done and I was completely wrung out by the Sunday morning of that week. The paper was on arXiv and we’d had positive comments from colleagues, and the show went off without a hitch and also received great reviews. But I felt absolutely awful.

At first I thought it was just physical exhaustion, but the following week dragged on and I began to feel that I’d lost all motivation for and interest in cosmology. I even began to question what the point of doing science was. I was temporarily disillusioned.

This feeling of demotivation lasted about two weeks. I’m lucky enough to have a supportive supervisor and officemates who didn’t question me going AWOL most afternoons while I tried to rediscover my interest in physics and my belief in the scientific method. What I have only realised in retrospect is that I was probably suffering the symptoms of burn out.

So how did I recover? I spent a lot of time out of the office, for a start. Normally I put in a fairly regular 9:30am – 6pm shift, but in the weeks leading up to the paper publication my office hours were more like 8am – 7pm, followed by another couple of hours working at home every evening. Post-paper, I spent a week or so coming in at 10:30am and leaving by 3:30pm. Initially I was frustrated with myself for not being able to buckle down and immediately get started on the next project, but in hindsight it was the right thing to do. I needed a breather.

With this extra free time, I put more effort into my hobbies. I went for a lot of runs. I spent endless hours in the music practice rooms. For two weeks, I let my life be dominated by something other than the PhD. I began to feel a little more normal again. Not constantly on edge. Not seeing the Overleaf editor every time I closed my eyes.

The culminating moment of my claw back from burn out was a fantastic talk given by Jason Rhodes, one of the science leads for WFIRST, a planned NASA mission. He spoke for 45 minutes at our department’s Tuesday lunchtime seminar. The breathtaking scope of the mission and the passion with which Jason spoke about it were the spark I needed to finally rekindle my own interest in the subject and get back to full time work on the PhD.

What I learned from this two week wobble is that I need to be a little less emotionally invested in my research. Obviously I am keen to communicate my results to as wide an audience as possible and there is also the unfortunate pressure of “publish or perish” constantly weighing on me as it does every PhD student. But patience is the oft-overlooked virtue here. Realistically for me, not many people will read my papers. Fewer still will cite them. I’m in very little danger of being scooped. So what’s the harm of a few extra months when it comes to publishing results?

The second thing is that I need to be kinder to myself. It’s ok to take time to celebrate an achievement (and arguably, publishing a paper is the biggest achievement of my PhD so far). It’s ok to take time to recover after working incredibly hard towards a deadline. It’s natural to feel burnt out after such a period of prolonged pressure. And it’s perfectly fine to take a step back from your research to remember why you’re doing it in the first place.

Here’s to the next paper.

If you didn’t get a chance to read my first paper yet, you can find it on the arXiv here:

and a non-technical overview here:

The manuscript is currently under review at MNRAS.

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