Fighting Burnout

January 16, 2007

Every intense profession is characterized by burnout. Not only professions, but any activity repeated long enough without balance. It could be marriage, friendship, hobbies, anything routine. But in academics the evidence is naked – tapering off of publication records, dissatisfactions with meetings, rampant cynicism, and stoppage of personal growth.

To be an academic is to be charged with pushing the frontiers of knowledge. This is the purest form of academe. But developing new research is also accompanied by conveying it through seminars and teaching. All of this with very little feedback, especially of the positive sort, tends to kill off enthusiasm faster than an icicle in the middle of the desert.

How we deal with burnout is critical, yet it is least discussed in all of the verbiage that clutters academia. There is little I have been able to uncover in terms of structured writing that deals with this issue at all. So, here, lets break it down into the following: (a) What is burnout? (b) its symptoms, (c) its causes, and (d) the antidotes.

(a) Definition: Simply put, “burnout” is the sudden inability to function at one’s level of expectations. Note that this implies a state of disfunction preceded necessarily by a period of functionality. Hence, it is a transition into this state that characterizes it. You cannot be born burnt out already! Of course, having very high expectations increases the chances of burnout, but being ambitious may delay its onset as well. One way to avoid burnout is to have low personal expectations, or to manage one’s expectations over time. We do this well in other aspects of our lives, especially the physical. Sportsmen never expect to be at peak form once they get older, and work through this in a sensible manner.

(b) Symptoms: The onset of academic burnout is often sudden but can also be gradual. If writing the first draft of a paper (let alone a revision) feels like filling out a tax return, then its likely to be a case of burnout. Here are some obvious noticeable things that I catalogued from seeing many friends and colleagues who complain of burnout.

  • The inability to develop new ideas and follow through on them. Not for want of trying, but despite one’s best efforts, one cannot seem to get “flow”.
  • Increasing failure to participate fully in collaborative projects. Sometimes we find it easier to work on our own ideas and sometimes it is in fact easier to work on others’ ideas. But letting down co-authors, and doing guilt about this, yet being unable to break the rut characterizes burnout.
  • Growing cynicism about the value of one’s own research and others in the field.
  • A gnawing feeling of being out of date. Feeling like a relic and a dinosaur and being worrying about being left behind.
  • Complaining excessively about editors and referees.
  • Unwillingness to attend seminars, talks, and conferences. Disengagement from the profession, avoidance of situations that are overtly academic. Feeling less like an academic, more of an outsider.
  • Increasingly targeting lesser journals and avoiding aiming for top publications. This is especially an issue after tenure when the researcher does have the luxury to aim for nothing but the best.
  • Growing lack of concern for students and the process of teaching.
  • Substituting other teaching and administrative tasks for research. While this may seem to contradict the previous observation, it is actually complementary. Many of us, needing to feel that we are working still, overinvest in teaching even when the enjoyment is not there, just because we are afraid to try research in case we fail yet again. Administrative work is an even easier palliative. Being a good academic does not exclude administrative work, but to replace research with it is the beginning of the end.

(c) Causes: There are many routes to burnout, it is such a widespread phenomenon that no one cause explains it all. How we envy those that have never experienced it, they seem to chug on writing and enjoying research like the original glow never wore off.

  • Life imbalances – believe it or not, spending too much time on research to the exclusion of all else is the prime cause. One needs to devote time to the other things in life like family, getting exercise, other reading, hobbies and social engagements, etc. Burnout seems to be more in fields in which the intensity of social deprivation is highest, such as mathematics. Burnout there happens early and to many.
  • Overplaying the game – hitting the bottom line in terms of publications but not paying enough attention to the intrinsic enjoyment of good, satisfying work. Choosing projects that are in fashion, not ones that are of interest, is a killer. Focusing too much on the publish or perish paradigm. Not working on one’s own ideas enough.
  • Difficulties in other aspects of life that leave little emotional energy for quality research. Stress kills research even faster than it kills you.
  • Not varying one’s research sufficiently. Many folks have a single bag of tricks and use them too much. Sure – its easier and comforting to call upon the well-trod path and to generate papers with fewer mistakes buttressed by experience, but when boredom strikes, as it definitely will, there is a feeling of helplessness. To state an analogy, a good athlete will always cross-train. Very good athletes will migrate to other sports as well. Such as Michael Jordan who tried his hand at baseball, or Valentino Rossi who is preparing to move from motorcycle grand prix racing to formula one cars.
  • Picking off low hanging fruit only, and not working on at least a few really hard problems. Its like doing very mild exercise. Eventually you lose muscle tone. The mind is like that too.
  • Being disorganized. There is method in every madness – if you cannot see it, start getting worried. Get it together, and you will stay with it longer.
  • Failing to invest in one’s human capital. Amortizing human capital leads to burnout with probability one. One criteria for choosing projects is to ask if they add to one’s personal growth or are just repetitions of past work. Old wine in new bottles is just that – old.
  • The absence of long-term goals. Be very wary of the incentive system at your university. Most of these system count numbers, and also have very short-term goals, like a calendar count of output. This does nothing to foster long term growth in quality which is one of the few things that keep academics fresh for long periods.
  • Poor training – this obviates the ability to keep learning and comes with an eventual dissatisfaction with poor quality of one’s own work. This disillusionment results in lowering of intellectual self-esteem. In many ways this is your gene pool that you were bequeathed from the PhD program you were in. But there is no reason to stay with that only. The luxury of being at a university allows one to take courses and retrain any time. Why pass up on that?

(d) Antidotes: So, feeling like all this is too close to home? Here is a 6-step plan to get cranked up and dig out of the hole.

  1. Get Away. First, calm down, stop worrying and take time off to think and re-think. Read popular intellectual writing – its accessible, and good writing usually kindles the urge to begin writing oneself.
  2. Intellectual Cleansing. Jettison old projects – these are like poison in one’s system. Delete them off your hard drive, off your vita, make sure you never see them again. Liberate yourself from the shackles of stale work. Its like cleaning out a wound.
  3. Self-Renewal. Re-invest in your human capital (a) outside your field, so as to avoid immediate cynicism, and (b) then in one’s own field. Taking a walk on the other side is usually not wild, but fun. Recharge your batteries this way. Try some new fuel.
  4. Focus Patiently. Take your time looking for just one project to work on, no more no less. Make it a three-year plan, not shorter. So choose well and be patient in the search. Be mindful of how you do this, the process is more important than the result.
  5. Get Out of the System. Talk to practitioners more than academics. This will avoid all the self-reinforcing cynicism that floats around. Also, its a great source of grounded ideas.
  6. Focus Inwards. Work for your own edification, not for publication. This will avoid what caused burnout in the first place, and create powerful long-term internal, intrinsic incentives. You will begin to see why you became an academic in the first place.

No matter how much we try to prevent burnout, it is inevitable to us all. In some, its severe, and in others less so, but everyone faces the demon at some point. Its good to know this, and also to take time dealing with it, to enjoy being an academic again.

Original Discovery

January 2, 2007

It is the nature of physical science to discover “absolute” truths, the core of the matter, that which is created other than by human. This brings with it a sense of wonder, because what you find is not subjective, but infinitely objective – it cannot be different than what it is, even if you change your viewpoint. For example, the laws of motion are immutable, and their discovery, or even re-discovery, comes with an awesome aha! Even when we learn about discoveries of such type, it is as if we share in the spirit of the original scientist with whom it all began.

Being a social scientist inevitably comes with many cynical moments where one feels deeply the absence of “original discovery”. Our findings are clothes we decide to dress up our observations in, conceptual footprints, but not immutable, original. It is the nature of the social sciences to simplify, condense, and explain shifting human phenomena, but never to discover originally. And in those darkest moments, one has to ask, without original discovery, can there really be science? I am told that there is as much science as one wants provided we rigorously adhere to scientific method, but one is often not convinced. There remains the need to discover something that is exactly what it is, leaving nothing to interpretive license.

Interestingly, original discovery even exists in the so-called “softer” fields of literature and history where exact facts are uncovered about ancient times today, hundreds of years later (do you remember the movie “Possession” and the joy of Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhardt in uncovering the real life of poet Ash? – fiction it is, but original discovery plays out so well with full flavor in the movie). This meets the litmus test, the discoveries are at their basic level factual, not colored by interpretation. Certainly, literary academics and historians will, as a matter of course, clothe discovery in voluminous interpretive verbiage, but this does not detract from the original kernel of discovery embedded therein.

A world-renowned colleague in my field decided recently to eschew financial economics for history, and it might well be that his thirst for original discovery weighed overwhelmingly in his making this decision.

Original discovery seems to live in the domain of the Arts and Sciences, and not in the fabric of the social sciences. With passing time, the social sciences themselves are being bifurcated into areas of original discovery versus interpretive content. For instance, in psychology, fMRI (magnetic resonance imaging) based research comes closer to original discovery and is deemed more of a hard science; indeed, the very word neuroscience being used to describe it tells much of the story. Yet, much of the social sciences comprises “spin”, and less substance.

This is not to argue that social science is not important. Far from it. It is easy to make the case that interpretive knowledge does more to impact our lives than hard scientific fact, especially through politics and economics. But from a simple, naive researcher’s point of view, one hopes, even as a social scientist, to alight upon an original discovery one day. One is hard-pressed to imagine how and where this will happen, but keeping one’s eyes and mind open, as well as crossing over to the Sciences, must surely be useful.