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The physics of burn-in and burnout

28 October 2021

Despite the pressure on physicists, particularly Black physicists, to always do more, it is essential to learn to put work aside and connect with others.

This article is the fourth in a series of essays written by Black physicists and copublished with Physics World as part of #BlackInPhysics Week 2021, an event dedicated to celebrating Black physicists and their contributions to the scientific community and to revealing a more complete picture of what a physicist looks like. This year’s theme is burnout.

Three years ago I left the University of Pennsylvania, where I was dean of natural sciences, former chair of the department of physics and astronomy, and an endowed chair in that same department. I came to Yale University as a faculty member in physics to take on a very different decanal role: to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion across the arts and sciences. A big part of the impetus for my move was concluding that I was not doing enough to address a long-standing problem: Less than 2% of physics faculty members at institutions offering doctoral degrees are African American, and about 3% are Hispanic, according to 2016 statistics from the American Institute of Physics. The numbers are similarly abysmal for quantitatively focused academic departments at universities across the nation.

Larry Gladney.
Photo courtesy of Larry Gladney

In contemplating how I might help change things, I thought first about my own experiences and how I had “made it.” My memories are mostly happy ones—I have been privileged by higher education. However, I never felt comfortable as the only Black person in my undergraduate classes, nor as the only Black tenured faculty member in the sciences at Penn (a situation that changed a few years before I left). My realization was that, even after a long career in physics, there is no finish line—no point at which you feel, “I’ve made it.” The feeling that you constantly have to prove your capabilities never goes away when you so rarely come across people who look like you in physics.

In thinking back, I also recalled the stress of working in so many spaces that could easily have felt hostile with just a suspicious glance, an inappropriate question, or plain being ignored to the point of invisibility. I had to learn to adjust to the isolation that comes from thinking that no one around you knows just how you feel. Early on, my recourse was always to work harder. This was the “burn-in” for my entry into physics. My path to survival was to prove I could outlast any attempt to see me fail. Never show stress, never complain, be indifferent to the lack of friends or family who could understand what you wanted to do or why you wanted to do it.

The burn-in for me was long: I decided to be a scientist at age 3, and I was set on physics by age 12. I never experienced self-doubt about either of those decisions, and a great many people encouraged me. But they also warned me that I would never be accepted in my chosen career. I was aiming for something so far removed from the Black experience that it would surely eventually lead to burnout, they said. So the support I received also stoked the fear that the physics community would never be my community.

Avoiding burnout

As I said earlier, there is no time when you know you have succeeded at physics. The field itself is humbling—there’s literally a universe of mystery mocking your ambition to understand how reality works even as it constantly beckons you. Even Albert Einstein expressed, at the end of his life, “I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” At some point, we all have to acknowledge that just doing more work—more burn-in—does not make you a better physicist; it just makes you a poorer human being. Being able to separate what you do from who you are is an essential part of learning how to live with a career that can take everything you give and leave no satisfaction that you have made any real progress . . . if you let it.

While I was in graduate school, I had tons of revelations about how physicists get things done. None were more important than learning to trust my academic contributions without having to dedicate all my time to producing them. I learned to back away from constant work and to become friends with people who did not share my life experiences but helped encourage me to just talk about something other than physics. I found friends, learned to relax at the end of the week, and talked with my family even when I did not know how to share the pain of failing an exam or bombing on an experiment.

No matter how naturally talking to others may come to some of us, the guilt that accompanies the thought that we could be doing more—working harder—is always there for all of us doing physics while Black. Burnout is the inevitable consequence of giving in to impostor syndrome, which drives you to think that more work can erase the racial stereotypes we know exist. Being Black and subject to the fears that come with stereotype threat makes it inevitable that we can feel inadequate to the tasks our ambition makes us take on. Learning to put physics aside and connecting with others is essential to coming back to physics refreshed, re-energized, and ready to advance. One option is to serve others by teaching and mentoring. My comfort with physics increased steadily the more I realized that I could help others understand it.

Paying it forward

Chronic workplace stress seems to be an unavoidable consequence of being in a tough field of endeavor. It is not. Burnout affects us all, but it does not do so equitably, nor is it inevitable for any of us. Everyone engaged in physics can change it for the better by being more honest with themselves about their self-doubts and by finding forums, like this essay, in which to communicate both the negative aspects of the field we share and the benefits of recognizing what we all have to contribute.

Part of that communication should be about the stresses that are not widely experienced. In an essay after George Floyd’s murder, I wrote: “Until you fear the same fate as I do on the few times I have been stopped in a car by the police, you cannot be in unity with me.” Although I stand by those words, it is vital to understand that unity in this context implies empathy, a true understanding of Black pain. Most members of the physics community (thankfully!) lack those life experiences that sap Black physicists’ strength and lead to the depressed feeling that things will never change. That feeling is compounded when those within and outside our field express the idea that things have already changed and that we would be living in a post-racial reality if we would only “let go” of victimization.

Adding all that to the stress of doing physics makes Black physicists so tired. Explaining why we are tired can make us more so. But the remedy is more communication, not turning off from our colleagues. Despite the energy it saps from us and the sometimes painful circumstances that arise, it is the responsibility of Black physicists to let everyone in our field know what we have been through and how those experiences have given us similarities and differences in how we get to burnout.

The key to avoiding burnout is common to the whole physics community: greater understanding of one another and the paths we have taken to do what we love. We owe it to ourselves and to physics to make it easier to share our joys and fears. Burnout is not a personal issue but rather a symptom of the humanity we lack in our hard science. Let’s change that and make burnout a thing of the past.

Larry Gladney is a professor of physics and the Phyllis A. Wallace Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Yale University.

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