This is the fifth and final article 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.
I write as a successful senior Black astrophysicist. It saddens me that there are very few of us; it is a reflection of the history of American academia in general and the culture of STEM fields in particular. My essay is not so much a narrative about a struggle with burnout as it is a testament that a career in science can be great for those with the passion despite the ever-present danger of burnout. Being Black in America is what it is, regardless. But I offer you hope while working through the obstacles: Pursuing a career in science can be a highly satisfying and rewarding way to spend one’s life. It is tragic that more talented Black people have not already experienced that, but it would be even more tragic if it continues much longer.
Many fortunate circumstances helped get me here, including the advent of affirmative action when I was ready for college and the fact that my father was a physics professor before me. The result was fewer barriers to pursuing a faculty career than for most aspiring Black physicists. Those I have mentored over the decades have had to deal with more stresses than I did. I was always the only Black person in the room along the way, and that is sadly still often the case. It took me a long time to stop worrying about what people thought explained my success.
There are many ways to do research, including as a graduate student or postdoc, as a tenured professor or on the tenure track, in a college teaching position, in a government-funded research position, or in industry. Additionally, a physicist can be a K–12 teacher, a journalist, an author, a programmer, an entrepreneur, or a variety of other possibilities. Each comes with its own level of security, remuneration, amount of control or power, demands on one’s time, respect from others, and sense of accomplishment. Any position with some autonomy in what you work on and how you work on it entails concern about whether you are doing the right thing. All jobs come with the possibility of burnout when the factors listed above don’t reach a reasonable balance with each other. Furthermore, there is the all-important balance between work and family or outside life that must be healthy for you to be happy.
Since I was a tenured professor, I write from that perspective. They say if you have your hobby for a job, you’ll never work a day in your life. That isn’t entirely true, because no job comes without responsibilities you’d rather not have or don’t have enough time for. Professors at research institutions are incredibly busy because they have to teach; conduct and publish original (and appreciated) research that meets a high standard; mentor students and postdocs; and provide service to their department, university, and profession. In addition, Black professors both want and are expected to advance the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) agenda of their institution. They may not, however, receive the same implicit or explicit credit toward promotion for their DEI efforts that is given to others who instead spend the time on their own research.
To avoid burnout, you must look at all the demands on your time, prioritize them, and then practice incessant time management to attempt to actually follow those priorities. That is essentially impossible since life rarely fully cooperates and unanticipated factors constantly arise. And in any event, there simply isn’t enough time to do it all.
My own solution when things got out of hand (which they regularly did) was to remember that it was a temporary glitch arising in the context of an incredibly satisfying career. If the family needed more of me, something else simply had to give for a bit. The family had to recognize that later I might not be able to do something we would have liked to do. Sometimes a paper had to wait while I updated a course. Sometimes I couldn’t implement a better teaching idea for lack of time. Helpful through it all was the fact that science is a very collaborative endeavor. There were always other members of projects with whom I could kick around frustrations, socialize, and share the good and the bad.
Fulfilling and rewarding career
The good news for a tenured professor is that the career consequences of imbalanced priorities or actions occur only on a time scale of two or three years, so adjustments on shorter time scales can be compensated for. I’m not saying that everyone can be happy under such pressured conditions, but for me, the larger context of the growing body of my scientific accomplishments, my increasing power to help my institution(s) make real progress in the DEI realm, my successful students and postdocs, and my nurturing family life all combined to make it a fulfilling and rewarding career.
I spent eight years as the founding vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley. I knew that my science would be reduced but not eliminated and that I could continue afterward. Working on diversifying science and academia had become a higher priority for me, partly because during the previous 20 years of working on it, I had been the sole Black professor in Berkeley’s entire division of physical sciences (and that remained the case until I “retired”).
I bring that up partly because I want young folks to realize that they don’t have to give up their aspirations to improve the world in order to become physicists. In fact, becoming a physicist will likely put them in a better position down the line to make more meaningful changes in their profession, the educational system, or even society at large. One thing is guaranteed: A lot of people will respect the fact that they earned a physics degree. Recently, it has also been rewarding to see old discoveries I helped with presented to students as just part of human knowledge. So yes, there will be some burnout along the way, but I believe it is very likely worth it.
Gibor Basri (email) is a professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a DEI consultant, author, and speaker.