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I had been burned out before. This time was different.

26 October 2021

The combination of a global pandemic and a nationwide racial reckoning has made maintaining a healthy work–life balance especially difficult, says particle-physics graduate student Katrina Miller. But it has also offered a new perspective for recalibrating priorities.

This article is the second 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.

The summer of 2020 wasn’t my first experience with burnout, but it was definitely the most memorable.

Four months into a global pandemic and weeks into a nationwide racial reckoning, the protesters chanting outside my Chicago apartment window were what pushed me over the edge. “No justice!” they shouted. “No peace!” Make no mistake: It wasn’t that I wanted them to stop. It was that I wanted to be out there with them.

Instead, I was trying to adjust to working from home while drowning in research deadlines, presentation preparations, mentoring duties, outreach initiatives, and the never-ending stream of Zoom calls, Slack messages, and emails. The importance of those responsibilities paled in comparison to living with the fear of how the COVID-19 virus was ravaging the world and to grappling with the grief that police brutality had caused my community.

Katrina Miller.
Photo courtesy of Katrina Miller

But the work didn’t stop, so all I could think to do was try to push through my indifference. Let me just get this out of the way, and I’ll join in next time, I’d tell myself as I moved away from my window. Every task I checked off my to-do list, though, was quickly replaced with another. My ability to keep up—and to care about keeping up—was slipping. Eventually my adviser reached out in concern. I was too drained to even talk about it by then; I just asked him for a week off. “Absolutely,” he wrote back without hesitation.

Burnout results from chronic, unmitigated stress in the workplace, and although it feels different for everybody, it is a common graduate school experience. As a student, there just never seems to be enough time to manage the overload of classes, research, and teaching and to balance it with health, family, relationships, finances, and a semblance of a social life.

The stress of competing demands is exacerbated for people who are underrepresented in their field. As a Black woman studying one of the least diverse sciences, I feel both internal and external pressure to contribute to efforts toward more equitable academic environments, to make it a little easier for the students who come after me. This responsibility often means saying yes to an overwhelming number of diversity and inclusion initiatives, as well as hyper-managing my time to ensure that it doesn’t affect my research output (which means it cuts into my personal time instead).

I have burned out enough times in graduate school to know that for me, the most prominent symptom is a loss of interest in, or outright cynicism toward, activities I normally enjoy. But last summer felt different. Though I had experienced detachment from my academic tasks in the past—one particularly bad bout of burnout had me contemplating leaving school altogether—I was always surrounded by other physicists who could affirm the importance of the work. Far away from the hustle and bustle of department culture, however, I was left alone to reflect. Why did any of this matter? And what exactly was I sacrificing for it? Overworked and underpaid, I had little time to contribute to the community organizing efforts happening on the street below; I also had little time to spend with family and friends or even to keep up with basic chores: keeping my house clean and my fridge stocked, for example, or doing the laundry.

Pre-pandemic, I’d usually treat burnout with a trip, but traveling wasn’t an option in 2020 (and, in retrospect, this was just a Band-Aid, anyway). Stuck in my 400-square-foot studio apartment, there was nothing to do but address the real problem. After my week off, I cut back on my work hours and found a therapist, who reminded me of the importance of setting boundaries—not only with others, but also with myself. I created a mental checklist to help me weigh the pros and cons of saying yes to new opportunities. I stopped working in my pajamas on the couch; instead, I bought a desk, carved out a dedicated workstation, and invested in a planner to more formally delineate my school and free time. The most intentional shift I made, however, was pouring myself into passions other than physics. I picked up exercising and writing again and found new hobbies, like painting and cooking.

It took months to overcome the burnout from that summer, and although I’m still searching for that excitement I felt when I started my PhD, I have been able to rediscover some level of enthusiasm for my research. Most importantly, I have done a better job than I did during past stretches of burnout in evaluating whether my lifestyle is sustainable for who I want to be outside of my identity as a physicist. I have detached my worth from my academic productivity because I have cultivated a more well-rounded sense of self. That makes it much easier for me to honor my own needs.

Today, my academic commitment is a lot lower than it was in the summer of 2020. For the most part, I don’t do research on evenings or weekends. I minimize time spent on Zoom and do my best not to respond to messages or emails outside standard working hours. Any volunteering I commit to must first pass my mental checklist, an evaluation of whether I have adequate time to devote and whether the opportunity aligns with my values. My research output has gone down, but that, along with the consequences that may arise from it, is a sacrifice I am willing to make. If it’s going to cost my health or my happiness, it isn’t worth it anyway.

My university opened again in September, so I’m now back in the office two to three times a week—the place where I used to pull late nights, eat every meal at my desk (or skip them altogether), and ignore other parts of my life just to keep my head above water. Everything was in the exact same place as before the pandemic. I, however, am not.

I still feel immense pressure to be the role model I didn’t see growing up and to use my voice to make a difference for future Black students. But I reframe that now: Saying no, setting boundaries on my time, and asking others to respect my limits may be just as valuable as anything else I could ever do. Rather than encouraging marginalized students to assimilate into current academic culture by making the same sacrifices that I have, I can contribute to normalizing an environment that is healthier and more sustainable for its scholars.

Katrina Miller is a University of Chicago physics PhD student and freelance science journalist. She studies neutrino interactions in liquid argon with the MicroBooNE detector at Fermilab.

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