Thursday, January 18, 2018

Yes, "Scientist Burnout" Is A Real Condition


It is interesting that when we read of the exploits of star scientists - like recent Physics Nobel Prize winners - few think of the downsides of scientific success and achievement, namely burnout and even mental health breakdown.  But one recent Physics Today contributor who did is Andrea Welsh - in a May 2017 commentary ('It's Time for Physicists to Talk About Mental Health')  Why is there so little attention especially in the popular scientific press? Well, let's face it, speaking or writing publicly about mental health issues - including in science - has powerful stigmas attached.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I have never in my various tenures at different universities seen colleagues actually crack up. I have seen them under stress, especially in regard to completion of special grant projects, but not actually fall apart. What I have seen is mainly overstressed doctoral students suddenly realizing  they can no longer handle the load and just quitting - even within a year of finishing their Physics Ph.D.

My thinking here is good on them for realizing early that pursuing a high profile physics or astronomy research career may not be in their best mental health interest.   They preemptively took steps to avoid conditions that have been accurately described in a more recent (September, 2017) Physics Today Commentary, by Luigi Delle Site, who wrote:

"The highly competitive atmosphere in which scientists work leads to an unrelenting daily race to do more and to do it better. That race sets many up for burnout. Sometimes scientists reach their goals, and those successes fuel their recovery from stress. At other times, because of a lack of time and money or because of unrealistic expectations—theirs or others’—they do not meet their goals. Those cases, lacking the positive feedback of success, can, over time, sap their drive to continue.
Scientists’ jobs require that they do continue—to publish, teach, seek research funding, and participate in meetings around the world—when what they really need is time to stop and recharge. They realize that their absence from any of their career activities could lead to the loss of their reputation and standing in the community. Fear and anxiety begin to dominate their actions and thoughts and may increase to unbearable levels.
When scientists reach the end of their stress tolerance, even the minimal performance required for a small lecture or a local meeting can become a nightmare. They may feel unable to explain even a simple formula to a handful of students; struggle to find the right words; develop anxiety symptoms such as trembling, feeling faint, or experiencing fear and shame; or find that body and mind are not working together. By that time, the decrease in both happiness and the ability to function is well under way: Desperation leads to depression and isolation."

Is he serious? Yes, of course! While I've not seen assorted physics or astronomy professors outright crack in front of me, I have beheld incoherent lectures, inability to explain even basic equations or in fact, having to erase whole boards full of plasma physics equations and start over again.  While this may be allowed as an unusual "one off"  when it becomes a regular occurrence it's time for concern. Concern that the scientist in question may be in over his or her head and needs to recharge - or perhaps rethink one's professional commitments.

Two sources of added stress I've seen rear their ugly heads in the past twenty five years or so are first, teacher evaluations - especially in conjunction with ongoing grade inflation - and second the emergence of sites like "Rate My Professor" where every little dweeb can sound off on a prof he may not like, because he's too tough.

I trace most grade inflation to the idiotic teacher evaluations that emerged around the late 80s. A depressing 2013 study by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy, and published in the prestigious Teachers College Record  found that three-fourths of all grades awarded at university level are A's or  B's.

Of course, this renders these high grades next to useless precisely because of their very commonality.  But any student with more than air between the ears can extort a high grade out of a prof by merely the veiled threat of giving him a lousy evaluation. Since these evaluations are one of the main instruments used to assess a prof  for promotion or even to remain on permanent staff (as opposed to adjunct) they are critical.

Thus, any dedicated physics or astrophysics researcher who also has to teach a certain minimum number of credit hours, will be under the gun to deliver the fake grades.  And speaking as one to whom this happened, it isn't pleasant when you have to say 'NO!' you won't be forced to deliver what a student hasn't actually earned.  (Nor will you contribute to a perversely skewed grading system that posts fraudulent achievements as actual attained standards.)

An equal source of stress for most university level research scientists is the "publish or perish" syndrome.  The author of the recent Physics Today piece cites "truly talented people ...who fail to fulfill the requirements of the modern professional researcher... and even after basically recovering 'disappear' scientifically."   By that he means they "have minimized their workload to a survival level - but the system leaves no provision to return to a full career."

No, it does not. But that in the end may be the only way for these scientists to retain their mental health. It's either sacrifice the publishing impetus, or their psyches. The publishing aspect is especially tragic given we now know only a handful of people read nearly half of all scientific papers. 

One estimate is that  1.8 million articles  are published each year, in about 28,000 journals. This elicits the question: who actually reads those papers?   According to one 2007 study, half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors. This is nothing short of astounding but makes sense if one gets inside what research scientists actually do, which is to narrow their focus almost exclusively to their specific specialty areas.

When you boil it down further it means that all the pressure to publish - driving mental health issues in too many scientists - amounts to an empty exercise in scientific solipsism. It has to if so few peers are actually reading the material for which hundreds of hours of mental energy were invested.

Prof. Delle Site's prescription for the scientific burnout problem is both humane and pragmatic. He insists his solution isn't to pity those affected or remove them from all responsibility. Instead:

"I am asking that accommodation be made to allow a person with burnout to continue to have a respected position where they can fulfill academic duties according to their current capabilities."

For example, a science staff member who is now too stressed to address an audience - say for a seminar or conference - can assist in doing "behind the scenes" writing or research to prepare the lecture or presentation. In addition "the person could work remotely or take on additional tasks that do not involve the highest job stressors, i.e. tasks such as organizing seminars, correcting student exercises, or doing background research for presentations."

All of these suggestions are worthwhile and ought to be seriously considered.  The problem is whether highly competitive universities with a certain name cachet to live up to, will be so generous as to allow these options. As my dad used to say "that's where the bear sits with the buckwheat."

Let us just say, for now the jury is out.

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