Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Being burned is not the same as burned out.

Okay, so I gave you the punchline up front. Consider yourselves punched.

I had this revelation today while recalling a conversation I had recently with a relatively snot-nosed first year postdoc (why are first year postdocs the most obnoxious beings on the planet? Yes, you got your PhD. No, you are not any smarter than any of the rest of us.)

She made some comment about burnout and it kind of pissed me off. She was doing that thing that most first year postdocs do: assuming it would be different for her. As in, much easier because she is sooooo much smarter than any other postdoc that ever walked the planet.

Okay, so I probably sound that way about becoming faculty, but you have to admit that getting burned as a postdoc will probably be most useful if I stay in academia.

I have seen a heckuva lot of shit that many young faculty I've met (and some senior faculty) didn't know existed (deniers). And they wouldn't know how to handle it if it happened to them or one of their students/postdocs.... or in their department... or when they were sitting in a meeting for a thesis committee... etc.

But I do. Because I've actually been there, done that, and figured a few things out.

All this time I've been thinking I was burned out. But the truth is, I still really do like doing science. Unbelievably, I have to admit that I still really like doing even the tedious parts. Even though sometimes I think I wouldn't mind if I never had to run another gel as long as I live, if I'm really honest with myself, I think I would miss it. I would miss never doing minipreps, never holding a pipette. I really would.

It's too easy to be overwhelmed by all the other shit. I definitely have gotten burned. That's what you get for walking through the fire (yes, I was thinking of the Buffy musical).

I'll admit, I'm pretty cynical about the possibility that there are places that won't burn you at every turn. I'm straight up when I warn the grad students (ahem, and newly-minted postdocs) to be VERY careful about choosing a postdoc lab, and I'm usually skeptical no matter where they choose. I worry for these little chickadees. I hate to think they're going to be fried chickens.

But I really don't like the idea that just because I've gotten screwed over repeatedly means I'm somehow used up completely. And I don't think it's true. I think I still have a lot of good ideas in me, science or blog post or what have you. Whatever I end up doing.

So there, Dr. Snot. Maybe you're just burned out and projecting it onto me. Whatevs. I'm just a little tougher on the outside than I was before. Doesn't mean I'm extra crispy.

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At 12:48 AM, Blogger Dale McOinkies said...

Goodness, some spunky words eh? Well, I agree that those post-docs who have gone through the process and have more experience and insight than us, probably should not be so vocal in their opinions. When one projects his (or her) impressions, that is always clear evidence of their superiority-complex. Definitely a snot-nose!

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. You complain a great deal. It sounds to me like you really don't like science or all the stuff that comes with it despite your protestations. Maybe you should strongly consider switching professions? It's never looked to me like you've been 'screwed' just that you're miserable by your own predispositions and would prefer to complain about it than do something about it. If you aren't happy - may as well leave and find an atmosphere where you won't complain so much.

At 9:25 PM, Blogger Thinkerbell said...

I can only speak for myself but I too thought it was going to be different for me. Doesn't everyone? Did you start your postdoc thinking you would end up x years down the line like all the other depressed and complaining postdocs? Of course not! If everyone would realize the shit that is about to hit the fan they would run away immediately. Maybe it's all part of the deal. As far as I'm concerned, a postdoc is all 'what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger'.

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I can't tell if you're saying I'm a snot-nose myself. Maybe because of what the person after you wrote.


Well obviously (though apparently it has never occurred to you!) I can't blog about the really awful things that have happened to me. Then it wouldn't be, as your handle suggests you appreciate, ANONYMOUS.


Yes. But I think there is a distinction to be made between "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and what I'm saying here, that getting burned does not make you burned out. Because I disagree with the former statement.

I think what doesn't kill you can sometimes cause irreparable harm, and does not necessarily make you stronger at all.

Smarter is not the same as stronger. Smarter helps you avoid making the same mistakes twice. Stronger implies that you are somehow invulnerable after having been burned- that makes no sense to me.

Realistically, every time you get burned it makes your CV that much weaker.

I guess what I'm getting around to saying is, I think it takes a lot of irreparable harm to equal burnout. It's amazing how resilient we can be, bouncing off of hitting bottom and getting right back up again. But eventually yeah, you probably don't want to get back up again.

Or maybe I've got it all wrong and burnout is always temporary?

At 2:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that getting burned one too many times does lead to burnout. At some point you simply get tired of being burned YET AGAIN. and you start to wonder, will it ever stop?? When you get to the stage where you contemplate the future and all you can foresee is you getting burned again and again, because history has shown you that is what always happens (and we would be fools to not learn from history) that is when you lose hope and it becomes burnout.

I admire your resilience and for not being burned out yet. You must be a very optimistic person.

At 6:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha! I am totally with you with 'fresh post-docs'.

I have seen many such people come in, thinking they are the shit, because they have a PhD. Well, fucker, so do the rest of us, so shut the fuck up and learn rather than spouting off all the shit you think you know how to do.

At 6:55 AM, Blogger tnk0001 said...

Applause for your refreshed fire and for the Buffy musical reference!

At 10:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's been awhile now since I've been a fresh postdoc, but I feel like we should give these 'kids' a break. I mean, it really sucks coming from an environment where you know how to get stuff done, where perhaps you helped build an environment where everyone could get stuff done...and then find yourself abruptly jerked back to square one (at least, once you figure out you can't actually still do things your way in a new place). And you can see them, a few years from now, after all of their shiny snot nose-yness has been ground out of them by the adviser you've come to admire for his cunning number of faces, and you wonder: how many faces will I need? And then you tell yourself, nah, I'm so much better than this - I will not sell my soul, I will not sell my soul, I will not sell my soul - I will just work harder. Yes. It will be different for me.

Anyway, I may have more sympathy for them because I'm new faculty now. And I'm going through this reorientation of self, though I still find myself thinking things like: "what, faculty here run labs like what? WHY?? Oh, well, no worries, I'll make it better, you know, MY way!") And of course I'll fail miserably. And I'm not looking forward to that, because it still sucks every time we're humbled after putting so much of ourselves into things. And we have to accept that we don't just need ourselves to succeed, we need to adjust to our environments to make things work out. At any rate, I feel for them - every stage of the process is hard. (Even though we tell ourselves that things will get easier, they never really do. Does that mean we're deluded or optimistic?)

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm kind of surprised any postdoc would come in with an arrogant attitude. Isn't that kind of nonsense for 1st year graduate students? I left academia for an industry job three months after defending, so I really am surprised.

Oh and on the being burned repeatedly thing. I just try to remember one thing: Nobody in this world will look out for you but you.


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