I posted recently in the comments to a friend’s blog. The topic was… well, it was a bit scattered but what interested me was the question that came up at the end; What should I do?
Of course context is everything and I’m sadly unable to provide the full context here; a short outline will have to do. The problem was this; the person in question is rightly worried about global warming – call it his “elephant in the room” worry (for want of a better analogy) – and has set a major goal for himself of using his (impressive) science ability to try and slow or stop it. I think we can all agree that this is a noble goal. The problem is that his recent placement hasn’t exactly made him enthusiastic about research. He’s taken on a ridiculously tough problem and he’s made headway in it, but it’s come at a major price – stress, burnout, and so on.
So there’s the problem; “what if I burn out on saving the human race?”. Oh boy, that’s a thing and no mistake! After hashing out a few things together, I have a lot of opinions on this. I thought it’d be interesting to share them, so here goes.
Firstly, I would say that burnout is just a part of doing something you know you love. I’ve experienced it first hand in other areas, and next time you come back better and stronger and you’ll deal with it more capably. It’s really not unusual to burn out of what is effectively a job. Having said that, also remember that if you’re burning out then you’re undoubtedly putting a lot of effort and care into your job. That is a good thing because you want to do it well. Double thumbs up there 😀
The next thought that comes to mind is that you should not be picking a career based on what you’re worried about. Ideally (and I would like to think that picking a scientific research career is close to ideal), you should be picking something that you find interesting. Those are not the same things. To be clear: doing something because you are worried what will happen if you don’t is just another recipe for eventual burnout, whereas doing something you find genuinely interesting will keep you motivated to continue even when times are hard.
What I really mean is that you should be doing something you can get excited about! That’s the best motivator in my opinion. If you can genuinely look at a paper in the field and (once you’ve understood it) get excited about what it means, then you’re in the right field for you. Ultimately, if you can’t do that then your scientific career will be just another job and your contribution will be somewhat mediocre.
Finally; the best way to tackle global warming is to contribute to the only thing that will ever stop it (the scientific endeavour). The awesome thing about science is that no matter what field you are in, it will eventually affect almost everything else. So by contributing at all to science, you will be contributing indirectly to the effort to fight global warming. But I’m sure it can be fought more directly; if you can find a sub-section of the field which you can get excited about, then that’s perfect! You can make a more direct contribution and simultaneously be… Well, happy. Because that’s the goal, ultimately.
Perhaps this betrays my opinion that the only valid reason to ever do science is because it’s exciting. That’s very much rooted in my own personal philosophy, though, which is a different topic altogether.
So if you’re stuck in a similar position; if you don’t know what to do because you’re worried you’ll burn out of something you feel that you have to do – just take a moment and think. Usually, you can do better by doing something similar but more interesting. Especially so if you’re a scientist – because the best science is always done by people who love what they’re doing.