The fast pace of life that rules our modern world can have profound effects on our wellbeing. Burnout and depression have unfortunately become common in many professions, and mental health problems are also accumulating in academia. While it seems to be a topic that isn’t often talked about – sometimes it seems “we” (scientists) are not supposed to feel unhappy – after all we are following our chosen part, directing our own research questions – and are getting paid for it, too … (I won’t be getting into why science is important now, and ways to defend it to sceptics – that is a topic for a future blog post!)
Despite of all the excitement of discovery, and fun in the Lab – life as a scientist is stressful at every stage. Students starting their PhDs face new challenges, having to master a vast variety of new skills – from conceptual thinking to writing, to developing hands-on practical skills for troubleshooting in the Lab, solving complex statistical and analytical problems, to public speaking to both specialists as well as the public. For those that already passed the PhD stage, lack of job security and intense competition for jobs and funds can affect anxiety levels and mental health. And the pressure of having to publish well and lots, to continually have brilliant ideas (and sell them well) are just the norm for seasoned scientists. It is also a plain necessity to secure funding for their Labs and support from their Schools, in order to keep their jobs or to be able to move to new positions.
Given the high expectations that everyone working in science faces at all career stages, it is important to set yourself up with some skills that will help you deal with stress early on.
- Being organised and able to prioritise (and re-prioritize!) can help seeing the big picture while dealing with the small steps that will take you in the right direction. On a weekly basis, setting daily tasks and anti-procrastination deadlines for the not-so preferred tasks (such as writing up that one experiment that just didn’t show clear-cut results) can help. Having a “what do I want to achieve within the next 5 years?” plan that also identifies not only your overall goals, but also the skills that you need to acquire, and will identify misalignments early. That way you may avoid having to wonder why you wasted a large chunk of your life on something you actually don’t really want to do.
- Should stress and anxiety become overwhelming after all, try mediation and relaxation techniques. Even a few minutes of just breathing can help calm down and de-clutter your mind, even if in the heat of that moment it may seem like you might be wasting your time. Nonetheless, stress clouds your thinking, and mediation helps to focus your mind. Not taking the time to re-set is like being the wood-cutter who says “I don’t have time to sharpen my axe, there’s too much wood to cut”!
- Work-life balance: Brooding over your projects all day and night may seem admirable, but sacrificing social contacts and hobbies for work can negatively impact your mental health. It is important to shut off sometimes, relax, do something you love! Solutions to problems often present themselves after a break. Having hobbies and friends will help with that!
- Physical exercise and sufficient sleep are well-known factors contributing to mental health, so make sure to work out from time to time, and don’t sacrifice sleep on a regular basis (sometimes deadlines will require an all-nighter, but don’t let this become a habit – consider ramping up your organisational and time management skills instead!).
- And last but not least – attitude… This of course is a life-long task to accomplish, much easier said than done, and deeply philosophical. But a positive outlook and seeing learning opportunities in the most adverse of events make you resilient, and not to let stress direct your life. Here some quotes from famous people on life attitude: