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Diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion

Prioritization and a passion for science can get you through burnout

29 Oct 2021

This article is the fifth in a series of essays written by Black physicists and co-published with Physics Today 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”.

Photo of Gibor Basri
Gibor Basri: “My own solution when things got out of hand (which they regularly did) was to remember that it was a temporary glitch arising in the context of an incredibly satisfying career”. (Courtesy: Gibor Basri)

I write as a successful senior Black astrophysicist. It saddens me that there are very few of us; it is a reflection of the history of American academia in general and the culture of STEM fields in particular. My essay is not so much about a struggle with burnout, as it is a testament that a career in science can be great for those with the passion, despite the ever-present danger of burnout. Being Black in America is what it is, regardless. But I offer you hope while working through the obstacles – science can be a highly satisfying and rewarding way to spend one’s life. It is tragic that more talented Black people have not already experienced that, but it would be even more tragic if it continues much longer.

I had many fortunate circumstances that helped get me here, including the advent of affirmative action when I was ready for college and the fact that my father was a physics professor before me. These meant fewer barriers to pursuing a faculty career than for most aspiring Black physicists. Those I have mentored over the decades had to deal with more stresses than I did. I was always the only Black person in the room along the way, but that is sadly still often the case. It took me a long time to stop worrying about what people thought explained my success.

There are many ways to do research, including as a graduate student or postdoc, as a tenured professor or on the tenure track, in a college teaching position, in a government-funded research position or in industry. Additionally, a physicist can be a K-12 teacher, journalist, author, programmer, entrepreneur or a variety of other possibilities. Each comes with different levels of security, renumeration, level of control or power, demands on one’s time, respect from others and sense of accomplishment. Any position with some autonomy in what you work on and how you work on it entails concern about whether you are doing the right thing. All jobs come with the possibility of burnout when the factors listed above don’t reach a reasonable balance with each other. Furthermore, there is the all-important balance between work and family or outside life that must be healthy for you to be happy.

Advancing DEI

Since I was a tenured professor, I write from that perspective. They say if you have your hobby for a job, you’ll never work a day in your life. That isn’t entirely true, because no job comes without responsibilities you’d rather not have or don’t have enough time for. Professors at research institutions are incredibly busy because they have to teach, do and publish a high standard of original (and appreciated) research, mentor students and postdocs, and provide service to their department, university, and profession. In addition, Black professors both want and are expected to advance the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) agenda of their institution. They may not, however, receive the same implicit or explicit credit towards promotion for their DEI effort, compared to others who instead spend the time on their own research accrue.

To avoid burnout, you must look at all the demands on your time, prioritize them, then practise incessant time management to attempt to actually follow those priorities. This is essentially impossible since life rarely fully co-operates, unanticipated factors constantly arise, and anyway the prioritization can’t reach a satisfactory state because there simply isn’t enough time.

My own solution when things got out of hand (which they regularly did) was to remember that it was a temporary glitch arising in the context of an incredibly satisfying career. If the family needed more of me, something else simply had to give for a bit. The family had to recognize that later I might not be able to do something we’d like. Sometimes a paper had to wait on hold while I updated a course. Sometimes I couldn’t implement a better teaching idea for lack of time. Helpful through it all is the fact that science is now a very collaborative endeavour. There were always other members of projects to kick around frustrations with, socialize and share the good and the bad with.

Fulfilling and rewarding career

The good news for a tenured professor is that the consequences of imbalanced priorities or actions on your career really only occur on a timescale of two or three years, so adjustments on shorter timescales can be compensated for. I’m not saying that everyone can be happy under such pressured conditions, but for me the larger context of the growing body of my scientific accomplishments, my growing power to help my institution(s) make real progress in the DEI realm, my successful students and postdocs, and my nurturing family life all combined to make it a fulfilling and rewarding career.

I spent eight years as the founding vice chancellor for equity and inclusion at the University of California, Berkeley. I knew that my science would be reduced but not eliminated, and I could continue afterward. Working on diversifying science and academia had become a higher priority for me, partly because during the previous 20 years of working on it I had been the sole Black professor in the entire division of physical sciences (and that remained the case until I “retired”).

I bring this up partly because I want young folks to realize that they don’t have to give up their aspirations to improve the world in order to become physicists. However, becoming a physicist will likely put them in a better position down the line to make more meaningful changes in your profession, the educational system, or even society at large. One thing you are guaranteed – a lot of people will respect the fact that you earned a physics degree. Recently, it has also been rewarding to see old discoveries I helped with presented to students as just part of human knowledge. So yes, there will be some burnout along the way, but I believe it is very likely worth it.

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