Burning back burnout

Physics

This article is the first 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”.

Burnout beaters Garrett Williams finds that mentorship networks, recognition and outreach work, and being introspective about learning help him survive and thrive as a PhD student in atomic, molecular and optical physics. (Courtesy: Garrett Williams)

Burnout is a multi-faceted phenomenon, and everyone’s experience of it is different. Remarkably, though, these unique experiences often get boiled down to similar descriptors: “I feel exhausted,” “I don’t feel like it,” or “This feels impossible.” Among the millions of professionals across all fields who experience burnout each year, the common thread is that activities they once found empowering and energizing have become exhausting and taxing.

I define burnout as the crippling experience of discovering that one’s passions are turning into sources of stress. Like waves crashing on a shore, burnout gradually erodes one’s sense of purpose to the point where it becomes unrecognizable, leading to a loss of motivation, identity and belonging in the workplace. As someone who has both experienced burnout and witnessed it in others, I have often wondered whether it is an inevitable part of life, or a problem with a solution. My optimism and experiences incline me to the latter view, and during my journey from undergraduate physics and chemistry major to 3rd-year atomic physics PhD student, I have developed several strategies for handling burnout. These responses have been critical to my survival as Black physicist.

Mentorship networks

At my undergraduate institution, I had professors, colleagues, a church and friends, but I did not really have a dedicated advocate I could relate to, or anyone who showed a long-term, vested interest in my individual success. Although I made a strong connection with my mentor during a summer research internship at the University of Mississippi (part of the US National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates programme), once the summer ended, she was hundreds of miles away and understandably had obligations to her more-permanent students.

In the final (senior) year of my undergraduate degree, I won an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Once the news got out, nearly all my physics professors approached me in earnest, saying “Wow! Congratulations! I didn’t even know you were thinking of applying for this!” But although I was doing well, I felt a chronic, exhausting uncertainty about my place in physics, and I didn’t really understand why.

It wasn’t until I entered graduate school that I became part of a dedicated mentorship network. My two research mentors; the Sloan Scholars programme (which provides professional mentoring for under-represented STEM graduate students); my head of department; and several other members of the Illinois physics community – as well as the students I mentor myself – all help me survive burnout. They never make me feel uneasy for requesting their time, seeking counsel from them, or unapologetically addressing the isolating position of being a Black physicist. My mentorship network has been an invaluable piece of my strategy for burning back burnout because it provides me with a sense of belonging in physics.

Outreach and recognition

The absence of mentorship during my undergraduate experience has motivated me to do physics outreach in the Black community. In my senior year, I organized the Waco Physics Student Initiative, or WPSI (WΨ), to introduce local high school students to physics as a research field, rather than just a class you take for a grade. Witnessing the fire for physics ignite in the young Black students after our presentations, demos and tutoring sessions rekindled my own fire. I was further rejuvenated when an all-Black team of students, each of whom I had gotten to know personally, won first place in my department’s annual Physics Bowl for local high school students.

While fostering interest in physics among younger community members is important, organizations and events that simply celebrate and openly recognize Black physicists have been essential in helping me survive burnout. During my first year of graduate school, I experienced the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) conference for the first time. It was my first time ever being in a room with so many Black scientists. Simply being around and engaging with other Black physicists, collectively celebrating our experiences, our accomplishments and our presence, reinforced my resolve to keep doing my best. My drive to do my part in preserving that room of Black scientists burns back my burnout and helps me thrive in physics.

Introspection

Over the course of my young adulthood, I have learned how valuable it is to take time getting to know myself and how important it is to continuously evaluate my strengths and weaknesses. During the 2019 APS Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics (DAMOP) conference, for example, I was new to the field, and I was also the only Black physicist in nearly every room I was in. As my ears filled with unfamiliar phrases like “Feshbach resonance” and “Franck–Condon factor”, I started to lose my motivation and identity in physics.

To fight back, I listened out for terms I didn’t know and wrote them down phonetically in my notebook. As I heard similar terms more, I started to contextualize them. Slowly, I learned how to ask the right questions, the ones that would unlock meanings. I was learning how I learn, one word at a time, by relying on a method that felt natural to me.

This type of introspection is my greatest strategy for burning back burnout because it helps me remember my strengths when I doubt myself. My motto for learning physics is “when in doubt, write it out”. I journal about physics in ways that feel natural, from working out the details of a mathematical derivation for atomic interactions to writing a pedagogical narrative that compares the way atoms handle electrons to the way people handle money. Journaling helps keep my experience of physics light and enjoyable, even during stressful times.

As DAMOP progressed, so too did I. I became comfortable having conversations with speakers and attendees, and I continued to add to my growing library of new physics terms in my notebook, which I labelled Book 1. Two years later, I’m on Book 9 of my physics journey, and my strategies for burning back burnout are the tools that will keep me going, filling more books with my knowledge and sharing what I’ve learned.

• For more on #BlackInPhysics week, including additional essays by outstanding Black physicists, please visit the dedicated pages at Physics World and Physics Today.

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