Wasting time and energy comparing yourself to others is generally discouraged, but in a scientific career it can be especially dangerous. This career path can be competitive and cutthroat at times, frequently leading us to ask an important but troubling question: “Am I doing enough?” Whether you are one of seven hundred applicants for a fieldwork job or trying to land a tenure-track faculty position anywhere in the world, you probably feel the need to set yourself apart. You need one more internship, or publication, or certification to give you an edge. This sentiment isn’t necessarily misplaced. Natural science jobs are notoriously competitive, and you likely will benefit from these resume boosters to a certain extent. There is a hidden cost to this mindset though, that you must balance with your effort to do more. As you push yourself further, heaping more tasks and goals onto your plate, your anxiety will likely grow while your mental fortitude crumbles. It is easy to picture how you might take on “just one more thing” beyond your current responsibilities, but it isn’t always easy to see what you will sacrifice for it.
Everyone lets out their stress in different ways, whether it be a hobby, reading, or just taking a nap. When you work these things into your schedule it is natural to feel a little guilty. After all, this is time you could have spent building your career! But I have a theory that without a healthy outlet, your stress will sneak back into your working time and subtly decrease the quality of your work. This principle is repeated by teachers everywhere, who know that a good night’s sleep will benefit you more on a test than staying up all night cramming.
Today is day 71 of my pandemic quarantine, and this idea of work guilt has never been so real to me. With both of my jobs shut down for the past two months and unlikely to open for at least another month, I have been isolating at home and struggling with how to spend my time. My instinctive work guilt is telling me that I should be doing anything and everything with this time to get ahead in my career. I should be reading textbooks for background knowledge and recent papers for new developments. I should be refreshing myself on statistical methods and software because I won’t have this much free time to do so after starting grad school. And of course, I should be making headway writing for this site. I don’t have an excuse not to!
I initially tried to fit each of these projects into a daily and weekly work structure but attempting to worry about everything for several hours each day left me feeling emotionally burned out and anxious. I noticed the quality of my work slipping. I struggled to focus on the technical language I was supposed to be taking in when reading, and my own writing began to stagnate. In the end I decided that the stress and emotional turmoil brought on by my situation could not be ignored or channeled into work. It had to be processed and let out through conscious efforts to exercise, relax, read for fun, interact with friends and family, and maintain a regular sleep schedule. In short, the fun/unproductive activities that often make me feel guilty for not working are, in moderation, necessary outlets for stress and emotional tension.
If you are trying to make a career in the natural sciences, an internalized sense of work guilt will probably help to some extent. You should remember, though, that spending all your time on work and work-related tasks will eventually lead to burnout and lower-quality deliverables. I believe finding a healthy and productive balance between work and stress outlets is the best tactic in the long run, even if that balance changes throughout your career. Find your balance, and don’t let work guilt ruin your relaxation time.
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