Biting the Bullet


I have had a most unnerving experience this week. For the first time in my life I have experienced jaw-clenching pressure. I thought I had experienced the true meaning of pressure during my undergraduate finals. But I realised I was wrong when I encountered real pressure near the end of my Ph.D., when all I had was 6 weeks to finish all the lab work. But again, there was another dimension to pressure I still had to probe. Recently, I have met the real McCoy and it left me physically short of breath. It was the kind of pressure that leaves you shaking inside, even though you try all the relaxation tricks you know.

So what plunged your old friend Phil into this cul-de-sac of stress? Being as open and honest as ever, I will naturally tell you. But first be reassured that I've already managed to reverse out of "stress alley." It was not a nice place to be. In recent years the "stress screw" has been turned more tightly in all professions. Everyone now has targets and deadlines, and we all have our own personal league table to try to clamber up. Coupled with this, job security by and large doesn't exist anymore. OK, that's enough bleakness. You don't read this column to top up on depressive stories. You want advice to encourage and uplift you, so let me perform a little analysis of what I went through.

The truth is, I'm not 100% certain why I let myself get in such a state to start with. But stress is like that; it slowly creeps up on you unannounced and then one day grabs you from behind. We all have a threshold beyond which we freak. We see stress as the enemy, but it may just be a safety valve that warns us when to stop before we hit serious trouble. I, for one, am glad that my threshold is set no higher than it is. This has been an extraordinarily busy time for me, both in and out of work. My social life and voluntary work are both piled high, whilst at work things have never been more frantic.

This week alone I have been trying to get a paper out, write a review, and move forward with my back-to-back grant and fellowship applications. This is on top of routine stuff such as presenting my work at a seminar, supervising a postgraduate student in the lab, whilst going ahead full throttle with my own experiments, not to mention a dozen or so minor inconveniences like several assorted meetings to attend. It is utterly insane. If I were working this hard in advertising, I would have my own team of people and an annual salary far beyond what I'm likely to earn in the next 4 or 5 years put together.

The point is that we postdocs are particularly vulnerable when it comes to stress. I know some principal investigators reading this will argue that "You ain't seen nothing yet," but I plead extenuating circumstances on three counts. Firstly, in real terms, you guys have already made it: You've been rated highly enough to get a proper job. So, even though the pressure's still on you to perform, the pressure to find your own salary every 3 years is now off. I have a sneaking feeling that a little more security about what on earth all this effort is for would have gone a long way to chilling me out recently.

Secondly, you PIs are used to stress and we postdocs are not. What I experienced was pure culture shock. My mind and body had never taken this kind of punishment before. At the height of my stress I just wanted to be a student again--at least for a week or two's convalescence. Thirdly, we postdocs have to be full-time experimental scientists on days when we could easily spend 10 hours in front of our computers just like proper PIs.

For me, there is only one way to do a stress reverser. I find that just trying to relax and ignore it all is impossible. The stress comes to get me at night when I am asleep and I wake up, heart pumping. The way I see it, I either have to quit my career or crack on with it. As the former isn't on my list of options, I'd better face up to the latter. The work isn't going to disappear unless I set about making it go away. So, my solution is twofold.

First, you need to work very hard. Second, you need to survive the onslaught of all this work. Avoid the danger of burning out by first throwing overboard anything and everything you possibly can. Focus solely on urgent, essential tasks. When faced with a seemingly infinite amount of work but a definitely finite amount of time, you have to cut corners where you can. Push on to complete individual tasks rather than spinning plates, because task completion equals your stress level coming down a notch or two. Next, treat yourself to an easier life for the duration of your struggle. Eat out. Get to bed early and sleep yourself silly. Plan your summer holiday. Just do anything that reminds you that there is a lot to enjoy out there and better times to look forward to.

A wise person once said to me, "All things come to an end." Eventually the once impossible becomes possible. You will find yourself in calmer waters reflecting with a wry smile on that crazy time back in the spring when you wondered why on earth you ever went into science. I reckon all this stress is some bizarre rite of passage organised by all PIs everywhere to see if we postdocs have what it takes to make it to the top. I say, fellow postdocs, don't let them see you beaten. Let's push on to the finishing post!

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