Burned out friend or family you want to help?

June 11, 2019 by Joshua
in Blog

People often ask how to help someone who feels burned out in the face of opportunity. Do you push through or move on to potential opportunity?

I wrote the following to a mom who said her son seemed burned out pursuing a physics PhD. I was there about 20 years ago. Also about five years later when my company nearly went bankrupt (I’ll put her question below):


I have a PhD in physics, which I got in 2000. I chose the field because I loved it and the degree because it was the only way I knew to practice. Everyone’s talk about jobs in this thread would have been irrelevant to me. My goal was to follow in the line of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Feynman. I had less than zero concern that whatever happened, I’d be able to earn money.

About 4 years in I saw that physics as practiced today wasn’t what I wanted. I despaired for a while, feeling I had few options. Looking back, I was shortsighted to think a physics degree narrowed my options. It doesn’t, it increases them, which I didn’t learn until later. I ended up co-founding a company while in school and split my time writing a thesis, a patent, and a business plan (after learning what a business plan was, as I had zero business experience). The new outlook recharged my batteries to finish by giving me a finish line: if I didn’t finish before our first funding I never would, so it gave me a target to sprint for.

Leaving the field was right for me because I learned it didn’t match my interests when I saw it closer. Whether I should have finished the PhD or not is a toss-up. Saying ABD is meaningful for enough people to bridge the gap. I don’t understand why he doesn’t have a masters. I thought everyone got theirs after passing the qualifying exam. Something sounds off that he doesn’t have his yet.

If your concern is his ability to make money, getting into a decent program means he has the skills to do fine.

If your concern is his giving up what you consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, well if it’s so wonderful, you could do it. You don’t. It’s not right for everyone. Only he can determine if it’s right for him.

Which gets me to the most important point as I see it. Universities teach academic skills — analysis, research, etc — but rarely the social and emotional skills of life. You would have mentioned if he was a 16 year old star, but you didn’t, so I conclude he’s an adult. He’s likely lived a life so far protected from the social and emotional challenges of professional life. The only way I know of to develop the skills to handle these challenges is through experience, which means sometimes making choices you regret, sometimes with consequences that endure decades. Still, try as I might, I can’t see any way in which advice from a mom helps him here unless he specifically asks for it. You didn’t say he did.

The most useful message from a mom I could think of would be of support, love, and listening, acknowledging the emotional, professional, and intellectual difficulty of the situation. Even if he asks for advice, I’d double-check: “Are you sure you want my advice?” before giving any. He may choose contrary to what you think best. He may choose something he regrets every day for the rest of his life. He may choose something that feels so right he’ll wish he had chosen it years before. He’ll scrape his knees learning to walk. What are you going to do, walk for him?

We all face such decisions. Any one of us could choose to take on any life passion right here and now. Almost no one does. Maybe a regretful choice here will lead him later to go for brass ring later that enriches his life more. Maybe sticking with something too long will kill what he otherwise might have at least appreciated.

As far as I’ve learned, the most useful result is not a given decision and its result but the social and emotional skills to decide. So far he has likely had little experience to develop those skills. Now is his chance. A mother’s support and listening seem most useful to me, even if he scrapes his knees. Unsolicited advice would only stop me from sharing.


Her question (and the full thread):


My son is in his fourth year of his PhD in physics. Last November he told me that he wanted to quit. He mentioned all the usual complaints of PhD candidates. Disillusionment with academia, his research is not as exciting as it once was, his advisor is not in his exact field of study, his days go by and he doesn’t seem to be making any progress.

I told him to reconsider. That he would have to stay until this May anyway to earn his masters degree. When he talked to His advisor, he mentioned that he had enough material to publish two papers and collaborate with another physicist. That would be enough to graduate. Now it is May.  He tells me that he didn’t make much progress since December.

I find it frustrating. I mentioned that he could ask for a leave of absence.  That he sounds burned out. He keeps mentioning how much he could be making if he got a real job.

His tuition is covered by the program and he gets an stipend of $1500/month.  He lives very well (which I pointed out to him)
Any advice from those who were in the same boat?

I know he will be ok if he drops out.  I can’t help but think that when his life is filled with obligations and responsibilities he won’t be able to go back if he changes his mind.  That this opportunity is once in a lifetime.  That this is more a life achievement than a career builder. 

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