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My concern is that I completely lost interest in science over the past few months, however, I am still towards the end of my first year of my PhD studies. I will offer some background:

I have always been a straight-A student, studying my field of current research (let's call it X) from the very young age of 12 years old very passionately. This interest won me honorable mentions in International Olympiads on X as a high-school student. During these years, for many reasons, I faced a lot of disappointment, but thinking that X was the only field I felt comfortable in and well-equiped for, I decided to study it in college, because it was late to start over. Even if I didn't do so there was no other field I would have the energy to start over with. During these years I transformed from a straight-A student to a very good one, but I never treated my subjects with real interest. I'd just found the way to get good grades by memorizing methodologies etc. Then I got into an MSc where from a very good student I transformed into a barely-passing-courses one, but fortunately a nice thesis gave me a place in a very nice PhD program.

It took me a long time to realize I am no longer a student and that being praised is not part of the PhD experience and that costs me, because I don't have the validation to give me the energy to continue. Moreover, it's my fourth month of being quarantined and forced to work from home in light of COVID-19 in another country without my partner, my family or any friends, but what brings me down with regard to my PhD are questions like:

  • How much asking for scientific help is too much during a PhD? e.g. at what point during debugging is it reasonable within a PhD to resort to my advisor for help before them claiming I am not independent enough?
  • How can I handle my emotions towards other collaborators or my advisor sometimes acting as if they are disappointed?
  • Why no matter how hard I work and how good or fast I get results, I never seem to get even one single word of validation?
  • Why no matter how hard I work and how good or fast I get results the publication of my first paper seems to be postponed more and more?

Of course, in one way or another, all the above have to do with validation and in ideal circumstances, one does not need validation to move forward, as it is not something that normally comes when you are an independent researcher. But given all the above and the fact that I am in denial about wanting to do science, I wonder if I am in the right place. Recently my advisor suggested that I slow down because I show symptoms of burn-out, but I am wondering if I want to continue with my PhD in general as over the past months I have been feeling overwhelmed and unmotivated and this does not seem to go away. I communicate with my advisor openly enough, but no matter how much we discuss I feel trapped in an unproductive and distressing situation. And the saddest of all is that I feel drained of energy, I carry a constant brain fog (since starting college) and have no willingness whatsoever to ask scientific questions in general.

P.S.: To the question "What would you rather do if you weren't doing a PhD?", I would say "Nothing seems interesting to me".

Any help would be much appreciated.

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    Your job for the next year is to figure out what you are interested in. – Alexander Woo Jun 12 at 18:05
  • Thank you for the answer, but I don't see how spending a year on figuring out what I am interested in can solve a) hypersensitivity towards people's (non-) verbal feedback or reactions, b) disappointment from being stuck on one paper for the past year for various technical reasons, c) anxiety for progress, d) need for approval and e) my lack of enthusiasm which, with short interruptions, has been present for over 5 years. – Choumbie Jun 12 at 18:25
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    I'm taking at face value your statement that you've lost interest in doing science. So you've lost interest in doing science. Figure out what you're interested in doing instead. I think the reason that you say 'nothing other than science seems interesting to me' is because you don't know enough about things other than science to know what makes those things interesting. Go find out. – Alexander Woo Jun 12 at 18:39
  • There is no reason to be a PhD student besides your own desire to be one. If you do not have that desire, I recommend changing to a higher paying job so that when you figure out what you want to do next, you at least have money to help you do that. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 13 at 2:19
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You show strong signs of burn-out. It is unclear whether you really lost interest in science or you simply did not make the proper transition from being motivated by the triggers of your youth (winning competitions) to the triggers of scientific endeavour on its own.

Also note, competitions are fun, because they are hard, but solvable in limited time. Full Metal Science, however, is tough. You have no idea whether things work, whether there is a solution and, if there is, how long it takes. It's a completely different game. It's a 100-m sprint vs. a marathon.

There are a couple of ways out. If you can afford to, you should take time off for a few months, even half a year and do other things. Stuff you enjoy, sleeping, traveling, gaming, whatever, without pressure. Forget science for that period. Then, but only then, after your return, come back and take account of what really makes you tick. What is it that you would like to be doing for the next 5 years? Not your lifetime, just 5 years. And move from there.

If you cannot afford to go away for a few months, there is something else you could try, namely starting a scientific hobby. Take a bit of time apart where you do something that is PhD-irrelevant. Solving problems? Hacking some software? Or something entirely different. Make yourself clear that this does not have to be published, it's just something to keep you aware about what you enjoyed about science. There is Feynman's anecdote about the wobbling plate, very pertinent to you. In any case, absolutely make sure to hard-limit your PhD hours per day. Make sure you keep a hobby, and a network of people etc. It sounds like a waste of time, but it isn't. Your other hours will count more if they are boxed in.

TL;DR:

  1. Take time off.
  2. If not possible, find a scientific hobby and hard-box your PhD hours.
  3. Keep your other activities on plan, almost without exception (except for isolated important deadlines).

PS: I have no advice concerning your mentioning of hypersensitivity concerning feedback from others. That's not really a question we can answer here, and some people's advice would be almost automatically to recommend therapy. I am not saying this is not the right step, but some people find this overkill. If validation of others plays a bigger role for you than the topic itself, you probably need to consider activities which get you this validation more directly by interacting with people, such as blogging, science journalism (if science interests you at all anymore, that is).

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  • 2
    Ah, yes, burnout. I remember it well. – Buffy Jun 12 at 18:56
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    The hobby could be non-scientific: either something related to your hands (this of do-it-yourself furniture, or cooking) or to your emotions (e.g. music, sculpture, photography), or to your health (some kind of sport, dancing, social activities). Most PhD work are psychologically very demanding. A psychotherapy could also help. – Basile Starynkevitch Jun 12 at 19:01
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    I appreciate your prompt responses very much. In light of a course report I had to submit, I realized that the philosophy of science and how my current topics of research might arise within a framework of a fundamental theory of logic is something that can re-ignite my interest! I am very thankful to all of you and in particular, for extending your answers to what I can do if I can't take any time off while being burnt-out. – Choumbie Jun 12 at 19:54
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    @Choumbie Great, thank you for your feedback - we are happy if we are able to help. If you should remember, let us know at some later time how things went. – Captain Emacs Jun 12 at 20:03
  • Aerobic physical activity works. Biking, say. – Buffy Jun 12 at 20:21
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While burnout is a common enough reason for what you experience as stated by Captain Emacs, there is another possibility.

Part of your description seems to imply that you sort of coasted through your education until recently, never having to work hard at it. Perhaps you have just reached your natural level of learning and are now discovering that you do, in fact, need to really work. Not your "maximum" of course, and there isn't a word I know that is better than "natural". I hope you get the idea.

I was lucky enough to reach my level rather early (secondary school). I was once told, after some sort of general test that I should "aspire" to a junior college education but would probably be less successful in a full bachelors program. It made me mad enough that pushed myself to succeed and wound up with a math doctorate. My sister, on the other hand cruised through, always showing me up. But she quit early when it finally got hard for her, though she is very bright.

For burnout, the solution is as suggested in the other answer quoted. But for reaching your level and still having the desire to continue the solution is to find more effective, methodical, ways of learning. For me it was doing all of the problems in the textbook, not just the ones assigned. It may not mean longer hours, but more effective study. Taking more and better notes. Summarizing your notes. Seeking insight, asking questions of everyone. Noting their answers. Not assuming that you have learned something because you saw or heard it or read it once.

I had the advantage of having one goal: to be an academic mathematician. I drove to that goal pretty relentlessly, though did also suffer a burnout episode that set me back. But learning early that I had to work to learn was a big help.

I wonder if your sense of lack of validation is related to this issue. You are no longer the golden one. You are surrounded by your peers not your inferiors. That may be a new sensation for you.

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Use the lack of validation as a motivator. When I look back over my research career so far, beginning with my PhD (in Mathematics), I often wonder if I would have been as successful without the painful criticisms along the way. I can point to at least 3 professors and a few co-workers who openly doubted my abilities and were sometimes very nasty about it. I think that subconsciously I used this as motivation to succeed in order to prove that they were wrong.

I imagine there are a few certifiable geniuses like Terence Tao who never experienced this doubt from others, but generally I think that most successful research is a product being hard-headed, developing a thick skin, and putting your nose to the grindstone. Of course it helps to have a particular subject that you are passionate about, and it sounds like this may also be your issue. Since nothing other than mathematics is interesting to you, I would look into some other areas of mathematics until something piques your interest. What your advisor wants you to do may not be best for you, and it is easy to become burned out when working on other people's problems that you really don't care about. This was my case as well, so I began working on problems in a tangentially related field, and that is where I found my success. I found the small part of math that I enjoyed, and made everything work out through sheer tyranny of will. There is a kernel of truth in the saying "Find what you love and let it kill you".

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