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I am a young academic – I accepted a permanent academic position at the start of this year. I wrote a very large number of grant applications, and got "my big break" with a large, multi-million-unit-of-currency competitively awarded fellowship that would enable me to hire my first proper postdoc, students, and do experiments – I was delighted. (I am an experimental medical physicist)

Unfortunately for me, I then basically immediately ended up in hospital as a patient rather than an employee, and had a minor spinal cord injury. I was catheterised (horrible), became incontinent (surprisingly, far less horrible), and have greatly reduced strength in one of my legs (annoying, but I am glad to be able to move it again) – it's been about six months later, and I've been operated on, poked, prodded and investigated, and am still not really better. For example, I'm walking with aids that aren't magnet safe, and my life requires access to high-field (3T, 7T, 9.4T, 12T) magnets.

The main conference deadlines in my field are coming up, and while I've tried to keep publishing, I worry that my funding body will look badly upon my complete lack of productivity. I'm also acutely aware that to train new students effectively really requires hands-on time with the instruments and I don't want to be a burden on my (new) colleagues – I mostly just "haven't arrived". The university will help with things like my physical requirements, but the thing I find really distressing is that I get exhausted, and can't concentrate well – at the moment I'm on sick leave.

I feel both tired, frustrated, and deeply nervous about not hitting the ground running. I worry that I'm going to get fired, or that my reputation in the field will decrease. Because some of my problems are unlikely to go away, I'm actually trying to become more interested in more mathematical or theoretical aspects of my work (which I can do – and have been doing – lying in bed, on opiates). But this all deeply, deeply worries me. Students, books, papers and grants all have timetables, and me getting sick doesn't stop the rest of the world from moving on. I feel like a burden on my loving partner – the last thing I want to do is feel like a burden on my colleagues and international collaborators either. Yet at the same time, I know that, deep down, I need help and am likely to continue to need physical help. I'm unsure about how to go about getting it, and how to communicate more broadly to my field that "it's not my fault" that they haven't seen the great things that I wanted to deliver.

How do I bounce back? I want to hit the ground running, but I'm aware that trying to do too much too soon is likely to be bad for my health, to put it mildly.

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    This is probably off topic here as it is primarily a medical, not academic, issue. Or even a general workplace issue.
    – Buffy
    Oct 21, 2021 at 13:20
  • I guess the thing that is different is that academic progress is tied so much to your ideas and your (group)'s place in the field – it is different to a general workplace in that the university doesn't have another "me" who can directly take my place and replicate my ideas; and similarly failing to publish a scientific story at the right time could lead to you getting scooped. I'd be interested in a discussion about these aspects, as well of the practical ones – I used to use a wet lab occasionally, for example; now I'm not sure I can safely.
    – Landak
    Oct 21, 2021 at 13:24
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    Prioritize your health and recovery above all else. Make sure your superiors buy in to this plan. It should be an obvious win for them.
    – Buffy
    Oct 21, 2021 at 13:28
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    Contact your funding agency and discuss the issue with them. These things happen and they likely will be very supportive.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 21, 2021 at 15:50
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    You have been dealt a bad hand. I offer this brief comment very humbly. At the heart of problems like this can be the issue of identity: who am I, what am I worth, what do I do? For many of us in academia, what we do and what we achieve are strong parts of who we think we are. Our jobs define personal identities and self-esteem far more than, say, serving in a bar for a while. When our job is imperiled it can feel like an attack on self. All I suggest (and this is only partial) is to think deeply about self as separate from job. Self will remain with you for ever; job is transitory.
    – Anton
    Jan 1 at 17:16

1 Answer 1

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Commiserations.

Obviously, you will need a highly capable assistant as a result of your recent injury. Ideally, a research group would have a No. 2 anyway but in your particular case, a case of it being your first research contract, you maybe felt the group was too small to justify this.

It may be too much for a postdoc to manage his/her won work, oversee the junior group members and also be hands-on with their practical technique training and help in interpreting the experimental data and decisions based on it. So maybe it's time to hire a "senior research assistant" for the latter tasks.

As Jon Custer pointed out, you should advise the funding organization immediately and be candid about your own present capabilities: they're already in for a lot of dough so they should want to protect that stake, even at the expense of a new hire.

In the private sector, businesses both big and small deploy Key Employee Insurance policies to cover against the financial strain of adjusting to these events. Universities and funding organizations aren't dumb about this sort of situation either, so check with both bodies to see if any such provision is in place.

You are right to 'manage' your strength and energy in the best way for the research group to succeed and given the circumstances I think your disposition towards the theoretical side of things is probably right for now.

Don't lose heart.

I know leaders of big (and successful) research groups who confounded consultant doctors who said they'd be bedridden for the remainder of their lives. One guy after a stroke even taught himself to write left-handed so he could not only direct his 30 strong group but even returned to lecturing again. You don't want to push it that far - morale must always be managed - but keep your mind positive.

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