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I finished my PhD in physics in the middle of last year in the UK, and have started my postdoc in Germany. My PhD had a lot of guidance and I met with my supervisor every week, but it's totally different with my postdoc. The big thing is that my postdoc is not a fulfilment of a specific grant for an experiment or project, but is a general appointment and gives me total freedom to do what I want. This means I have to be totally self-motivated, but unfortunately I'm just not. I have work to do, but it just isn't happening, and it's almost physically painful to even consider doing it. I'm not alone in this country, I live with my wife, which helps a bit, but I do miss living in the UK too. My postdoc here is for 3 years at least.

I'm proud and happy with my PhD work, but this totally undirected self-motivated career is pretty crushing. Combined with working from home due to the pandemic, and having no regular meetings with my new boss, who seems to be letting whatever happens happen, it is difficult. When I was in my PhD my old supervisor mentioned that he went through a similar depression when he started his second postdoc which was similarly unguided. How on Earth do I make the transition? Is this normal?

I also have strong feelings of guilt: I'm being paid for this, yet I'm too lazy to actually work, and yet my wife is out there working a lot as a mechanical engineer.

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  • Does your supervisor know of your struggles? They definitely should, as it would give them the opportunity to adapt their supervision style. Feb 9 at 14:26
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    I recommend that you talk to him about it as soon as possible. You have nothing to lose - seeking therapy will take a lot of time in which will you will stay unproductive. By being unproductive during your postdoc, you will not get a positive reference from him and will not have chances to get a good follow-up position. By seeking communication and support early, there's at least a chance for that. Feb 9 at 14:44
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    Well, my point is that your boss might not feel bad about your work performance now, but if you keep delaying this conversation, there is a greater risk that he will feel bad about it because it's then to late to steer the course in a better direction. Good luck! Feb 9 at 14:49
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    @subassembly Herman is not suggesting that you are not good enough, Herman is asking if you've considered if another type of job is a better fit: something you would actually be happier doing. Academia tends to trend towards more and more independence: post docs are more independent than PhDs, professors are more independent than post docs.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 9 at 15:11
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    @subassembly I think there is a feeling in academia that research (specifically, academic research) is everything. The reason is because you're surrounded by people doing research, and it's hard to see the outside world from there, where most people are doing something very different. There's a culture in academia that people who stay in research are succeeding, and people who leave research have failed. That's just a culture, not a truth. I don't think Herman seeks to shame, the advice was instead to consider all options.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 9 at 15:28

4 Answers 4

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This sounds like classic burnout. It is a common occurrence after an intense degree program. The solution is to find a mental health professional who can give you advice.

Advice from a layperson may be helpful or not. But some things help, like getting exercise, taking breaks, getting enough sleep, taking up a hobby...

Anyway, yes, it is pretty normal. "Toughing your way through" is probably not optimal. For most it will probably clear normally over time, but you don't have a lot of time to be catatonic.

Talk to a pro. The university may be able to provide one for you, though I don't know the custom in Germany.

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    Your university should have counselors available. If you don't feel comfortable asking around, they can probably be found at the human resources portal. Good luck!
    – MiG
    Feb 9 at 15:28
  • I disagree, this is not necessarily "burnout" at all, and there's no obvious reason that a mental health professional is needed. Working independently is really difficult. Perhaps you are not yet ready to do it. Contact your advisor and ask what she's working on; ask if you can be involved; ask if you can meet semi-regularly (fortnightly?); attend local seminars; if one doesn't exist organize one yourself; find someone else local and ask if you can help them with a problem they are working on; email your old PhD supervisor and ask if you can continue working with them; the possibilities are... Feb 11 at 18:16
  • ...endless. But you need do to something. I went through a very similar phase at the start of my first postdoc, I tried to work "independently" for a couple of years, which basically meant I produced nothing for 2 years. I should have sought more collaboration and intellectual support. Feb 11 at 18:17
  • I'd leave these kinds of definitive rulings out to a mental health professional who talks to the topic starter directly. Something's worth talking about, so let them figure it out.
    – MiG
    Feb 11 at 21:45
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First, I do not doubt that Covid and the personal and professional isolation of working from home (in a foreign country) have some impact here. Getting the help Buffy suggests is highly recommended.

Second, looking back on my post-doc, I moved from the US to The Netherlands and took up a similarly unstructured post-doc role. I was pretty independent already, had lots of ideas, but it was not clear what I should do, exactly. What I decided to start with was jumping in to help the students make progress - I knew the research techniques and analysis tools quite well, and was a better writer/editor than they were. I also knew that I did not want to 'compete' with the students on ideas and projects. So, I helped a lot while I continued to contemplate what I could take on as my own. In the first few months I didn't personally get much done, but the students did. Lots of data (theirs) to discuss, ideas to bounce around, papers to write (and rewrite, and rewrite). And I got to know the students, and everyone else in the institute really well (staff, technicians, the coffee lady).

I also decided that I needed to learn Dutch since I lived in The Netherlands, so started taking courses. That got me out of the institute and meeting a variety of people, and got me feeling more comfortable at coffee time when everyone around me started speaking Dutch rather than the English used for science. I could schedule squash games with other players at the local club. I was no longer felt like a tourist, I lived there (in retrospect, I should have played tourist more).

Once I felt I was part of things, I started getting new ideas, could plan out new experiments, and got motivated to get things going. I could 'play' again in the lab and get excited about things. In some ways I am reminded of the section in one of Feynman's books when he went to Cornell after the Manhattan Project and felt really burned out until he saw a spinning plate in the cafeteria and started wondering about the mechanics of it even though it wasn't 'heavy duty' physics, just play. That reignited his motivation, much like mine was.

Now, none of what I did is currently possible for you because of Covid (although perhaps there is finally light at the end of the tunnel in Europe). Get help, get outside, get to meeting people at work and outside of work. Find a question to play with, with no deadlines or expectations.

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    @subassembly - no doubt all those discussions are great things, both personally and professionally. The question is, once Covid is 'over' will that be part of the landscape. Given I've seen it everywhere I've worked or visited, I think it likely, so that is something to look forward to. Good luck!
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 9 at 16:16
  • Some of that lack of discussion could be discomfort with using English. My own experience has been that even at the academic level, quite a few Germans feel their English is not good enough (even though I'm sure it really is). If you can establish a more personal connection with some of your colleagues (for example over social activities), perhaps this can be bridged.
    – MiG
    Feb 9 at 16:57
  • @MiG - interesting. My experience (now quite dated) was that Germans PhDs were fine talking in English, and I would have assumed things were better now. The Dutch were, of course, quite comfortable in English. My Italian collaborators were good as well, but they were well connected internationally already. French researchers were much less comfortable for whatever reason. Understanding Scottish personnel was hard for all of us...
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 9 at 17:08
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    @MiG - I have a distinct memory of sitting in a flat watching the World Cup on the BBC with an Italian and a Russian post-doc. At half time, an ex-Scotland player came on to do some commentary about the game so far, and both turned to me to translate for them. I was unable to...
    – Jon Custer
    Feb 9 at 17:28
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    It might be the German culture (German here talking) but probably also just people having lived in this city for lots of time, not really in need of social interaction during work (maybe they also have known each other for long and informally talk). Have you tried initiating team coffees (virtual) or engage people more (i.e. ask them to bounce ideas with you if they work on similar topics). My experience (being abroad a few times) is that you as an "outsider" need to make an effort to engage people. It might not work but maybe it will and you get to meet people!
    – JennyH
    Feb 10 at 14:48
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The problems of lack of motivation and difficulty getting started on a massive task aren't confined to those doing postdoc.

Here are some general tips:

Set a tiny goal

In Atomic Habits, author James Clear argues that if you aren't a runner, but you want to be, you should start with extremely small goals. Not 1km, not even 500meters, but just putting your shoes on and tying the laces!. The next day, try to do that again, or even go further and walk out the door. By slowly forming a habit, however small you start, you can build on it until it's at the extremely productive level you desire.

Identify the critical tasks

We can sometimes be unmotivated to take on tasks that feel impossible. Break the massive task into tiny ones, throw out (or at least set aside for now) the non-essential ones.

Take pause to think about why your task matters

If you're dreading a large task, take the pressure off, and try to find a way to get excited about it before you start working on it. That might be through things as simple as researching its history, finding people who work on the same problem who you admire, thinking about how it will benefit you, or understanding what makes it important (to someone, even if it doesn't feel important to you right now).

Change environments

Take your laptop to a cafe or park table and work from there for 2 hours. Go for a walk and talk your idea out aloud on a video recording. Changing environments has massive effects on our psyches, and walking has been shown to improve creativity!

Survey the entire task/problem

Ask yourself: if I only had 2 hours to do this, how would I go about it?. Then set yourself the challenge to do it in that crazy timeframe (even if it's 2 months' work). You'll inevitably fail, but just getting ideas (however nascent) on paper can really help. You can delete whatever you produce (whether it be a written document, code, whatever) shortly after completing the exercise. I have done this exercise alone and with colleagues and have been very surprised how much we learned in such a short time. You'll also be indirectly surveying the problem, necessarily at a high-level (since you simply don't have time bogged down by details).

Get physical exercise

You'll be healthier and happier, and able to think more clearly. Of exercise, Tim Minchin (at 5m20s) says:

Play a sport. Do yoga, pump iron, and run, whatever but take care of your body, you’re going to need it.

And Sam Altman gives similar advice:

Exercise. Eat well. Sleep. Get out into nature with some regularity.

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Since I had the exact same experience with my first postdoc, I would write a few thoughts.

First, I don't believe it's just burnout. The motivation, for most normal people, is external. If your environment motivates you, you do things, if it doesn't, you don't.

The problem is that with the pandemic your environment is gone. You do have to have your regular meetings with someone, you have to have your busy schedule, prepare for conferences and so on. Your boss isn't giving you homework. Neither are your colleagues. Setup regular meetings with them and start designing new projects and promising (realistic) things and set deadlines for completing tasks.

Also, working from home isn't easy. If you don't remove all distractions, there is a high chance you won't work efficiently. If you can't, you need to work from somewhere else.

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