A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication
Illustration emphasizing feelings of isolation or loneliness while struggling with mental health issues
Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

How to be human in physics

07/27/21

Four physicists share their experiences dealing with major setbacks, trauma, mental health issues and toxic work environments.

Jesse Heilman was offended when his undergrad guidance counselor suggested he consider alternatives to pursing a PhD in particle physics.

“I didn’t make any back-up plans because I didn’t feel like I needed to,” he says. “In retrospect, I was very naive.”

Heilman was rejected from the three graduate programs he had applied to, including his safety school.

“It was hubris,” he says. “I had thought so highly of myself and without reason. When it didn’t work out, it was like getting kicked in the gut.”

For the next six months, Heilman felt like a boat without an anchor. He moved back in with his parents and existed in a state of numb detachment.

“I thought that what I was feeling was very unique.”

“My whole life I had always had a plan,” he says. “Now, I didn’t have any job prospects, I didn’t have any higher education prospects, and I didn’t know what I was going to do next.”

Many people like Heilman are pulled toward graduate school by their innate sense of wonder. But this curiosity can mutate into misery when met with unexpected setbacks, unreasonable expectations, unresolved trauma, or unhealthy work cultures. Because academia values stoicism and productivity, many young researchers interpret these unpleasant feelings as a sign of inadequacy.

“As an undergrad, I would see successful professors and think, ‘There’s no way that they’re feeling how I’m feeling,’” says physicist Andrea Welsh, a mental health activist and postdoc at the University of Pittsburgh. “I thought that what I was feeling was very unique and that if I wanted to be a successful physicist, I had to be a certain way that did not include my depression.”

Welsh now knows that she is not alone. According to research psychiatrist Joeri Tijdink, approximately 40% of PhD students experience depression or burnout during their studies. Others enter academia with mental health conditions that are exacerbated by the “publish or perish” mindset, and many more must cope with the added stresses of prejudice and structural inequality.

“I’ve seen so much suffering in science, and specifically in early career researchers,” says Tijdink, who wrote the book Scholar on the Sofa. “It hurts to see all those young, talented, bright and idealist minds become more and more cynical.”

But there is hope, Tijdink says. By directing that innate curiosity inward—either through introspection or working with a therapist—scientists can develop nuanced perspectives on themselves and healthy relationships with their work. It is possible to be happy (and human) in physics.

Recognizing the influence of trauma

Shortly after defending her PhD thesis, Welsh gave a routine talk to her research group about a subject she was comfortable with. As her colleagues started asking questions, something odd happened.

“For some reason, I was interpreting their questions as criticism,” she says. 

After the meeting, she broke down. “I started crying hysterically,” she says. “My advisor was so surprised because he didn’t see it as a bad talk and didn’t understand my reaction.”

At the time, Welsh also found the sudden swell of emotion confusing. But today, she understands that the tears weren’t about the talk. Welsh’s childhood was unstable, and she grew up feeling insecure and inadequate.

“My experiences growing up shaped my interactions with other people, how I see myself, and how I interpret their words and actions,” she says. “I was still internalizing these bad thoughts.”

Welsh is naturally inquisitive. In high school, she joked with friends about how she wished she could stay a student for the rest of her life. “I wanted to keep learning,” she says.

In college, she discovered this goal was possible in the form of a career in research and academia. But as she started down this path, she felt like a perpetual outsider.

“I couldn’t connect with other students,” she says.  “Everyone would share stories from when they grew up, and I didn’t feel like I could. It was hard to make deeper connections, and I didn’t feel like I belonged.”

After a friend told her about his experience in therapy, Welsh decided to give it a go as well, first through group sessions at her university and later in one-on-one counseling. Welsh says the group sessions were often hit-or-miss, but she did find opportunities to open up.

“Sometimes there would be other students with difficult home lives,” she says. “It was this safe space where I could talk about the two worlds [home and school] together. I never felt like I had that before.”

Welsh has been working with a therapist for nine years now. She says it’s helped her to process trauma from her childhood and unravel her complicated relationship with her family.

“At this point, I’ve realized that my home life is not myself,” she says. “I thought I would be judged for things my family members did. With the help of therapy, I’ve been able to separate my own identity: who I am as a person and who I am as a scientist.”

She’s also seeing how her experiences as a child have shaped her interactions with her colleagues. In graduate school, Welsh was hesitant to contact her advisor when she ran into problems and would cancel meetings if she felt like she hadn’t accomplished enough.

“Because of how I had to grow up, I never felt like I could reach out for help,” she says. “Now that I’ve realized where some of these feelings are coming from, I’m trying to untrain myself of feeling like everything has to be perfect or I’m not good enough.”

She realized that to succeed as a researcher, she needed the structured environment she never had as a child. When she started as a postdoc at the University of Pittsburg, she asked her advisor if they could schedule weekly check-ins.

“We talk about the issues,” she says. “These kinds of meeting leave me feeling energized.”

Welsh says she hopes that leaders within academia can apply emotional intelligence to their relationships with their researchers and tailor their mentorship styles to fit the mentees.

“It’s very important to have open conversation, and it’s the job of the professors to make the space available for these conversations and to listen,” she says. “Everyone has different life experiences, and what worked for you doesn’t necessarily work for everyone else.”

Taming the highs and lows

It was summer 2013, one year after the discovery of the Higgs boson. Physicist Claire Lee and her colleagues on the ATLAS experiment were working around the clock to explore the properties of this newly discovered particle. She had barely slept and had just come home from a three-hour group meeting. She should have been exhausted. But she wasn’t.

“I put my kid to bed around 7 or 8 p.m., and then I decided to go for a run,” says Lee, who is now a physicist at the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

She spent the next hour running up a mountain trail behind her house. “It wasn’t a route that I knew,” she says. “I had no water, no lights, not anything.”

For most of her adult life, Lee had experienced depressive episodes. But what she had not yet realized was that she also experienced hypomanic episodes. 

She hadn’t put together the pattern of extreme energy surges that caused her to bake apple pies at midnight with the weeks in which she struggled to get out of bed.

“Our brains are not designed to say, ‘This feels too good, clearly there’s a problem,’” Lee says. “We don’t have red flags when we’re feeling too good or too energetic.”

After an action-packed summer, Lee fell into a deep but predictable depression. 

“I had dealt with depression for 10 years and had come to terms with that,” she says. “Seasonal depression is a thing, and I felt like I could handle that.”

Lee visited her general practitioner and inquired about a prescription for an antidepressant. But her doctor wanted more information. Lee visited a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with type 2 bipolar disorder.

“It was like an Olympic runner being told they have a problem with their legs,” Lee says. “I’m a scientist, and the doctor is telling me that I have a problem with my brain. It was hard to deal with.”

The psychiatrist started her on a new medication, which at first gave Lee extreme clarity and optimism, but then sank her into an intense depression coupled with extreme anxiety.

“It was a long process to find the right medication,” she says. “It took almost a full year before we found a medication that was helping properly and I was able to start to be on the path of recovery.”

Finding the right medication was only one part of managing her bipolar disorder. Since the diagnosis, Lee has been directing her scientific mindset inward to understand her emotional state and recognize the onset of depressive episodes.

“I now have a lot of data points,” she says. “If I recognize the symptoms early on, I can do things like sleep extra, go to bed earlier, make extra sure I’m eating healthy. And it does end up helping.”

Lee has also worked to minimize the effects of depressive episodes.

“Routines are really important if you’re struggling with mental health issues,” she says. “Making decisions about what you need to do requires a lot of mental energy you might not have when you’re depressed. If you make things into a habit, it’s no longer a decision. You just do it.”

One part of her routine is running, which helps her regulate her energy and gives her natural boosts of dopamine.

“In science, you can work really hard on a project for years without seeing results,” she says. “Having a hobby where you do a thing and get a tangible reward after doing that thing is really useful for your brain.”

Running culture has also taught her the value of acknowledging her emotions.

“Struggling with a mental illness is like fighting a battle against an enemy in which the enemy’s main attack is convincing you there’s no battle,” she says. “One of the things I’ve learned from running is how to pay closer attention to the things I am feeling, and how to listen to my body’s signals better. If I’m struggling with an emotion, I try to identify it and then say it out loud, ideally talk about it with someone. And I’ve found that if I can do this, it seems to then almost magically release its hold over me.”

Rejecting unhealthy environments

As an undergrad, “Jin” and another young woman were the top two students in their physics class. But the professor never bothered to learn their names.

“We were always called ‘the girls that sit in the front row,’” she says.

Jin says she has often felt invisible during her academic career. But she says she didn’t fully understand the depths of unconscious biases about Asian women until she got into a heated argument with a male colleague, who doubted her expertise about her own analysis.

“Eventually that person apologized and told me, ‘I had no idea that your analysis was so complicated and had this level of effort,’” she says.

When she let her collaborators know that she had resolved the issue, one of them wrote back that they were, “so happy that he helped you on this.”

“It had been such a long and terrible debate, but they didn’t even ask what it was about,” she says. “They just immediately gave the credit to him.”

The constant undercurrent of sexism gradually eroded Jin’s self-esteem. But she says it was the toxic research team she joined as a postdoc that finally toppled her sense of self-worth. 

Jin’s supervisors had encouraged her to accept an invitation to work on a prestigious research project with a team that had a reputation for being “unfriendly.” 

“At first, I thought I could go toughen up and make it through this,” she says. “About three months into working with this group of people, I realized that they were not going to be my friends and that I had to take care of myself. I just wanted to finish my analysis and limit damage.” 

But as even more time passed, Jin became emotionally invested in the group and felt like she could—and needed to—personally fix the toxic environment.

“I thought I could change things and protect other people who were in similar situations,” she says. “I started to associate myself as part of the system and saw my role as a savior trying to save it. This is when I noticed that I started to have bad mental health issues.”

Jin started having panic attacks before her group’s weekly check-ins.

“I would go into to these meetings, and I’m either going to piss off somebody, have my credit taken away, or be told to do some extra work for someone that is not helpful to my research,” she says. “It was like navigating a mine field—I had to be so careful with my language to avoid setting someone off. It became a matter of survival.”

After two years of anxiety, depression and fruitless efforts to move things in a better direction, Jin says she felt she only had one move left: to quit the project.

When she told colleagues she was leaving, she says, “I was hoping that someone would do something, maybe try to give me a bit of support. But they didn’t. Nobody did. They just let me go. I guess I was also very naive thinking that I could use that to make a statement.”

She says she felt like a failure.

“I felt useless for a very long time,” she says. “If someone was friendly, I thought they had alternative motives because I assumed that everybody viewed me as a failure.”

Around this time Jin started working with a therapist.

“Therapy was very important,” she says. “The first thing that my therapist and I worked on was how to find my sense of self value.”

For her next research project, Jin prioritized finding a healthy working environment rather than joining the team with the most prestige. She also started talking with trusted colleagues about her experiences and learned that her situation was not unique.

“I realize that a lot of people have similar experiences and that I am not completely doomed,” she says. “I make valuable contributions and a lot of people do appreciate my work.”

Jin is still in physics, but says she is open to other career opportunities if she doesn’t find a permanent position in academia. “I am still in an academic environment, though not that committed to academic jobs,” she says. “I’m not going to sacrifice my dignity and health ever again for academia.”

Finding balance

After the graduate school rejections and six months of floating around his parents’ house, Heilman started taking small steps to get his life back on track. An old friend connected him with a professor in the physics department at the University of Washington, and he worked as a research assistant for the next year. When he applied to graduate school a second time, he was accepted at the University of California, Riverside. After completing his coursework, Heilman came to European particle physics laboratory CERN to build detector components for the CMS experiment and work on research for his PhD.

“I started taking agency of my life,” Heilman says.

After graduate school, Heilman accepted a postdoc at Carlton University in Ontario building detector components for the ATLAS experiment. He knew the university job market was competitive and felt his atypical academic journey put him at a disadvantage. But a year and a half later, his department posted a professorship position that closely aligned with Heilman’s ongoing work. Heilman applied and was selected. “I can’t stress enough how much being at the right place at the right time helped advance my career,” he says.

Heilman says he was able to establish a good balance between his work and the rest of his life. But when his son was born, everything changed. He wasn’t sure he should set physics aside for the eight months of parental leave that Canadian law made available to him.

“That was hard for me to conceptualize at the beginning,” he says. “I thought maybe I would take the first month or so and then come back part time. 

“Then one of my colleagues sat me down and said, ‘Look, I’ve had four kids and I have always regretted not talking the full parental leave for the first two. We will support you.’”

Heilman says that was just what he needed. He now champions the idea that physicists shouldn’t have to choose between fulfilling personal lives and their careers.

“You can have both, and more than that, it’s important that you have both,” he says. “To be a successful and sustainable researcher, you need to make sure you take care of yourself. Other people are going to push you, and it’s important to advocate for yourself and be realistic with what you can and cannot do. 

“If we make this a norm—everyone focuses on having a sustainable work and life—we’ll have a happier community, be more efficient and be better in the long run.”