December 2013. I’m a 3rd year PhD student in biological physics and I just came home from another night in the lab. It’s 2 am, my experiment failed… again. My plans for the weekend? Sleep 6 hours and go back to the lab to try again. Nothing very special here, this is what PhD students in the sciences feel obliged to do – spend their life in the lab. The project I focused on for the past two years wasn’t fruitful, so we decided to change strategy and start from scratch, adding stress on to an already stressful PhD. New project, new unknowns. To produce results and catch up with publications, I’ve been working close to 80 hours per week for the last 6 months.
I’m on my way to bed and my mind is still troubleshooting the failed experiment. Maybe I should sleep only 4 hours and go back to the lab. As I walked through my living room, I suddenly picture a line on the floor and hear a voice:
“If you continue this way and cross this line, your mind will be damaged forever.”
I take a step back from the imaginary line and freeze, scared to the bones. I know this line, two friends crossed it this month. Exhausted, stressed and overworked, their brain collapsed. I am not familiar with the concept of burnout yet but I sense something dangerously wrong is going on. I decide to listen to this voice.
I didn’t go to the lab that weekend. Instead, I blanked, watching the ceiling for hours, afraid.
Monday arrives, a friend asks me how my weekend was. My mind goes foggy.
“I don’t think I will ever defend if I continue this way. I won’t make it.”
She pauses, looking worried. “No, you won’t.”
Her words echo in my head. She is right. I am right. That inner voice is right. I’m on the verge of collapse and I can’t continue this way. Suddenly I am taken by a storm of stress roaring through my body, so strong that I feel dizzy.
I have to get out of here.
January 2014. The Christmas “holidays” were nice. I worked less than I planned to. I thought a lot about my PhD, my career, my life. I contemplate: Am I a scientist if I can’t keep up with doing research? What would I do instead of research? Will I disappoint everybody?
One thing becomes clear: if I am to quit, I will do it with pride, as a victory, a gift of self-love. Many more days of sadness pass by and my decision is taken. I will quit my PhD, I’m not made for this, it’s not worth my health.
When I inform my supervisor in January, he suggests that I slow down, take some time for myself and think it through carefully. My yearly contract finishes in 9 months, I can defend my licentiate – a half PhD degree available in Sweden – and then move on. I take his offer and decide to fully dedicate myself to recovery. I want to get my mind and my body back on track. One question drives me: How do I recover?
Changing mindset doesn’t happen overnight. At first, I consider recovery as another task to perform. The high achiever in me is very pleased. My plan is to do this, and this, and that to take care of myself and feel better…But I quickly realize that it is not working. I simply don’t have the mental and physical energy to “push myself to rest”. Change of strategy then? Sure – I’ll be a recovery researcher. I start to read books about psychology, brain chemistry, mindfulness, sleep, and self-compassion. I watch tons of TED talks. New insights start to emerge. The core of it all: you cannot perform recovery. The key is to drop the fight, let it be and accept to feel lost and vulnerable. This sounds scary, definitely not my usual style but I’m willing to give it a try.
What follows are months of exploration and healing. I immerse myself in a bubble of self-care. I slow down, sleep, cry, listen to crazy loud music, walk in nature, cook, meditate, practice yoga, mindfulness, do free writing. I try to find what works for me. I explore my personal story of “success and failures” and my triggers. I dig into the roots of my high-achieving and perfectionist mindset. I question who I am and face my shortcomings. It is ugly, raw, out of control. Like a high-pressure cooker being released. It’s wild and relieving at the same time.
And slowly, ever so slowly, I start to feel better…
The Academic Culture
A key foundation for my recovery is to own my decision and proudly share it with every researcher I meet. How do they react? Anger. Shock. “You cannot quit NOW! You’ve worked so hard, don’t give up!”. All I hear is that my decision is a mistake in their eyes. Soon enough I realize that this has nothing to do with me. My decision is triggering their own self-doubts and internal struggles. They don’t want to hear that quitting is an option for them.
To recover and move on, I need compassion, not judgement. I aim for the next level of vulnerability: I start to share how I feel, my stress, my doubts, my fears. What happens? People share back, their stress, their doubts, their fears. From Masters students to full professors, across backgrounds, across universities around the globe, all share how stressed, tired and worried they are. The level of un-wellness is overwhelming. I’m not alone in my struggle, stress is everywhere, virtually everybody is suffering. I become resentful, angry at academia itself, for letting down so many bright minds.
“Dear Academia, what is wrong with you?”
May 2014. I defended my licentiate and time comes to review my working contract. Something is clearer than ever: the academic career is not for me. And yet in the next meeting with my supervisor:
- So you want to finish your PhD? My supervisor asks.
- I know the title will help in my next career step.
- Can you do it?
Deep down the rabbit hole again. This time with a new mindset: To go fast, go slow.
Starting my PhD again becomes synonymous with to how to stay afloat in a stressful environment. And it’s not easy. Every time I enter my building, my heart is racing. I wake up from nightmares hearing the sound of the machine I am working with. I become more and more aware of how I feel and what are my needs. I chose to make self-care my priority, even if it means meditating for only five minutes a day. I learn to listen to my stress triggers and warning signs of “too much”. I get close to the line on multiple occasions but manage to pull the emergency brake early enough. Changing mindset takes time, patterns are hard to rewire, I have to keep practicing.
December 2015. I made it. I’m now Dr Déborah Rupert. I don’t remember much of it, I was overwhelmed with stress. A few extra months of research to finish projects and it’s time for me to leave.
April 2016. I take a deep breath, one final look, and I lock the lab one last time.
May 2016. I’m now a job seeker and I don’t know what I want to do. I need to rest. I take three months of unpaid unemployment to reconnect with myself, my family and my friends. I struggle to find my way forward. I turn towards the Swedish Job Security Foundation, Trygghetsstiftelsen, which supports government-employed researchers on the way to a new job. I am offered to work with a career coach to explore my dream job and how to get there.
Coaching is a new experience for me and I quickly realize its power: it’s like an accelerating problem-solving tool for the mind. When we struggle to find solutions to our challenges, we get stuck in the same thinking loops, again and again. Coaching can help disrupt that thinking. It brings our inner dialogue in a non-judgmental and compassionate space for deep thinking. Coach and client work together to explore the challenge and shine lights onto unexplored angles using questioning and key exercises. The core spirit of coaching is that the client has already the answer within themselves. Teamwork with the coach makes it surface and together they design solutions that are deeply personal to the client.
Together with my coach, we map where I am, what I like, where I want to go and how to get there. I find answers I’ve been struggling with alone for a long time. We explore my values, what I enjoyed the most doing during my PhD, what I am curious to learn more about and what is meaningful to me. It crystalizes my deep interest in sustainability, the complex systemic interconnections between social and natural sciences, nature, ecosystems, economy, psychology. This is where I want to contribute.
Being coached makes me realize that such a career switch won’t happen overnight and that I need a transition job to train myself in parallel. A tech company is looking for a scientist with my background and competencies. The job interview is a very honest conversation.
“I want to change career and I need time to figure it out. I would be dedicated to this job and it would be my last time in a lab.”
Together we make a win-win plan: working part-time (80%) as an application scientist for two years. Enough time to engage in the EU project they received funding for, enough free time for me to change career. I bought myself time.
The beauty of working part-time is that it allows to be well rested and have clearer boundaries for oneself. It also frees space for being more innovative and efficient at work. The employer has a lot to gain from such employment contracts. Dedicating one day per week to my next career step gave me the freedom to join conferences on topics that were far from my core background such as social entrepreneurship or inclusive business. It was very refreshing and nurtured my longing for something new.
Time to reinvent myself.
November 2017. Being involved in an EU research project at the principal investigator level allows me to stay connected to academia. I continue to share my story of burnout and why I left academic research. The stories keep coming from scientists in and outside of academia. Again, the stress, the doubts and the fears are overwhelming.
I share my frustration with my coach:
- “How can science be of high quality if researchers are stressed and burned out? We need thriving researchers to solve the challenges of sustainability! I wish I could help them, share what I learned… (brain pause)…maybe I could do something like you and learn to coach?”
- “That sounds like a great idea! There is a coaching school in Stockholm that gives training in English. It starts in three weeks.”
February 2018. I’m now a professional coach certified by the International Coaching Federation
My clients? Researchers. Their main challenge? “I want to leave academia, it’s too stressful, I’m close to burnout, what should I do?”.
Together we explore what are their strengths, what academia taught them, what will be their next step and how to get there. Some decide to stay in academia with a fresh mindset, some transfer to industry, become teachers, enrol in new training, start a business. So many ways you can start fresh and reinvent yourself.
Coaching researchers in their journey reinforces my belief: much distress could be diminished or avoided if researchers would get support early enough.
Prevention is key.
Founding “Dear Academia”
November 2019. In parallel to coaching, I’m giving seminars about how to prevent burnout in academia. After one of these events, I am overwhelmed with echoes of anxiety from my PhD time. I decide to write a letter to an old friend of mine to process my emotions:
It’s been a tough ride. I want you to know…”
The same week, I get connected with two talented women, Dr Frida Rångtell (PhD in sleep and memory) and Dr Mette Sjöberg Anthonsen (PhD in political science and executive coach). Together we discuss our personal stories of academic stress and burnout. We share our dreams to see academia being a supportive, inclusive and vibrant environment, where researchers thrive and achieve their full potential. We decide to join forces in a holistic approach, bringing together our scientific knowledge, our coaching spirit and our experience of academia.
February 2020. Dear Academia is born.
Dear Academia is an organisation dedicated to support the wellbeing and maximize the potential of researchers. We deeply care about cultivating a healthy academic work environment. Our goal is to promote hands-on tools for:
- Self-leadership and resilience
- Healthy habits and sleep
- Stress management and burnout prevention
- Navigating academia and career choices
We facilitate interactive seminars and workshops, creating a safe space for participants to reflect and learn from each other. Our biggest win? When participants report feeling better equipped to handle academic pressure and sharing a higher sense of supportive community.
Our mission is to support as many researchers as we can.
January 2022. The process of healing from my burnout is still ongoing. Writing this story brings all the stress back in front of my eyes. Years after I left research, my body and my mind still remember I almost lost my mind. It takes time to heal.
Since then, I have entered the world of entrepreneurship and it offers me the possibility to contribute to making a change aligned with my values. It’s also a bumpy road that challenges my resilience every single day. There would be much to say there but I will keep this part of the story for another time.
Looking back over my journey, I never really left academia: I changed approach. I am not doing research myself; I help researchers doing the best of theirs. I wish I didn’t have to burn out to learn the valuable lessons of self-care and slow down and I don’t wish it for you either. My hope is that my story helps someone somewhere feel a little less alone, knowing there is help before it’s too late. If you feel lost or know somebody who is, let’s connect. I’m here to help.
Déborah Rupert is a career and wellbeing coach. She holds a PhD in biological physics and is certified by the international coaching federation. She is committed to prevent burnout and support researchers with tools for stress management and career clarity. She is the founder of Dear Academia, an organisation dedicated to cultivate the wellbeing of researchers and nurture a healthy academic working environment. When she is not coaching or giving workshops, she can be found travelling around with her motorhome, walking in nature or dancing argentine tango. You can reach her through her website www.deborahrupert.com and connect on LinkedIn.