Elizabeth Pain in Science:
It’s common for graduate students to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and burned out. But as social scientist Sharon Mallon neared the end of her Ph.D., she also felt emotionally drained by her research topic: suicide. The work felt intensely important, but she soon found that conducting sensitive interviews and synthesizing what she learned took a toll on her mental health.
One day, desperately needing a break, she rented two movies from a video shop. As she put on the first, a suicide scene burst onto the screen. She immediately stopped watching and put on the second, only to be confronted with another suicide scene halfway through. “I wanted to distract myself from this topic, but here it is, following me,” Mallon recalls. A few months later, she got to the point “where I just thought, ‘I’m going to drop out; I can’t do this.’”
Many scientists, like Mallon, work on topics that have the potential to be personally upsetting—for instance, wildlife biologists who study endangered species and health researchers who study devastating diseases. Working in such fields can give researchers a strong sense of purpose, but the emotional challenges can also make an already arduous job even more difficult. Science Careers spoke with three researchers who have experienced these challenges to find out how they deal with the emotional toll.