Automatically generated from the Gemini capsule gemini://

Time-stamp: <2021-02-26 17h44 UTC>

Burnout & the slow climb back

(insert excuse for lack of log entries here)

(contains 60% happy ending)


I'm currently pursuing a PhD in mathematics, and in exchange for a living wage i teach/TA/help administer the undergraduate courses for the department. This is not intended to be a full-time occupation⁰, and the emphasis is still largely on research and progress towards completion.

Last semester (end of 2020) was entirely on-line. The university, as ever, sought to exploit its cheapest labour (us) and provided little-to-no support¹ for PhD workers. The result was that i had a ramshackle arrangement of bed-sheets in the corner of our living room and was expected to teach and work from that spot.

Compounding this, mathematics for me is a deeply social endeavour. In fact, i would go so far as to say that what we know as mathematics only exists between people. If a theorem is proven in a forest and there's no-one there to hear it, it wasn't proven at all.

Obviously social anything was right out.


I'm in the end stages of my PhD, and have no shortage of things which need to be written down. Working at home (already a weakness of mine at the best of times) without contact with other mathematicians, everything digital, heavy teaching load, online-everything, un-motivated students, screens all day every day, curfews, lock-downs, ...

About half way through the semester i went into emergency mode. Just make it through teaching, then give up. I didn't want to do mathematics, think about mathematics, or really engage with my chosen life path in any way.

The slow climb

Instead i poured myself into hobbies. Playing DOOM I/II, programming a computer opponent for the abstract strategy game Tak², learning about data science (yugh), really anything but mathematics.

I went away to cabins in the woods twice (and the work piled up). I just couldn't bring myself to continue, or even try. Eventually i managed to negotiate with the university to be afforded the absolute privilege³ of using my single-occupancy desk-sized carol in the library, and forced myself to write every time i went there. It wasn't great, but it would see me through to graduation. Probably. Maybe?

Finding an old joy

After months of avoiding doing any mathematics, one day while unwillingly dragging myself through the artificial ritual of rewriting past work, it happened: i found that my hopes for the big theorem couldn't possibly materialise.

Sure, ordinarily that would be terrible. It still had some of that, but in a sort of muted way because the whole thing wasn't enjoyable anyway. But what i found to my surprise was that discovering the counter-example made me happy. Not because i wouldn't have to do as much work, no, but instead because doing that one tiny counter-example was actually ... fun?

``Hey, maybe this whole mathematics thing is all bad in every way all the time'' was probably the thought that crossed my mind.

I'm happy to report that old habits die hard, and there was probably a reason i went for a PhD in the first place. Turns out, i'm rediscovering the joy :)

Hang in there!


⁰ officially ≤ 8 hours per week i believe

¹ while actively supporting the undergraduates and faculty, i could rant about this for a long time

² more on this in future instalments

³ sarcasm, see ¹