Four years ago, Sabriya Stukes left her grad school commencement ceremony holding her degree, a doctorate in microbiology and immunology.
It should’ve been a happy day. The happiest, in fact! She’d wanted to be a scientist since she was a kid. But for Stukes, it wasn’t a day worth celebrating.
For six long years, she knew the exact steps to take to earn her PhD. As a task-oriented person, Stukes thrives when there’s structure. After graduating, she had no idea how to carve her own path forward.
On top of that, she had nowhere to live. A few weeks earlier, she put her belongings in storage in preparation to move in with her boyfriend. Then, unexpectedly, they broke up. With no job lined up and no place to call home, Stukes felt completely unmoored. So, on an impulse, she flew to Seattle and spent three weeks driving down the west coast.
“In movies, everyone goes on road trips to find clarity,” Stukes says. “By the time it’s over, they have an epiphany and know what to do next.” But her life isn’t a movie. “There I was in Palm Springs, still crying, still feeling really lost and lacking direction.”
Despite feeling fairly depressed, she pushed forward, scouring the internet and reaching out to her network. It paid off. She found two new roommates and two full-time jobs—a communications assistant for the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences and a program coordinator for BioBus, a company that helps students learn more about science. One job was remote, which is why she committed to both.
For the next four months, Stukes woke at dawn and stayed up as late as needed to fit in both jobs, plus some freelance projects for a science startup. In any spare time she did have, she went out with friends. It didn’t take long for this way of life to backfire.
“It really took a toll on every single aspect of my life,” Stukes shares. She wasn’t sleeping, nor was she eating properly. And, unsurprisingly, she wasn’t doing well at any of her jobs.
“Looking back on it, I was absolutely fooling myself,” she says. “Everyone knew that something was wrong [except for me].”
Stukes’ parents became so worried that they gave her an ultimatum: Change your lifestyle or take a sabbatical. She chose the second option and stopped working, giving herself three months to “just sleep, eat, and get back on track.”
“I know that’s an incredibly privileged thing to do,” she says. But it was necessary for her mental and physical health. Thankfully, she could do it with support from her parents and the money she’d saved from working several jobs.
Stukes spent her time off “journaling—coming face-to-face with the stories I was telling myself about myself—and trying to make being kind to myself a priority.” When she looks back on these few months, she realizes that she learned not only the power that comes with choosing to be alone, but also what it means to forgive herself.
For people who are incredibly burnt out but can’t put a full stop on working, Stukes suggests a few things, such as talking to your boss about taking a mental health day (if you feel comfortable doing so), seeking out therapy, and becoming comfortable and confident saying “no” so that you can dedicate your full attention to the things you say “yes” to.
“To even be aware that you’re approaching burnout is a gift,” Stukes says. “But identifying the steps you need to take to correct that comes with practice. Being able to say, ‘I need help but I don’t know what that looks like,’ is a muscle you need to build.”
Today, Stukes is Assistant Director of the Master’s in Translational Medicine program at The City College of New York, a new degree program that teaches scientists and engineers the process of medical innovation and commercialization. She has many different responsibilities, including: leading student recruitments efforts, creating digital marketing strategies, developing the curriculum, and providing professional development mentorship. Recently, she also became an adjunct professor and instructs a course about how to design and develop better medical technologies.
Ironically, it was during Stukes’ “radical sabbatical” (as she calls it) that one of her professional connections—the Dean of The City College’s Grove School of Engineering—reached out to her. They’d met months earlier, when Stukes requested an informational interview. Apparently, she impressed the dean enough to be recruited for this brand new position.
But she didn’t accept immediately. Choosing vulnerability, she told the dean she wasn’t ready to start working again. To her surprise, the dean understood. All she wanted to know was, when could Stukes start? They agreed on January 2016, and she’s been in the role ever since.
If there’s one thing Stukes has learned over the past few years, it’s this: You must always protect yourself, whether that’s negotiating higher pay, asking for help, removing toxic people from your life, or simply being kind to yourself.
“I often ask myself, ‘Is this helping me, or is this hurting me?’” Stukes shares.
So, I’ll leave you with one final thought: As you build your path to success, however you define that, what are you doing to protect yourself?