Thanks for agreeing to do this little dialogue with me! It will be fun, educational and will hopefully raise some issues that aren't talked about very much in the chemblogosphere (not because of any particular taboo, it just hasn't really come up (that I recall.))
I'll start with a vignette (for which the details are hazy -- my subconcious defending itself?):
After weeks and weeks of long hours and frustration in the lab in either my 2nd or 3rd year of graduate school, I remember walking into my apartment bathroom, smashing the mirror with my fist and sitting on the edge of the bathtub. I seem to recall yelling at the top of my lungs "What am I going to do!?!?" about whatever reaction sequence of my total synthesis that simply was not going anywhere.
I can easily say that was one of the darkest periods of my time in graduate school. I am not sure if I was depressed -- I'm a synthetic chemist, not a clinical psychologist. Close to ten years later, it's mostly an unpleasant memory, with little recall of the details that set me off. But I can remember sitting on that bathtub edge, the deep despair of a project that wasn't going well and the feeling that my entire life was an utter failure. Now, of course, I don't feel that way at all. I can leave my work at work (mostly, anyway), and my self-worth is not entirely reliant on the yield of my last reaction. But there was a lot of pain in between then and now.
So the topic question for our discussion is "Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?" My answer? Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.
It doesn't have to be that way, of course. If you're someone who already has a strong support system, if steely discipline got you through your undergraduate career, if you already have healthy habits and life skills, graduate school will probably not affect your psyche too negatively. But if you don't, grad school can be brutal on your self-image.
There are famous examples of the negative effects of mental health in graduate school; Jason Altom's suicide at Harvard is prominent, and a reminder that mental health crises can happen at august institutions and with the most impressive CVs. It's an extreme example, but its components (a tough project, coworkers who were concerned but somewhat unaware, a seemingly implacable adviser) are known to us all.
We can take this discussion lots of places. Most of it will be driven by you, commenters and (hopefully) other bloggers. Personally, I'd like to talk about project frustration (and how it is necessary, and both the thing that can both kill us and teach us), depression (how to spot it, how to address it in ourselves and others) and how much professors and the university's resources might be able to help graduate students and postdocs. I'd like to talk about what good mental health looks like, and how we might be able to get there or maintain it.
So what do you think, Vinylogous? Is graduate school in chemistry (which you're participating in right now) making you crazy? You seem pretty rational (for a blogger, anyway), so I'm guessing not. What do you think -- do I have it all wrong? I'm looking forward to what you have to say on Tuesday.
So I think I'm done talking -- I hope your week is going to go well. Apart from the potential bout of stomach flu I might be having (and if so, I'm staying home, like I might not have done in grad school), I'm looking forward to a week in the lab and in the plant and talking to you.