Monday, January 7, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 1

Dear Vinylogous Aldol:

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.

Cheers, Chemjobber

58 comments:

  1. I don't want to give my redemption story, but I have to comment and say I agree Chemjobber, with time it really can better. No grad school is not good for your health, and in the wake of the crappy economy, I think the burden is becoming counter productive in making great scientists. But even at it's worst, at least the damage need be not irreversible.

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  2. Can we also discuss what an advisor's role is in the group's mental health? On one hand, I see the argument that we are all adults and we need to deal with our own problems. On the other hand, I have personally seen enough crying/ yelling/ breaking things/ hoarding things in lab to know that all of this undermines the collaborative purpose of a research group. At this point, I don't hate science, but I hate the people in science who refuse to acknowledge their power to do something about this situation. It's similar to when some people deny that there's any sexism or other discrimination -- it only makes the problem worse because people realize that they can get away with it.

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    1. My boss always wanted us to compete, whether it was hours or days or projects completed. All we wanted to do was collaborate, and we resented him for it. The first real nice things he ever said about me was introducing me at my thesis defense. By then, I really wanted out of chemistry forever. I have since had 4 months off of work and my brain is finally realizing that I do want to be a scientist, but that grad school was a very poor way of getting into it. I was so jealous of students who didn't work as many hours as I did (and weren't required to), and they got a clear head out of grad school AND a great job.

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  3. I can't speak for chemistry specifically, but the first graduate program I was in was a disaster for my and others' mental health. For myself, I ended up working on an end-of-term project for a class which turned out to be a lost cause. I spent all my free time working on it, and soon developed anxiety and depression (with no prior history of either, mind you). I tried to get help, but mental health services refused to see me or talk to me. I tried to talk to my advisor, but he brushed me off. I ended up failing, and the end of year report, instead of citing the obvious health issues, poor teaching, and poor advising that I had been struggling with, blamed it on me spending too much time on something they knew I hadn't been spending time on at all.

    I don't agree with the person who said, "But even at it's worst, at least the damage need be not irreversible."

    I dropped out of the grad program. Without a few key friends, I would have left the field entirely.

    I also would have died.

    Access to mental health services and a little empathy can go a long way.

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    1. As a anonymous 1, I will say that I did at least have a damn good shrink and prescribed head drugs at the end of it, but I also graduated in one of the worst economies ever and then I got really really REALLY lucky. I am doing a Milkshake and am no longer doing research stateside. I'm finally able to make payments on my student loans!

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    2. I really did not want to go into it, because I just want to move on. I can't be all Pollyanna and say, "It was worth it in the long run." because I don't believe it, and I can't dwell on the merits of grad school as a "character building experience" because I really do not believe that to the be the case either. I just accept that I got lucky, and I am in a much better place now, and for me I can leave the past in the past, and look for a better future, even if it doesn't involve research. Maybe that's why I really sort of identify with chemjobbers post ... uhm ... individual results may vary.

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    3. I have a similar experience, except my advisor says I didn't spend enough time working on my project. Even through depression, I tried to stick with it, but could no longer find the mental strength to finish the hard parts and left with a masters. Now my advisor is telling potential employers that I am lazy and shouldn't be in chemistry, so I'm stuck working retail.

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  4. Stewie Griffin,
    I was one of those students that always got an A++ on everything and was subsequently praised by my teachers. Although I didn't require the praise, I didn't realize how I let that praise determine how I valued myself and how I let my self worth be determined by the amount of praise. Once I got to bench research, and especially once I got stuck on my total synthesis, I became a pretty different person(angry, isolated, an ass). I had to figure out how to separate my worth from my reaction success and adviser praise (of which there was little in our group, even if you were the golden child). Thankfully I had good friends and one which I could really connect with and we supported each other. He recommended this book and I suggest anyone in grad school get this http://www.amazon.com/Feeling-Good-New-Mood-Therapy/dp/0380810336. It's $8 and worth every penny. It's not a sappy self help book. It's a quick/easy read, even though it's long, and has a list of 10 or so concrete steps you can take to change how you view the world and yourself. Plus it works. If you don't want to buy the book just search around for cognitive behavioral therapy. Things get better once you implement the changes suggested in the book.
    Once you are out of grad school and have a job, life gets better. But during grad school... it sucks. It's fun to trade war stories now but I don't know if I'd do it again.

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  5. For me, it was the floor in the center of my apartment.. I used to come home, sit on the floor and cry my heart out..

    I think the thing about research that you have to realize is that often you are on the cutting edge of something entirely new.. you're asking questions that no one knows the answers to yet.. and you just need to be patient and forgive yourself when you don't know everything.. I mean Edison didn't make the lightbulb in his first attempt..

    But I think that your advisor (and your work colleagues) are a major aspect of your overall mental health.. my lab was highly competitive and my co-workers somewhat backstabbing.. also my advisor would routinely tell me that my project wasn't going well cause I wasn't smart enough/wasn't working hard enough (I was in the lab on Saturdays AND Sundays.. ) I eventually quit grad school.. and I would advise people thinking about going into grad school to really REALLY consider who their colleagues and their advisor is.. and to consider whether that environment is best for you before committing years to it..

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    1. I agree a 100% with you. Advisor and colleagues play a significant role in your success

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  6. I used to contemplate suicide frequently as a grad student, and 10 years later I'm glad I didn't do it. I probably wouldn't have followed through with a planned suicide like Jason Altom did, but I used to watch buses go by and think about jumping in front of one - it would have looked like an accident if I had done it. We didn't have any suicides during or near my time in the department, but there were several freak-outs that the department tried hard to hush up.

    I'm still in the field today for the most cynical of reasons - I never wanted to see the inside of a lab again after grad school, but knew that it would pay better than some entry-level cubicle-farm job. Once I got into industry, I started to like chemistry again.

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    1. My University had a few suicides in other programs. I remember in my first year, it was a physics grad student who was reported by the student newspaper to have 'fallen off' the roof of a parking garage. I remember at happy hour protesting to others that the newspaper said he fell, when they said the guy killed himself, and then everybody looked at me and someone said "don't be stupid, I park my car there everyday, you think the wind blew him over the railing?" A few years later as a senior graduate student, I realized that the guy most likely jumped.

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  7. January 7, 2013 7:26 AM here again. ChemJobber asked what good mental health care in grad school would look like. I'm in a position of being able to compare and contrast the (bad) mental health care at my previous institution with the (good) mental health care at my current one, so I thought I'd describe it.

    The key difference between my old and new institution was ease of access. For my old institution, you couldn't call and speak with an appointment scheduler-- they'd return your calls in two days. There was a two to three week wait time to be seen. There was also a mental health hotline you could call, but they wouldn't speak with you unless it was an extreme emergency (they hung up on me). So, if you had a problem, your only options were waiting 3 weeks or going to the ER.

    At my current institution, you can call to set up an appointment, or set one up online. Turnaround time is generally a couple of weeks. However, if you have an emergency, they also offer walk-in appointments. I think there's also a hotline, though I've never needed to use it. They offered support groups for graduate students, which I found very useful.

    Folks, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If someone had been able to see me early on, when I knew I had a problem but hadn't really run into trouble, I would have been able to learn some effective coping strategies and been on my way.






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  8. I did my grad school in medical sciences, not chemistry. But I've worked in chem labs and have seen bullying from various lab members, hoarding, verbal abuse, crying in the lab (and bathroom), self injury, fist fights, intentional poisonings, and a host of other behaviors that most would consider ~unhealthy~. And I've seen PI after PI say "it's not my problem". I'm with Anon at 6:57 am in being hugely frustrated that no one will take responsibility and actually manage their labs.

    I'm now a manager and see that there's a hell of a lot that can be done about this stuff, whether it's sitting people down to talk, or referring someone who needs one to a counselor. Unhealthy/toxic behavior hurts the entire lab and the consequences often result in YEARS of reduced productivity and people quitting. We don't have to accept that people "are just weird". The lab is a professional environment and it's in everyone's best interest to keep it that way.

    Back to the original question about grad school and mental health: yes, grad school, as it is right now, is bad for mental health. I vividly remember WEEKS to MONTHS where I didn't see another person and/or didn't hear my native language (English) spoken in US-based labs. I've been badly bullied. And I've been told by PIs that it's all my fault whenever anything goes wrong - even when they are at fault. I've been blamed for a PI not reading my manuscripts for semesters on end (no matter how many times I begged them) and my graduation was held up because I was unable to fulfill the publication requirement because of it. I've been physically assaulted and verbally threatened, and I have feared for my safety. I've also been denied mental health services by the horrible schedules I had to work in addition to a long waiting list and lack of accessibility from campus counseling. I know it's not healthy to say so, but if it wasn't for the self-medicating powers of alcohol I'd have never made it through grad school. Frankly I'm shocked there aren't more suicides or complete mental breakdowns in the labs.

    Additionally the piss poor job market has got to be doing more damage to the mental health of the sciences in general. It is soul crushing to apply for job after job after job and not even get a job interview. Add financial instability and insecurity to that and you have a recipe for severe depression and suicide. I started working at my current job in September and am still receiving rejection emails - for jobs I applied to in March - June of last year. Do employers really expect people to be able to wait that long?

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    1. Intentional poisonings? Do you mean reaction poisonings? That's pretty scary and the first is too depressing to contemplate.

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    2. It's one thing to take a beating for some sort of end benefit. It's another to take a beating for no reason at all.

      It is a bit depressing to hear all of these reports of people getting bullied. My graduate lab was good, but my postdoctoral lab had a supremely toxic atmosphere. Backstabbing, project stealing, suspected sabotage, you name it. It was the one time in my life where I was disgusted to be a scientist.

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  9. WOW. That all sounds pretty unappealing. I thought grad school was tough, but overall enjoyed it (this may be rose-shaded by more than a few years): I have pleasant memories of walking to the lab on Saturday mornings. I actually enjoyed the work and freedom that I, and pretty much everyone else had, in the lab. To be fair, I did not go to a top 10 US school (though post-doced at one, which was half good half crap), and my advisor was at the end of a long career and sort of tapering off.

    For me, my first few years working in biotech were really depressing. After years of intellectual freedom and being able to think, to suddenly be working in an environment with such a narrow focus (make compounds that target this disease this way) I found stifling and really hated it. I've since left chemistry, and am much happier for it, but if any thing, the positive experience in grad school made the drudgery of the biotech workaday world so much worse.

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  10. I'm currently a fifth-year graduate student. While I don't have the perspective of many of the other commenters, I had a few thoughts:

    1) I agree that the advisor plays a large role and should take responsibility for the mental health of his/her students. However, there is really no mechanism for training PI's in management skills, let alone dealing with these types of sensitive issues. Perhaps more training from universities, or something mandated by government. The NIH now mandates ethics training, could (should?) something similar be required to help PI's manage their students?

    2) It seems like total synthesis sets people up for these "pits of despair" moreso than other pursuits. Admittedly, this is from a small sample size (mainly CJ and Derek Lowe's stories). In no way am I saying that other fields are not as difficult or do not encounter similar problems, but it seems like the one-track pursuit of a molecule for years on end is perhaps less healthy than other pursuits. As a methods chemist, I have little perspective on this specific issue, but perhaps we (as chemists) need to think differently about goals and expectations (again, this goes back to the advisor).

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    1. I believe every PI should get some sort of management training. However, the attitude of 'this is how I did it, this is how you will do it' will have to be dropped before that will be of any use.

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    2. I'm the Anon at 10:45 am above. I now work as a manager. I was never given management training, I sought it out. Every university I've attended has had a business management school that has offered classes and workshops to students, faculty and staff in other programs. The large company for whom I used to work did the same for all science staff, as do a number of professional societies. These classes were/are never mandatory and were/are offered as professional development. I imagine the majority of PIs delete the emails announcing them.

      I have observed that most PIs demand their employees to just work it out. This often leads to escalation.

      Unstable Isotope, I can't give any details because the poisoning I saw made the news (5+ years ago, but still). The poisoning was intentional and the person involved was caught and prosecuted.

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  11. This is such an important topic. Mental health is as important as physical health. I struggle with depression. There is a lot of stigma surrounding it and graduate supervisors (and colleagues) aren't always sympathetic to it. I am lucky as I work for a supervisor who really does support the health of his students. I made him cry in my third year when I said I was suicidal and finally opened up to someone about it. He was supportive as I received help and even offered to walk me over to my university's mental health clinic if it would help. A year and half later another student in our lab attempted suicide. He became worried about that fact that he now had two students with depression and that somehow he was contributing, especially since he knew of none of his peers that had students in this situation. We talked about it and I think the reason that he knew he had suicidal students is because he had cultivated a work environment where we felt that we could share this stuff and that he would support what we needed to do to get healthy.

    I reflect a lot about mental health. I know countless graduate students who have dealt with depression at some point. It is my personal observation that has me thinking that people who are most at risk for depression are attracted to graduate school: perfectionist, highly motivated, highly intelligent. This creates a vicious cycle that allows bad habits to breed, and supports depression. I discuss this a lot with my own councilor. This is not a trivial problem. I also don't think that it is just a graduate school problem, but graduate school is an ideal growth medium for the risk factors.

    Respected developmental biologist Lewis Wolpert is very open about his experiences with depression and talks often about the stigma associated with it. Most of my coworkers had (some still have) no idea that I tried to kill myself, and many are completely shocked that I am so open about it now, but there is no help in pretending that depression is not a serious illness. Like any disease, if left untreated it will become life-threatening.

    To anyone reading this who feels that they are depressed: get some help! You are not alone. Depression is common. Find a councilor. It is unbelievable the difference talking to a neutral person can make. The other thing you should know is that not all councilors are the same. If you see a person and you don't like them, then find someone else. A councilor good for one person may not be good for you. Your needs might just be different. You are not any weaker for becoming depressed anymore than if you get a cold. It happens. My other tip is not to think of dealing with depression like a battle because there may be times later in your life that the symptoms crop up again. If you have created an adversarial situation with your depression, you will feel like you "lost the battle" when you have a bad day. This feeds depression. I prefer to think of it more like a chronic illness that you deal with, kind of like an allergy. Most of the time you will be able to avoid any reaction and live normally, but there might be a time where you do react because the environment has changed or something.

    To anyone dealing with a friend/coworker with depression: be patient. You are not dealing with a logical person anymore. This can take a toll on you. It can be emotionally draining and you also should consider getting help. Encourage them to get help, but just like saving a drowning person, you must be careful not put yourself at risk because then you are no help to anyone.

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  12. I recently completed my PhD in chemsitry. I think grad school in general (not just in chemistry) will eventually highlight any mental health issues that may have been present under the surface. And yes, I think pretty much everyone has some mental health issues under the surface. The combination of high stress, low-praise, and low pay seems to be the perfect recipe to devalue an individual. There must be a systematic change in the graduate school system to address this problem. However, in the short term, ready access to therapy, and real training for PIs on management may certainly help.

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    1. Agree about the low self esteem trifecta. You have got to develop nerves of steel almost and try not to let the pettiness get to you. Actually, I think a good cry is good every once and a while, but so much better is a walk away from the lab. During grad school, I would schedule a hiking trip each term to rejuvenate my mind and basically told my adviser that these trips were gonna happen regardless of what was happening in the lab (backpacking is a low income sport). Things always tend to go better when you still have enthusiasm and a good attitude. And this is why it is so important to learn how to handle failures when you are a teenager rather than in college (being an athlete of some kind helps this mentality). The key is to find some type of balance and play as hard as you work. And sure grad school might take longer because of these "breaks" but at least you stay mentally healthy.

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  13. Sounds like a great opportunity to change one's career, given the bad market for PhD chemists. Get a PsyD or some other counseling qualification and offer discounted psychotherapy to those still toiling away in the labs.

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    1. I have actually thought deeply about doing this many times.

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    2. So I'm not alone, eh? A PsyD is strictly a clinical degree too- no research component like PhD programs have. It would be ironic indeed to become ensnared in yet another grad school trap while trying to escape the first one.

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    3. Of course, when I have considered this, I have thought about the MD version. Naturally, nothing that doesn't take 7 years isn't worth doing. (I'm kidding.)

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    4. A psychiatrist? We'll have better living through chemistry, one way or the other.

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  14. To Anon @ 11:49 AM: I am the Anon @ 6:57 AM. My advisor is "supportive" in the sense that he lets people talk to him about anything, but simply refers them to counseling and does not acknowledge his role in destructive behaviors. We live in a metro area where "everyone" sees a therapist. Some of my labmates have therapists, while others have openly discussed their suicidal tendencies but don't currently see someone or take medication. At the very least, everyone self-medicates with alcohol. Meanwhile, my labmates will use the excuse that they're sick to misbehave (lash out, throw things, disappear for days). I'm not sure how much my PI knows about all this, but he hates conflict and will mostly likely punish me for bringing it up, especially since some of his favorite students are the ones misbehaving. What options do I have?

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  15. I guess that mostly depend by the PhD student to deal with stress. Everyone handle stress in different ways. It doesn't matter in which University you are or in which group or working in whatever project, the basic line is that PhD students are subjected to a lot of stress.
    I was quite lucky with my PhD because my advisor gave me a lot of freedom on what to do in the lab and with my research line. And I loved it. I'm open to discussion and love brainstorming but if I'm "forced" to do something I'll not do it just for pissing you off.
    As I set up my research line almost by my own, I was happy to go to the university in the weekend or during the night (the infamous kinetic experiment that kept me awake for 48h) because I wanted it, and not because I was forced to obtain results.
    On the other side I'm putting a lot of pressure on myself even without any external pressure. Before starting my PhD, I set my goal on obtaining 3 papers in 3 years, and I end up with 10 papers and 1 book chapter in slightly less than that time frame.
    Anyway I love to be in the lab doing my experiments, and I start finding grant raising and writing stuff way more bad for my mental health than working in the lab. And I still have to figure out how to deal with it.....

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  16. My Ph.D. advisor had been a postdoc for Al Meyers (RIP). One day he distributed one of AIM's (in)famous "Where are my grad students?" letters. Nothing is as uplifting as fear and intimidation, except for jefito's one set of rules for boys and one for girls or sustaining a Saturday afternoon lab injury requiring surgery from which I never recovered on the PI's schedule.

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  17. Having recently finished my PhD and continued on into medical school (talk about your mental problems being an MD/PhD candidate, but I digress...), I can completely sympathize with those of us who have dealt with the anxiety and frustration associated with being a PhD student, especially in chemistry.

    There were various times throughout grad school where I felt like giving up and moving onto other things, especially considering I was also banking on moving to medical school when I finished. Unfortunately for me, I am not a part of a program where funding is guaranteed throughout my time here, so I was compelled to stay in school with the future prospect of being supported (via TA positions and in-house funding), meaning that I had to deal with whatever issues I had during my grad school time.

    What I have found to be the most useful is to build up, as early as possible, a support system of colleagues, family, friends outside of school, and others (health professionals, other PI's, etc.) to turn to when times are tough, and (more importantly) not to rely on someone to do it for you. I did get stuck on an ambitious project with a very high risk and associated reward (which I did not end up achieving), meaning that I spent a great deal of time wondering late into the night what I was doing. with my life Having colleagues in the lab to speak with, friends outside of my group and department to commiserate with, and family (especially my wife) to support me at least kept me from sinking into any form of depression. Luckily, I did not have an abusive adviser or competitive colleagues in the lab, so I was not subjected to bullying, but my adviser was somewhat more aloof, so I needed to be resourceful if I wanted to either achieve anything or seek help when I was feeling down.

    My main advice is to get this support system in place as early as possible, so you have someone to turn to in the darkest hours of your graduate school career, and to have the wherewithal to make time for something other than grad school on occasion (I, for example, ran 6 marathons - one for each year of my PhD. Great stress relief and time to think!).

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  18. The frustration in most cases comes from the lack of sexual action. Top Universities should sponsor access to massage parlors for stress relieve. That'd make everything easier to bear. I am not joking.

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    1. I wish you were joking. I knew several members of both genders that could have greatly benefited from this.

      That said, if your PI isn't getting any action, you probably shouldn't be getting any either. Sex, exercise, proper nutrition and a clean house can often be distractions to your lab duties.

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  19. I am in my last year of my chemistry PhD program and I have suffered (and to an extent, still suffering) from depression as a result of my studies. I am not based in the US and I do not work in a big group but have had (and still having) very similar experiences to the above. Reading this blog post and the comments made me feel that I am not alone-thank you CJ!

    In my opinion the PI's pastoral role is vital to the group's mental health. In my case a few individuals in a small group can create a fairly toxic environment. I have been bullied and verbally threatened. At start of my second year I have had to look after four undergraduate students without a postdoc or another senior student in the group, whilst trying to submit for a publication. So I would write and put reactions on during the day and do columns at night when all the rotavaps are free and there is no one to ask me any questions or get me to do repairs. For about 2-3 weeks I would sleep and eat on alternate days to keep my body going, I wanted to be productive regardless of the work situation. Poor housing, poor diet and stress all contributed to anxiety but in the end my advisor's choice to ignore rather than deal with the bullying (all documented and reported) that is going on in the lab turned my anxiety into depression. I felt that no academic in the institution would stand up for me because the bully brings in a lot of money. I have felt suicidal with no one to turn to. The counsellors that I saw at the start did not seem to have experiences of dealing with doctoral students. I also gave myself a really hard time for not coping as well as I expect of myself.

    Depression got to me before I have my support system in place (ignoring wise advice similar to the above), and it didn't help that none of my closest friends are chemists. Their practical advice to file a complaint, to 'work for a different manager' or to 'find another job' didn't help in the academic scenario I found myself in. I have been very open about the depression diagnosis and thankfully students in the department are supportive. The twitter community was also a saving grace, I cannot thank BRSM and James Ashenhurst for their kind and encouraging words when I really struggled with my work and assignments having lost all confidence in my ability to do chemistry altogether.

    With so little time left on the program, I'd be glad to finish. When the leadership doesn't change, the culture of the laboratory will stay the same. Having sought help through counselling (and initially antidepressants were also prescribed) I am learning to prepare myself for the finishing line.

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  20. CoulombicExplosionJanuary 7, 2013 at 10:12 PM

    CJ - I'm glad you implored the chemblogosphere for good news prior to this discussion. Hopefully the two will even out (cautious optimism).

    I agree with some of the previous commenters (both here and on ItP) that without 1) a supportive network and 2) healthy coping mechanisms, that the pressure-cooker of grad school can cause significant deleterious effects on one's overall well-being. Proper diet, sleep, exercise, and hygiene may be sacrificed or otherwise compromised. The stress can strain personal relationships or lead to substance abuse.

    I can also relate to some of these commenters that, as a relatively new PhD (~18 months out, no postdoc) that I've struggled with some of my grad school habits and mindsets. For example, I only work ~45 hours/week at my current job, but I still occasionally skip lunches because I don't feel like I'm productive enough. I also miss the freedom of academic research and the ideal of doing science to expand the frontiers of knowledge (as opposed to improving the company's bottom line). I've also experienced a few instances of impostor syndrome. I find myself framing the sum of these attitudes as a sort of "institutionalized" state (ala Shawshank Redemption) blended together with Stockholm syndrome, wherein I continue to think back to graduate school in a bittersweet sense. Sick, isn't it?

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  21. Whew, I'm glad I got my psychotic tendencies out as a Chemistry undergraduate! Multiple suicide attempts, self-injury, substance abuse/addictions, paranoid delusions, hallucinations: my CV as a lunatic was far more impressive than my CV as Chemist.

    I wasn't the only one this deranged. A lot of people have their first psychotic break as a young adult. Sometimes it's confused with substance abuse but one often begets the other. Psychotic episodes are well-documented in college students and I suspect the same for graduate students. As other comments have mentioned, graduate school (or college) may not be bad for your mental health per se but it could bring latent psychiatric issues to the surface.

    With all of that said, I was seeing a psychiatrist at the time and was prescribed a variety of antidepressants, antipsychotics, anxiolytics, etc. While the meds gave me relief from the "Shadow People" that stalked me at night, I sacrificed my cognitive abilities. The simplest tasks--multiplication, reading a book chapter, writing a paper--became extremely difficult. Eventually, these meds no longer aligned with the lifestyle I wanted to live. So I stopped taking them.

    And everything has been fine since then. Make no mistake: I am still a madman. But I also recognize irrational thoughts and have ways to work around them. I also know how much I have to lose by pursuing those thoughts.

    Amazingly, I did finish my undergrad and I have been working in industry since then. Industry has been invaluable for gaining perspective, self-confidence, and maturity. It got my head straight. I am currently researching chemistry graduate programs, so I'm glad that I found this thread. Maybe my tempered insanity will be an advantage?

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    1. Humm...I have something like "shadow people" stalking me at night. This seems to be very common and related to not getting enough sleep and having trouble reaching deep REM state of sleeping. What medication did you take to finally get rid of them?

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  22. Here is a question for any of you that set up support systems. Did you find that you needed a support system that knew what you were going through, such as former/current grad students? Or were people outside the crazy life of a grad student good for you? Or maybe a combination of both?

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    1. I am the Anonymous from 6:50 AM. A support system was essential! They were current grad students, most of them in other fields. We could talk to each other, understand our problems, so that helped a lot! Definitely, take the time to create a support network of reliable friends, even if it adds a year to your grad school, it is worth it, it will see you through.

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  23. I did my PhD in a lab in Europe, thank Christ for that. Nobody was expected to work more than 35-40 hours a week since a PhD-student is subject to the same collective bargaining agreements as other public sector employees. You get 5 weeks of vacation + national holidays, sick leave, pension etc. Our research group was small, less than 10 PhDs, postdocs and master students which meant that the PI had time to chat with everybody on an almost daily basis. Another benefit of smaller research groups is that more PhD's has as chance at becoming a professor. The research groups share almost all the equipment and chemicals which makes your daily life much easier.

    Now I'm doing a postdoc in the US to get a taste of the 'real world'. I have learned that the 100 hour week was not a joke. I see my PI maybe once a month. My labmates are zombies who have no social life. Some of our chinese J1 scholars actually sleep in the lab. Our equipment was great when the PI bought it 50 years ago, now most of it is a safety hazard. I can live with it because I know exactly when my appointment ends, but I do feel sorry for the grad students who have to stay 3 or 4 or 5 more years.

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    1. I wasn't considering grad school before. The insane work expectations and completely unhealthy lifestyle turned me off from my first day in Organic Chem, when my professor handed out packets declaring "to be a successful organic chemist, one must commit 60 hours a week at minimum." But your description of grad school in Europe has made me rethink that idea. Anyone know of any schools in the US with a similar work-life balance?

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  24. Selecting for professors from the top ten schools probably doesn't help with good management technique since it just means they probably learned how to do it wrong under slave drivers who killed their personality in the process. The old professors from top 10 schools in my department were interesting people with outside interests, who even if they were slave drivers, I felt you could talk to and were genuinely exited about chemistry.

    The new guys (as remembered from my old PhD program) are mostly monotone and only focused on chemistry if you're lucky. There was one guy who did his PhD in Boston and postdoc in Scripps or similar, who not only was a plank of wood in terms of personality, I honestly didn't see how he was that intelligent and a good chemist. Obviously he was smart enough to get the interview out of the way, but I could see how he was incompetent in managing the lab because he didn't know enough simple stuff about humans. There were definitely some issues between the students there. I don't know how the guy got his faculty position, but I suspect favoritism for top 10 pedigree and old boy network cronyism. I really lucked out with my boss.

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  25. This is anonymous @ 7:52 am responding to anonynous @ 10:45 am.. I wanted to comment because I was sorta amazed to see that this was happening in other labs too.. we also had our share of physical assaults.. stealing equipment.. stealing data.. one restraining order.. and a girl who would throw glassware around when she got mad (she hit a laptop and destroyed it once).. and while most students graduated in 7 & 1/2 years we had three that had been there for 10-12 years (which is soul crushing.. even if you're not that person to be working next to them.. kinda affects you whether you realize it or not..).

    I confess that even I have had a screaming match in the middle of the hallway.. but I was at my wit's end.. and sometimes you need to scream and shout to get treated with a little respect..

    our PI completely refused to get involved... (even with the restraining order issue)..

    And I agree with you.. the only reason that I got through my two years there was because I was self medicating with alcohol.. and I finally left because my dad, bf and best friend all urged me to quit.. because they said that they thought I was highly depressed...

    let me also say that is kinda freeing to say this all out loud.. and have other people acknowledge that they've had similar experiences... even if I am posting as anonymous...

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  26. I don't see anything here specific to Chemistry. A lot of grad students I have talked to, go through this phase in every field. Yes, the experimental sciences makes things even harder. I am in a computational field of study, and I almost quit the program in my mid-years. I had a failing research project, I thought of myself as a failure, I was going through the motions, but couldn't really fruitfully do the thinking for the research for almost a year. I had an advisor who was well-intentioned but never available. I was basically on my own, trying to chalk out my own problems, writing up, etc. I was 100% sure I was going to quit. The sad part is that as this was happening I didn't even realize it could be depression. It really was. I was very lucky to have a very supportive group of friends, sharing my frustration with them, hearing theirs, that helped me through. Now, as I'm wrapping up my Ph.D., I approach my research with a lot more confidence. Sadly, some other friends of mine, didn't recover from the what I call the mid-year lows. If there is one advice I can give grad students, it will be go out of your way to create a network of people around you, share your frustrations, and your shortcomings with them, it will help you through. DO NOT be afraid of judgement, if talking to someone outside your field makes it better, cultivate such a group of friends.

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  27. My 3rd year PhD mental health breakdown was the best thing that ever happened to me. Research was failing, and my relationship broke down.

    And a year later after a year which I mostly remember the alcohol drugs, and sex...I ended up a motivational coach.

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  28. Grad school is hard labor with a gun to your head - if you can't get your project to work, then you're a viewed as a failure, no PhD reward no matter how hard you tried. Few other jobs have working conditions that dire. In industry, people get laid off more because the project itself doesn't work, or didn't show results in time. In grad school, you are expected to coax nature to follow your hypothesis, and we all know about that success rate.

    I think it's unrealistic to expect advisors to become great managers - many of them are products of the same awful circumstances, and none of them get any management training. It's also demoralizing to realize that a lot of PhD candidates are expended to churn out data for grant apps, or "sacrificed" for impossible pet projects.

    I would advise anyone considering grad school to carefully take the temperature of the PI and lab environment. If lab members take 8 years to graduate, if the advisor has a bad reputation - then find another lab. In the end, your PhD will mean more than the project itself.

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    1. "You're viewed as a failure" - I agree. In industry, there's no shame in getting laid off. I resisted quitting grad school for a long time, even though I was miserable, because I didn't want to be like the lazy, pot-smoking partiers who failed out of my undergrad school. After I moved back home, I laid low and intentionally lost touch with a lot of undergrad friends because I didn't want to admit I quit.

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  29. 4th year PhD about to finish - in tot. syn as well

    I still love synthesis and my advisor was hard at me at times- what really got me was when things I was ordered to try (by a post doc) didn't work and I was held responsible for it. That broke me down.

    Afterwards (which involved alot of therapy, drugs (both pharmaceutical and recreational) and soul searching) I bowed to do things that =I= thought had a reasonable chance of working (it was my time and effort after all).

    Ofcourse chemistry is still chemistry so "motivating" didn’t stop but atleast I was being held accountable for my own ideas/actions. This made the experience quite acceptable for me. Looking back my one regret is not coming to that specific conclusion sooner. When our nut was cracked I was very happy to see that my PI was happier then me (for me!)

    Otherwise PI's are still humans and they are not perfect- I would guess much of the nastiness come from trying to motivate people and geting them to achieve their very best. It's not pleasant but I think it is what lot of us signed up for.

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  30. JAR
    Nice read chemjobber. I comply to your take. I am a 4th year grad student in analytical chemistry working in already dumped instruments taken by my advisor. I have gone through the craziest moments in my life while being in grad school. I got severe kidney problem that I am living with 30 % functions left just because of the stress I got here in last 3-4 years. Even though I work hard, and do works in organized way my boss is never impressed with me. He believes my approach is always random which is not true. I feel pretty much depressed and at a times I can't find answer why I am here? I really don't know what should I do next......I love my life though!!!!

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  31. I am a first year chem grad and from all of these post it appears it gets worse before it gets better... and this last semester it got pretty low. Getting a PhD is not something I just decided to do because there was no jobs and nothing else better. I worked as a Tech I know what my options are with just a BS in chemistry and it isn't what I want. I have wanted a PhD for as long as I could remember. I am smart enough but I don't know if I am emotionally or mentally strong enough. When do you throw in the towel and say enough is enough? People not in the program don't understand and tell you to be strong you can do it. My peers say yeah, yeah we feel that way too but their abilities to function normally suggest they don't. Who do you talk to then? I don't even know what I need to hear to make it all okay. I don't want to reach the point of hopelessness and a deep depression I can recover from, but I also don't want to give up so easy.

    Sincerely,

    BoilerChemist

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  32. Leading cause of death for chemists is suicide.

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  33. Great thread.

    With me, I don't remember that I cried, but I do remember sending an email to my advisor describing my frustrations with the dead-end thesis project I was on (which was correct--three years and no publication from it). I think in that e-mail I asked from him for help, advice suggestions.

    He told me in person that he did not have time to read my email.

    That lead me to where I am now: a complete divorcing of myself from having any personal ambition.

    My bad grad student and horrible post-doc experience, along with a pitiful personal life, did lead to some psychological problems (to embarrassing to describe, but nothing in terms of sociopathy) which I am still recovering from.

    My family thinks there is something wrong with me, and they are right. But I seek to improve.

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  34. Hi, potential Grad school student here. I'm shocked and frightened by what I'm reading here. I've talked with my mentor about grad school being an emotionally tough environment, but these testimonies have placed grad school in a whole new, and much darker light. I thought scientific communities in grad school were supposed to be havens of free thought and collaboration? what the hell is the point in being so nasty to each other in the first place, i mean every one is really in the same boat and the only way i can see grad students turning on each other is if the mentor is instigating it with some bullshit like " whoever gets the synthesis first gets the publication."I want to ask " is Grad school really as terrible as you say?" but i have a feeling i already know the answer. how much of the stress could be mitigated simply by picking a PI that isn't an asshole, and what are some ways i can find out who to avoid once I'm in or when i visit? What questions should i ask and who should i ask?

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    1. Q1: Grad school can be as terrible as I have intimated; it is also the freest and funnest environment that I've been in, in a long time. Private industry is weirder and stupider, but it pays a lot better.

      Q2: It's really important not to pick a jerk as a PI. It's also really important to know your own personal ability to withstand jerks, and (potentially) be a jerk back. A lot of people think "I'm tough enough and I'm good enough." I did, and I think I was wrong. Doesn't mean that you will be.

      Q3: You need to ask good questions, and you need to learn how to listen about PIs. Most graduate students will be willing to (behind closed doors, or with the right amount of beer) be quite honest how how jerky (or not) their profs are. Most questions will be:

      1. Is Prof X a dick?
      2. Where do Prof X's people end up?
      3. Do you think Prof X is fair?
      4. Who did the worst in Prof X's group? Why?

      Most of those questions will get you where you want to go.

      Best wishes, CJ

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  35. Hi!

    Could you sign this petition: change.org/petitions/board-of-education-and-all-educational-facilities-and-municipalities-reform-education-so-that-it-s-fair-for-all-and-not-for-the-elite-few-or-the-dull-many-no-child-left-behind

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  36. wish me luck...im giving up on chemistry...i will start another courses soon...i already graduate my degree...but life sucks!!!im depressing because all the lab work...i never choose chemisty but i just go with the flow bcoz i score chemistry during foundation..im excel in academia..but lab is freaking suck!!...im already 27...i know its too late..i graduate my bachelor at 21...i wish i continue degree in other courses...but i keep continue my studies...now...im giving up phd in chemistry...i want to do something else...i kinda regret...if i realize chemistry is freaking suck...i should do something else ages ago...i did organic chem...i end up coughing blood...so not cool..count me in...im quit!!!!this past few years in graduate school is torturing my mind!!!i love theories...but dealing with chemical make my health deteriorate badly!!a lot of ppl think im still young..yeah..i rather pursuing something else...

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