Dear Vinylogous Aldol:
This has really been quite a week of posts -- I'm almost exhausted just reading through all the other posts that have spun off. As you've said, if we had to name check all the folks who've contributed, it'd start looking like a J. Med. Chem. paper. I have a couple of comments and answers to some of the questions that you've posted in your excellent Thursday post (which, I feel, I need to somehow apologize for a lack of comments -- perhaps readers were actually beavering away in their hoods on Thursday. I got a large bit of work done myself.)
As to whether graduate school contained anything that improved my mental health, I'd have to think about it, and give a qualified "yes." I learned to exercise in grad school; while I seem to have lost the motivation to exercise a little since then, it's definitely something that I really enjoyed doing and gave me some amount of pleasure. I did gain a good bit of emotional resilience from graduate school (the ability to "take a lickin' and keep on tickin'), but I'm not sure that's something that made me happier.
I do think that something might be given up when you work shorter hours; let's just posit that the difference between working 40-50 hours and week at 60-70 hours a week for 2 or 3 years is probably 1 Org. Lett. paper's worth of work (maybe more, maybe less.) Would that one more or less publication at the margin cost someone a job? Maybe -- I think it's possible. I think the return on the happiness is probably worth it, though. (Don't know -- that's all just a WAG.)
As to Lyle's question of "whether grad school causes these issues, or exacerbates the existing condition?", I agree with you, it's probably both. I really, deeply agree with the commenter (I can't find it now) who said that probably everyone has some level of predisposition with mental health issues and graduate school is a really good environment to bring them out.* The trio of high expectations, high failure rates of experiments and relatively low pay is probably corrosive to all but the most mentally tough psyches. What's worse, of course, is that when you haven't figured out your project well enough to really, deeply understand the principles behind the chemistry that you're doing, failure and success almost seem to happen randomly. It's that initial random aspect to experimentation that can drive people completely bonkers if they're not careful.
And of course, "project frustration" (I'm trying to come up with a phrase for the scientific version of "battle fatigue"**) is such a key part of graduate school. It is the one thing that teaches a chemist that they can solve the problem presented to them. I think it teaches them to challenge assumptions, to learn the usefulness (or lack thereof) of beating your head against the wall, to delve into the literature, to talk to your adviser and your friend. I think what is most key is that we have to acknowledge, at those key times (perhaps in our 3rd or 4th years?), that graduate students need to be watched especially carefully by their PIs to be sure that they're not doing poorly, from a mental health perspective.
Pressures on a PI: Whenever I think about this issue, I think about Professor Hardass Slavedriver, and his paragraph on the pressures that he has. It's real reality, and there's not a lot of humanity, just Hobbesian jungle.
Organic-versus-everything-else: Students are getting smarter about the job market, and they can read the writing on the wall about organic chemistry (perhaps scrawled by Professor Whitesides.) Chemistry is full of other interesting fields, and organic chemists aren't waving around their Big Pharma signing bonuses like they used to.
If the job market/funding picture continues to suck, what happens?: Not a clue. If the funding picture continues to suck, more 4th and 5th years will teach o-chem lab and the Wheel of Pain will turn slower, and they won't be in the lab as much. If the job market continues to suck, I dunno. Lots of cheap postdocs?
Are relaxed labs at a disadvantage at hiring?: I don't know -- are they less visibly productive? I don't think there's any really good evidence that they're at a disadvantage, but I'm not in the hallowed halls of Big Pharma, so I can't tell you. Readers?
What parts of grad school are necessary?: The truly high stress parts of the Ph.D. are really important, in my opinion: giving literature seminars, the original proposal, the candidacy exam, these all make a lot of sense to me. What I would potentially discard is some of the tried-and-true soul-grinding routine: namely group meeting. Is a 3 hour group meeting starting at 7 pm with lots of pop quizzes and berating necessary? Is departmental group meeting necessary? Were Woodward's all nighters really that important? (Probably, yes, but most PIs that pull that stuff (Saturday group meetings) aren't R.B. Woodward.)
Concrete things I would add to grad school:
- A mercy rule, w/r/t length of doctoral degree. I don't know what is too long, but I think 9 years is probably too long.
- A course on interpersonal professional interaction, with an emphasis on communicating needs. By this, I mean, "telling people how you really feel" and "asking people for stuff." Look -- you're going to be doing it in one form or another for the rest of your life, even if you're just asking people if they want fries with their burger. (I kid.) Asking a customer if they'll accept $400/kg instead of $300/kg, asking your boss for flex time or your friend if they'll hire you are all basically asking people for stuff. It's very important, and only covered in writing form in grad school (because, apparently, the government will only give you money after you've written a doorstop of a proposal in 8 point Times New Roman.)
- The excellent and mysterious @jfreebo suggested a one-month sabbatical for grad students in the middle of the 3rd year of graduate school. I think that's an excellent idea, and I would put it at the end of the candidacy exam as a reward for finishing -- along with my offer of cold hard cash to quit.
What have I learned from all of this talk of mental health and graduate school?
3 separate very senior chemists (with an H-index average of ~30 or so) have talked about moments of deep emotional distress in graduate school, with an added panic attack by a not-nearly-as-senior-but-still-awesome chemist. It happens, and it's normal. It is also wise and normal to seek professional help.
I think I've learned the breadth and depth of pain that people are willing to talk about in forums such as these, and how important it is that institutions and professors note how their words and actions might be perceived (however incorrectly). I've also learned that this is something that we should be watching for in our friends and talking about, in public and online.
Hope you had a good week and that you managed to get something done in the lab. Thank you for participating in this and thanks for the sacrifice of your time. I think I've also learned that you're a pretty great writer and thinker, and I hope to hear more from you, Vinylogous.
Best wishes, Chemjobber
*@autolycos, a MD, writes in with his thoughts: "In my opinion, the reason chemistry grad school, med school, residency, and other similar hierarchical environments (the military, too) have such a mental health and suicide problem is twofold. First: there are few checks on admittance of people who are potentiated to have mental illnesses when they are deprived of meaningful feedback... But, once we've admitted these people, it's then generally the case that they are treated capriciously, carelessly, and generally considered second to the task at hand, whether it be teaching, research, taking care of patients, or storming that hill."
**Noting, of course, that PTSD is its own thing and separate from a hard year in the lab.