Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 3

This is the 3rd in a series of posts on the question "Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?" by myself and Vinylogous Aldol. Don't miss Parts 1 and 2. Tomorrow's post (part 4) will be at Not The Lab.

Dear Vinylogous Aldol:

That was a really great post with some really great questions. We've been particularly blessed this week to have as many great comments on our blogs and links from both Derek Lowe and See Arr Oh. Both of them describe dark moments in their Ph.D. programs; See Arr Oh's post on his panic attack is particularly courageous and a must read.*

I think we've agreed that grad school in chemistry can be (is sometimes? will always be?) bad for your mental health; as of yet, I'm not really aware of very many comments that have argued otherwise. At some point, I'd like to transition to "what to do about it?", but I think that the points you made and the questions that you have are worth commenting on.

You've asked what aspects of the graduate school experience negatively affects mental health -- you've pointed out poor work/life balance, the power dynamics of graduate advisers and students, the perfectionist mentality and our mature (sigh) field itself. I think you've covered all the bases. I really want to highlight your point about the "nebulosity" of graduate school -- that everyone knows what a "good" doctoral thesis looks like, but very few people are willing to posit what the minimum contribution to our broader chemical knowledge should be. (And rightly so, I think!) I am reminded of a favorite passage from "Cold Zero", the true story of a speechwriter who becomes an FBI agent and, ultimately, a member of the Hostage Rescue Team (the FBI's SWAT organization). Here is what a HRT operator says at the beginning of one of the evaluations:
"This is an individual event of indeterminate length," an operator read. "You are expected to give a maximum effort throughout the event. You will be evaluated on your performance." 
Naturally, to heighten the psychological stress of the process, the operators don't tell the entrants how they are doing. Another military organization (the US Army's Delta Force) says during their selection process (which involves lone land navigation marches in the wilderness): "The standard is the best you can do."

I can't think of a better way to both identify the very self-motivated and to induce panic among most students. We all want to know how we're doing, we all want some idea that we're headed in the right direction, and no one wants to wander the wilds of graduate school for 10 years.

Regarding work-life balance, I wanted to mention that Richard Rhodes' great book "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" (you'll have to pardon my jump into sudden militarism) has a wonderful section about the off-hours activities of the scientists that worked at Los Alamos on the design and production of Fat Man and Little Boy. These scientists, who were incredibly bright and talented and facing an incredibly difficult task [and herded into the middle of nowhere, New Mexico], were given to skiing, partying, square dancing, putting on plays, fishing and mountain climbing. Perhaps we are not all as productive (there's that word!) as a Fermi or as brilliant as an Oppenheimer, but it is an indication that even in the most pressing of circumstances, scientific giants were willing to step out of the laboratory and have some fun. I think we could all learn from that.

I want to take a moment and reiterate my comment about the isolating nature of science. The Ph.D. is a collaboration (in the best times) between PI and student. However, it is the student that must perform the research alone, it is the student that must grapple with the literature by themselves and it is the student alone who must face their adviser and their committees when it is time to defend their dissertation. To a great extent, I think this is a great benefit of getting a doctorate as a degree -- it should mean that a graduate is independent, and capable of learning a field, its techniques and contributing to it on their own (employers and supervisors -- take note!) But it might train us to cut ourselves off from social support when we need it.

When you asked what I thought about how chemistry compares to other fields (veterinary medicine, medicine or an MBA program), certainly the economics of those programs are relevant to the discussion.** But what I think really distinguishes those professional fields from science is the relative lack of isolation. Young physicians don't work alone; group decision-making is (I think) the norm, even if one particular resident is responsible for patients and their outcomes. It is my understanding that MBA programs are very, very group project-oriented.

This isolating nature means that both inside and outside the laboratory, I believe a graduate researcher in chemistry should seek out other scientists, early and often. I know that lots of us are introverts, and many of us would much rather read a book than go to a party. But you might try talking to another chemist about your problems, scientific and otherwise -- at the very least, you'd be gaining a different perspective. (Also, talking to another chemist gets us practicing the very important skill of communicating chemistry and our chemistry problems to each other -- you're going to be doing it in your defense, at the very least, and likely many other times.)

Moreover, if there is one thing that I've been reading again and again in the comments (over 100, between your blog, my blog and Derek's), it is the importance of a human support system, be it a spouse, significant other, friends, family or even a therapist. I will note that during a particularly crippling bout of procrastination and non-motivation in the laboratory, I went to my university's counseling center to talk about my issues. I won't say that it changed things overnight (because it did not), but it at least got those issues out front, where I could confront them.

As for "is it worth it?", man, that is a hard, hard question. I don't rightly know, to be honest. It might be an unanswerable question, because it depends on time and place. If you asked me that question 2 years ago, I would have given you a much less positive answer. At the moment, I can mostly say, "Yeah, it was worth it. It was hard, but worth it." I think that question can only be asked maybe 10 years after graduation -- right now, it's still up in the air for me. I am proud of my degree, but I'm not going to pretend that it didn't come with a cost.

Some questions for you (man, this is a long post!): Which comments have struck you the most? As the chemblogosphere's resident naif, I think I'm a little surprised (even though I shouldn't be) about how many people admit to self-medicating with alcohol. I ain't a medical doctor, but I'm pretty sure that's a bad idea. What do you think your PI would say about mental health in graduate school, and how best to achieve it? Do you think grad school could be good for your mental health? (#slatepitches)

Hope you have a good Wednesday. Cheers, Chemjobber

*Reading SAO's post reminded me of a medical mystery that struck right around the time that I was interviewing for my postdoc in my final year of graduate school. The physician pretty much shrugged and said "It definitely could be stress-related." After I got my postdoc offer, the problem went away. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? The human body is a mystery.

**Licensing, professional societies and practical constraints (a medical school requires a teaching hospital) all limit the number of students that can enter the field and compete for employment. Also, we as a society tend to care a lot of about our doctors and how they are trained (which can be quite brutal as well.) The famed limiting of hours for medical residents, I suspect, was a big moment for physicians-in-training and how they were treated. But chemicals don't care when they're dropped on the concrete floor due to fatigue -- I can't say the same for people.

43 comments:

  1. CJ - Another gritty, honest evaluation of the graduate experience. RE: "the best you can do," this metric feels even more vague when you consider that graduate level courses, cumes, etc. are mostly "Pass/Fail." I don't recall receiving a numeric grade for Oral exams or my original research project.

    Also, we should note that there's always time to step back and take things less seriously. You mention Los Alamos, and it brings to mind the image of young Richard Feynman, who played bongos and raised hell at night, probably to compensate for a day job where he calculated atomic blast radii (and all that's implied by that).

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  2. Besides PI-student interactions, I think it's important to consider the lab culture in general (certainly this is influenced by the PI, but develops "organically" on its own). While I get along well with the other grad students in the group, somehow we've forged together a sort of judgmental culture of guilt. Even as we complain about working 60-70 h weeks, mental health days are few and far between, and there's a definite pecking order based on who works the most. It's a very subtle problem, but can be taxing mentally.

    Basically I think if you are expected to work these kind of hours, you end up going through mental gymnastics to try to justify it. Guilt is one way to keep yourself coming in when other motivations are at a low. Personally I've found it best to ride the high tides of motivation when they do come in and then let myself take a day off when I'm feeling too distracted. My PI encourages this; perhaps others wouldn't.

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    1. I agree wholeheartedly that lab culture is almost as important as the one-on-one relationship between a grad student and their advisor. The lab culture can be a reflection of (or sometimes a reaction to) the demeanor of the advisor. The lab culture I experienced was supportive, but we challenged each other, and this mirrored how we were treated by our advisor. I remember another chemistry research group at the same university with a supportive lab culture, but their advisor was, well, let's just say less so than ours. Much less.

      CJ & Vinylogous - This dialogue is proving to be a great, thought-provoking read. Hats off to you both for doing this!

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  3. I come from the UK, so the PhD/Grad School experience will have some differences. I'm not sure why nowadays a PhD should be an isolating experience. Hopefully very few research scientists work in a lab on their own and many research programs are now highly collaborative. Yes, I realise that only the individual can do the research themselves, but that's not say they can't discuss work with co-workers and collaborators, or even seek out new links with other research groups. It needn't just be the PI-student relationship but a much wider network that the student can engage with. Often, the students that struggle the most seem to be those who don't talk about their work with their peers. Perhaps it should be stressed more that the answer isn't always somewhere in your fumehood or the library, but its the person working next to you, in the office along the corridor or the lab downstairs that can help.

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  4. For the most part, this discussion is centering around PI's at educational institutions (i.e universities). Yet, is the performance of any PI tied to their "success" or "failure" in properly educating their students or in maintaining a healthy group atmosphere? If they are judged solely based on the impact of their research and what they are contributing to the department and university, they unfortunately have the motivation to push their students as hard as humanly possible for their own benefit. Putting that kind of stress on people in an improper manner (scolding, bullying, motivating through fear, etc.) will undoubtedly negatively impact the mental health of students. It is the rare person that can withstand constant stress without experiencing some negative effects on their overall well-being.

    I was extremely lucky to work for a PI who understood the value of encouragement, frequent but not overbearing collaboration, work-life balance, and setting time-bound yet achievable goals. He fully realized that if you were actually planning your work appropriately, managing your time well, and concentrating on executing while you were in lab (for example, not succumbing to distractions like the internet) that you should be able to work a 50 - 60 hour week and be extremely productive.

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  5. Stewie Griffin:
    Part of the problem with no set program standards is it causes the student to fill in the blank expectations themselves. Perfectionists will naturally set a high bar for themselves, the result being a distorted view of themselves and their accomplishments.
    From wikipedia's entry on congitive distortions...

    Some cognitive distortions are also logical fallacies.[3]

    All-or-nothing thinking (splitting) – Thinking in terms of a false dilemma. In other words, splitting involves using terms like "always," "every" or "never" when this is not either true or equivalent to the truth.
    Overgeneralization – Making hasty generalizations from insufficient experiences and evidence. Compare with misleading vividness. Contrast with precautionary principle, where a possible harm is rightly presumed true upon a reasonable suspicion until proven false beyond a reasonable doubt.
    Magical thinking - Expectation of specific outcomes based on performance of unrelated acts or utterances. In logic, this is called wishful thinking.
    Mental filter – Inability or refusal to view positive or negative features of an experience, for example, noticing only an aesthetic flaw in a piece of otherwise useful clothing, or a single good dish in an otherwise awful meal.
    Disqualifying the positive – Discounting positive experiences for arbitrary, ad hoc reasons.
    Jumping to conclusions – Reaching preliminary conclusions (usually negative) from little (if any) evidence. Two specific subtypes are also identified:
    Mind reading – Inferring a person's possible or probable thoughts from their behavior and nonverbal communication in the context of the situation.
    Fortune telling – Inflexible expectations for how things will turn out before they happen.
    Magnification and minimization – Giving proportionally greater weight to a perceived failure, weakness or threat, or lesser weight to a perceived success, strength or opportunity, so the weight differs from that assigned to the event or thing by others. This is common enough in the normal population to popularize idioms such as "make a mountain out of a molehill." In depressed clients, often the positive characteristics of other people are exaggerated and negative characteristics are understated. There is one subtype of magnification:
    Catastrophizing – Giving greater weight to the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or experiencing a situation as unbearable or impossible when it is just uncomfortable.
    Emotional reasoning – Experiencing reality as a reflection of emotionally linked thoughts, e.g. "I feel (i.e. think that I am) stupid or boring, therefore I must be."[4]
    Should statements – Patterns of moral reasoning based on what a person morally should or ought to do rather than the particular case the person is faced with, or conforming strenuously to ethical categorical imperatives which, by definition, "always apply". Albert Ellis termed this "musturbation".
    Labeling and mislabeling – Limited thinking about behaviors or events due to reliance on names; related to overgeneralization. Rather than describing the specific behavior, the person assigns a label to someone or something that implies the character of that person or thing. Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that has a strong connotation of a person's evaluation of the event.
    Personalization – Attribution of personal responsibility (or causal role or blame) for events over which a person has no control.
    Fallacy of fairness - Holding an ethical standard that other people don't meet.[4]
    Blaming - Holding other people responsible for the harm they cause, and especially for their intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress on us.[4]
    Fallacy of change - Relying on social control to obtain cooperative actions from another person.[4]
    Always being right - Prioritizing truth or ethics over the feelings of another person.

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  6. Here is an honest question to these posts about graduate school being bad for one's mental health. Is it really graduate school causing the issues, or are the people having the issues predisposed and would have had the same issues in any stressful job? I worked for a "top-notch" synthetic organic laboratory with a PI known for being tough (calling people out in public, "asking" under-performing members to leave, etc). However, I did not find the situation to be unbearable or even that difficult as long as you worked hard. Others in my lab would disagree with me; but I think some of these things are somewhat subjective. It would be interesting to find out - not sure how to design the experiment - whether graduate school "causes" mental health issues or if it would happen with any job for those individuals that feel their bosses are being too difficult. Not trying to demean or belittle the issues people are having, but it seems that putting the blame on PI's might be a bit displaced.

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    1. Lyle, I think it is worth pointing out that neither VA or I have squarely placed blame on PIs. VA has come a little closer than I have, but I think he would place as much blame on "the system" as on individual PIs.

      I'll be blunt; some PIs can be terrible managers (just other bosses in industry!) However, I feel that the power dynamic is a lot different with employees being more more willing to say "eff this -- I'm outta here." I feel that the graduate school situation (young students, PIs with the power of the recommendation letter) to act as judge, jury and executioner is uniquely set up for potentially bad outcomes.

      But I'll go with the one commenter who said that probably all people have some sort of issue; grad school just is a really good means of bringing them out. I'm saying this without a trace of sarcasm, Lyle -- perhaps academia is a great environment for you (you're a PI, right?) and some other environment with some other sort of pressure might make you crack a little.

      I think this is an interesting conversation -- I like contrarian positions, so I encourage you to comment further (or offline, if you like.) chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com, confidentiality guaranteed.

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    2. I'm not saying PI's aren't to blame - at least to some degree. But there are quite a few posters here squarely putting all of their issues on the shoulders of the PI's. I just would be interested to know whether there is something individually (and that is not blaming anyone, mental health is not funny, nor should anyone feel ashamed) causing some of the issues which is being brought out with stress (graduate school, Wall St., police, etc.), perceived or real. Much like you stated that "some other environment with some other sort of pressure might make you crack a little" - is exactly my point. The internet is a wonderful thing - but it also brings out squeaky wheel and the axe to grind mentality (or the NJ mentality - if I'm the loudest, I'm correct) which can be fueled by the topic/hosts/other commenters.

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    3. Hmmm. I have an appointment -- let me get back to you.

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    4. Lyle's question is one that's been on my mind as I skim these testimonials. CJ, you or your partner should investigate other fields that attract high-performing individuals who put themselves in stressful situations involving repetitive criticism (music comes to mind) or academic disciplines where the PhD process is largely an 'advisor-hands-off' affair (humanities, politics, policy, etc).

      Learning inevitably requires a feedback loop of action/evaluation/adjustment. As the late John Wooden said, 'a coach is someone who can give correction without causing resentment.' But it is a two-way street: the player also needs to be receptive to the critique.

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    5. Though I have seen the very worst from PIs, I do think that individual issues among grad students come into play. As other posters have mentioned, many grad students are perfectionists and have high standards for themselves. This is probably for some not driven by the joy of achievement but by the fear of not being "adequate." Many were high school valedictorians, many stood out even in "good" colleges...and many found themselves to feel average at best among their peers in grad school (as was I on all three counts).

      A lot of them have never known failure in an academic setting, which is perhaps a big reason why they keep staying in it. I remember the devastation I felt when my first experiment failed (It was supposed to be fairly easy). What would happen if I kept failing? Almost all are known as "the smart one" among family and friends. What would it mean if the "smart one" became the dropout?

      And, as has been mentioned, introverts tend not to reach out too much. And when they do reach out from grad school, they might not be understood. When I talked to my father about some frustration in lab or some outrage from my PI, he would often respond "It sounds like everything is going well." A friend I had known for 2 years said "Wait, you don't get summer vacation?" How did she not know what I was doing the last two summers? When I think about, I wonder how could a grad student NOT go a little off the rails?

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    6. Lyle, I think most people are "predisposed" to not dealing well with intense, year-long stress, while some people can deal with it just fine. I did my Master's thesis at a lab in Europe where there wasn't too much pressure from our boss. I remember having colleagues though, who were pushing themselves much harder than what was actually required of them. One time they decided to work the night through - not because they had to, but because they wanted to try it (I later heard stories about their hallucinations that kicked in sometime around 4a.m. - whether from fatigue or solvent vapors, we'll never know...). Anyway, what I am trying to say is that the current system seems to work fine for some - those might then go on and become PIs themselves, pushing their students as hard as they are pushing themselves. But does it really have to be that way for everyone who wants to go to a good lab? Can't I love chemistry (or biology, from where I've heard stories similar to what people have written here) and still also enjoy my life with the people I love, drinking alcohol for enjoyment and not just to dull the pain?

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    7. Anon, 5:05PM:

      Unfortunately, your last couple of sentences are trying to make every situation fit every person and that is just not the way the world works. Can you love chemistry and work your own hours and love everyone and everything? Sure, just pick the right group for you. Can you go to any lab you want and work the hours you want? Sorry, no. Do some research and don't pick the one where the advisor expects more out of the student than the student does out of the advisor. But you're not talking about mental health like some of the others are on here. You're talking about feeling good, where others are really having serious mental health issues - suicidal ideation, serious depression, etc. - that is not what your referring to. Everyone gets down in graduate school and has a hard time at one point or another - if not, you're probably not really doing research that matters or is that novel.

      When I'm talking about "predisposed" people I'm talking about those that really have an issue in graduate school and rather than "blame" the PI I was simply wondering if this would happen under any stressful situation. Hence, a change of topic from "Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?" to "Is any stressful job bad for your mental health?". Unfortunately, this website caters to the bashing of the educational system and PI's in general - again, the NJ mentality - I'm loudest therefore I'm right. It's the internet, I get it, but not all problems in a graduate students life is PI driven. It's goes back to two students go through the same situation and have very different outcomes - whose to blame (again, I use blame not as a derogatory word), individuals or PI's. Not to make fun, but kind of like saying I got drunk on scotch and water one day and whiskey and water the next, so the water made me drunk.

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    8. "Unfortunately, this website caters to the bashing of the educational system and PI's in general. Again, the NJ mentality - I'm loudest therefore I'm right."

      Um, what?

      Lyle, in all sincerity, I really value your perspective, and please, please keep commenting here. However, I find that comment really off-base.

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    9. Actually, I find myself almost agreeing with Kyle on this one (Gasp).

      Look, If you got your Ph. D. in 2005 or earlier. The buyer beware argument doesn't exactly fly in many circumstances. I think a lot of PIs used youthful exuberance, idealism, and misleading exceptions to get away with a lot of abuse. (I hate the way you said "working hard" I've heard that many a time and found it be a good a moving target as any, cringe) Yet thanks to the internet, this comment thread, there is so much information out there, and so much MTV grad school real world, people are totally making informed conscious decisions to find the right group, the right project, or to even go to grad school at all! This could be a good sign that the era of smoke and mirrors is over!

      I do like how you lend legitimacy to mental illness, many PIs, and many parts of the US do not or have not given legitimacy to mental illness. I also was fortunate enough to go to a school that did value (and pay) for mental health, and thus I was able to come out, relatively unscathed, with only minor and controlled alcohol abuse. For that I am so grateful!

      In hindsight, with age and maturity, yes I was predisposed to depression. Did I have a clue what that meant when I was 22? no. I especially did not have a clue what that meant when I listened to my professors talk so idyllically about grad school and wrote me glorious letters of rec, assuming my enthusiasm for both life and science would guide me through the bullying, hazing, shaming, and politics that often becomes grad school.

      That's the other thing. My PI, was ... ok. He wasn't awesome, but he was ok, he genuinely cared about the well being of students even if he was a bit of a nebulous hard ass who fumbled every so often. There are so many things in grad school that lead to depression, in my case it was loneliness. Even super PI cannot cure loneliness, nor did I expect him to. That's just crazy.

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    10. Sorry Chemjobber, take off the rose-colored glasses. Yours is not the only website that falls into this, but whenever there is talk about graduate school, this dissolves into how bad all PI's are and how they didn't "help" everyone. Or how it's the graduate schools fault for having too many Ph.D.'s, etc. If you don't see it, you're not looking.

      And Anon, it's Lyle, not Kyle - honest mistake.

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    11. Taking a break from some other writing, and my eyes got cross eyed. expectations, not exceptions.

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    12. Lyle, I think you might be generalizing there. Things I do not believe:

      1. All PIs are bad.
      2. Graduate schools are at fault for having too many Ph.D.'s (they are part of the problem, not the sole cause).

      [And, I might note, the ACS Presidential Commission believes that graduate schools are producing too many Ph.D.s? Where are your your disagreements with Overman, Breslow et al?]

      Again, I plan to address your points today or tomorrow, potentially in a separate post.

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    13. Chemjobber, no need for a defensive position. Note, I did not say you believe these things, just the website fosters this - that's a fact. No different than Dr. Lowe's website continually fosters the MBA's destroyed Pharma thought process. But, to #2 - where is the individual responsibility in all of this? One doesn't have to go to graduate school.

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    14. Individual responsibility comes with individual reward. And I see a lot of PIs keep getting 'Promising scholar' awards and good enough paychecks while their trainees are underemployed and the vast majority are not doing research for a living ten years after degree. Guarantee a good enough reward ten years out, and people will take individual responsibility for their choices to go to grad school. That's how human psychology works even if it seems unfair. The best PIs can do is suck up the internet abuse they deserve. They should be used to it from reading reviews on their articles and grants.

      It's not like you're going to get fired or something by reading words on the Internet. Plus, this isn't that Clockwork Orange scene where they strap you in a chair, and peel back your eyelids while playing Beethoven's 9th as background music. Most older PIs (like Noyori) just ignore blogs and think it's for stupid kids and bad gossip.

      Damn, if I was a PI and playing the game, I'd read this blog and agree with all of it, then go to the lab, tell the first year to work harder and tell the postdoc I want to see him in my office in two hours without specifying (I can imagine now the sucker running those NMRs up to the last minute...) I would be damn good.

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  7. I would not recommend going into science as a career unless you are going to be an academic, are a certified genius, or you will be happy as a lab technician. For many people it's a huge waste of your youngest years and the payoff is uncertain because you are dependent on others for a job in science.

    Graduate school is for training academics, if you are not going to be an academic, I would stay out and enjoy your youth, especially if you are in a non-Ivy League school.

    I did the Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry and deeply regret all of it. I was not able to force myself to finish my post-doc and left about three-fourths of the way through. I could not see myself doing lab work the rest of my life or even for the remainder of my post-doc.

    Fortunately, there were jobs for non-laboratory chemists when I was dumped out into the work force. That lasted about 9 years and then those jobs disappeared. I'm retraining for another area outside of chemistry and science entirely.

    I think some people suffered from depression during their time in graduate school. I was one of them. Don't ignore your health, especially your mental health. I still have nightmares about graduate school and my post-doc even though that was 15 years ago.

    If you are depressed in graduate school it may mean that you really don't like your subject area that much. Another issue for honest examination is that you may be trying to shove your type-B personality into a type-A career.

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  8. a priori, I don't that chemistry grad school is any more isolating or different from law/medicine/other sciences/military special forces. I agree MBA is a poor comparator (2 years and, as you point out, lots of group work: MBA students are also for certain 'different' from science students). Ultimately success or failure in these other fields comes down to personal achievement (will I pass X certification exam, will my letters of recommendation be sufficient to get me into a residency/internship at a good firm/hospital, will I make partner, will I get a position at a practice not in Iowa, will I get promoted past major) which lends itself to similar self-doubt/confidence/success issues described.

    Most serious professions are "up or out", which can be a tough slog.

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  9. I can remember a discussion of mental health with my PI and other members of the group at one point. The response to the discussion of mental health from the PI was "that's a bunch of touchy/feely crap".
    That comment made it extremely difficult for me to openly come to my PI to discuss mental health issues that I was having.

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  10. I think a big problem is also that the ending is unknown. If you go into medical school, you know what happens and when. You graduate in exactly 4 years, you go into residency and get paid 60-80k (depending on the specialty) and get multiple job offers right out, none of them below six figures. Plus when it comes to many other fields, the prereqs to get enter those schools (medical, pharmacy, dentistry, optometry,etc.) are all the same as grad school, minus the entrance exam.


    P.S. Why don't chemistry/biomedical sciences control the number of degrees like the AMA? When you get a PhD with a great skill set, companies still group you with those that got their degrees internationally and have the skills of a technician.

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    1. eh? are you inferring that 'international' PhDs do not measure up to a US PhD?

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  11. The best and worst advice my advisor gave me was "to stop caring". We had just moved our whole lab across the country and many of the students were struggling without their normal support systems. We had added lab members rather randomly, so we lost a lot of continuity and institutional knowledge ("this is all the characterization you need to publish" and "this is how you know that xyz is true"). The lab quickly split into adversarial camps and infighting ensued. I tried to warn my PI that sh*t was about to hit the fan between two group members, but he didn't want to hear about it and told me to stop caring and to focus on my own chemistry. After he fired one of my good friends in lab (avoidable, if he had actually managed his lab), I finally had to listen, to preserve my own sanity.

    I'm getting ready to graduate, but I feel like a shadow of my former self. I'm not curious about anyone else's chemistry, I can't care that someone is having a breakdown, and I'm coldly looking forward to the day I never see some of these people ever again. I roll my eyes and put in my earbuds when my labmates talk about their problems. Hell, I roll my eyes and put in my earbuds when my labmates TALK. I survive by relying on friends and family outside of the lab.

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    1. Honestly, I'd go crazy if the safety folks came in and took away my music.

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    2. Ironically i'd go crazy if i had to listen to someone else's music. Ear buds: the lesser of two evils.

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    3. Same story here (in the UK), I know what you mean. I have to stop caring to get any work done.

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    4. Same story. I've been out of the lab for nearly 2 years now and I've only started this week looking into chem blogs again. Glad I found these posts.
      I couldn't handle the lab/research anymore. It took me nearly one full year after graduating only to "rebuild" myself. I had no interest in chemistry anymore, no motivation, no self-esteem after a very difficult project (3 years on a synthesis, no publication). I would get anxious thinking about looking for a job. I was lucky to have a S.O. who had a stable income and supported my time off after graduating.
      I was finally diagnosed with a burnout and a depression. It all makes sense now.

      You cannot "not care". It's just killing a part of you inside. My advice would be to get out of there as soon as possible. Surround yourself with non-scientific friends, do activities outside the lab and refocus on yourself. It'll slowly get better after it's over.

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  12. I think that the graduate education system is not designed to put value on student sanity. Where I went, there was little in the way of a formal way of getting into groups. A thesis "committee" was a misnomer - you more or less graduated when your advisor said so (committees didn't exist very long before graduation). There were set standards for cumes and classes and not much else.

    I am cynical enough to assume that this order is so because professors and universities prefer it so. Professors had lots of freedom to do as they wished, which allowed them to (mostly) succeed or fail on their own, and the university profited or lost accordingly. The lack of support system and the isolation it brought means that one was left to one's own devices, of which the second biggest was one's advisor. (Sort of like a cult, or an abusive relationship, in the worst case, or having a domineering but loving parent, in the best). Having your advisor have total control over your future (the product of eight to ten years of work, in most cases) seems like a temptation to evil, and one at least some people needed no prompting to succumb to.

    Where I went had some means of help, for which I was grateful. It could have been much worse for students where I was, and my advisor and group were (while imperfect) pretty supportive, but I believe that the lack of set rules and total advisor control made the overall environment more hostile than it needed to be. My failures (self-absorption, didn't work hard enough, didn't have a clue what grad school would be like, other issues) were determinant, but I think the environment amplified problems (mine and others').

    At least some of the isolation in grad school could be remedied. The department had parties in the summer, which helped, but having more interactions between students and groups, and having secondary advisors (committees) with some power could help. (This seems to be a particular problem in cases of fraud - Sames/Sezen, in particular.) That no remedies are used indicates that grad student sanity probably isn't important, in the same way that the lack of real safety training and enforcement (while placing the blame and onus for safety on students) says that safety is really not a matter of importance for (most) professors or universities. A catch in the argument is if the isolation and stress levels are necessary to separate different levels of chemists and to isolate (figuratively) the best ones. Can it be seen as like SEAL/Delta Force training, where the point is to deliver the best candidates, and other considerations (your well-being, in particular) are secondary?

    Another inherent problem is the large difference between grad school and undergrad. In undergrad, the parameters of your mission are clear - you know what you need to know and know that it is known. The rules are encoded in massive detail. Research experience is helpful, but your life or degree doesn't depend on it. In grad school, on the other hand, the rules are unwritten for the most part, both scientifically (finding knowledge is a whole lot different than learning it when known) and socially (who should I work for? how can I get them to want me? what is expected of me? what do I have to do to leave?). The information asymmetry is, I assume, intentional, but considering the type of people who are likely to want science as a career, etc., the lack of information is almost certain to bring problems. While the scientific part of growing up can't be mitigated without losing its essence and point, the social system - how it is organized and run, what the rules are - could be.

    I guess the TL/DR version of my comment is that while people bear a lot of the blame for their own unhappiness, the isolation, information asymmetry, and lack of rules in grad school amplify the problems inherent to a graduate education and make individual unhappiness easier to achieve, harder to abolish, and sometimes more costly for everyone involved.

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  13. Was it worth it? I think grad school gave me a lot of good things - I saw a lot of neat things and smart people, learned a lot of chemistry, and made friends. I think some of what I learned about myself was not positive, but it had to be learned. I wouldn't want to go through grad school again, but if I had to choose to go or not go, I probably would go anyway - chemistry is still what I love, and I would have had to find out where I stood with it. I might have done things differently (make a resume earlier, spend a year of two working after undergrad, save money, go back to school), but grad school still was a useful experience.

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  14. I'm completely on the other side of things now as a manager and administrator. But one of the things I wished I had learned and focused on as a grad student was networking. So much of what benefits everyone looking for a job AND working in the field is establishing good, solid personal relationships. In addition those relationships reduce the feelings of isolation and establish a network for assisting when problems arise. My PI certainly could have helped with this by encouraging me to go to more meetings (local and national) and emphasizing social interaction. But in the end it was my cluelessness. Social skills can be learned with practice and I should have been working on that. Of course NOW I am. But I'm making up for lost time.

    Would I do it again? Yup. But I would approach it differently. A PhD is necessary for this job, which I enjoy. With just the BS I'd be stuck as a tech, and I really didn't enjoy that job at all. Grad school also gave me more insight into how science is done. You pay more attention when it's your own project and not "just a job".

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  15. Langley: "Dr. Lowe's website continually fosters the MBA's destroyed Pharma thought process"

    Here's a reason why it does that.

    Because it's true.

    Similarly, not all PIs are bad but there's no doubt that we are perpetuating an unhealthy culture of student exploitation in academia. What we need to talk about is the average, not the outliers.

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    1. Yep, the internet strikes again. Thanks Anon:1:06 for making my point. "It's true" because I say so on the internet.

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    2. Perhaps he should have said "that's a fact."

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    3. Lyle you can classify me as a believer that MBAs largely damaged Pharma as I am old enough to have worked when Science/Medicine was the primary motivator and not mostly profit. There are a host of others who contributed negatively as well, not the least of being R&D types who wanted to behave like academics rather than having more concrete objective to produce materials that could be sold.

      More related to the main thread and theme while I think grad school can be rough on people, in cases intentionally so, I do agree it can exacerbate underlying issues a person may have just like any stressful situation. A bad/uninvolved/overly-dominating PI, obnoxious lab-mates, low-pay, lack of outlets or support plus many other factors mentioned can make it worse in most people. Just like MBAs I see PI as a main source of problem even though I actually would not classify a majority of PI as too terrible however am frustrated that more than a few seem to feel they had to endure themselves certain hard or non-optimal approaches so implement same tactics with there students. Chiefly, just like CEO, PIs are responsible for the culture and not everyone may thrive in what is established around them.

      My answer to to topic is Chemistry Grad school is probably largely bad for one's mental health, mostly short-term at the time one is in it. However there are mechanisms to deal with (hopeful appropriate) and in the end I think most people gain a sense of pride and confidence in achievement to take forward so could be a net benefit long-term. Sometimes the more intense the hardship have to survive the larger impact it will have.
      CMCguy

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  16. Sorry I hurt your feelings, CJ. My comment, as I clarified them, were not directed at YOU, but rather the website and the comments found within.

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    1. No apology needed. My feelings, as they are, are bemusement (literal meaning) and self-checking. I understand that your comments are not pointed at ME, but 1) definitely at other commenters and 2) the words of the blog itself, which, 90% of the time are my own words.

      You have interesting points, Lyle, so I sincerely hope that you keep commenting. As I have said, I value contrary opinions, especially on these issues.

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  17. Loved the reference to Rhodes's book which I have read several times. The scientists were not just willing but strongly encouraged to engage in these activities, otherwise the intense pressure would have driven them crazy. A great example.

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  18. Truly awesome post! It is really very interesting and informative. Keep more updates.

    Thanks,

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