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.