Thursday, January 8, 2015

Revisiting graduate school and mental health with Vinylogous Aldol

A note to readers: Vinylogous Aldol and I will be sharing a brief discussion today and tomorrow on our thoughts on mental health since our previous series. Tomorrow, it will be at Not The Lab. 

Dear Vinylogous:

How are you? It's been a while, hasn't it? Two years since we last discussed the issue of "Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?" I hope that the time has gone well for you in graduate school. I've certainly had a lot more perspective since then.

The stresses of industrial work

Since we've written that series, I've also experienced some of the fun aspects of life in industry as well. While I have been spared being laid off so far (thankfully), there have certainly been ups and downs.

A favorite novel of mine ("Gates of Fire", by Steven Pressfield) talks about how the soldiers of Sparta counted their years and their memories by different wars and battles. My father's long career in corporate America seems to have been marked by not only what he was working on, but who his supervisor was, and whether or not that supervisor was a good or a bad one.

I experienced a change like that in these intervening years. It (and the change in management style, expectations and relationship-managing) was difficult at best and somewhat humiliating at worst. Looking back, I shared a healthy chunk of blame in its rocky start. That said, it was a very good, maturing (and extremely humbling) experience for me. That is something that I suspect that doesn't happen very often in graduate school; most of the time, a student has 1 PI. Industry seems to switch management about once every 3 years. I wasn't prepared for it, and it showed.

I regret to tell you, Vinylogous, that I wish I could say that the moments of greatest stress have resulted in some professional triumph on my part. Rather, I experienced a rather difficult project where, in the end, I was not able to meet the rather simple chemistry goals that had been set out. Everything mostly worked out in the end, but there were too many missed deadlines and out-of-specification results that I was responsible for. I learned a lot of lessons, but I sure wish I didn't have to learn them this way. It's been a while, but the project still pains me in the still quiet moments when I think about work. While I've tried to channel my disappointments in positive directions (including writing a really detailed, brutal postmortem), I still think about that project a lot. Happily, work has moved in a much more positive direction since then (and my mental health!)

I don't think anything that I experienced could match the depressive depths of graduate school, but I suspect that the real difference happens to be that I have a wife and children now. Getting to see them (and experiencing their daily, unconditional love) is something that I didn't have before. Also, it's funny to see how having friends who aren't other graduate students (and have troubles of their own, and sharing those troubles with them) has been pretty therapeutic. Being part of a community (whatever it may be - hobby-based, faith-based) matters -- that's something the real world is a lot better at, I think, than graduate school. I also started running regularly, which has been a source of some solace (and back pain.)

Is graduate school any different? 

It's clear to me that graduate school hasn't changed that much since we last talked. The median time-to-degree for graduate students is still above 6 years for students in the physical sciences (6.5, to be exact*), it's not like the funding pressure has gotten better since then either. I am more surprised to hear some graduate students being paid in the high-20s or low-30k range, which, as far as I'm concerned is both a hell of a lot more than I was being paid and great news. Grad school sucks on its best days, and getting paid more is better than a kick in the shins. I wonder if the new and welcome emphasis on reproducibility in science is having mental health repercussions -- I haven't heard any, but I am sure that having a paper retracted would be a tough day.

So, some questions for you, Vinylogous:

1. How has the intervening 2 years been for you and your mental health?
2. I feel like younger professors are getting a lot better about work-life balance than not -- am I right in thinking that?
3. Are mental health-related issues getting talked about more, among newer graduate students?
4. I know you talked about it a little bit in our e-mail exchange, so I'll steal this question from you: how should a graduate student know when it is time to quit a program? Does the "sunk cost fallacy" play a role in this? ("I gotta recoup these last 4 years by getting a Ph.D.!")

Once again, sorry that this is a touch late -- hope to hear from you tomorrow.

Cheers, CJ

*I originally cited the "since bachelor's degree" number, where most people use the "since starting graduate school number. Thanks to Organometallica for the catch. 


  1. This is a great post CJ - I had similar difficult experiences during my career in industry (though I never went to grad school), so I can empathise. On a more tangential note, if running is giving you a bad back I think you might need to do some core strengthening. Might be worth talking to a physio/personal trainer.

  2. My own thoughts on the questions:

    2 - In general, I found younger professors to be worse at work-life balance. The older ones entered the field during a much less competitive time, and a lot of them probably would have ended up in industry in today's academic job market. That said, the older ones could be plenty awful too, and my own advisor didn't seem to spend much time with his wife and kids.

    3 - I mastered out of grad school in the early days of the Internet, and aside from whispered anecdotes about past grad student freak-outs in my own department, I was unaware that my situation was so common until a few years later when chemistry blogs started appearing. I was appalled to read stories like the Jason Altom suicide, but it also made me feel like less of a failure knowing that mental breakdowns among grad students are much more common than I knew.

    4 - Knowing what I did at the time, that's a hard question. I had a lot of well-meaning grad student friends who encouraged me to stick it out. Combine that with my reluctance to admit failure to my parents, friends back home, and undergrad profs, and I ended up staying about a year longer than I should have. Looking back, I wish my advisor had just asked me to leave when he decided he didn't want me around - he eventually did so as a last resort, after I endured a few years of verbal beatings intended to get me to leave on my own.

  3. I really enjoyed the last series, and am glad you revisited it. I especially enjoy the views from industry; don't know as much from that angle.

  4. I really like this series and I'm happy that someone is talking about it. I come from a synthesis lab and I had to take a medical leave of absence for major depression after about two years of grad school that were rough on me. I believe that more people need to be talking about emotional health in science and in graduate school because it is important to making research progress..

    I also think that synthesis seems to have more stressful requirements for students and I see more mental health issues in organic chemistry than in the other disciplines.