Friday, May 29, 2015

WN: "I earnestly want to do research..."

Our third story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "WN." It has been redacted for privacy.
Leading up to graduate school, I was experiencing signs of clinical depression but decided to continue to pursue the degree regardless.  In my second year, my health was heavily impacting my work. At this time, I had sought help from many healthcare providers so that I could manage the depression and succeed in school. I would receive emails about meetings from my laboratory and for a while I had conflicts due to appointments, which started the questions: "Why do you go to the doctor so often?" I was afraid to share my experience because my adviser had mentioned several times of a previous student, also a female, that was pressured into taking a "medical leave" in hopes that she would not return to the laboratory and finish her degree. 
My symptoms worsened drastically. Knowing that depression was covered within the university as an illness that could qualify for special accommodations, I confronted the chair of our department, who was an understanding and approachable person. I explained that I felt that my adviser had a history of not being understanding towards persons with health issues. The chair was overwhelmingly understanding, commending me for taking action for health purposes, but when the matter was handed to my adviser the results weren't optimal. 
Over the course of the next few months, I had support from my adviser, but slowly I was seeing signs that my decision to shed light on mental health issues backfired. I found that I was being closely scrutinized, my work was put into question with the argument that my "mind wasn't working right" and therefore my results often deemed erroneous. It even went so far that my medications and doctors were topics of conversation in any hopes that I could convince my adviser that I was doing all that I could and I needed some accommodation for trying to deal with major depression. 
Soon, it was time for qualifying exams. When I initially spoke with the chair, I was offered the option to postpone my exam if necessary.  My adviser felt differently gave me two options: take the exam as scheduled or leave the university. We settled on taking a medical leave for a semester. It was also around this time that I was awarded a large fellowship to cover the rest of my degree and I was advised to return the money and leave academia. During this time, I researched all possibilities for switching labs and even switching universities but for some reason I decided to stick it out in my former lab. 
When I returned, it was evident that my adviser's mind was made and regardless of my progress I was still viewed as not competent to work, even though I felt as though I was. I continued to work and was surprised to find that even though I have a full external fellowship for the duration of my doctoral studies, he would not support me in his lab. 
I've teetered for months on taking a master's. I'd be arguably more employable and would probably be much happier. However, I have full funding and I earnestly want to do research. I am unwilling to work excessive hours that sacrifice my ability to see friends and visit with my family. I value having a balanced life. 
Eventually, I found a research area that interested me and a new adviser who is overwhelmingly supportive. I know my degree will take longer, but I think I'll be much happier in the end.
 Thanks to WN for their story. 

8 comments:

  1. I am so sorry to read about your first adviser's prejudice. To feel punished for taking all the right steps must have been terrible. You are so lucky to find another group with the support and work style you need.

    Best wishes for you and do take care of yourself.

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  2. It is unfortunate that illness (physical or mental, the latter having the greater stigma) can affect one's work to such an extent, but is there any way around it? The stark reality is that if being sick, or even disabled, reduces one's capacity to get results it reduces one's value as an employee.

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    1. Things are getting so competitive that any functional disadvantage you may have can end your career. I think science attracts a lot of introverts with social anxiety and now that its so important to make great presentations, to be charming to the boss etc, any social handicap can end your career.

      Unless of course you make are tenured.

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    2. Yes, any illness is a handicap. With the very expensive progress of medicine and pharmacy many illnesses, including depression and anxiety are either curable or manageable to the point of confining the effects of handicap to the patient's private life.

      The particular situation where a person suffering from depression is stigmatized and ostracized is equivalent to knocking out a crutches used by a person missing a leg. In an academic setting the latter is generally unacceptable. I am continually both horrified and amazed that the former is at least tolerated.

      The successful treatment of both depression and anxiety absolutely requires full 24/7/365 inclusion and support. That means everyone - family, friends, co-workers, supervisors - have a job to do. When one side takes a walk the treatment is not nearly as effective, recovery takes much longer and the whole process is both hurtful and simply expensive.

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    3. Any illness is a handicap - sociopathy notwithstanding.

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  3. I have run into too many faculty members with negative attitudes about mental health to count. Some just don't like to talk or think about the topic, but then there are those who are actively dismissive of the possibility that any of their students might have problems worthy of counseling or medication. Grad school and post-docs are structured to be isolating in many ways, but it's important to look out for each other and not let the perceived stigma make the problems worse.

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  4. I had a very negative experience in that regard at UC Davis (but not at their chemistry department). In addition to medically documented depression, I had to put up with documented bullying from a crony of the professor It was so blatant that I successfully threatened them with a lawsuit.

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  5. Kudos for sticking it out and not giving up your family and friends for 5 years. I pledged to myself when I started grad school that I would not work 10+ hour days and weekends on a regular basis, and was blessed with an advisor who didn't care so much about the hours as long as I was getting results. Its amazing what can be done with responsible time management when you are in the lab. So many students waste half the day and just accept this stereotype that you have to work yoruself to the brink. I should also mention that my projects worked well and did not involve long separations, etc., and that also contributed to my relatively easy time of grad school research.

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