Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Letters on mental health and graduate school

From this week's letters to the editor in C&EN, a set of fascinating ones:
The article “Managing Grad School Stress” by Linda Wang was most welcome (C&EN, Sept. 14, page 59). In 45 years as a student, postdoc, and faculty member, I have seen almost all graduate students stressed at some point. 
The article omitted an important group of people who in many cases act as psychologists, counselors, and relief valves: support staff, especially secretaries and administrative assistants. Frequently going beyond their job descriptions, they provide perspective, sympathy, and a human touch that students sometimes feel is lacking from some faculty. I know of at least one Ph.D. chemist who spent so much time doing counseling instead of chemistry in a central lab facility that she changed careers to social work. 
While not always recognized for their contributions to graduate training, these supporting players are beloved by the students and essential in these increasingly stressful times. 
Alexander Scheeline
Urbana, Ill. 
Wang’s excellent article on managing grad school stress cut close to the bone for me. While I was a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1950s, one fellow student did, in fact, kill himself. I, too, might have gone that route, or at least dropped out of the program, had it not been for the intervention of two perceptive and sympathetic faculty members: my formal research director, professor Isadore Perlman, and my de facto research mentor, professor Robert Connick. 
Evan Appelman
State College, Pa. 
I read your article on managing graduate school stress with great interest as it provoked recollections of my own experiences in the early 1980s. One paragraph in particular suggested that advisers are not blameless, but why? Could this be a result of their own experiences that, in most cases, have not been punctuated by life in a nonacademic environment? 
When I started my first job at a pharmaceutical company, it took me several weeks, if not months, to become accustomed to the concept of a weekend, let alone an evening. Testimony of graduates whom I hired, years later, would sometimes include tales of adviser-originated phrases like, “If I’m here from 8 AM until 10 PM seven days a week, then you should be too,” “Don’t waste precious research seconds,” and “Why on Earth would you want to take a day off [to spend time with your spouse, partner, family, etc.]?” 
It was always far more impressive to see a person who achieved outcomes and managed their time efficiently, rather than one who prided himself or herself on sheer physical presence in the lab or office. Time management and life balance can be taught, but it is best taught by example lest those less experienced in both have nothing by which to measure their achievements in such skills. 
Young academics striving for tenure are in their own (sometimes self-made) pressure cookers, may have had no training themselves in a more realistic environment, and could benefit greatly from learning by some of the examples described in the article. Overall, moderation in all things (including moderation—sometimes, but not always, the extra effort is essential, just not continuously) would seem to be the best policy! 
James T. Palmer
Templestowe, Australia
Gotta say, I love Alexander Scheeline's perspective - so true. Staff can be great counselors, and I feel that they are not recognized as such by many departments. 

30 comments:

  1. The point on importance of admins being underappreciated is, I think, quite correct.

    I get that grad school is stressful, but is it really more stressful than anything else people in their mid 20s do? Can't be much easier to be fighting for a top spot in law school, getting that perfect medical residency, raising kids on a Walmart salary in a crime ridden neighbourhood with crappy schools and no medical insurance, or walking around in a bullet proof vest because people really will fire a gun at you.

    All in all, being esconced in academia---while not necessarily always idyllic---still ain't a bad way to spend a few years.

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    1. Great question, BT, I don't know. I'll leave it to Lawjobber, Medjobber, Walmartjobber and LEOjobber to figure those out.

      In the meantime, I'll keep raising this issue, until I feel it's a serious part of chemistry graduate school conversation in the United States.

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    2. The hours of graduate school in the USA are like a vacation compared to South Korea.

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    3. @ 4:10

      That depends on the PI. There are MANY 24/7 labs. in the US.

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    4. 4:10

      Yes, we get it. It could always be worse.

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    5. Walmartjobber. awesome.

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  2. I think the difference between (chemistry) grad school and most of those options is either the presence of actual consequences (dying) and the presence of some sort of perspective (maybe the kid at Wal-Mart won't have it yet, but the law and med people probably had a good awareness of what the game was before they decided to play it).

    Grad school seems like being in a psychic bell jar. It seems to thrive on the lack of perspective. I think the problem is is that the current arrangement much prefers blind obedience and labor (backed up with threats) to conscious (but limited) loyalty. People with a better understanding of what's going on might enjoy the freedom of grad school (lots of time to spend learning stuff and doing research that doesn't have to make money now? Damn!) but might also realize that there are other things in life and might be less compliant and accepting of "droit de l'advisor". This isn't conducive to any sort of long-term stability or sanity. It isn't hell, but it is unnecessarily harmful (another difference with the above situations, in which the harm is either the consequence of a productive system or no one's fault in particular).

    I liked the last letter, with "moderation in all things, including moderation". I thought the whiny advisor from Johns Hopkins (ITP post, about the lack of students working their tails off as he left) was a %^%%munch, but some of the later comments had the response that, at some time, working really hard is going to be necessary. That makes some sense to me - it's just that he was unwilling to provide the kinds of evidences or reasons to work untiringly that (I think) he would have accepted. When the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is empty, the promise isn't enough.

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    1. I attend Hopkins... ok, i'll bite - which professor?

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  3. There have been times when I've worked grad school hours in my industry job, but my boss has a strong interest in seeing me succeed. If I fail, he doesn't get his work done either, and the process to replace me and bring someone else up to speed is slow and cumbersome. In grad school, my advisor was doing his best to encourage me to leave, and considered himself some kind of gatekeeper for doing so.

    Medical school and law school are difficult and require long hours, but no individual professor has the kind of control over a student that a PI in the sciences does. Additionally, the dropout rate of med school is much lower than that of chemistry graduate programs - it's hard to get into med school, but once you're in, they support you and don't let you fail.

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    1. yes but the whole point of academia is you are self sacrificing for science. a lot of people forget that.

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    2. Really? That's the whole point? It's not professional development and preparation for a career outside academia (for students)? It's not the pursuit of intellectual freedom, fame, and recognition (for professors)?

      Academic science certainly isn't something you do for the money, but there are other (perfectly legitimate) self-serving reasons. If there weren't incentives, you wouldn't have nearly as many people pursuing advanced degrees. Scientists are not saints, and they shouldn't have to be.

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    4. I thought the point of academia was to generally do what you wanted to do with more intellectual freedom and flexibility than just about any career, be your own boss, and have incredible job security. It seems like most faculty I know (even those who work a lot at top tier institutions) once they have tenure have a pretty good life.

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  4. I think the stress becomes unbearable when the student can't make the right decision that is simply to leave grad school. In their early twenties, they just can't handle the truth that grad school/science is not for them. The more they stay, the more frustrated they become.

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    1. I know grad school isn't for me but everyone from my PI to the DGS is trying to convince me otherwise. I still love science, but the job prospects are meek without a PhD. What would some suggest for me?

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    2. Job prospects are meek for anyone who limits their search to bench science (especially anyone who limits their search to bench positions in pharma). My suggestion if you haven't already would be to investigate job opportunities that are science-related but not necessarily lab positions. Patent law, business, writing to name a few. I'm not saying it's easy to explore on your own, but there is a whole world at the interface of science and some other field that the grad school environment often does little to expose students to.

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    3. I agree, but it is depressing that what give me the biggest gratification and the career I've had my heart set on for almost five years is something that I won't achieve.

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    4. Most of the people I knew who quit had problems with their advisors, and weren't necessarily the weaker scientists. Generally, those who made it through the admissions process had the ability to do high-level science, and I think a lot of the quitters would have done fine with different PI's.

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    5. I actually want to leave my Phd program because of a toxic advisor. So I absolutely agree. I hate how a single person can have so much influence on someone's career.

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    6. Anon 7:53

      The world outside is not much different.

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    7. Anon 11:05

      Is it worth staying in a program that makes you absolutely miserable with a PI you have no respect for as a human being? I don't think so.

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    8. I strongly disagree with Anon 11:05. An industry boss could never get away with the stuff that professors routinely do to grad students.

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    9. I don't know about that, KT. I have been a powerless employee in a horrible situation at a small company.

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    10. Well, maybe not completely powerless, but the timing was pretty devastating. Even after graduate school, things can go wrong.

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    11. The stresses are different in industry, and situations change wildly over time. New management, new policies, etc. have a great influence on how stressful your life can be. Everyone has to figure out for themselves how to deal with the stress. Unfortunately, some choose toxic coping strategies and dig themselves deeper. If you try to deal with things by denial/brute force, then you risk having a nervous breakdown when the final straw hits. Volunteering has been helpful for me sofar - there are positions which require minimal time commitment and it is a distraction from your troubles.

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    12. Hm, perhaps. But when you have small children and a toxic supervisor in a tiny company holding your recommendation over you...how much do you take? I suppose I could have looked up Walmartjobber.

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    13. I agree. I stayed in a bad situation too long and had regular panic attacks, etc. as a result. I hung on since I knew that the market for chemists is so poor, but am not setting the world on fire now. I hope that things worked out well for you after you left.

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    14. They did, eventually. I am in a much better situation. It came at a tremendous price, career-wise, but I have had some years to move on. Hope it works out for you. Hang in there.

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  5. Thanks anon. It will take a miracle to get back to where I was before. I have a modest plan if I win the lottery, but realize that I have to remain realistic and positive.

    A recruiter contacted me, but only to ask what I thought was a fair salary for a MS with 3-5 yr experience as a temp. The temp service is new to placing bench chemists, and views it as an expanding field. I'm significantly above the sweet spot of 3-5 years experience as a MS, so I'm looking into other things as well.

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  6. Other things aren't so bad; I think if you cast a wide net you will be okay. Know what work situations you cannot accept; a state of panic is no way to live.

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