Friday, March 3, 2017

Final thoughts about graduate school and mental health

Note: this post is the final one in a dialogue between Vinylogous Aldol and I on grad school and its effects on mental health. Yesterday's post can be found here, the opening post can be found here. 

Hey, Vinylogous:

Wow! Great post yesterday - you consistently put things in a way that I wish I had:

The collective action problem of mental health: You make a great point in your beginning paragraphs about asking universities/departments to consider mental health in comparison to academic response to the Sheri Sangji case (where the response of chemical academia arrived from the Los Angeles District Attorney extracting compliance from the University of California):
Mental health is going to be similar [CJ’s note: to the Sangji case]. I don't see a clear path going forward that would encourage change. There's a massive collective action problem that still persists. And it's even trickier than chemical safety—there's more vagueness, less accountability, fewer particularized harms. 
My impression is that as humans we all suffer from profoundly terrible objective foresight. ("Maybe it'll be different for me," we think. It usually isn't, of course). And that's part of the grad-school-mental-health problem. The only people who might realistically make a substantial change (grad students themselves, acting en masse) are only in the system for a few years, and those there for longer (PIs and administration) have little to gain from changing anything.
It hadn’t occurred to me to describe this as a collective action problem, but I think you’re right. It’s not clear which party (individual graduate students, individual PIs, departments, universities) would take the lead in implementing solutions. (I sense that universities departments have been dealing with mental health issues on the part of their students and professors since time immemorial - and, I suspect, up until 1960 or so, the answer was to sweep issues under the rug.)

As you well know, I am a pessimist, and I don’t think there will be there a grand solution that can be imposed from above (either from the state, federal or professional society level.) That said, I wonder if what we can do is find high-profile departments that either have or are growing a reputation of taking care of its graduate students and postdocs from a mental health perspective and encourage other departments to emulate them. If some large professional society for chemists were to endow a $10,000 award for departments who had a good programmatic approach... hmmm....

Politics: I was delighted when you took our discussion in a direction that I didn’t expect with your comments about politics:
It's difficult to clearly articulate the reasons for graduate student political involvement, I guess. But I do wonder if it would be a good thing (maybe as an extension of it being a good thing for grad students to have outside interests in general). What are your thoughts, Chemjobber? I'm interested in your take on whether graduate students would benefit by being more active in this area (isn't that in the spirit of "Broader Impacts?").
As you and I have talked about in the past, there’s a lot of value in having some kind of outside activity that takes you outside the lab. In this case, political activity seems to be just as worthwhile. The positives that I can see would be getting to meet people that aren’t in a university setting (e.g. door-knocking, etc.) and having community (other politically-active folks, etc.) There’s nothing to keep a graduate student grounded than someone who isn’t in academia saying “They’re asking you to do what?... That’s not normal, right?”

At the same time, I wonder if this particular activity (advocating for increased funding for scientists from federal sources and a minimum of political interference in scientific activities) would be terrifyingly existential and would result in tears in almost all circumstances. It’s hard to imagine this as an activity that would promote mental health for the individual student (there’s that collective action problem again!) My recommendation: if you're interested, pursue this after a thorough self-assessment.

Finally, regarding political disputes with PIs: I think this is a problem that may present itself in the coming years. I remember getting into rollicking debates with my PI and my group members during my Bush 43-era stint in graduate school. I have a very, very, very difficult time imagining that professors would take out political disagreements on their students or postdocs, but I am sure that it has happened. It’s probably happened enough that, for the most part, it’s still best not to talk about sex, religion or politics with your boss.

Quick hits: 

The centrality of the PI: A great comment from tautomers at Reddit:
The most important aspect of mental health in grad school comes from your PI as far as I am concerned. I got diagnosed with bipolar II disorder in my 3rd year, and have had multiple issues with it since then. Throughout the entire ordeal, my adviser has been incredibly supportive in every way possible. If it weren't for him and his willingness to understand, even with all the medical treatment I get, I would not be where I am today. 
The most important thing we can likely do is to get PI's to understand how much of a big deal mental health can be. Grad school is so stressful that in the majority of cases it's going to be a major play in any mental illness. If the PI is open, the student is more likely to open up, and likely get the help they need.
Couldn’t agree more with them.

Ouch: Your wisecrack about “wistful sentiments… about the moral and work-ethic superiority of all adults north of 40..."

Et tu, Vinylogous? (Seriously, though, I hear you. I seem to recall that Al Meyers’ wisecracking about lazy graduate students was about them reading newspapers.)

Being a Muslim international student in graduate school: Regarding this topic, you’re absolutely right that these students would be subject to extra mental health stresses. I wonder if there is something that departments and PIs could do to build relationships and generate trust between the students/postdocs so that they could come to them with discrimination or legal issues (although I suspect the legal issues would be something the university would be much more prepared to deal with.) If I were a PI or a senior group member, I'd be doing what I could to cross cultural divides, include them in group activities and stand up for Muslim/international students in my group.

Well, here's best wishes to you and our readers for good mental health and success in our endeavors, chemical or otherwise.

Cheers, Chemjobber


  1. Grad school experiences depend an awful lot on the PI - good ones can make grad school really worthwhile or limit the damage on failure, and bad ones (or inattentive ones) can make it really bad. This phenomena seems like the result of an ill-intentioned or -designed system - when a single point of failure makes or breaks the output (us), the system is insufficiently redundant.

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  3. Plenty of other places on the Internet to promote ethnonationalism.

  4. I actually volunteered for a political campaign during my last year of grad school. My boss was remarkably hands off (he was chair at the time, I was writing, and I was commuting) so it didn't cause friction. The advantage was it got me out of lab at least one day a week and I talked to more people that weren't scientists on those days than I might have in the previous month. My candidate lost, but if you have someone you believe in and could use some more exposure to people outside your field (and what grad student couldn't) I highly recommend it. You could also advocate for a particular issue. These days I'm working on moving into policy so hopefully my experience canvassing will be useful, but even if it's not it was an enjoyable few weeks out meeting folks.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20