Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Revisiting (again) graduate school and mental health with Vinylogous Aldol

A note to readers: Vinylogous Aldol and I will be sharing a brief discussion today, tomorrow and Friday on our thoughts on mental health.

Dear Vinylogous:

Man, it has been a while since our last conversation. Hard to believe that it was 4 years ago when we first had this dialogue about mental health around graduate school in chemistry, and it’s been another 2 years since we had a short update.

What’s new with you? Since we last wrote, I’ve managed to stay in the same job. (I’ve purchased and moved to a house of my own, which was its own unique stress-inducing event.) Between the house, my friends, family and community, I’ve found a lot of joy and not a little work outside of work that has kept me busy and happy. (Now if I could only find some time to work out a little more.)

My immediate family is doing just fine, no complaints there. (My retired father is another story, though: after a couple years of peaceful retirement traveling, he’s going to be undergoing some medical procedures this year. I’m happy to be helping my father out, but I am a little bit sad that my parents aren’t going to be able to travel this year. I didn’t expect to be taking care of him from a health perspective for another ten years. Here’s hoping it’s a passing thing.)

A couple of things that I’d like to raise in this short conversation with you:

We should probably start with your important and appropriate definition of mental health issues from last time:
Having a problem with mental health doesn't have to mean severe mental illness. It is a strain on emotional and/or cognitive well-being. It doesn't have to mean severe depression. It can--and that's common--and it's okay. 
This is the best way I've heard it phrased: every single person on Earth has some degree of mental health issues. 
How are we doing? I think academia might be doing better than two years ago about these issues, but I'm not sure. What do you think?

Distractions: Do you think our modern times are responsible for some of the mental health difficulties that graduate students face? I don't think I was a paragon of mindfulness or presence in graduate school, but I think today's graduate student faces an array of distractions that are an order of magnitude larger than anything I faced. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail (and yes, blogs) are both a source of comfort, friendship, community, laughs and procrastination.

I suspect the expectations on graduate students hasn't gotten smaller, but I think the online distractions have only gotten more powerful. I think that tools for procrastinating have only gotten more and more addictive (I can quit Twitter anytime, by the way.)

I’ve read a couple of articles about this guy Cal Newport about his book “Deep Work” and his idea that we’re losing our ability to focus for long periods of time on work that is additive and that builds on itself. I suspect it’s true of myself. (Maybe I should take his advice and find some time to think deeply on a regular basis.) I wonder if it’s something that contributes to deadline-related stress and stress that we might feel in graduate school? How did you deal with it towards the end of your time in graduate school?

The “I Quit” Series: I never got the chance to thank you for inspiring the “I Quit Graduate School” series. I learned so much. I wasn’t surprised at how much people didn’t like graduate school (I think the people who really enjoy it are relatively rare), but I was surprised at how happy people were to have left. I haven’t made a solid count, but of the people who wrote in, most of them answered the question “Are you happy you left?” with a resounding “yes.” (I should note I am aware that soliciting “I left” stories introduces a huge amount of selection bias for people who would answer in the affirmative.)

I wish I had some way of forcing graduate students to confront the question of “should I leave?” with some kind of rational test. I wonder if it would be worth it for 1st year graduate students to write themselves some kind of letter that said “if I ever got to this point” (whatever that point might be) that would give them the realization that it was “all right” to leave graduate school.

What do you think? Are we looking at this wrong? Should we be encouraging people to stay no matter what? (Do graduate students need more ‘grit and determination’?)

It’s getting late and I’m getting tired, so I think I will stop. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to talk more fully about my feelings about the “depression and suicide in graduate school” post that I wrote last year. I’d like to do something to acknowledge the problem exists, but I just can’t figure out what that might be.

Did I miss anything? Hope all is well and here's hoping for a fruitful conversation.

Cheers, Chemjobber


  1. I don't see much in my corner of the world that indicates academic is getting better at (grad student) mental health. A couple of things I see:

    (a) Lack of assertiveness on the part of grad students. Boss tells them to run X reactions now, and grads feel they can't refuse or delay. This leads to the boss thinking their behavior is OK because no one is objecting, so next time they ask it's for X+2 reactions. The other grad students watching this feel they can't say no when everyone else is saying yes. Plenty of bosses are vindictive, but I believe there's this whole (large) category of PIs who aren't that nasty but are just caught up in worsening cycles of behavior because they don't know any better.

    (b) Getting more information to college seniors about their career options would help them make more informed decisions about going to grad school (or not). The only "career advice" most professors give is that you should consider going to grad school. Even something simple like inviting an industrial scientist to talk about their career for 30 min in an Orgo lecture might help raise awareness of what non-PhD careers look like and the good things about pursuing non-PhD routes.

    1. Haha my favorite was when a big name prof at my prestigious grad program made his entire (NIH-funded) group work for his startup because it was behind on some contracts. Those who 'played ball' were given gifts (e.g. laptops) bought on 2xxx grants for good behavior at the end while those who opposed were punished (e.g. failing candidacy) or asked to leave. The university had no problem with this since said prof was department chair at the time and still brought in the big bucks, but it definitely made for a pretty cynical grad experience...

    2. No one thought it would work

    3. The corollary to (a) is the egomania of the PI foments the lack of assertiveness: I don't believe this facet of human character has changed much in centuries....

      I guess it's not a straightforward relationship between PI and student. On the 1 hand if I'm paying you to do research you'd best do what I tell you (different story, maybe, if student is paying her own way though even that costs the PI in terms of space). On the other the student is there for an education and to make mistakes.

      The letter from 1st yr grad student is interesting, though presumably one's perspective changes as one ages? Four years for a 22 yo is a good % of one's life to date---this becomes a less significant % as one gets close to 'middle age'.

    4. @6:26pm: That is horrific. Someone please blow the whistle on this. It's the only way to put a stop to this kind of appalling exploitation.

    5. @8:10pm: Yes, but who wants to kamikaze their own career? It's funny how much depends on reference letters and reputation in science...the power imbalance between PIs and students is immense, doubly so for the megalomaniacs.

      For what it's worth, it was all but spelled out that the upper administration would not intervene, regardless of whistle blowing (the president was a big fan of the prof and made sure he could rule his Fiefdom as he pleased). The only way to potentially make a difference would be to make an ORI/NIH complaint, but who is the bigger loser there, the PI (who might get off scot-free regardless) or the student (who will certainly lose everything)?

    6. @9:18pm: Yes, the student whistle blower will usually lose. I suggest sending anonymous emails to the press and NIH.

    7. @9:18PM, 4:04AM: Maybe an email to the university counsel? Some of them have a pretty clear view of risks to the university, and a position that would let them address it with the university president.

    8. Paraphrased from Umberto Eco's "How to write a thesis", or whatever the English title is:

      "Question: 'My supervisor is an arsehole.' Answer: 'Come on now, you knew that beforehand.'"

    9. @10:32 AM Whistle blowing in academia is futile, trust my experience. The university counsel finds nothing wrong, and a copy of your complaint along with your name goes straight to whoever you're complaining about. Those counsels are nothing more than safety valves for releasing excess pressure, with no harm to the university. Emails to press and funding agencies don't work either, and I'm again speaking from my experience. I was a part of a huge research group at a top school in the Midwest, and witnessed many exceptionally bright individuals destroyed by one excessively narcissistic PI. Dozens of complaints were filed, all by different people. Nothing.

    10. @6:19 PM: It's depressing that I can't pinpoint exactly who you're talking about. Too many options...

  2. Sounds like a natural collaboration between his lab and his company

  3. I appreciate the continued focus on mental health in graduate school. The "I Quit" series was something that resonated with me in particular, since my own experience leaving chemistry graduate school was so damaging to my own mental and emotional health. Reading the stories of others helped me feel a little more hopeful about putting my life back together.


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