Friday, January 11, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 5

This is the final post in the series on the question "Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?" by myself and Vinylogous Aldol. Don't miss Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4

Dear Vinylogous Aldol:

This has really been quite a week of posts -- I'm almost exhausted just reading through all the other posts that have spun off. As you've said, if we had to name check all the folks who've contributed, it'd start looking like a J. Med. Chem. paper. I have a couple of comments and answers to some of the questions that you've posted in your excellent Thursday post (which, I feel, I need to somehow apologize for a lack of comments -- perhaps readers were actually beavering away in their hoods on Thursday. I got a large bit of work done myself.)

As to whether graduate school contained anything that improved my mental health, I'd have to think about it, and give a qualified "yes." I learned to exercise in grad school; while I seem to have lost the motivation to exercise a little since then, it's definitely something that I really enjoyed doing and gave me some amount of pleasure. I did gain a good bit of emotional resilience from graduate school (the ability to "take a lickin' and keep on tickin'), but I'm not sure that's something that made me happier.

I do think that something might be given up when you work shorter hours; let's just posit that the difference between working 40-50 hours and week at 60-70 hours a week for 2 or 3 years is probably 1 Org. Lett. paper's worth of work (maybe more, maybe less.) Would that one more or less publication at the margin cost someone a job? Maybe -- I think it's possible. I think the return on the happiness is probably worth it, though. (Don't know -- that's all just a WAG.)

As to Lyle's question of "whether grad school causes these issues, or exacerbates the existing condition?", I agree with you, it's probably both. I really, deeply agree with the commenter (I can't find it now) who said that probably everyone has some level of predisposition with mental health issues and graduate school is a really good environment to bring them out.* The trio of high expectations, high failure rates of experiments and relatively low pay is probably corrosive to all but the most mentally tough psyches. What's worse, of course, is that when you haven't figured out your project well enough to really, deeply understand the principles behind the chemistry that you're doing, failure and success almost seem to happen randomly. It's that initial random aspect to experimentation that can drive people completely bonkers if they're not careful.

And of course, "project frustration" (I'm trying to come up with a phrase for the scientific version of "battle fatigue"**) is such a key part of graduate school. It is the one thing that teaches a chemist that they can solve the problem presented to them. I think it teaches them to challenge assumptions, to learn the usefulness (or lack thereof) of beating your head against the wall, to delve into the literature, to talk to your adviser and your friend. I think what is most key is that we have to acknowledge, at those key times (perhaps in our 3rd or 4th years?), that graduate students need to be watched especially carefully by their PIs to be sure that they're not doing poorly, from a mental health perspective.

Quick hits: 

Pressures on a PI: Whenever I think about this issue, I think about Professor Hardass Slavedriver, and his paragraph on the pressures that he has. It's real reality, and there's not a lot of humanity, just Hobbesian jungle.
Organic-versus-everything-else: Students are getting smarter about the job market, and they can read the writing on the wall about organic chemistry (perhaps scrawled by Professor Whitesides.) Chemistry is full of other interesting fields, and organic chemists aren't waving around their Big Pharma signing bonuses like they used to.
If the job market/funding picture continues to suck, what happens?: Not a clue. If the funding picture continues to suck, more 4th and 5th years will teach o-chem lab and the Wheel of Pain will turn slower, and they won't be in the lab as much. If the job market continues to suck, I dunno. Lots of cheap postdocs?
Are relaxed labs at a disadvantage at hiring?: I don't know -- are they less visibly productive? I don't think there's any really good evidence that they're at a disadvantage, but I'm not in the hallowed halls of Big Pharma, so I can't tell you. Readers?
What parts of grad school are necessary?: The truly high stress parts of the Ph.D. are really important, in my opinion: giving literature seminars, the original proposal, the candidacy exam, these all make a lot of sense to me. What I would potentially discard is some of the tried-and-true soul-grinding routine: namely group meeting. Is a 3 hour group meeting starting at 7 pm with lots of pop quizzes and berating necessary? Is departmental group meeting necessary? Were Woodward's all nighters really that important? (Probably, yes, but most PIs that pull that stuff (Saturday group meetings) aren't R.B. Woodward.)

Concrete things I would add to grad school: 

  • A mercy rule, w/r/t length of doctoral degree. I don't know what is too long, but I think 9 years is probably too long. 
  • A course on interpersonal professional interaction, with an emphasis on communicating needs. By this, I mean, "telling people how you really feel" and "asking people for stuff." Look -- you're going to be doing it in one form or another for the rest of your life, even if you're just asking people if they want fries with their burger. (I kid.) Asking a customer if they'll accept $400/kg instead of $300/kg, asking your boss for flex time or your friend if they'll hire you are all basically asking people for stuff. It's very important, and only covered in writing form in grad school (because, apparently, the government will only give you money after you've written a doorstop of a proposal in 8 point Times New Roman.) 
  • The excellent and mysterious @jfreebo suggested a one-month sabbatical for grad students in the middle of the 3rd year of graduate school. I think that's an excellent idea, and I would put it at the end of the candidacy exam as a reward for finishing -- along with my offer of cold hard cash to quit. 

What have I learned from all of this talk of mental health and graduate school? 

3 separate very senior chemists (with an H-index average of ~30 or so) have talked about moments of deep emotional distress in graduate school, with an added panic attack by a not-nearly-as-senior-but-still-awesome chemist. It happens, and it's normal. It is also wise and normal to seek professional help.

I think I've learned the breadth and depth of pain that people are willing to talk about in forums such as these, and how important it is that institutions and professors note how their words and actions  might be perceived (however incorrectly). I've also learned that this is something that we should be watching for in our friends and talking about, in public and online.

Hope you had a good week and that you managed to get something done in the lab. Thank you for participating in this and thanks for the sacrifice of your time. I think I've also learned that you're a pretty great writer and thinker, and I hope to hear more from you, Vinylogous.

Best wishes, Chemjobber

*@autolycos, a MD, writes in with his thoughts: "In my opinion, the reason chemistry grad school, med school, residency, and other similar hierarchical environments (the military, too) have such a mental health and suicide problem is twofold. First: there are few checks on admittance of people who are potentiated to have mental illnesses when they are deprived of meaningful feedback... But, once we've admitted these people, it's then generally the case that they are treated capriciously, carelessly, and generally considered second to the task at hand, whether it be teaching, research, taking care of patients, or storming that hill."
**Noting, of course, that PTSD is its own thing and separate from a hard year in the lab.


  1. Many thanks to the pair of you for highlighting this issue. As someone looking to do a PhD, rather than having completed/completing one currently, it's been invaluable to learn that this is a serious problem, not limited to isolated incidents. Whilst I've got my fingers crossed the situation in the UK is better, it certainly means that when I'm applying to labs, it's something I'll be taking into consideration. So thank you!

  2. As I commented on part 4, I think the problem is general. As you pointed out, even the PI are under a lot of stress.
    We need to find a better way to fund science. The ultra pressure from grant holders is not driving science anywhere good.
    Solve this problem and you solve the mental health problem (that actually sounds like "save the cheerleader save the world")

  3. As someone lucky enough to get into one of the more stable big pharma companies over a decade ago before opportunities dried up, I have seen many interview candidates come and go. As such, I can comment on this:

    "Would that one more or less publication at the margin cost someone a job? Maybe -- I think it's possible. I think the return on the happiness is probably worth it, though. (Don't know -- that's all just a WAG.)"

    Your publication record helps get you in the door for an interview, as does the letter of reccommendation from your advisor (those two may very well be tied to each other in your advisor's eyes,unfortunately).

    The seminar presentation you give during your interview, the skill with which you handle questions after that seminar, and how successfully/unsuccessfully you interact with people in one-on-one discussions is what will make or break your chances of getting a job.

    So killing yourself to get that extra publication? Gotta weigh the cost (mental health) versus the benefit (potential increase in chances of getting an interview).

  4. I guess I keep coming around to the question: what purpose does it serve to put young scientists/physicians through this amount of stress? Is a lot of it done because it get results or is it more because the PI had to do it, so do you. CJ asks the right question, do groups that are more laid back do worse in the long run? Perhaps the student's productivity needs to be managed more if they are working less hours (aka normal hours) but is this a bad thing?

    1. Your concern is in the right place, but I think you are asking the wrong question. The right question is much more likely, "Why don't we take care of our mental health problems early on, and keep small problems small?".

      In the long run, I don't think that we are admitting the wrong people. I think we are not taking care of them by feeling that physical illness is ok, but mental illness is stigmatized, and that's wrong-headed and unsupported by current best medical evidence. Our society needs to realize that it's ok to admit that people sometimes need help getting their shit together, and it's ok to be someone who has to get help to get your shit together.

    2. "what purpose does it serve to put young scientists/physicians through this amount of stress?"

      I think it prepares them for the reality of BEING a scientist/physician. These are tough fields (as are many others), and no one cares how hard you try.

    3. Being a chemist at DOW or Pfizer is not equivalent to being a Navy SEAL, or even an ER doctor. Can anyone point to any evidence that the types and amounts of stress presented to graduate students results in them being better scientists?

      Of course students will be distressed at times and must learn to cope with the expectations on them. That is called life. But I fail to see why the PI or department cannot provide more active help in this regard. Simply saying they can always go to a student assistance program when it gets bad enough isn't really a solution to a problem that seems to be fairly well identified in CJ's and Vinylogous's posts. (But people should still seek help when needed!)

      The idea that the fields are so competitive that no one can be afforded to be treated like a human being is absurd. It's part of the same sink-or-swim braggadocio that runs rife through the sciences.

      I don't think it's a problem for a PI to clearly state each student should put in 70 hrs/wk in lab, and even stipulate certain core hours. As long as expectations are clear, those seem fair. But when the PI is cancelling lab dinner meetings or otherwise intruding in a students life outside the lab, that's an unacceptable overreach.

    4. "Being a chemist at DOW or Pfizer is not equivalent to being a Navy SEAL, or even an ER doctor."

      No, but I also don't think the training is nearly as stressful. Grad school had it's moments, but I'll take quenching LiAlH4 over live fire training or having to decide in a split second whether to give some patient a shock to restart their heart.

      " Can anyone point to any evidence that the types and amounts of stress presented to graduate students results in them being better scientists?". No, but i assume that one can't rigourously point to the converse either. I may well be wrong on this.

      "The idea that the fields are so competitive that no one can be afforded to be treated like a human being is absurd". Have a look at human history over the past few hundred years. I'm pretty sure ppl are treated better now (at least in NA/Europe) than ever before: at least no graduate chemistry departments are shrouded by nets to prevent jumping. Sad fact is, overall we're just not that nice to each other. I'm not implying this should be an excuse to be a jerk, which seems a common thread in these posts, but I don't think civility is an overall trait of humanity.

    5. I agree grad school stress isn't the same as that experienced by a SEAL, but at least some students are experiencing stress at high levels, and the question is whether those levels are too high. Partly I tried to say that, since no one is about to die, there's no reason to make it into a moral imperative to run reactions at the expense of everything else in your life.

      Other than that, I gather that we have very different ideas about humanity, or people's capacity for compassion.

      Thanks for your response.

    6. One could argue that the risk of SEAL trainees having mental breakdowns is outweighed by their importance to national security. Risking that for a chemistry PhD, probably not worth it.

  5. On the 'cause of exacerbate' argument, it's almost like you could do with a survey of final year undergrads, and then a follow-up annually for say a decade. Depending on the questions, you could explore whether those showing signs of a predisposition to mental health issues in the initial survey struggled more with that kind of thing during PhD programs, and see how the stress of those who stay in academia contrasts with people who do industrial graduate schemes, and those who leave chemistry. You could also make comparisons between different countries, and whether the problem is greater at higher ranked universities. You might then be able to compare systems around the world to see which produces the most/least health issues.

    Does anyone think that would be worthwhile doing? Or is it unnecessary as we know the problems exist?

  6. "Are relaxed lab a disadvantage in hiring (in Big Pharma)" I have observed while there may be some real or imagined correlation to PIs with strong reputations for being hard-asses as having the people coming out of higher quality (Big Name-itis) I am not sure it is a major factor generally except I can see perhaps as a final decision criteria. If have two "equal" candidates I suspect most hiring managers/groups would lean toward a person who has survived under more pressure. At the same time there is or was a lot of Nepotism in Pharma where get clusters of people from same PI which is partly networking but also comfort level of knowing what background experience was like

  7. Thanks for doing this series--it was a great read, especially being a few years removed from grad school. My favorite inspirational quotes from that time:

    "Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions." -Feodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

    "in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there" --Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

    It keeps things in perspective, or at least reveals my state of mind when I was in grad school. You're trying to impose your will on nature, that's going to be tough regardless of externalities like people/environment/etc.

    And to answer the original question, compare how sane and well-adjusted the average chemistry graduate student is to, say, a biology graduate student.

  8. I'm currently a 4th year in a top tier research program, working for a recently tenured, somewhat recognized, professor. This is (and was, even pre-tenure) a fairly relaxed environment. We have some who work 70+ hours/week, but if you are working <50 hours/week, our PI won't say anything about it. In that environment, no one has finished yet (PhD or masters) that hasn't found an industry job or good post-doc position. This may not always be the case...I'm just posting this comment to make people aware that this type of environment is possible.

  9. One issue is that today's job market is so outrageously competitive for grad students/postdocs/unemployeed experienced scientists/etc. is that there are MANY things that can often times hold you back but can not push you forward. Your advisor, department chair, colleagues, paper quality, university reputation, etc. will not guarantee you a job (as we are taught), however each one can be a deal breaker.

  10. Great series guys. You brought up a lot of suppressed memories. I promised myself that I would always remember what grad school was like but of course I didn't, now almost 18 years later. That being said, I do not regret for one minute having done a PhD. It has been very rewarding for me.

    So my story is the exact opposite. My supervisor was already established and nearing the end of his career. He spent 80% of his time in school administrative stuff and didn't spend much time with his students. This is just as stressful as a PI that is all over you. My project was floundering and I am eternally grateful to a postdoc in the group who recognized what was happening and pulled me up by my bootstraps. It got me back on track and we are still great friends to this day.

    Despite how hard grad school was, the closest I ever came to a nervous breakdown was the all hands meeting called soon after my big pharma company was bought by another, headquartered on 42nd St. in Manhattan. My entire life planning came crashing down in 10 minutes...many of you have been there, thinking about mortgages, car payments, student loans, kids, pensions, etc. Much more was at stake now than back then. While my career has recovered quite nicely, it did leave scars.

  11. Wandered over to see what you guys talk about. I have some advice for the undergrads and grads looking at the next level:

    (1) As an undergrad, look for an environment in which you will flourish. Some may like edgy but others may like nourishing. Ask the tough question, answer it honestly, and then pick the school carefully.

    (2) Pick your advisor carefully. Advisors can't begin to get a read on you--your hopes and dreams, skills, attitude. You have plenty of data on them, however. Again, ask the tough questions and then listen to the answers. Ask current group members what life is like. Don't settle for good enough. Find a home. If it is a bad student-advisor match, you are largely to blame.

    (3) Once in grad school and presuming you and your advisor share similar views on life, cut out the worthless stuff and focus on what is important. Grad school is not a 9-5 (or shouldn't be). With that said, life shouldn't suck either.

    (4) Read and then read some more. If you are feeling at all stale, it is likely you have morphed into too much of a lab rat and not enough scholar. I'm guessing many went to grad school because of the scholarship. Feed the beast. If your advisor doesn't want you reading, then take a brief moment and go back and look at points 1 and 2. I had a now-famous chemist tell me that I saved him from leaving grad school with that sermon given to him when he was a grad student at a Gordon Conference. He was in the dump, but went home and started reading. He is now a prof at a top-five school. One of his colleagues worked for me and almost left college until he joined the group. I made the same mistake myself for a brief time in grad school. In case you missed it, read!

    (5) I have what I call BYOB--Be Your Own Boss. That means the weekend is yours to experiment without my supervision. Alas, it is way underutilized, but it could be a great thing. It's a chance to actually make progress with the advisor out of the way.

    (6) Grad school should be serious immersion (see part 3). That is not to say, however, that it shouldn't be a blast. If it's not, then figure out why and try to fix it.

    (7) Now for those looking to do postdocs: pick them just as carefully. In this instance, however, you should view it as complementary bordering on total do-over. Floyd Romesberg left my group with hardly a whiff of biology and went to Schultz. He is unrecognizable. Anne McNeil went to Swager. I've had students go to NASA, polymer groups, Intel, bioinorganic, transition metal organometallic, total synthesis, neurophysiology,.... you name it. Don't just sign up with somebody who looks just like your current boss to prove your worth as an indentured servent. Do something different. Do something complementary. Do what you now WISH you had done four or five years ago. It's scary, but it will work just fine. But don't forget, match personalities.

    (8) Life in my group is, relatively, low pressure. That is not to say, however, that there aren't standards. I simply ask people to go if they can't be successful without beatings. I tell students up front what I expect and what they should expect. Many graduate without a single tongue lashing. That is the ideal.

    That's all folks. It's just my two cents worth but maybe it will help.


    1. Good advice, especially #2. The choice of an advisor is the most important decision you'll make in your career, and you don't want someone else to make it for you. Contact a prospective advisor, if possible, long before you start grad school. Make sure you're personally and professionally compatiable.

      And be honest with yourself. If you're a very smart, but laid-back person who likes to come into work at 11 and work until 11 pm, you don't want an advisor who insists that everyone be at their desk by 8 am sharp. If you treasure your weekends or have a family, don't miss their best years by spending 16/7 in the lab. If you're a single minded seeker of success and prestige, you know where to look.

    2. "I have what I call BYOB--Be Your Own Boss. That means the weekend is yours to experiment without my supervision"

      My, how generous

    3. Wow. I wish I had you as my supervisor Dave. My supervisor wanted me to fail, cuss me out, tell me I am incapable finishing the program even though I won a teaching award and had a publication. Needless to say, I was forced out with my PhD and now I am searching for answers. I am completely discouraged and disenchanted with life. I digress. My supervisor and I did not work well work together because he is the hostile combative type and I am not. I will be eating it for a while.

  12. You know what Dave? You get off your pedestal. You know that you are where you are off of the backs of the grad students you and others like you exploit every day. The best decision I ever made is to leave the toxic world of academia, and I will make sure my company never supports any of you modern slavedrivers. The whole thing is a giant Ponzi scheme and you all know it. Don't go to grad school!

    1. Please attempt civility. The magic word that you used was "you."

    2. Pedestal? I think sounds like fairly sound advice (Thanks Dave) with only possible problem I see is most people who need these words are at that age where rarely know themselves well enough to realize how to follow well. One topic in the series underlying mental health have not seen much commented on is there can be a lack of maturity in many chem grads, some who chose grad school because do not know yet what to do with their life's. Immature people can be less able handle stress but on the other hand proper environment and guidance can provide growth in maturity.

      Toxic world of academia? What schools did you attend and what company do you work for as most Pharma has equal issues. I have been critical of universities not turning out students that are adequately prepared for working in Industry but pointed to blame Industry for not working together to redefine how to improve that situation.

    3. You must have failed badly or had a miserable experience. I feel sorry for you. I had a good advisor and a productive problem. I had a family and was so poor I once scraped mararoni from under the sink to make a meal on the day before payday. But it all worked out, and I've had a rewarding career ever since. (Only a part of it in academia, though.)

    4. I've been keeping the tone of my own comments on here civil, but anon 5:18 is pretty close to my honest opinion on the topic. That said, I was surprised to see how many people on here described mental breakdowns in spite of a supportive advisor - seems like there are serious systemic problems if that can happen. Looking back, even my friends with nice PI's were often miserable - I realize some individual situations won't work out, but the proportion of unhappy people was awfully high, and included those with good and bad advisors.

      If the culture were changed to group efforts, like in industry, people would make more progress in less hours. When I was in grad school, I saw how fast computers and electronics were advancing, and I had a mental picture of some frightened engineer putting in 100-hour weeks while cowering in fear of a tyrannical boss. Now I know they do that with large teams, not by scaring people to death. I look back at everything I've done in industry, and I realize a grad student working alone in any of these areas would have wasted the first 4 years figuring out the basics, while I had co-workers who quickly got me up to speed in each new job.

      My own experience in grad school was pretty wretched, but looking back, I think my PI wanted me to leave but didn't want to fire me, so he decided to try to make me quit. I wish he'd just asked me to leave instead of making my last year or so pure hell. I might keep it more civil than the above commenter, but when it comes to supporting academia either as a decision-maker in industry or as a voter, I can't forget my own experiences.

  13. Thank you! As a current graduate student trying to decide on a lab to do my thesis it is nice to know that if I chose a lab in biochemistry, I am not committing to biochemistry in post doc and the rest of my life.

  14. So the general consensus is that if you chose a bad lab and are miserable, just suck it up or leave, because it's all your fault instead of the advisor sharing some of the blame.

    1. You can always get rid of a bad advisor if he is unlikely to give you a good reference or if his passing makes you feel better. And poisoning people is fairly easy once you put your mind to it. But either way, you will still need to update your resume and start looking again

  15. Although my MS and PhD are in Analytical Chemistry, I've enjoyed reading these 5 posts, so thanks guys!

    I tend to agree with the "contrarian" question raised in Part 4. I entered grad school with a very naive mindset. Looking back, the most important thing is to view each prospective PI as a CEO: each runs his company differently. My advisor was from China, PhD in the US, worked as a group leader at a national lab, then came back to University. My first 2.5 years he wasn't tenured and spent most of his money on a European postdoc since he was the expert and my PI was venturing into something he wasn't an expert in. (The risk did pay off in the end). We all TAed and it was made clear that we put in 55-60 hours and show on Saturday. He was fairly strict, but once tenure was achieved, he became a great advisor. On the other hand, another very successful Chinese Analytical PI had all Chinese students, and the Chinese students in my group told me they even had group meeting in Chinese! And this happened at the #3 Analytical Chemistry graduate program west of the Mississippi (according to the Professors). This made me appreciate my advisor all the more, because he wouldn't even speak Chinese in a one-on-one office meeting with a Chinese student.

    I would advise folks to read a book on establishing good boundaries before graduate school. The best book I've read is "Boundaries" by 2 PhD psychologists in SoCal (this is from a biblical perspective, mind you). In my experience, I've overheard many a conversation of chemists trumping each other's work hour woes ("I work 65 hours a week!"... "Well I work 75 hours!"). But this is done in a braggadocious manner, without realizing they're bragging about allowing someone (their PI) to take advantage of them. I've ran into many Debbie Downers ("If you want a job you should just quit with a Masters" etc). Many chemists seem to enjoy reveling in their self-imposed victim-status, it's a thing we've all done in our lives at some point because it makes us feel better. Chemistry complainers chose to enter a field supersaturated with well-educated chemists looking for far fewer available jobs. Combine that with unhealthy boundaries, them failing to come to grips that they are adults and not just students, and are a mere 2 or 3 years from being peers with their advisor, and you get someone who had a nightmarish/difficult/depressing PhD experience. Once I passed my oral exam, I took an older graduate student/mentor's advice and was straight up with my PI: "My plan is to finish in under 5 years. How can I accomplish that successfully where we both get what we need?" (I finished in 4 years, 11 months). If you consider your advisor a dictator and could never approach him/her and say such a thing, you simply chose poorly. If it was pride that led you down the prestige path, I wouldn't listen long to your complaining.

  16. very interesting post.this is my first time visit here.i found so mmany interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion..thanks for the post!

  17. Thank you for such a well written article. It’s full of insightful information and entertaining descriptions. Your point of view is the best among many.


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