Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being
In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise:
Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.
After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point.
Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme:
I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.
I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance:
Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”
Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days.
I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s particularly timely in light of last month’s ACS Presidential Commission report and C&EN coverage on the status of graduate school in the chemical sciences and Deirdre’s terrific ensuing guest post here.
I was very fortunate to have a good relationship with a tough-but-fair advisor. But I certainly had my moments of despair and panic. One particularly bad moment came in the middle of writing up my thesis. It was about 3 am, and I was working on the conclusions section. I looked at some data I had analyzed and was struck with a horrible certainty that my interpretation of the data was wrong, my entire project was crap, and I was nowhere even close to being done.
I went home, slept for a few hours as best as I could, then returned to the lab. I reviewed the data again with more-or-less fresh eyes. Upon reexamination, the data looked fine and I continued writing. (Okay, I’ve glossed over some details—including, I’m sad to say—some moments in the fetal position).
The stress of grad school can affect one’s mood, leading to bouts of depression and low self-esteem. The pressure to be productive and innovative in one’s research project can also be an element among many which may help encourage (or at least fail to discourage) some aberrant mental behavior.
I found the emotions I felt during my period of unemployment to have a similar desperate feel to those experienced in grad school. So, perhaps, what advice I provided then may be relevant for grad students. Please, then, remember to give yourself a break. If you’re at an impasse, the insight you need may more easily come from a moment of reflection or while you’re engaged in a mundane task. For me, in the lab, even now, I seem to get my best ideas while washing glassware or cleaning my hood or bench.
For those witnessing another’s struggles: Urge anyone in grad school or anywhere along their chemistry career in dire stress-filled circumstances to seek help, in whatever form they choose. They shouldn’t have to go it alone.
Update 1/9/13, 9:20 am: Part three is now up at Chemjobber’s blog. Among other topics, there’s a focus on how the isolation one feels as a graduate student can have a large negative influence on one’s psyche. Chemjobber advises seeking a personal support system, whether friends, loved ones, peers, or even, if necessary, professional help.
Update 1/10/13, 9:30 am: Part four, from Vinylogous, is now up at Not the Lab. Some topics discussed: Can graduate school actually be beneficial for one’s mental health? If you enjoyed an environment where work-life balance is appreciated and fewer hours demanded, are you seen as somehow weaker as a scientist? If a particular advisor’s managerial style exacerbates the stress felt in graduate school, doesn’t the stress a PI feels as under the current academic system also play a role? Is the problem just that some students are, say, wound tighter than others and more likely to snap?
Additionally, read this posting from Chris Cramer, current faculty member at the Univ. of Minnesota, in which he shares his own experiences with stress and depression as a graduate student, and gives advice now that he’s on the other side of the table. From the UK, JessTheChemist shares her thoughts and experiences. You can also follow this thread on Twitter through the hashtag #GradMentalHealth.
Update 1/11/13, 8:40 am: The fifth and final post of the dialogue, from Chemjobber, is up with a summary of the past week’s discussion.
I thought this dialogue was a terrific idea and was well-executed. Hope this format will be applied to other topics in the future!
Update 1/12/13, 7:30 pm: Lest we forget—it’s not just the sciences. Check this out.
And, regarding my grad school field (organometallics), there’s this.