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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.


  • Jan 9th 201312:01
    by Carmen Drahl

    The urge to not waste time is a powerful one in grad school. Even when you’re working 12 hours a day, six days a week, you can sit around on Sunday worrying that you’re not accomplishing anything. Great post Glen. How do we get your message to stick??

  • Jan 9th 201315:01
    by Glen Ernst

    I think any lasting change is going to be hard to implement, but hopefully the dialogue that CJ and VA are having this week is a start and will generate some discussion within research groups. Unfortunately, I think, in some circles, it is seen as a necessity to require long hours and a singular focus on productivity—they’re a rite of passage and part of the crucible that produces the top science minds.

    I think industry has gone further toward recognizing that work-life balance is important (or at least giving lip-service to it). Then again, an industry scientist is more likely to push back—they’re typically going to be older than a graduate student, and more likely to have a family that is at least equally demanding of their time.

    Thanks, Carmen!

  • Jan 9th 201320:01
    by Chad

    Somewhere buried in my old data files is an excel chart where I recorded all 3000+ hours I worked in my last year of grad school, including two stretches of over 100 days where I worked at least five hours without a day off. I used this file as evidence when my PI blew up when I demanded a week off in the middle of that year – my first real vacation in five years. No, I do not miss grad school and certainly understand why it drove me to the limit of my sanity. Earning 3-4 times the money with 45-50 hour weeks and about 25 days off a year, in contrast? That’s a pretty good argument for your mental health.

  • Jan 11th 201309:01
    by Glen Ernst

    Chad – I’m sorry that you had to go to those lengths to justify your need for a break to your advisor, but that’s a shrewd tactic that others might want to duplicate. You could add a macro that flags when you need a break, if your brain hasn’t already been screaming it at you. Thanks for sharing your experience!

  • Jan 16th 201320:01
    by Matt M

    Grad school in Computer Science really does a number on one’s feeling of accomplishment – in a field where there is no such thing as tangible results or bench work, being a grad student who is relegated to trying to work in any environment at any time, including everywhere from in class to in bed at home gets very tiring.

  • Jul 24th 201309:07
    by Bryan Sanctuary

    You think grad school is bad. Think about the pressure on faculty to produce cutting edge research and peer reviewed papers all the time. I recall grad school as stressful, and indeed failure was always present, but keeping up the research in addition to everything else means long hours and stress for a faculty member. In fact the most tranquil days of my academic career were the two years I spent as a post doc. All there was to do was research and by then, after grad school, getting stuck was part of the job.

    I guess almost all jobs are stressful, but we need to distinguish between good stress (gotta get up and get going) and negative stress (I will never solve this). We need the good stress.

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