Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 2

Note: this post is the second in a series of five in a dialogue between Vinylogous (Not the Lab) and Chemjobber. This dialogue seeks to facilitate a discussion around the question: “‘Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” For the first post, click here. Tomorrow’s post (part 3) will appear at Chemjobber’s blog. 

Dear Chemjobber,

This dialogue has been really illustrative so far, despite only beginning today. I have to admit that I’m surprised by how largely one-sided the responses have been: overwhelmingly it seems clear that chemistry grad school, as it is run in the US, is frequently very, very bad for mental health. It’s good that these issues are coming to light, and it seems that there are many chemists who share a common experience.

I admit that I expected more people to jump up in defense of the current system—maybe we’ll see more of that this week. From what I’ve seen, many synthesis labs are stocked with advocates of the old-school style of management: I consider this a scientific Stockholm syndrome. These people brag about the sheer amount of grunt work they can accomplish and the late hours they routinely work, scoff at those having out-of-lab hobbies, and deride physical/analytical/biological chemists as a matter of principle.

It seems that many, many (most!) comments on your first post are written from the “other side” – the promised land beyond the degree. I don’t see many remarks so far from current grad students, though at least one grad-school-bound undergrad has expressed how frightening it all seems. Derek Lowe’s thoughts on the matter have generated a healthy stream of comments themselves.

My own perspective is a little different, as you anticipated. I obtained my (thesis) M.S. in organic synthesis at one university and at the moment I’m relatively early in my path toward a Ph.D. in organic chemistry at a different institution, where I’m pre-candidacy. As such, my “grad-school crazies” haven’t had a chance to set in here yet. We’ll see, I guess, but I don’t plan on completely sacrificing my twenties on the altar of Science.

Getting an M.S. deliberately before a Ph.D., as I did, is unusual (since a master’s is typically considered a ‘quitting’ degree). But I think it was useful.

At one point during my previous degree, when I was doing research, taking classes, and teaching, my advisor told me frankly that my productivity needed to increase. It needed to double. At that point I already felt that I was at my absolutely limit in what I could accomplish in a week. At that point, I had nowhere near enough data for a paper and barely enough for a mediocre conference poster. Weekends had been given up, as had hobbies. When I mentioned to my advisor the many demands on my time, his response was short: “Sometimes you need to prioritize what’s important to you.” (The subtext: stop caring about class and teaching and hobbies). It was an existential moment. I managed somehow to increase my productivity and my efficiency, and within a year or so I had three first-author manuscripts. I defended my M.S. and graduated, moving to another (higher tier) school for a Ph.D. But I left with a pre-conditioned bitterness towards graduate work.

The experience wasn’t terrible, in retrospect: I learned a lot of techniques, gained facility with the literature, developed writing skills, did a little mentoring, etc. But crucially, my time there observing advisors and Ph.D. students showed me the dark aspects of the system. This was a mid-tier grad program, where JACS articles were few and far between. But 7-day workweeks were expected; dinner was eaten hurriedly at one’s desk; stealing was frequent and hoarding of reagents and glassware was necessary. Multiple students wallowed about for seven to ten (!!!) years, probably with undiagnosed depression, and without proper pushing from advisors, they left with (useless) non-thesis master’s degrees. One didn't want anything to do with science upon leaving. Another claims on LinkedIn to have a Ph.D. from the department anyway. A Ph.D. candidate in one lab would, on multiple occasions, suffer rapid bouts of anger (on one occasion, he realized after putting a purified column fraction on the rotary evaporator that he had not pre-weighed the flask—in frustration, he took the glassware and hurled it at the wall).

Importantly, it gave me an idea of what to look for on recruiting weekends when applying to Ph.D. institutions. And awareness of the stress and mental trials of graduate work. I think awareness is vital in preventing emotional collapse; if you can see a problem on the horizon, you can plan and maybe circumvent it.

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.

Work/life balance. I think this is THE biggest thing wrong with organic chemistry that contributes to stress. Professors usually don’t want to discuss work-life balance, because it means fewer hours from their students (I must add here that some do; a few that I know recognize that happier students are more productive and encourage their grads to pursue outside interests. These labs have the most funding in our department).

Some examples are in order.

I talked to another grad student who has a passion for a certain extramural sport. He plays it weekly during the warm and leukwarm months. He’s been productive, has several good publications, and is personable and helpful, despite frequently leaving at 5 pm. I asked him why he chose his current lab over another that does very similar work. His reply: “My advisor lets me play [identifying sport]. I don’t think [the other professor] would.”

In my previous degree work, I found myself at situation where I “worked” even when at home: I’d speculate on my project over dinner, and I’d read manuscripts rather than read books (reverse procrastination). What I hadn't done was compartmentalize or set limits. As it is now, I avoid reading manuscripts or planning tasks after I go home for the day if I can. It’s not realistic all the time, but I try to adhere to “work smarter, not harder.” That is, I strive for efficiency at work and minimal overlap of work and not-work. Realistically, not everyone is allowed to do this, as bosses have very different demands on time.

One organic professor at my previous institution had a reputation for being candid. He also had a fairly solid research record to his name. One day in seminar, a friend and I were discussing installing our university’s VPN client so we could access journal articles off-campus. The professor overheard and snorted. “I don’t have the VPN on my computer,” he said. “I don’t want to read this s#*@ when I go home.”

An important perspective also came from a friend of mine who we were giving a hard time for owning a fancy set of kitchen knives. “You don’t need knives for Ramen noodles,” we insisted. He countered honestly: “I like cooking. If there gets to be a time when I can’t use my fancy knives, then what’s the point? I’ll just quit.” Since then, I myself have resumed cooking.

I think an important thing is: you need at least one hobby. One non-science hobby. Mine right now is writing (last year I wrote a bad but time-consuming novel). If you don’t that kind of time, I think your work and health suffer.

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.”

Nebulosity. The fact that grad school is a weird, highly variable purgatory is a major contributor, I think. There’s no end in sight, usually, until less than a year from graduation. Some people take 4 years; some take more than 7. The record here might be 13, with an average of 5.5. Moreover, time-to-graduation keeps increasing. It’s a giant chunk of uncertainty. And hours can be uncertain, too. How much is enough? Will 5 more hours a week be useful? Will 5 less be too unproductive? How many papers do I need to get a good degree?

The economy. Because of the down chemistry job market, employment is tougher to find (of course you, Chemjobber, know this). Thus, there’s more competition between students. And as grad students grasp the reality of the employment situation, that dangling carrot of a med-chem job they’d been trodding after starts to shrivel and rot. It’s one thing to put in 10 years of work for a great, stable, high-paying career. It’s another to put in that time for an uncertain future where a career you don’t want or care about is a stark possibility.

Advisors and power structure. I mentioned previously a fifth-year grad student who plays a sport. One of his friends, another fifth-year student, plays on the same league. He’s a member of a different lab, however. He has to hide his activity from his advisor, who already banned the lab from their routine Thursday-night trip to a local restaurant for dinner (they “weren’t being productive enough.”).

I think it’s fairly obvious that advisors are in a power to be abusive, and though many aren’t, a large number are. And oblivious advisors can be as hurtful as malicious advisors. If a student has undiagnosed depression, it may show in their recommendation letters in the form of descriptions of laziness or lack of enthusiasm. Advisors have huge career-altering power. A set of nasty letters from a former boss can sink your chances at good jobs, and there’s really no system to avoid this if you happen to accidentally piss someone off. 

On the other hand, some professors are very keen on their students' happiness and treat them with respect. I've seen professors who go by their first name and invite their lab to gatherings at their house as well as professors who want formalities (including scheduling appointments with a secretary to even have a ten minute talk) and aren't interested in their students beyond a working capacity.

Grad students. As at least one person mentioned in comments, a certain kind of person goes for graduate school work. We’re usually perfectionists or close to it. And quite often workaholics. This leads to long hours and a roller coaster of emotions dependent intimately on each day’s reaction’s success or failure. No one discourages this line of thought: professors want long hours and high yields.

Another thing: I think grad students are likely to exacerbate each other’s poor mental states. This is one reason you see some labs with uniformly high happiness and others with endemic surliness. Generally, your social circle in grad school is confined to your labmates. People swap complaints. These things build, so one person’s problems became another’s. Bad moods are contagious.

The field itself. Also called the “low-hanging fruit problem.” It’s frequently argued that a lot of innovation in synthetic organic chemistry is dead; we’re in the post-Woodwardian era, where advances take more time and are increasingly incremental rather than truly innovative. This leads to a demand for longer hours in order to get results considered worthy. Plus, organic work involves a high amount of “grunt work”—quasi-thoughtless, repetitive tasks such as setting up the same reaction thirty times to complete a table, running columns, distilling solvents, etc. Some subfields are fresher and more varied in their day-to-day, and I’d suspect these have lower rates of stress and depression. I started (M.S. program) in a synthetic lab; I’m currently (Ph.D. program) in a lab where a minority of the work is synthetic. The chemical biologists here are, in large, much more socially well-adjusted and happy than the methodology-driven synthetic chemists are.

So I guess it’s complicated.

I think I had a much clearer picture of the state of organic research going into grad school than do a lot of students, who frequently leap into high-profile labs under the seduction of wedges and dashes without a hard look at what they’re really getting into. I started as one of those chemists.

When discussing these aspects of grad school with organic chemist colleagues, I hear a frequent reply: “Yes, it’s tough, but everyone knows what they’re getting into.” “No one goes into Professor Schmorey B. Deathflask’s lab without expecting that.” “It’s what you have to do to get good work done.”

I don’t know that that’s true. And even if it were, I don’t think that that absolves those in power of responsibility or justifies the system as it is currently run.

So what do you think? I’ve got loads of questions on my mind. What aspects contribute to it? What can be done about it, realistically? And interestingly, how does chemistry grad school compare to other high-demand fields: say, getting a DVM or an MD? How does it compare to graduate programs in business (where compensation upon completion is much higher) or the humanities? Is the stress and mental health worth it—does it pay off to stick it out? I look forward to your thoughts!




  1. dear americans,

    a lot of your professors appear to be totally fucking mental.

    "his advisor ... banned the lab from their routine Thursday-night trip to a local restaurant for dinner"

    what say has the professor in what the group do in their own time? (clue here is: thursday night). This is just crazy. I think I would tell said adviser where to go.

    1. That's the power of working for a single person for 6 years in order to get one recommendation letter.

    2. That's amazing. I always thought if i was a PI weekly dinners/bar meet-ups would be a good team-building exercise to institute.

    3. Team building!!! My a**, just treat everyone fairly and job done. Nobody is interested in your pint or pizza.

    4. as for the lab which I come from, our PI always tells us we need to hang out once (which, we, his members, are always excitedly anticipating), but he never gets around actually organizing it. But we, from research assistants to post docs, manage to go out once in a while, , though with out our PI. So we end up talking about him. LOL

    5. I think the point here is that the advisor doesn't believe in such a thing as grad students having "their own time." He essentially owns their lives and their souls.

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  2. Thank you both for writing these. And a big thank you to the commenters on yesterday's post. Not easy to write these things.

    I can't help but come back to the fact that many of these problems ARE caused and exacerbated by graduate advisors. PIs at top tier schools feel they need to push their students in order to justify their place in life. PIs who don't end up at top tier schools (and lets face it, academic placement is a crapshoot) feel they need to show up the people who passed them over and denied them their chance at "glory". This is all certainly a simplistic view at the issue. But there are truths there.

    Another issue is the entrenched version of lab life. Many PIs got where they are by working on their own. Not only do they expect this of their students, but they continue their own isolated work in their day to day activities.

    I just can't buy the argument that people heading into graduate school "know what they're getting into". They know they are going to work hard. They don't know that they are going to be "abused" while their actual efforts go unappreciated and unacknowledged.

    As mentioned in CJ's post yesterday, a good PI can immensely help the work life and overall "happiness" of their group members.

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  3. "And oblivious advisors can be as hurtful as malicious advisors."

    Very, very true.

    1. Neglect is considered an official form of abuse in the case of dependancy. And grad students are typically highly dependent on their advisors, for funding, graduation, and future career prospects.

      I will work hard, but I need feedback and a non-zero amount of positive reinforcement.

    2. Miss MSE and CJ: You guys are spot on. The neglect of my oblivious advisor means that the group has lost and is still losing productivity. Those members of the group that care about the general day-to-day running of the lab are just left with more and more odd jobs to do, students to look after, repairs, etc. Grad school had trained me not to care for the others in order to get stuff done and not fall into depression. And I thought that employers prefer to hire 'team-players'.

  4. "He’s been productive, has several good publications, and is personable and helpful, despite frequently leaving at 5 pm."

    Interesting and telling phrase.

    One thing nobody asks: What time does he start? It sucks to be a morning person - all anybody notices is when you leave...

  5. The lack of work/life balance in PhD programs as well as the uncertain job prospects after so many years of work are two of the main reasons I'm considering not getting a PhD.

    I'm doing a 4-year Bachelor's/Master's program at my school. No extra tuition, no extra time, I just need to write a senior thesis. I might just stick with the Master's as I go to search for industry jobs.

    1. Jenna: word to the wise, don't expect your 4-year MS/BS to be treated like an MS in chemistry, especially when you consider that many MS chemists started in Ph. D. programs and left after more than two years. You will certainly be given credit for going above and beyond the BS requirements. That said, I was a BS chemist for 3 years before I went back to grad school, and I loved it. Many days I wish I'd never left.

    2. Don't waste your twenties on a Ph.D. I wish that I had started my family a decade earlier than I did. Even as a man, you can have fertility issues that may make it difficult to conceive when you are older. Better to spend the time that you would have spent in lab looking for a spouse and starting something permanent like a family.

  6. to Miss MSE: "Neglect is considered an official form of abuse in the case of dependency" Well put - I never thought of that in terms of my graduate "career", but it is fitting.

    to Jenna: if you're considering an advanced degree (or not considering, as the case may have it), don't limit yourself to one that is simply an extension of your undergrad degree. For example, if you have lots of organic chem experience, but you are drawn to drug discovery, consider an advanced degree in e.g. pharmacology, not just a PhD in chemistry

  7. @anoynmous 10:59
    Would an advanced degree in pharmacology actually be useful to someone trying to work in drug discovery? Useful in that they would get a job in the first place?
    forgive me if thats a silly question

    1. Industrial pharmacology was not (as of 2011) a better field: http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2011/03/03/a_postdocs_lament.php#482055

    2. I would think so. I'm a PhD org chemist,and it seems to me that the org chemists are often just the "labor force" used by those who are discovering drugs. It's an awful long way from a biological target to a organic compound that acts the way you want it to on that target; see, for example:
      The pure synthetic organic chemist has only one part to play in that (albeit an important one)

    3. Chemjobber has a good point, but I was only using the pharmacology option as an example. There's a lot of options out there, more than I had realized as an undergrad (and even much later). The best thing to do, of course, is to find what you can be passionate about, and work in that field (often easier said than done). Somebody once said to get a job doing what you love and you'll never "work" a day in your life. Again, easier said than done, but a worthy goal. You don't want to spend the majority of your career wishing you had chosen another field

    4. Sorry, Anonymous @12:30 PM, but not sure where you are getting your information about who "discovers drugs"..."the org chemists are often just the "labor force" used by those who are discovering drugs"...
      In all of the industrial/academic labs that I've been associated with, it's the medicinal chemists (i.e., org chemists) that are discovering the drugs. Yes, the target is extremely valuable, but the medicinal chemist is the one doing the iterative work of interpreting the biological results/SAR/DMPK. As anyone that has worked in a drug discovery lab will tell you, chemists MUST know the biology of the target - biologists need to know zero chemistry.

      And a pharmacology degree will not help getting a job in pharma. As medicinal chemistry is being jettisoned, so is pharmacology.

  8. I worked hard for a then young and now famous organic chemistry professor. I had a good relationship with my professor that improved as my lab results got better, though unfortunately for others it works the opposite way too. I was fortunate in the projects I selected, and published papers and have ended up with a (un)stable job in industry that I enjoy. I also made sure to push the bar and play as much sports and take as much vacation as I could get away with, because you're only in your twenties once. Because things worked out well for me I can look back at grad school with real fondness, however I tend to forget the dark days when nothing would work or I was getting verbal abuse from my boss. Occasional 1 am complaining sessions with fellow labmates. Brilliant individuals who weren't as lucky as me and who quit or, even worse, stuck it out and didn't get a job they wanted in the end. I love the passion I had that got me through the experience and I am glad I got my Ph.D., I'm glad I met some fantastic people, but knowing what I know now I would find it more challenging to recommend going to grad school to someone else.

  9. "my productivity needed to increase. It needed to double."

    I'm curious, how did your prof measure productivity? Reactions/week? Successful reactions/week? Grams of stuff made? Round bottom flasks cleaned? Round bottom flasks dirtied?

    Crap that that makes me cringe.

    If blogs like this were all one read about chemistry professors, one would be forced to assume they're mostly sociopaths. I guess the insecurity of being the nerdy kid in high school carries into "adult"hood. Pity.

    1. Sadly, I know quite a few PIs (including my own) who have many traits characteristic of a sociopath

  10. "And as grad students grasp the reality of the employment situation, that dangling carrot of a med-chem job they’d been trodding after starts to shrivel and rot. It’s one thing to put in 10 years of work for a great, stable, high-paying career. It’s another to put in that time for an uncertain future where a career you don’t want or care about is a stark possibility. "

    This might be a game-changer

  11. It's astonishing to read this post and I could swear it was written by someone in my department. I'm sure a lot of others had that feeling too.
    In addition to some of the excellent points already discussed such as PI demands, nebulosity (if that's not a word, it is now) and the job environment, I really struggle with the more general question: what's the point of a PhD and are programs meeting those goals. My answer would be the point is to train good scientists with the necessary skills and though processes to solve chemical problems for the benefit of society. I think many people would agree that they felt ready after 4 years. I don;t think that's just wishful thinking, I believe after 4 years in one lab, you've learned all you need or are ready for a new experience, i.e. post doc). It seems to me PIs and academia in general just want to push it further to get more years of very skilled labor at the expense of the real purpose of a PhD. Similarly, industry seems to demand more and more years of experience in grad school and post docs, which it's not clear to me are necessary to have a useful worker. I'd be interested to see long term data and a correlation between the value of I just bitter or could we have a productive chemical industry without 5+ years and 1 or more post docs?

    1. ...correlation between the value of years in grad school or a post doc and work productivity. Am...

    2. My experience has been even worse- many non-R&D industry drones completely dismiss work done in grad school and postdoc as "college." Now THAT'S embittering.

  12. Really enjoying reading all this, as whilst I'm yet to experience the horrors of graduate programs, I'm in the UK, so hope (pray) I'll find the experience here more pleasant than the image painted for those in the US.

    One thing I was going to ask was, how aware are new candidates of the time commitments expected from them? Do people go in knowing that, in order to stand any chance of graduating, they'll have to work 7 days a week, doing 14 hour days (for example). At the uni I'm at, I know of a PI who has an agreement with his students that they work 8am-6pm Mon-Fri, and do the same every other Saturday. How common is it for PI's to set hours in stone like that?

    1. More common than you think, even in the UK. Ask lots of questions wherever you're thinking of. Ask whether you're allowed to take your holiday time. Ask whether the PI comes around the lab late at night or Sundays to check who is working. Ask whether the working hours permit hobbies or seeing family easily.

  13. Going in, I was well aware of the hours I would have to put in. What I was unaware of was how lopsided the power difference between advisor and student was, how they could control so many aspects of the student's life and unfortunately abuse that power in many instances and in many ways. It seems that even the "nice" advisors get a little drunk with power.

    My experience is that it is the slave drivers that are more likely to be specific about a work schedule. (So it wouldn't be 8-6, but 8-11.) Many professors are reluctant to establish a schedule. I suspect it's because they don't want to have their hands tied should they want a student to work extra. One notably bad advisor would write scathing emails to her students along the lines of "I was in lab Friday at 10 pm and no one was there!" When her students asked "Well, when would you like us to be in lab?" she was evasive.

    1. CoulombicExplosionJanuary 8, 2013 at 3:01 PM

      Indeed, the power structure is a difficult issue. It's especially difficult when you have an advisor with a delicate ego that likes to propose results and then having the students go run the experiments that proves the result. I've been in the unenviable situation of trying to prove my advisor's cooked-up result. If the student can't get the anticipated result, it's difficult for the student to approach the advisor and question the initial assumptions/mechanisms of the idea. It's much easier for the advisor (and sometimes for the student as well) to assume the fault lies with the student (bad technique/hands/etc). That sort of intractable position is enough to cause a mental breakdown.

    2. Very true, and reminiscent of what happened in the Sames lab, when the student concocting fraudulent data was believed, and other students who did not come up with the same result were fired. There are a lot of grad students out there contemplating deciding between compromising their integrity or feeling the wrath of their advisors.

  14. @dhchemist I think it's common to know what you're getting into in terms of hours because you probably did something similar in undergrad. The big difference, IMO, is that as a grad student you have to do much more grunt work and running down ideas that don't pan out. No one is pleased that you were able to try something and get an inconclusive/useless result, whereas as an undergrad, people think you're hot s#!t if you can consistently run easy reactions, get the right yield and talk sensibly about what you're doing. I think it's the much, much higher bar in grad school, along with the uncertain payoff in the end (whenever that is!!) that grinds on people.

  15. I did my PhD in a synthetic lab where at my low point, I was too afraid to take time away from my bench to go to a mental health appointment, because my PI checked on my progress multiple times a day. The only thing that kept me going through my low point was my hatred toward my PI. My PI was not going to cause me to give up on my project/passion like so many others had.

  16. I have a huge amount of respect for my old UK PhD supervisor who pressured us to work hard during normal office hours but let us set our own agenda outside it. His previous experience included a postdoc position in a very big name US lab where everyone worked crazy hours and was consequently exhausted all the time. Some very hazardous chemistry too, not a good combination. He put in less hours, got some sleep and was pretty much as productive as he was much less tired. The UK PhD was a three year deal back when I did it. He kicked us out of the lab after about 2 1/2 years or so to ensure that we finished writing up before our funding finished. Despite all this good will, he has a good publication record in his field.... Happy students can (and should) be productive students. Some of the students in other groups were not so lucky.

    1. That's really good. I can believe that it can be this healthy but after my time with an oblivious PI (not the aggressive slave driver, but the other end of the spectrum) that neglects the group-not sure if I have faith to do a postdoc.

      For those of you that survived tough times at grad school, what made you do a postdoc anyway? Did the postdoc experience put the phd days into perspective?

    2. The job market makes us post-doc. Most of us who do not want to be professors and can get out, do. I guess my problem was that I was sick of rural of America. A postdoc in a major city seemed to be the best way to network in a more urban area and to try not sink in even more depression and isolation as opposed to a job in Appalachia.

      It certainly helped with the depression, but the times being what they are, networking in a major city is still quite challenging (it was the summer of death, 2009). The one thing I have come to appreciate about postdocs is their transient-ness. Do you want to take the job job in Pimpleton North Dakota? as a lonely Bachelor who grew up in big east metro area or will you take the postdoc in Arkansas, the postdoc at least offers more hope because you know it's transitory.

      (As another aside, if you like big or at least bigger city living, maybe synthetic chemistry is not a great profession for you, switch to software engineering, or leave the country.)

  17. "I managed somehow to increase my productivity and my efficiency, and within a year or so I had three first-author manuscripts."

    How exactly did you manage to do this? Was your advisor right that your productive potential had not been met previously?

    1. Definitely part of it--I got a lot better at time management from where I was, though I had been putting in long hours (not always equal to productivity, as I learned). Part was also a combination of luck and problem solving--stumbling upon a quicker, better route to things via some increased lab time/fresh new approaches to things (old route was NOT working well) and subsequently being able to get data.

    2. It's just not worth your time to follow a 12 step linear synthetic route. They ALWAYS take longer than advertized. If you don't have the proper tools to characterize your material, or you keep getting vague and negative data, then you are certainly wasting your time. So many times you can try to make things that aren't "working" and of course if you on step 10 of 12 steps, you too invested to really step out. If you make it to step 10, and someone scooped you in 6 steps, well then you and your adviser are exposed for fools. The stubborn pride in many of us wants to demonstrate these feats of strength, when really we should just demonstrate the property or principle and move on with our lives.

      When selecting a project, look at the plan. How many steps to achieve your goal? Is the goal set in stone, or can it be interpreted in a number of ways. If you find yourself at the end, and the sole purpose was to prove your advisers hypothesis, and it doesn't, can you sell it as something else?

      Ultimately that is what science is and should be, and not who builds the prettiest house of cards. It's much exciting and rewarding to keep your projects and goals dynamic.

      That's the culture change that synthetic chemistry, especially academic chemistry, needs to change.

  18. I would not recommend going into science as a career unless you are going to be an academic, are a certified genius, or you will be happy as a lab technician. For many people it's a huge waste of your youngest years and the payoff is uncertain because you are dependent on others for a job in science.

    Graduate school is for training academics, if you are not going to be an academic, I would stay out and enjoy your youth, especially if you are in a non-Ivy League school.

    I did the Ph.D. in synthetic organic chemistry and deeply regret all of it. I was not able to force myself to finish my post-doc and left about three-fourths of the way through. I could not see myself doing lab work the rest of my life or even for the remainder of my post-doc.

    Fortunately, there were jobs for non-laboratory chemists when I was dumped out into the work force. That lasted about 9 years and then those jobs disappeared. I'm retraining for another area outside of chemistry and science entirely.

    I think some people suffered from depression during their time in graduate school. I was one of them. Don't ignore your health, especially your mental health. I still have nightmares about graduate school and my post-doc even though that was 15 years ago.

    If you are depressed in graduate school it may mean that you really don't like your subject area that much. Another issue for honest examination is that you may be trying to shove your type-B personality into a type-A career.

  19. I'm going to go out on a limb here and address this from another perspective. First off, I agree that many PIs don't tend to handle the interpersonal aspect of their job with a whole lot of grace. However, I have a perspective from both a small liberal arts program and a large state school program.

    In my case, my lab mates and myself experienced everything others have mentioned. However, we discovered that our PI would go through "cycles" where his demands would suddenly become much harder and his meetings with us would always end in someone in the lab in tears. What we figured out was that his demands on us always were usually linked to the time of year leading up to grant funding. At the smaller institution, where there were only one or two students and a PI, and where the PI's main focus was teaching not research, it was a very different dynamic. Now, I want to be clear that I am not defending my PI, we actually have filed many complaints as a lab because of what he was doing, but in this discussion I think it is important to include the outside pressures and stresses that contribute to everyone's mental health in the lab. Including the PI.

  20. I discussed this series with a younger student in my lab this morning. We concluded that our biggest problem with grad school is the overwhelming attitude that the result is the only thing that matters. In our opinion, the measure of a graduate career should depend equally as much - if not more so - on the skills you develop and on the ability you demonstrate to think independently about your research as on the specific research result you achieve.

    I was lucky enough to take on a research project my first year that worked. By the end of my third year, I was confident that I had enough data, enough results to write a credible thesis then and there. Maybe not groundbreaking, at that point, but a thesis, nonetheless. So, while my advisor (and I!) would certainly like me to publish a few more papers before I graduate, my fourth & fifth years have been significantly lower-stress simply because I know there is no way my advisor can tell me I "haven't done enough" to graduate.

    There is another student in my lab, on the other hand, who has worked on project after project that hasn't panned out. This has absolutely no relationship to his work ethic or his intellect - I feel he works harder than I do, and is just as smart as I am (probably even more so!). But he's been on a lot of projects that we've later discovered simply aren't possible with our equipment, etc., and so after 5 1/2 years, he still hasn't "done enough" (read: published enough) to graduate. There's something that strikes me as fundamentally unequal about this, that I am in a better position than he is simply because I happen to have gotten the projects that panned out.

    So, I'd like to see chemistry become more accepting of failure. Grad school should be limited to a specific amount of time (probably 5 years, maybe 4), and even if students haven't gotten that beautiful experimental result by the end of that time, if they have demonstrated the skills necessary of an independent scientist (a good work ethic, an ability to think creatively and independently about scientific problems, etc.), then they should be considered ready to graduate.

  21. I'm in a kind of odd situation in that I'm finishing up a PhD in bio science after working for a few years as a staff member in a synthetic chemistry lab. I've also gotten to know quite a lot of people in the synthetic chemistry field.

    In synthetic chemistry there seems to be 2 disparate schools of thought: the work-all-the-times and the work-until-it's-time-to-plays. Both roll their eyes at the other. Having worked with bot I can say that the atmosphere in the work-until-play lab has a much better, more cooperative atmosphere where post docs are far less likely to hide notebooks under lock and key. In the work-all-the-time labs I notice fierce competition is encouraged by PIs threatening to replace post docs and grad students who don't perform to a perceived standard. And I've noticed intentional sabotage of experiments, fist fights, daily screaming matches, and an overall sense of doom from them.

    Even in bio science I've seen similar attitudes, although there tend to be far more work-life balenced attitudes. My MS thesis advisor was a raving lunatic who demanded everyone in the lab (only me) to arrive before she did and work later than her, and email her regularly through the night. She'd regularly scream if something didn't work, even if it wasn't part of my projects. I elected to get the non-thesis masters in order to cut and run.

    [I've seen other PIs work their students to the point of insanity and then demand they leave with an MS because there were fresh faces waiting to move in. Better to bring in the enthusiastic and kick them out when they become bitter, than it is to work out the HR problems in the lab. These PIs are easy to recognize because only 1 in 20 of their students ever passes prelims.]

    My PhD advisor, on the other hand, encourages outside activities, with the understanding that we get the work done for critical experiments, even if it means weekends and evenings when it's necessary. As a result my PhD has been far more productive and worlds more positive. And I've been setting all kinds of personal records in my recreational/semi-competitive sport. :-) My PI does have his problems, in that he never gets around to reading anything I submit to him. But that's far outweighed by him being a decent human being.

    I take some work home, in that I sometimes just can't turnoff my brain. But that entails a notebook app on my phone, and is completely voluntary. I'm doing that more and more right now because I'm finishing my dissertation and preparing for my defense. So I expect that to dissipate in a couple months. [Disclaimer: I have a post-graduation job so that's not a source of stress for me.]

    FWIW I also work with DVMs and MDs, due to the nature of how my university is structured. DVM and MD students appear to have high stress in phases, generally surrounding exams. They're able to plan for it and structure their lives around it. They also have a clear end date to the school-related stress and a clear transition to internship, residency, and externships. Expectations are very clear. One on-going stressor for most is that there's no clear divide between work and home after they've begun their practice, unless they're in 9-5 specialties, like radiology.

  22. My advisor's line was "If you're not sleeping you should be working". I would leave the lab at 3:00am and go home to bed. Sometimes I would go home and practice my musical instrument from 3-3:30. He couldn't understand this and had a major problem with it when he found out. I felt I was cutting into my sleep time but he saw it as cutting into my work time. Now 20 years later I leave work at 4:30pm and still play that instrument all I want and sleep all I want. And what's he doing today? Still trivial permuatations of the work we did 20 years ago. In some respects, for all that stress and "hard work", academic research moves on geologic timescales.

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  25. I just recently decided to quit / switch advisors. I will freely admit that research is not my strong suit, and as a consequence I am a 4th year with few results and nothing terribly interesting. I fear the the pressure has increased my difficulty with successful synthesis, as all failures are addressed with verbal abuse (accusations and reminders of incompetence, accusations of not taking his advice or instruction seriously, there have even been tirades regarding my,personal appearance and habits, he insisted upon knowing about medications and therapy I was seeking, for depression brought on by this situation) and today I told him, in the middle of another one of his screaming fits, that I was done. I originally wanted to teach at a non graduate institution as teaching has been my real passion and acknowledged talent, but I can no longer continue like this. My real fear is that if I cannot find another advisor to help me finish, and I end up leaving, I have no other real training or experience outside of chemistry, and fear I would be unable to find a career or job that doesn't involve being a waiter or bartender (my only other job experience). Any thoughts or personal stories would be helpful.

    1. PhD in Chemistry just sucks.. waste of time and health... Need to spend long hours in the laboratory.. mental stress... physical stress... No money ... No time... always busy.... trust me...

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