Thursday, January 10, 2013

Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health? Part 4

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?” Part 1 (CJ), part 2 (NTL), and part3 (CJ) are located as linked. The final post (part 5) will appear tomorrow at Chemjobber’s blog.

Dear Chemjobber,

Your last post brought some apt parallels between high-stress environments and graduate school, as well as some entirely important recommendations. A human support system is valuable: I’d echo the notion that it should include other chemists, non-chemist scientists, and non-scientists. It’s good to get a dose of reality every once in a while.

It’s been great to see engagement in the comments as well as by numerous Twitter users (too many to efficiently name; it’d look like a J. Med. Chem. author list) and bloggers, including the very personal contributions of Derek Lowe and See Arr Oh (as you noted), but also since then some perspectives from UK-based JessTheChemist at her blog The Organic Solution as well as Glen Ernst at Just Another Electron Pusher (CENtral Science).

I would be very interested to get the perspective of some PIs on the matter (surely some read your blog). I know of at least a few PIs with particularly fearsome reputations who nevertheless believe they have their students’ best interests at heart. Some may indeed be genuine sociopaths, but I suspect others are just unaware or ill-equipped. [Edit: after I wrote this, Professor Chris Cramer of The University of Minnesota wrote his thoughts in this honest account]

This post is pretty long (so were the others, I guess), so I’ve employed subheadings.

Mental health benefits?

You asked the question: Do you think grad school could be good for your mental health? That’s certainly worth addressing. While it’s obvious that the field has many elephants in many rooms that need dealt with, there’s certainly some good things to be said. A stressful program that doesn’t break you down can make you stronger; it can make you emotionally tougher (the counterpoint is: does it make you tougher than you realistically need to be for real-world work?). It can teach independence and self-reliance. And it can show (i.e. force) you how to deal with failure (imagine a world where PhDs took 2 years, composed only of handle-turning projects that were extremely low risk—what would happen to science on a broad scale?). And for those whose projects actually work: it can instill pride and confidence.

But I don’t know that I’m quite qualified to speak on the benefits yet. Were there aspects of your grad and post-grad career that you attribute to improving your mental health? Besides just getting out of there?

At this point I’d like to draw attention to a couple examples of happy folks in grad school. From “Ken”, yesterday on your blog:

I was extremely lucky to work for a PI who understood the value of encouragement, frequent but not overbearing collaboration, work-life balance, and setting time-bound yet achievable goals. He fully realized that if you were actually planning your work appropriately, managing your time well, and concentrating on executing while you were in lab (for example, not succumbing to distractions like the internet) that you should be able to work a 50 - 60 hour week and be extremely productive.

At Derek’s blog, Curious Wavefunction had a similar remark:

Both my advisors were wonderful mentors; easy going yet rigorous, whip smart yet respectful and always generous in assigning credit and empathizing with your problems. Vacation was liberally granted (upto 4 weeks) and nobody was expected to work more than 40 hours every week unless work demanded it. Basically they did a fantastic job in teaching us how to be both first-rate scientists and decent human beings worth emulating. I would go back to being a grad student with them in a heartbeat.

A number of other comments run along those lines too. It seems that there are a couple hallmarks of lab groups/PIs/grad programs that lead to overall happiness: (1) projects that work; (2) advisors who are flexible with hours; (3) work-life balance; (4) good time management skills; (5) advisors who care about good time management skills and don’t simply demand more work in the ‘saved’ time. Are there other factors I’ve missed?

Work-hour tradeoffs

A counterpoint to the ‘happy labs’ concept pops up immediately, though. Is it really green pastures? Or by working fewer hours and maintaining healthier lives do you lose your edge and competitiveness in the field? Do you get as much out of working for an ‘easy’ advisor as you do from a ‘slavedriver’? Does fear of mediocrity keep students from joining the labs of friendly PIs? There’s a definite mentality among some that working 60 hours will do more for your career than 50. And 70 is better than 60. And 80 better than 70. So the PI whose students work 55 hours can’t possibly be as good as the other one whose students work 75.

To some degree I would argue that more work equals more success (especially in gruntwork-laden organic synthesis). But there’s also got to be a point of diminishing returns. Where is that? (There are some 55-hour-weekers who can be exceptionally productive; there’s some 80-hour-weekers who get fired).

And moreover: we are younger when we join grad school than when we leave it. As such, a nascent chemistry student is, I’d wager, less likely to regard long work hours and monotony as a significant downside. Newcomers can’t accurately know what working for 5 years for 80 hours a week is like (obviously). They’re more likely to assume that, abundant with youthful energy, they can work harder than the next guy and simply tough it out. By the time reality kicks in (3rd year?), it’s too late to switch groups and still graduate on time.

How many people would change groups if they could go back in time?

On a related note, some people have commented that work hours in the UK and Europe tend to be fewer, resulting in happier grad students (some also posit that UK grad students are less skilled, but that tenet is beyond the scope of this manuscript). For one eye-opening (and hilarious) account, see scientist/comedian Adam Ruben’s story of speaking to a group in Belgium and noting the un-grad-school-like atmosphere there.

Another story comes from JessTheChemist (mentioned earlier), who wrote of her relatively less-stressful, 45-50-ish hour weeks (with free weekends) in the UK. She speculates on the productivity/enthusiasm balance, and notes that she probably left with more of a love for the subject than someone who was constantly browbeaten. I think that’s important to consider.

Advisors as aggravators

A lot of the comments, and some of our previous posts, have mentioned the role of the PI as a stressor. As one anonymous comment noted today at your blog:

I can remember a discussion of mental health with my PI and other members of the group at one point. The response to the discussion of mental health from the PI was "that's a bunch of touchy/feely crap".
That comment made it extremely difficult for me to openly come to my PI to discuss mental health issues that I was having.

The blind eye than professors often turn to this problem is a source of frustration. There's a bunch of comments about professors who ignore some obviously inflammatory social situations within their groups: this is consistent with some things I've seen. 

I think it’s worth mentioning again that PI choice needs to be done carefully. Advice on PI choice typically emphasizes the science being done in the group as well as the skills to be learned and the connections in industry/academia that the investigator has. Group culture should be an important consideration, too.

So: about PIs. There’s an abundance of evidence in the comments that many people regard PIs as the source of their stress. It’s probably pertinent to look at the pressures that cause PIs to exhibit this behavior (presumably they were human at one point).

The recent stir over an article at Forbes is probably relevant. Remember how Susan Adams of Forbes last week proposed University Professor as the least stressful job of 2013? And the furor that it provoked? Clearly, people are aware that being a PI is itself a very high-stress job (especially pre-tenure—it seems every teddy-bear PI has a dark pre-tenure story).

Many PIs I know work hours consistent with their graduate students; even those who go home at the promised-land time of 5 pm work late into the evening on grants, literature, etc. One PI here puts in probably 90 hours a week in the department alone (long-past tenured). Meanwhile, grants are hard to get; salaries are increasingly in dispute as collective bargaining rights are stripped and the tenure system is threatened with overhaul; pay is lower then industry; futures are dependent on the caprice of reviewers and tenure committees; time is stretched thin. Demands like this of people not formally trained in leadership or management inevitably lead to stress (or at the very least, high-octane conditioning). The stress is passed down to students. So part of the problem with PIs, as posters have posited, can be placed primarily on the broader system of grants, promotion, and “the institution.”

Contrarian perspectives

Interestingly, I’m sure you noticed some contrarian views popping up: most notably, the string of comments by pseudonym “Lyle Langley” on yesterday’s (part 3) post. He had prefaced with this point:

Here is an honest question to these posts about graduate school being bad for one's mental health. Is it really graduate school causing the issues, or are the people having the issues predisposed and would have had the same issues in any stressful job.

I think we had mentioned this idea before, in a cursory discussion. It’s blunt, but a valid point: Does grad school cause these issues? Or does it just exacerbate them? As someone uninformed in any clinical aspects of mental health commenting on a pseudonymous posting from someone who probably doesn’t have any training in mental health as part of a discussion with another blogger without any formal qualifications in mental health, my professional opinion would be that it’s a little of column A and a little of column B. Not all stress is the same, and people doing some high-stress jobs (say, grad school) might be miserable in other jobs (say, financial analysis, emergency room medicine, etc) and vice-versa. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make the case that grad school does cause stress in most of these cases. But for people pre-disposed to imbalance, it’s probably much, much worse.

I guess it’s fair to say that some people can handle the stress, even in the toughest programs. But just because some people don’t get lung cancer from smoking doesn’t mean that everyone should smoke a pack a day.

In any case, I strongly invite comment on the above (bolded) question.

Field choice and conclusions

As I wind down, I want to share a comment by “OrganicLOL” over at Derek Lowe’s blog that is pertinent to the question of subfield (i.e. are these mental health aspects localized to organic chemistry?):

If your PI is a dick, then you have the wrong PI. If all PIs at your institution are terrible, then you are at the wrong institution. If most PIs in your field are terrible (organic chem), then you are in the wrong field. I left a PhD program in organic for a PhD program in materials science and engineering. I now feel like my life has a purpose.

When you combine that perspective with the glut of organic chemists on the market, some of this makes more sense. Certainly there is work still to be done in organic. But maybe expectations and reality of the field don’t coincide. Should more people consider switching fields (or subfields—i.e. to chemical biology or materials)? Organic is probably the biggest chemistry subfield; is that justified anymore? It seems that so many organic post-docs are spent doing very similar work, conceptually, to doctoral work, which can’t help but contribute to the stone-of-Sisyphus feeling of indeterminate grad school length.

A few questions remain: Do you think that a sustained poor job outlook might lead to a relaxation of grad school culture? Or will the harsher grant culture lead to increased pressure on students instead? There are apparently many labs that don’t suffer from a depression culture: but are students from these labs as competitive in the job market as the high-octane labs? (Of course, that’s a very complex question). What high-stress aspects of the system are maybe really just necessary in order to impart chemists with the skills and breadth/depth of knowledge to competently practice in the field?

If you had the power to change a few specific things (i.e. not vague things like “more happiness” or “better projects”) about graduate education in chemistry, what would you change? Time limits? Coursework to include non-science skills? Mandatory phys. ed.? Or is it, to quote Candide, “the best of all possible worlds” ? (Readers are invited to comment on this, too!)

And finally: what have we learned from all this?




  1. The final questions are, in my view, hitting the main point:

    "Do you think that a sustained poor job outlook might lead to a relaxation of grad school culture? Or will the harsher grant culture lead to increased pressure on students instead?"

    the bad mental health of the PhD students is only the symptoms of the scientific disease. These symptoms are only the effect of the crazy publish or perish mentality. I guess that everybody is stressed in the academic world, from professors to PhDs. The "grant culture"/publish or perish/IF,HI and whatever index, is what is killing science nowadays.
    The results are obvious: from publishing hundreds of meaningless paper just for survival to fraud cases to overstressing the weakest link in the chain (the PhDs).
    I guess that healing the symptoms is not enough on the long term. We should defeat the disease, and change the way academia is working nowadays.

    1. This is a very good point. It's my opinion that science, as a profession, is in crisis at this point in time and that we, as scientists, need to get our heads out of our collective butt.

      We've got rising unemployment and dropping salaries. We've got the whole publish or perish thing (a high impact peer reviewed article per year at a bare minimum, just to enter the conversation). We've got a system that trains academics but doesn't employ them. Don't even get me started on the whole temp and adjuct thing. We've got outsourcing and offshoring as a normal course of doing business. There is no job security. Heck, there are no jobs. And the people who pay for the lion's share of this (US gov't) is looking to cut back even further.

      The system is broken and the poo is rolling downhill.

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  2. There seems to be a common theme that grad school (in North America at least) requires lots of long hours. My question is for those who have completed grad school and are now in the work force (either academia or industry)- how many hours a week do you typically work? I have work experience in both. While in industry, my typical work week would be between 50-60 hours. This involved long days where teleconference were scheduled very early or very late so as to include contacts on a different coast or off continent, weekends spent reviewing and editing documents to return to staff on Monday, and answering the myriad number of emails off regular working hours. During times of important milestones (business deal, due diligence or submission of a clinical protocol to regulatory) it would not have been unheard of to put in up to 100 hours/week (no joke). I am now an administrator in academia and my work week still hovers around the 50h-55h mark (for many of those same reasons as in industry). My academic colleagues who are research professors put in a similar amount of hours or more writing grants, mentoring their grad students, preparing and teaching undergraduate courses, reviewing journal articles and so on. So is the complaint about long hours in grad school truly about the hours?
    I had excellent mentors in my industrial career who although demanded a lot of work, always expressed their respect, admiration and appreciation of the work I generated. My current supervisors in academia are similarly respectful and appreciative. However, during my PhD, my supervisor was less supportive/respective/considerate and would often complain that there should have been "more" or "better" work without clarifying what was meant. This supervisor would berate the staff/students and rarely provided positive feedback. The relationship between grad student-PI was always at its lowest point and most soured when the student was preparing to graduate which probably reflects the power-struggle issues on behalf of the PI.

    On another note.....while I remember working late nights and weekends as a student, I also remember many parties, beer nights at the student pub and loads of social activities sponsored through the graduate student society which didn't cost much as we were all poor students. Perhaps my alma mater was more fun?

    1. Bio grad here. 60 hour weeks are pretty typical. Because I have the freedom to do so I do the vast majority of my work during the week and take as many weekends as possible off - not always possible due to the experiment. My chemistry friends tell me they work far longer hours.

      For me 60 hours is pretty close to the cut-off. Otherwise I make too many mistakes. Everyone's mileage will vary, of course. I seem to require far more sleep than my colleagues.

    2. It's not just the hours, but the constant soul-crushing failure that makes up those hours that is so hard to take.

    3. During grad school, 'constant soul-crushing failure' would mean negative results for experiments over months. In industry,"soul-crushing failure" can be a Phase 2 clinical study with your drug candidate failing to meet its primary (or any) endpoint. This would be a drug candidate that your team designed and developed for years and now the company has decided to kill it. The implications and impact of that failure in terms of dollars, time and absolute scope(the potential loss of a good drug which failed due to poor study design) is far greater than any failure in grad school, yet the failures in grad school were felt more personally.

  3. Not just the hours. Doing my PhD in Europe and frankly eventhough the long hours are not 'expected' (compared to the States) a lot of us still work evenings and weekends for one reason (personal choice) or another (external factors-pending publications, supervisor's request, etc). At the end of the day I still see my PhD as a job and would happily put in the core hours as I am funded for this and more, due to the nature of the research.

    Another hallmark of happiness that is worth stressing (excuse the pun): the dynamics of the research group. The advisor/PI does not have to be a slave driver to land the role as an aggravator. Neglect and ignorance (by choice) can be just as harmful to the mental health of students in a lab full of personality (and cultural) clashes, backstabbing and infighting, never mind competition in research as a whole. Managerial and interpersonal skills of the PI can resolve the conflicts that reduces the productivity of the lab as a whole. But I have no idea how PIs can be trained on effective recruitment (and development) strategy and management skills.

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