Friday, January 9, 2015

Revisiting grad school and mental health with Chemjobber

Note to readers: this post is a response in a dialogue between Chemjobber and I on grad school and its effects on mental health. Yesterday's post can be found here.

Dear Chemjobber:

It has indeed been awhile since the last mental health dialogue. Since then, I've gained additional perspective from inside grad school, and it is invaluable to hear your view from "the other side." Hopefully some of the observations and recommendations below will be of interest to you and perhaps to readers.

Last time we talked about this topic, I was significantly earlier on in my grad school career. Since then, I've had battles: dealing with failed multi-month projects, going through intense candidacy preparations, attending to seemingly overwhelming (at the time) departmental milestone requirements, wondering if every experiment that worked was just me fooling myself, adjusting to being several states away from family and my SO, and wondering if my PI knew enough to steer my career in a productive direction.

Early on, it was easy to get discouraged. Now, it's still easy to get discouraged. That's research, I guess. Part of my struggles entailed coming to terms with the fact that I did not want the job I originally came to grad school for: academia. Moreover, I saw college and high school friends rocket past and start exceptionally successful careers in other discplines, and I have seen other people I regarded as lazy or duplicitous get showered in accolades in their fields. That kind of thing--comparing yourself to people in different career paths--is rough. And when you've sunk 8 years into your university education, it makes changing career trajectories stressful and confusing.

More than once, due to a culmination of these things, I came to the brink of leaving the grad program. As it happens, I didn't. More on that a little later.

Defining Mental Health

In the last two years (and maybe it's just confirmation bias, or increased vigilance on my part due to our earlier dialogue), mental health has received a lot of press (particularly in regards to crime and rationalization of gun violence).

I think that makes the subject a bit taboo--as if admitting to problems is akin to saying you're an unstable risk.

Before I write further, I want to articulate what is meant.

Having a problem with mental health doesn't have to mean severe mental illness. It is a strain on emotional and/or cognitive well-being. It doesn't have to mean severe depression. It can--and that's common--and it's okay.

This is the best way I've heard it phrased: every single person on Earth has some degree of mental health issues. And so it pays to have empathy.

For fear of feeling weak or being stigmatized--or simply due to denial, or thinking that the situation isn't serious enough, or that care is too expensive--many people don't get help for mental health problems. And, again: "problems" can range from crippling depression to simply feeling overwhelmed with expectations at work. Either way, it behooves one to be introspective and take advantage of help that is available, as wellness is infinitely more important than pride.

Has Grad School Changed?

You asked about change in the attitudes and policies of professors in grad school: are more (younger) professors opening up about the mental health/stress needs of students? Is "work/life balance" more of a serious consideration and less of a joke? Or is it status quo?

This is one of those questions that it's hard to address in any more than an anecdotal manner. I want the answer to be "yes--new professors are generally more socially and emotionally in tune and respect their students' time and needs". I think that to some degree that is the case, but it's very, very group-dependent. Many (relatively newer) PIs that I've seen don't religiously track hours and do encourage students to have outside hobbies. But since being a PI is still stressful, science academic culture is still a place of forced machismo, and research grant funding is still scarce, I also see many new PIs work their students much harder than average (while being groomed to do so by more senior faculty).

Here's my rule-of-thumb diagnostic that can be applied to PIs: what do they think (and how do they respond) when a student has no interest in going into academia? It's a rather simplistic way of viewing it, but many of worst professors in this regard are the ones who view anything other than an academic position as failure. Other PIs (often when both young and not purely synthetic-oriented) accept that academic positions are a minority and that life is a balance of priorities and different students have different needs. This latter category is, I hope, becoming more common.

Hopefully dialogues such as these (and the accompanying discussions we saw last time) at least serve as consciousness raising to spur dialogue between students themselves and between PIs and their labs.

Behavioral Pitfalls and Mental Health and Dealing with It

The last two years have given me some time to reflect and also observe--and it seems that certain combinations of behaviors and attitudes are especially bad, mental health-wise, in the context of grad school. But there's also ways to deal with them. For instance:

Avoid burnout: Some people are prone to starting projects fervently, working on them vigorously for long hours. That kind of work ethic--an almost obsession--can be immensely productive in the short run, but people who do this also tend to burn out really quickly. In jobs where projects switch frequently (maybe graphic design, or consulting, for instance) this might be sustainable.

Grad school, however, requires a slower burn. Long hours are expected--but they have to be tempered. What's the key, then? I think you have to set in for the long haul and learn what your limits are. Find the burn rate at which you're energized but not drained.

Of course, that's easier said than done. But as far as I can tell, the people most prone to burnout have a tough time adjusting mentally to graduate school.

On a related note, make sure to have some hobbies. People without hobbies adjust more poorly to stress. Do things, read things, create things, eat things, etc. Learn a language or something.

All too often people lose their hobbies and interests in grad school. That's easy to do. I've experienced it--I used to play quite a bit of music at what (I think) was a decently proficient level. That's all but stopped. I used to write a lot--and read a lot, too. The consuming nature of grad school, however, tends to leave your evenings consumed by reading literature, napping on the couch, or just generally decompressing. Or running columns (although--honestly--rarely is a column so important that you have to run it at 6 pm; if you do that frequently, chances are that you're just running away from having to do something else in your spare time that might make you an interesting person).

So hobbies take effort. But so does exercise, and building relationships, and preparing nontoxic food, but they're worth it, and very important.

If your labmates or PI ridicule you for having serious outside hobbies (such as coaching a sport, leading church discussion groups, running, brewing beer), then don't work with those people. Seriously. They're vultures.

External validation: Not even kidding here--and maybe this is a sad reality--but getting published as quickly as possible, even as a minor author--is immensely helpful for buffering one's mental health. All it is is your name typed neatly into a PDF, but it's also a way to say "I was here. I did something. It's in PubMed now, so it's real."

Again, easier said than done. But it's something to consider if you're prone to impostor syndrome: what's the best path to publication? Do you have a plan?

If you're on a project that just isn't working (and hasn't been working for a long time), get another project with a more sure route to publication.

Have an exit strategy: This might be the biggest contributor to mental health issues in people I know. And I think it's part of why the average path to PhD, as was mentioned in the previous post, is over 6 years. There's no clear indicator of what's "good enough" to graduate. And maybe because of a combination of impostor syndrome, a loss of direction, and thinking "well, everyone takes 6 years", many people just wait until late in their career to look towards the next step.

I've seen several PIs whose philosophy is that when a student has secured their next position (postdoc, job, etc), he/she will facilitate their graduation as soon as possible. That seems like the best way to do it.

Not every group is like that, though--and hence many people spend their time in a morass of career uncertainty. If you're ever had a full bladder during a seminar with a particularly long-winded presenter, it's the same idea. It's not the pressure, but the temporal uncertainty of the ending that is most discomforting.

From my own personal experience, then, the biggest way to deal with the mental stress of grad school is this: decide what variables you can change and where exactly you are taking yourself. For me, this included pulling the plug on a high risk project, and more importantly, it also meant explicitly articulating an exit plan and reaching an understanding on this and my career goal with my PI.

And it was an immense relief.

Having a semi-defined end in sight and mind is invaluable (and something I've always envied of those in MBA, JD, DVM, or MD programs, even though those are more stressful in other ways).

The Grass Isn't Necessarily Greener

Chemjobber--looking back on what you said about stress in industry (and about the outside world not being a panacea for mental health tribulations) also highlights something that is unhealthy among those of us in grad school.

We tend to compare our situation to industry or to other fields (engineering, computer science, pharmacy, law). Usually that descends into "look at the benefits that X has", "look at the few hours that Y works", and "look how much Z gets paid".

I think what we ignore is how politics driven nearly every career, scientific or not, academic or not, is. We assume that academia is the worst, because we came into academia with illusions of its nobility and vision, and then the curtain was pulled back.

But my feeling is that the reality is this: it's rare, nowadays, for young professionals not to work extended hours. Maybe 80 hours a week isn't common, and maybe a lot of fields get more Saturdays. But my own parents worked Saturdays and 60+ hour weeks in their twenties--and they are in a business field. My feeling is that part of any professional's early career is learning how to maximize their productivity, deal with time management, and establish their value in the workforce. In grad school, we just do that for much less money.

That's not the view I had two years ago, admittedly--at the time, I thought 60 hours a week was almost inhumane. That's changed somewhat.

I write this as a large swath of the US is experiencing a spat of cold temperature (far below freezing, with high winds). I write it from an apartment that, even as a student, I can afford to keep heated, as I use a broadband internet collection to play music in the background. My tap water will not give me parasites. I will not likely be shot tomorrow--in fact, I might eat Chipotle. Some of the food in my fridge will likely expire before I can eat it, and that won't be a big deal for me, financially. I can put gas in my car and travel across several states to see family several times a year.

The point is this: I am very thankful for what I do have, even if I'm working more hours than I would ideally like to, and if I go in on Saturdays. There's a lot of problems with grad school--power imbalances, careerism, politics--but it's not as bad as we sometimes make it out to be. Dwelling on the negatives, rather than changing what you can and accepting what you can't, is detrimental to mental health.

Restated: the grass on the other side isn't necessarily as green as it looks, and the grass on this side isn't as brown.

Just Say "No" to Grad School

Despite the coping strategies that I have and that I've seen people use, grad school can be too much. And that's okay--everyone's got different expectations and life goals. It simply doesn't make sense to stay in grad school if it's all a downhill slump.

So that raises what I think is an important question (and one you, Chemjobber, mentioned in your post)--one that I think is worth wrapping up with. Actually, it's two questions:

How do you make a decision to leave or not leave grad school? and Should I go to grad school in the first place?

They're related.

I mentioned a second question--Should I go to grad school in the first place?  I'll consider that one first.

I don't think grad school is for everyone. I don't think grad school is for everyone smart, either. I don't think it's some pinnacle of achievement that puts PhD-holders on an intellectual plane above BS-holders. And I think going to grad school can be an incredibly unwise decision--and it shouldn't be undertaken lightly.

As the posts and comments in the last mental health dialogue made clear, grad school can be very mentally and emotionally taxing, And it is especially hard on those who are prone to burnout or mental health issues, which I suspect tend to be amplified in the academic environment (even in lower-hour groups). Be very sure.

There are lots of bad reasons for going to grad school: not knowing what else to do, ego, thinking it's the path for smart people, not wanting a boss, thinking it's a land of total freedom, wanting to be called "Dr" (PhDs are NOT "real" doctors, and real doctors think it's very adorable when they assume they are), thinking it will be the path to increased riches, etc.

There are good reasons to go to grad school, of course, but one needs to be exceptionally sure of these. It's half a decade--at least--until the end. That's a lot of opportunity cost--and lost salary. It's sacrificing your twenties on the altar of science.

As for the other question--How does one know when to quit? I've seen a lot of people who would be happier quitting grad school--but mostly, they don't. They don't out of pride, or inertia, or wanting the title, or being afraid of what others will think. Those aren't good reasons, but they are powerful ones. I've also seen people who think they would be happier quitting but are still driven for the job that the PhD will enable--it's probably worth it for them to stay in, due to the payoff in the long term.

There's a concept in business decision-making known as "sunk costs". Put plainly, sunk costs have been incurred and thus can't change. In rational economic thinking, you shouldn't consider sunk costs in a decision--they're in the past, and only future costs/benefits--those you can change--are relevant from an objective decision-making standpoint.

Behavioral economics suggests that people do--quite irrationally--weigh sunk costs. I had a community band director once who exemplified this. He paid quite a sum for a particular musical score. We hated it. He didn't care for it, either. But we played it every few months because he felt that he had "paid good money for it" and "didn't want it to go to waste."

The same is true of grad students. There's a pervasive thought--"I've already put in 2 years, so it would be a waste of time to quit now." (Or however many years). But time already invested is a sunk cost. It doesn't matter how much time you've put in if you're not going to get anything out of the degree.

Only three factors should matter when deciding whether to quit grad school:

  1. Am I happy right now? (Am I mentally healthy? Are there variables I can change about my current situation to make myself happier?)
  2. What is the future benefit of me getting this degree in comparison to not getting it? (is it necessary for your career? Is it limiting?) 
  3. What am I missing out on by following through with grad school? (This is known as "opportunity cost" and includes the salary you could collect at a different job, time spent with friends, family, and your SO, traveling while young and unencumbered, etc). 

If the answers to those aren't positive, there's no reason to stay.

Quitting grad school is a really taboo subject--maybe even more so than mental health or the fact that academia is pretty rubbish at drug discovery. Why don't we talk about it more? Grad school should not be the only priority in one's life--and it's perfectly OK for it not to be the highest priority (although certain PIs may disagree).

In the end, it shouldn't matter what colleagues think about whether one quits or not. What matters are the three questions above.

I asked myself these recently. I was highly stressed, had seen a project burn, and had thought deeply about my life priorities. I didn't see myself as a good scientist, but as someone who could be a mediocre-to-decent pharmacy tech pretending to be a scientist. I was ready to pack up and leave and to take my chances on another career. I had my quitting speech rehearsed and had started the motions. I had strongly implied to several people that this was a sure thing.

But I thought about it. I considered the factors above--thought about what I could change about my situation to make it work. I talked with some third parties both in and out of my desired career path. And I realized I needed the degree and the experience for what I wanted to do. I talked frankly with my PI, and he/she was supportive (surprisingly so) and understanding of my priorities and needs. And so I made the choice to stay on board, making the changes I needed to in order to be happy and productive.

I hope it was the right decision. Maybe in 2 more years we can revisit this topic again and see.

To wrap up: thanks, Chemjobber, for the opportunity to revisit this topic. I felt our last dialogue on this was valuable and appreciated the insight from the numerous scientists who weighed in. Thanks for your perspective, and I hope you stay well. 



Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Minty fresh terpenoids

With the holidays concluding (and stocks of candy canes dwindling) it's natural to ask: what's the difference between spearmint, peppermint, and wintergreen flavorings? 

Beyond the differences in their biological origin, various people have (not surprisingly) analyzed the constituents of the essential oils of each. 

Peppermint oil (Mentha × piperita L., a cross between watermint, Mentha aquatica, and spearmint, Mentha spicata) has seasonal and regional variation, but it is primarily a mixture of menthol (>30%) and menthone (>15%, sometimes >30%). Also present are a large diversity of additional compounds, including menthyl acetate, eucalyptol, limonene, beta-pinene, beta-caryophyllene, trans-carane, pulegone, (+)-carvone, and neomenthol. Some of these components (pulegone and menthofuran, for instance), are undesirable from flavor or toxicity standpoints, and have been the subject of metabolic engineering. A sampling:

Spearmint comes from the essential oil of Mentha spicata and differs markedly from peppermint oil mostly in the relatively low abundance of menthol (<1%); it's still a complex mixture. The primary flavor component in this case is R-carvone (>50-75%). Limonene is more prominent than in peppermint. Other components include eucalyptol, trans-carveol, dihydrocarveol, caryophyllene, beta-bourbonene, linalool, beta-pinene, and germacrene D. 

Wintergreen (essential oil commonly from Gaultheria procumbens) is arguably simpler than either peppermint or spearmint and has a greater variety of sources. The chief flavor component here is methyl salicylate (a whopping ~98%), although one also finds limonene, myrcene, cadinene, carene, and pinene (alpha-pinene, in contrast to the predominantly beta-pinene in peppermint/spearmint).

For a really nice graphic of chemical compounds as flavor components in herbs and spices in general, see this post at Compound Interest

All in all, terpenes are nice.