Thursday, March 2, 2017

Mental Health Dialogue: 2017 Edition (part 2)

Note: 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:

I had to do a double take at the calendar when you mentioned we were due for a refresh of this conversation on mental health in graduate school. But, somehow, lo and beholdit's 2017.

For me, things have been mostly good. My grad school projects ended up coming out of seeming oscillation into something resembling a stable thesis (bio updated to "Vinylogous was a graduate student..."). Add that on to a bunch of "life" events, and that's my 2015-2016.

Graduate school can be (and was) stressful, but so is the world beyond, I guess. For all the faults of our pressure cooker academia, it can be a source of insulation or distraction from alternate stresses (e.g. job market uncertainty, figuring out how healthcare works when you're not on an assistantship, dealing with the consequences of everyone you know aging, etc.). And some of those grad school stresses, it seems, do carry over, too.

All in all, I might do it again if I had to go back. But let's talk.

The state of things

You asked how the field has progressed:
How are we doing? I think academia might be doing better than two years ago about these issues, but I'm not sure. What do you think?
Has the mountain been nudged? As you might guess from that, I'm not really sure that much has changed, on a grand scale, in chemistry graduate education itself in the last four years.

I don't think individual departments are likely do so much without concerted pressure. Take for instance, the clamors for safety reform around Patrick Harran's tragically negligent supervision of Sheri Sangji. In 2014, prior to the resolution of the corresponding court case, departments were pretending to care more about safetygetting professors and students more actively involved in formulating solutions, giving lip service to "task force" initiatives, etc.

But of course, when Harran was able to escape a guilty plea and pay less than two weeks' salary as a token gesture to a burn center, departments realized that they weren't going to be held responsible, and they quietly dropped the matter. (Maybe not all departments, granted.)

Mental health is going to be similar. I don't see a clear path going forward that would encourage change. There's a massive collective action problem that still persists. And it's even trickier than chemical safetythere's more vagueness, less accountability, fewer particularized harms.

What have I seen? I haven't noticed much systemic change on the side of departments or PIs themselves. I did see a few individual PIs get mellower and more understandingbut over the course of five years, that can happen anyway.

I also did see someone announce on social media very recently that they were leaving graduate school, and in particular, they said their advisor's management syle was abusive. I don't know that you would be as likely to see that said publicly 5-10 years ago.

I've also noticed a few people announce their decisions to leave grad school for other options (career changes or MS-level chemistry jobs). Reassuringly, the reception to those people on social media from peers, family, and friends has been very supportive. So if there is judgment, it is largely silent judgment. For what it's worth, I think this is importantthe broader recognition that change is OK, the grad school system is flawed and exhausting, and everyone's got their own path to pursue.

Mark that down as "somewhat optimistic."

Blaming the screen

You asked how modern distractions might impact the daily grind:
Distractions: Do you think our modern times are responsible for some of the mental health difficulties that graduate students face? I don't think I was a paragon of mindfulness or presence in graduate school, but I think today's graduate student faces an array of distractions that are an order of magnitude larger than anything I faced. [. . .] I wonder if it’s something that contributes to deadline-related stress and stress that we might feel in graduate school? How did you deal with it towards the end of your time in graduate school?
This is a really interesting point. It's definitely a concern in grad schoolsome PIs go so far as to explicitly dictate in their group manual that there is to be no social media access during the day, among other approaches.

Truthfully, the instant gratification of the small miracle screens we carry around does make things harder. I often found it hard to get through close reading of long articles without impulsively pulling up Twitter every couple paragraphs.

But I wonder if these distractions are supply-side or demand-side (I suppose I meando today's sources and devices create distraction or merely serve as an outlet for distraction?)

For perspective, I've often tried to remedy my own distractedness by locking away my phone, or simply self-imposing a no-phone rule. Usually, though, after a while I find myself getting lost in other thoughts, snapping out of that to realize I've been mechanically skimming paragraphs. I remember having that same daydreaming-while-reading experience before I had a cell phone. (Maybe humans haven't really evolved to sit and read long texts).

So I'm not totally convinced that technology is a huge amplifier of distractedness. It might be. But maybe it's just a particularly visible outlet that highlights how easily distracted we are. I think it's mostly just convenient and comforting to reassure ourselves that we'd be so much more productive without today's distractions.

(I'm also generally skeptical of the borderline anti-millennial "back in my day..." wistful sentiments that seem to get tossed around in some spheres about the moral and work-ethic superiority of all adults north of 40).

As for how I've personally managed to conquer distractions? I haven't. Still a struggle. And definitely still a source of stress in my current position, as it was in grad school (to me, it seems that other people are much more adept at quickly digesting information, retaining it, and finishing things on deadline. Maybe they aren't--maybe that's related to the whole problem of being unable to objectively compare oneself to others--but it does feel that way).

That being said: to minimize the distraction of minutiae (i.e. all those pesky details in lab that are immediately important for today's experiment but undoubtedly distracting in terms of being able to think creatively or long-term), I think it was really helpful to (1) minimize weekends in the lab (even if your weekdays get busier; and (2) go on long drive on the highway a lot--several hours in the car without anything to do but think can be more productive than one might think.

The elusiveness of objective foresight 

You asked how we should be looking at the decision to leave grad school:
The “I Quit” Series: [. . .] I learned so much. I wasn’t surprised at how much people didn’t like graduate school (I think the people who really enjoy it are relatively rare), but I was surprised at how happy people were to have left. I haven’t made a solid count, but of the people who wrote in, most of them answered the question “Are you happy you left?” with a resounding “yes.” [. . .] I wish I had some way of forcing graduate students to confront the question of “should I leave?” with some kind of rational test. [. . .] What do you think? Are we looking at this wrong? Should we be encouraging people to stay no matter what? (Do graduate students need more ‘grit and determination’?)
Anecdotally, at least, I think more people who leave grad school areif you ask them a year down the road--happy to have done so than are unhappy.

I saw more instances of this in the last few years than I expected. There were, interestingly, a spectrum of reasons-to-leave (ranging from voluntary to not) but also a spectrum of PI reactions (including one who was both understanding and supportive, and another who made his student's life as miserable as conveniently possible). But they're all (seemingly) happier now.

I think we can (as a community) probably emphatically agree at this point that (1) grad school is not everything; (2) too many people go to grad school, and you need to really want it; (3) no one knows going in quite what they're getting into; and (4) it's OK to leave grad school if it's not what you want to do.

I think we've also (as a community) had great discussions of alternatives and career options.

I think, moreover, that we (as a community) have increasingly brought up the stresses and downsides of grad school—the nebulousness, the power dynamics, the understated role of serendipity in success and failure, the disconnectedness.

I've also talked about the above to a lot of students who were either considering applying to grad school or who were visiting on recruiting weekends.

But I don't think a single one of them took my advice. (This relates to your desire for a rational self-imposed test).

It's a little puzzling. Given broader exposure to grad school problems, shouldn't fewer people be going to grad school? (Maybe there are—I don't have a handle on the exact numbers, but my impression is that the ranks of scientific PhD students are as full as ever).

My impression is that as humans we all suffer from profoundly terrible objective foresight. ("Maybe it'll be different for me," we think. It usually isn't, of course). And that's part of the grad-school-mental-health problem. The only people who might realistically make a substantial change (grad students themselves, acting en masse) are only in the system for a few years, and those there for longer (PIs and administration) have little to gain from changing anything.

Some structural changes in grad school might change this. Take grad student unionization, for instance. That, of course, is controversial, and it's far from obvious that it would fix this problem. (One common criticism is that it would turn the grad student/advisor relationship from cooperative to adversarial; but I think one has to be somewhat naive to think it's that simple, or that there aren't many adversarial relationships already).

Let's get political

So far (in this and prior dialogues), we've largely focused on: (1) graduate programs themselves; (2) the internal struggles of graduate students; or (3) finding support outside graduate school. I don't think we've much considered the role of some really external concerns—namely, current events and politics. And grad student participation in politics.

First, there's no reason that someone can't be politically involved or politically active and not also be a fantastic scientist. That should go without saying, but "politically active" often conjures up images of incivility and frothing at the mouth, but I think that's a stereotype used to deride those with the gumption to care about things that aren't just silica gel and transition metals.

Second, we're in an interesting time where there's a push for scientists to get more involved in politics (see, e.g., the still-contentious March for Science, or Prof. Michael Eisen's announced bid for Senate).

But why does it matter?

Grad students are enormously focused on narrow things. Even when focused broadly on a scientific sense, they tend to pour tons of energy into science. And as previously discussed, if they take the time to have an outside interest (say, soccer or politics) it's derided. But, of course, we all live in a broader world that organic chemistry plays only a minuscule role in. Sometimes there are graduate students and professors who are active in political advocacy and social justice. But from experience, this often (and unfortunately) elicits mockery from co-workers.

Political apathy, of course, is a luxury for the privileged who don't stand to have much taken away from them. (This class includes professors, who as much as they might gripe about funding, tend to have relatively secure jobs at largely tolerant institutions with typically diverse populations).

This here is only a qualitative observation, of course. But fields like law and medicine have graduate experiences with difficult study and long hours, like chemistry grad school. But in either, you tend to see more devotion to external, broad, society-level causes. (That's probably somewhat related to the nature of the work itself, of course). And there's stresses on mental health there, too, but I think they're largely different in kind. I do wonder if increased encouragement or acceptance of grad student political involvement (let's call it "public policy involvement" for those who sneeze at the word "political") might help foster a feeling of empowerment, or at least attenuate the nihilistic jadedness that you can smell when you walk some chemistry department halls.

It's difficult to clearly articulate the reasons for graduate student political involvement, I guess. But I do wonder if it would be a good thing (maybe as an extension of it being a good thing for grad students to have outside interests in general). What are your thoughts, Chemjobber? I'm interested in your take on whether graduate students would benefit by being more active in this area (isn't that in the spirit of "Broader Impacts?").

I also wonder about political involvement by professors. There's some prominent examples of quite conservative or libertarian chemistry professors, for instance, and I've always wondered the effects, if any, on their students (I hope there's very little)—especially when I see a Tweet that's arguably misogynistic or racist. These professors often, nonetheless, have fairly gender-balanced or racially-diverse groups. I wonder if that ever spills over... do students feel they aren't getting a fair shake when their politics don't align with their PI? Or are we good enough at compartmentalizing that we can separate that sphere from the work sphere, and just get our work done without it mattering? (I hope the latter).

And have you seen the news lately?

I also do wonder about how current events will shape the grad school experience going forward (and by extension, the stresses involved). Namely:

Healthcare "reform". A lot of grad students are on their parents' healthcare or a university insurance plan, but not all. But with the climate in Washington, it's conceivable to see coverage for mental health services shrink.

Funding cuts. A look at the planned 2018 budget reveals a $31 billion cut to the NIH, along with multi-billion-dollar cuts to the NSF and DOE's Office of Science. I can't see this having a positive effect on graduate student life.

The public and science. This isn't entirely new, of course, but the public seems to have a growing distrust for experts. Along with a political climate that seems to be gripped by a strong anti-intellectual movement, I wonder how decreased public faith in scientists and academics will shake out, and perhaps if universities will see even less support, requiring higher pressure on pools of students to produce work. (Related, perhaps, to funding cuts).

Wage and hiring freezes. Of course, there was the postdoc salary debacle and the federal hiring freeze. Neither are good, on their face, for postdocs (and misfortune often trickles downhill). Are we seeing more difficult career ladders for grad students?

Immigration and the Trump administration. This one is particularly worrisome. I had tons of great foreign colleagues in graduate school. Many of those people are having trouble finding jobs. Or they're dealing with an increasingly loud and vicious public discourse demonizing immigrants or demonizing Muslims. In essence, a graduate student who is foreign or Muslim is being subjected to all the normal mental health stresses of grad school but with the added ingredient of broad-scale xenophobia. (It's worth pointing out that in the recent 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision refusing to stay a preliminary injunction against the administration's de facto Muslim ban, the plight of foreign graduate students and professors played a central role in demonstrating the damage done by the order).

Anyway, not to leave this on a sour note, but I wonder what other recent or upcoming events might signal good or bad times ahead for graduate students and postdocs. (Or maybe nothing will really change at all).




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