#GradMentalHealth (and #OverlyHonestMethods?) / Chris Cramer
January 13, 2013

Some bloggers I try to keep up with have been engaged in an ongoing conversation with respect to whether grad school is bad for your mental health. Or, perhaps more accurately, whether grad school is an environment that places your mental health particularly at risk. Let me point you to this post as a good place to start, and you can pick up the threads from there.

Me, I'm not an anonymous blogger. But, I'd like to think that I care about graduate students (and postdocs and undergrads for that matter). So... maybe a post from someone who's ridden the academic train for a while now and can speak from personal experience will be regarded as worthwhile, and my lack of anonymity be regarded as sincere. You give back when you can.

Grad school. The third year of graduate school is generally the worst, don't you think? Unless you're fabulously lucky, many research ideas for which you had great hopes have failed. You're still far from being incredibly experienced, but as you're no longer taking classes, your expectations for productivity, whether your own or those of your advisor or both, seem to have ramped up considerably. The sum of your research accomplishments to date seems woefully far from the critical mass required to generate a thesis.

Oh, and you generally hate your advisor. Grad school is a bit like childhood compressed into about one quarter of the time. The third year corresponds to the teenage years of growing up: you want to rebel, and you want absolute freedom, but maybe you're not quite ready to take full charge of your own scholarly activities, and you sure as hell don't have sufficient economic resources to do that in any case. I'll concede that with the grad school 3rd-year blues at least you're not coping with quite the same hormonal change as when you were a teenager, but I'm still going to stand by my analogy on many fronts.

But, anyway, I'm blathering -- why is there any value in a post from me?

Well, there was a point in my third year where I was downing about a half a bottle of Jack Daniels a night while playing backgammon with a housemate until the wee hours of the morning. And, I wasn't hitting that bottle because said housemate had an uncanny ability to roll double-sixes whenever she needed them (although she did...) No, I was just self-medicating with the most readily available drug I could find.

Now, not being anonymous, I should state up front that my then advisor is not really the ogre in this story. He was certainly demanding and intimidating in a manner entirely consistent with the regrettably celebrated warrior culture of synthetic organic chemistry, but his worst moments inspired me more to anger than to depression, and I was willing to go into his office one night (after a few beers) and tell him what I thought of his management style, and he, to his credit, heard me out, noted that faculty don't get training in personnel management, and asked me how I wanted to proceed with him when it came to me. I usually now tell people that he was a terrible advisor to work for, but a wonderful advisor to work with, and the trick consisted of getting across the for/with line. He was an inspiration when it came to Chemistry, and whenever I hear him speak (which isn't much anymore as our fields are now so different) the same sense of awe overtakes me. That's Chemistry, I guess.

But I digress... Why so much Jack? Well, let's see. Over the course of about 12 months, my grandmother died of Alzheimer's (hideous disease), my uncle died of AIDS (no better), my great aunt died of cancer, my dad had a heart attack (he's still around, happily), my mother had a nervous breakdown that had her taking so much Xanax for panic attacks that she almost wasn't there (she's all better now, too, thanks). And, my best friend in grad school left for a job (he was a couple of years ahead of me). And then there was that whole 3rd year of grad school thing.

So, one night in the lab, I was sitting alone at my desk, and I was sobbing. Hunched over, diaphragm sore; I couldn't stop. Now, I'm actually pretty weepy under various circumstances, I feel obliged to admit. My kids are constantly rolling their eyes in theaters because they hear that sniff from their father in the next seat over that means he's begun to cry at whatever moving scene is unfolding before him. But, the particular event I'm recalling from grad school was not that good, cathartic crying that leaves you feeling calm and cleansed afterwards, the way the outside feels after a brief summer thunderstorm. Instead, this was a paroxysm of hopelessness. I felt paralyzed with respect to any option other than continuing to rock and sob at that lab desk. I'm not an M.D., but if that isn't a symptom of depression, I can't imagine what is.

I don't really remember exactly how that episode ended. What I do remember is that I had sense enough to go shortly thereafter to the Student Health Services and talk to a counselor. Long story short is that we are such stuff as chemicals are made of, and I took advantage of the pharmacopeia of the 1980s to add one external chemical to my personal mix--a tricyclic antidepressant. I suppose it's cynical to suggest that part of my motivation was that on a grad student's salary, that was a cheaper option than a bottle of Jack every two days, but, I think I also appreciated the human interaction with the counselor.

Do antidepressants work? To be honest, I'm not sure that I can be the one to tell you. I don't recall feeling dramatically different. Instead, I recall feeling that surely I should be feeling more level, and so I would be more level--almost like a placebo effect. But, anyway, you can't do a control experiment with a sample of one, so it's a moot point. I carried on. In a few months, I was lucky enough to fall in love, and I flushed my remaining pills down the toilet in a gesture of defiance. Things pretty much worked out after that (well, there was that interesting moment a few years later in Korea when the Army almost pulled my SECRET clearance because of my having reported once taking antidepressants, but that's a story for some other time...)

So, what's the moral of this story? OK, here are my morals for young scientists in grad school or on the postdoctoral treadmill:

1) A breakdown in mental health can happen to anybody and is neither more nor less remarkable than any other physical ailment. There are professionals who are trained to assist in such instances and it only makes sense to avail oneself of their services when needed. I'm certainly glad that I did. Nowadays, I swim in stress, and I deal with it reasonably effectively, but if I were to feel as though I'd crossed that critical line once more, I'd seek help. Everyone should.

2) I glossed over it above, but let me return to it. If a big part of the problem is your advisor, that problem is not going to go away on its own. There are various ways to address it (for a subsequently written, much more thorough post on this topic, go here).

Option 1: "I have so little time left, I'll suck it up." Painful, but perhaps viable for the short term. Set a timetable for your completion and be sure that you're keeping up with it. You're going to need that kind of self-discipline to survive.

Option 2: Schedule an appointment and respectfully explain to your advisor why his or her managerial style is adversely affecting you. Explain that you are seeking a workable way forward that is mutually acceptable. Sure, the power differential is awful, but you owe it to yourself to assert your right to humane treatment. Unpleasant confrontation and/or worst-case scenario consequences will ultimately fade, but the feeling of self-respect for defending your rights will be with you always. And, what the hell, he or she just might surprise you. We faculty are mostly human, it turns out.

Option 3: Talk to a Director of Graduate Studies, ombudsperson, or other trusted individual charged with helping grad students/postdocs. They'll generally have good advice (you know, like I do). At the very least, you will feel better for having talked with someone, and if you really are cursed with one of the bad actors in the field, you're adding to the record (cynically believing that the record just doesn't matter to anyone is not a recipe for progress; be the change).

Option 4: Flee. Seek another opportunity, wiser for your experience. Yes, you'll have lost lifespan, but there are almost always better options than being miserable. It's a big world, and while it might seem to you at the time that your evil advisor holds sway over all of it, that's just not really true. It sucks to have been unlucky (or naive), but move on.

My blogger friends have offered lots of other good bits of advice and I won't prolong this post with any recapitulation thereof. If you're feeling depressed, inadequate, incapable, confronted by a reality inconsistent with your hopes and dreams, well, lots of us have been there too. It can get better; work with others to make it so.

And, from me, best wishes and good luck.

Lighter and darker memories from that time.