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On Graduate School in Chemistry and Mental Health

There have been a lot of very good Internet Chemistry posts about mental health and graduate school over the past week or so, sort of dovetailing off of the initial conversation held between Chemjobber and Vinylogous Aldol, which is well-worth a read if chemistry is your sort of thing (for most of you who read this regularly, it is not). Considering the fact that my most-visited post here is the Schlenk line setup deal that I posted two years ago, I thought I’d discuss the difficulties that I had in graduate school — which maybe were not all that bad in comparison to others’ struggles.

I started graduate school three months after getting my undergraduate degree, during which I spent two years working for a brand new assistant professor. I also took a few graduate-level organic chemistry courses as an undergrad, which prepped me very well for my graduate coursework; on paper I was an excellent chemist.

In selecting a research group, I joined the lab that I had planned to join when selecting my graduate school; I had met with a few other groups, but was pretty dead-set on joining this particular group, and then advisor very much wanted me to join. What I didn’t consider enough (though it’s damn near impossible for any twenty-two year old to consider enough) was the group dynamics and the advisor-student interactions. 

This is the first mistake that I made, and probably the most important one. Interpersonal dynamics between the advisor and the student, at least in my view, are at the heart of the graduate experience. They are not the focus of graduate school — nor should they be, as the studies and the research are what everyone is there for — but are interwoven into every facet of the process.

I worked in the lab for two years, churning along but never finding any aspect of my research that grabbed my attention fully or even made big-picture sense to me.[1]

This lack of full attention led to a bit of floundering in terms of project planning and focus, which I didn’t recognize at the time. My advisor may have seen it, but I was given a little extra rope relative to the rest of the group (I think) due to my book smarts. I got extra rope, and most of the group got pushed the same way they always had by the advisor, which bothered me — a lot.

A (relevant) aside: the advisor-student relationship, in my view, is highly skewed in terms of the power balance. Students are (very) cheap labor and are completely at the mercy of the advisor when it comes to letters of recommendation, advancement in graduate school, publication, and ultimately completing their education and getting the hell out of school. The advisor has to come up with original research topics, get funding, edit manuscripts, and teach lectures (among other things) — none of which are trivial tasks, mind you — but within the scope of the advisor/student relationship do not put the advisor at any sort of disadvantage. The advisor has all leverage in any negotiating, which adds to graduate stress.[2]

Between the lack of any clear path forward in research and being surrounded by what I viewed as emotionally abusive relationships between my advisor and group members (colleagues who were good friends and people that I cared about very much), I was lost. This sense of being lost was compounded by living in a fantastically shitty apartment and my wife working and taking classes at nights.[3]

My work-life balance was almost nonexistent, due to my advisor’s insistence that anything away from the lab was unimportant. I ran my first marathon early in my second year of graduate school, and would take lunch runs at times. Doing so, I felt like I had to be some sort of goddamned ninja to get away from the lab, run, and shower without my advisor knowing. After running the first marathon, I mostly stopped running in order to focus on lab work. I gained twenty pounds in the following year from some combination of lack of exercise, stress, and guilt (shout-out to a youth growing up with Midwestern Catholicism).

I somehow got through candidacy, but had no real way forward. My relationship with my advisor was steadily deteriorating, as he leaned heavily on me to come up with ways forward and I (increasingly) saw no such thing. I drank a lot to cope, and my sense of being lost started to manifest itself as contempt for my project and my advisor — which often present in frustrated graduate students, but not to the extent which I felt it.[4] 

I started to set up meetings with other professors to discuss their research. I met with people from my fellowship program to discuss what skills would be most beneficial for me to have coming out of graduate school in order to tailor my skills to my job coming out of graduate school.[5] I felt like I was sleeping around on my advisor, but at that point there wasn’t much I could do but at least see if the grass was greener elsewhere.

After a week or so of my sneaking around, my advisor suggested that I talk with other professors about their research. As much as I struggled with my first advisor, I’m very appreciative that he suggested I look around and see if any other groups would be better for me. The guilt was gone and I went forward with finding another advisor.

And I found one, and I moved forward. I had a lot of kicked-puppy to me at first, and it took about a year working for my second advisor to get comfortable. But I did, and I got through. And I started running again — with my advisor at the end of the day, actually — which helped me keep a clear head while working in the lab.

I had a rough time in graduate school, at least early on. Working for my second advisor wasn’t sunshine and rainbows, but it was probably as good as graduate school can be. The thing is, I’m positive that I’m better off having had such a miserable experience early in my graduate career. I don’t have Stockholm Syndrome, but I certainly learned a ton from my first advisor — both about chemistry and about work, managers, and what I can/can’t tolerate.[6]

I’m pretty even-keel emotionally, and I came close to burning out in grad school; I cannot fathom how people with a predisposition for mental health issues manage to get through. Realistically, there aren’t many good solutions that I can see to how to make graduate school a healthier experience. The pressures that are in place are going to be there no matter what. Better education of prospective students on the common stresses of graduate school would be useful, but the graduate experience is so variable from advisor-to-advisor that it’s damned near impossible to project what may or may not come to pass. Departments and advisors are often reserved about discussing issues with prospective students; very few students will voluntarily come join your dysfunctional family if someone else says “everything is just fine!” in their sales pitch. And so it’s a problem, but there are so many concurrent problems that there’s probably no pragmatic solution. Which sucks.

Graduate school was worthwhile for me. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and there are probably far, far more issues that I had during it that I’m not self-aware enough to recognize. But it was worthwhile.

1) Big-picture importance is something that I generally struggle with, and is exceedingly difficult for me to grasp (and I think is difficult for other young chemists as well). Not in an existential sense, but in a hierarchical ‘changing this bond leads to this property which … is somehow important to us all’ sense.

2) Cognizant that I have never dealt with (and am not fully aware of) the pressures of an academic PI’s role.

3) A basement apartment in a Cape Cod-style house that was at the base of a hill and had full basement windows. The window wells would fill up during heavy rains and the sump pumps in one well burnt out flooded our apartment. Twice. Also, the entrance was through the back of the house and there were four dogs which lived in the upstairs of the house, one of which was a very energetic boxer puppy that liked to get muddy and jump up on you. That place was a shithole.

4) In one particular instance, I remember having a Monday meeting to discuss project updates. We’d met on the previous Thursday, and I went in with a blank sheet of paper and told him that a former group member had been in town and that I’d been hung over for most of the weekend and didn’t do much (if any) work. I was close to burning out, and I was pretty brazen about it.

5) I was offered and accepted a fellowship that set me up with a job — but failing to follow through with my degree meant having to pay back all of the fellowship money. I started out on the fellowship my third year of graduate school, concurrent with candidacy and the deterioration of my relationship with my first advisor.

6)I’ve also since talked with my first advisor about this and have patched up the relationship — which wasn’t a particularly easy thing to do but that’s part of being an adult.

  1. dennymayo posted this