I have been reading the recent flurry of blog posts on mental health and graduate school. After thinking about what I could add to the conversation I decided instead to focus on my own story and make just a few comments on what a few others have said. At the bottom of this post I have tried to collect links to the relevant posts.
First, I decided to be a chemist at the end of high school. Both of my parents have PhD’s in chemistry and I tried for quite a long time to not be like them, but you do what you are good at. Since I had this perspective, I went to college, knowing I was going to go to graduate school. Because of this I planned my classes and took opportunities to optimize research experiences. I happen to be dyslexic and knew from high school that I wasn’t going to be able to do well in college level English and history classes so I worked hard in high school to take AP tests so as not to have to take these in college. I have always said that I could fool a 3 hrs test better than a trained professor for 3 months. With these exams, I entered college with close to 60 hrs (I was a junior in standing) and I was able to take 3 bachelors of science degrees and a science minor. I literally took 4 non-science classes in college: 2 in Swedish and 2 in philosophy. I had worked in 4 different research labs by the end of college (1 REU like program, 1 biochem and 1 organometallic lab at my university, and 1 biochem lab in Sweden for a summer). Because of all of this I was a good candidate on paper. I applied to 5 top 10 graduate schools. I didn’t get in to 2 of them but when I called and asked why they both said that one of my letters of recommendation had come over a month late and that they didn’t accept anyone until their application was complete. By the time my application was complete they had accepted everyone they were going to. Honestly, this was fortuitous. One of these schools was the place my parents had met while my mom was a grad student and my dad was a post doc and I am not sure I would have been able to choose anywhere else if it had been an option.
I ended up attending a great school that fit my personality much better than the others. While visiting the school I called my mom to tell her that I had decided to move to Chicago because I would “graduate in purple velvet robs and get to buy a real winter coat.” While of course these were not the deciding reasons for my choice they were the cherry on top. I feel like this description of my choice is probably the most fundamental description of my graduate life. I had picked a great school, with the type of atmosphere and level of internal competitiveness that suited me, in a place I wanted to live, and with a climate I would enjoy. I had tried as hard as possible to balance my work and life right from the start.
I choose an apartment in the city about a 25 min commute in the morning to campus, understanding that I could have lived further into the city which I would have liked better but the commute at 9:30 pm would have been over an hour. And the night you are stuck at work till 9:30 is not the night you can handle an hour long commute. By separating myself from campus I made hanging out with other students harder but gave myself the type of apartment, in the type of neighborhood I felt most comfortable in (I am truly a city girl at heart), for the amount I could afford on a grad student stipend.
As I looked for a group, I met with the professors multiple times. I asked a lot of questions at group events and group meetings to try and figure out group dynamics. And from the final groups I was most interested in I took 4 different girls, each at a different stage in the group, out for coffee off campus to ask them personal questions about the group dynamics, the work, the professors, and grad school in general. I was really confident when I choose my groups. During orientation the department administrator had said to remember that there were three things to consider when you picked a group: (1) the project/work, (2) the group, and (3) your PI, you have to like at least 2 out of the three…and after finishing I have to say that if one of them isn’t your PI get ready to leave with a masters. I choose my groups thinking 1 and 3 were strong and there were people in 2 that were strong also.
When I joined 2 research groups with a combined theoretical and experimental project, I thought I knew what I was getting into. While I will say that I can’t remember an episode where I had some of the physical responses described by others, and I didn’t often sit in my apartment crying, I did drink too much, sleep too little, and have very little social life. And I was a very balanced graduate student. I knew what I was getting into when I went to grad school. I even looked down on one of the schools I visited when the grad students said they only worked 45 hrs a week and not on the weekends. “No wonder they take so long to graduate”-I thought.
One of my professors sent out a list of group policies that included that 60 hrs of work a week was expected, but this could include teaching, reading papers, and writing. I thought this was generous. I set up my schedule to arrive at campus around 7 am and leave most week days by 6:30 pm. By taking a quick 30 min lunch at my desk (I did mostly bring food with me though) I was able to fit in 11 hrs of work each week day, leaving about 5 hrs I needed to get in on the weekends. This meant if I came to campus around 9 am on Saturdays I could leave by mid-afternoon. This is how I got “work/life balance”. I felt that by cooking dinner at home and having time to hang out with my friends on a Saturday afternoon I was balanced. I was extremely lucky to make 2 very close friends within the first 4 months of graduate school. During our 5 years in Chicago, we had season tickets to the ballet and the symphony and liked to go out to eat at nice restaurants. But mostly we watched nerdy movies or chick-flicks and ate takeout and drank wine.
For me classes were easy, and teaching was easy as I had almost 4 years’ experience as a tutor from college. I had no problems with my qualifying exams in my 2nd year but soon after I started collaborating with a girl from the material science department. She had had some horrible interpersonal problems in her department that had put her behind in research. I noticed that the way her boss ran his group was extremely different from my PIs and I thought that if I had the same problem mine would not have been very sympathetic. As I started collaborating more and more I began to look around at different management styles and by the middle of my 3rd year I know that I often was looking for flaws in my group dynamics and with the PIs’ management of the group interactions. By this point the group dynamics in my office had changed drastically from when I had joined the group and I felt that I sat in a “boys club.” I often watched while others got their names on papers and got picked for collaborations because they had poker night, or hung out on the weekend. I once watched the person who sat next to me go around the room to everyone else and ask for help but specifically not ask me…I knew how to do what he was asking about and in the end I didn’t speak up. Honestly I stopped trying to fit in with these people who didn’t like me. I had walked in on too many conversations about how I wasn’t friendly, how crazy it was that I was best friends with so-and-so cause they were so nice. One of the issues is graduate school is everything is unofficial. When you work for a company there is a hierarchy. When you are in grad school all grad students are supposedly the same and some treat it like an extension of college and other treat it like a job.
Because of this tension I felt in my office, I always thought that my struggle in graduate school was the group dynamics. Until the last 6 months of my PhD, I had always gotten along well with both of PIs. Looking back I was always nervous when I met with both of them, but mostly because I always thought I could have worked more…when I did meet with them the meeting always went well and they never told me there were any problems. We always discussed the science and they even shared many things about their travels, their families, and their opinions on academia with me. I thought I was one of the really lucky ones who had chosen well at the start of grad school. When I got near the end I began making an outline of my thesis and asking if what I had listed was enough. After getting confirmation on this I tried to wrap up all the projects we had discussed.
One of my PIs says that his requirement for defending your thesis is that all of your papers had to be in submission form but every time I asked him about a paper he was editing he would say things like oh I have to read so-and-so’s first. As we could go 15-30 rounds of passing a paper back and forth this was really frustrating. Finally, I was allowed to schedule a date for my oral defense (which was over a month out).
About 2.5 weeks before my scheduled defense, I was frantically trying to compile my thesis, while doing things like taking a day to make a 3D journal cover for one of my articles. After approving the journal cover, my PI asked to postpone the date so that we could have more time to edit all the manuscripts that were in draft form. We postponed 2 weeks to the last day of the month. So I had to get my paper thesis to the committee 2 weeks before and I would have those 2 weeks to back up my apartment, move all of my stuff to storage, get down to just 2 suitcases of things to move to Sweden. On the day that my paper thesis was due, I dropped a copy off at each member of my committee’s offices. I had a long conversation with the PI who had the strict graduation requirements about a manuscript that was at a journal and as I left his office I said “OK, my parents will buy their plane tickets to come now”. We then had a conversation about how he didn’t understand why parents wanted to be at someone’s thesis defense. (Seriously…this is a big day in someone’s life…way bigger than college graduation…on par with your wedding day).
During this whole process of postponing, my biggest problem was that as everyone around me was telling me my PI was acting completely unreasonably. I kept thinking that since I didn’t totally disagree with his points just his methods that anything I could do to make him happy was worth doing. Look: I agree, a more prefect thesis, more papers published those were good for me also. Making sure my PI liked me when I left and still thought of me as a hard worker or a good student was critical.
Two days after distributing the paper copies of my thesis, at 10:40pm on a Sunday night, as I was frantically packing in my apartment I got an email from my other PI saying they had talked and thought we should postpone to “button up” everything. I still to this day don’t know what that means. Now hysterically crying on the phone with my mom I had my big breakdown of graduate school. I replied to the email saying that I was confused why but if that is what they both thought then it was what we would do. What else could I say at that point…
On Monday I emailed the other committee members to let them know they didn’t need to read the 300 page thesis I had left with them on Friday. I frantically looked for a place to live as I had to be out of my apartment by the end of the month and obviously I was going to be around more than just a few days spent crashing at a friend’s. My parents had to put their plane tickets on hold so they could use the flights later (hopefully).
I had to wait a week before I could meet with both PIs in person (they were both at conferences) and I went to the meeting dreading it. Disclaimer: I am a crier. I cry when I am stressed. I cry when I am angry. I cry when I am frustrated and don’t know how to explain. However by pre-thinking what I am going to say, and how I will respond to certain questions (just like for a presentation) I rarely cry in public. I often cry at home but mostly can hold it in when at work; the last time I cried in public was an argument with a teacher 2nd year in high school. I was pretty sure I was going to cry in this meeting with my PIs and was actually trying to figure out how not to do it till the end.
I went to the meeting determined to explain why what they had done was such a big deal (in a response email one of them asked if postponing really mattered) and how much it had disrupted my life. I got to the office and they acted like this was a totally normally meeting. I could feel myself starting to boil with anger and took out a Kleenex to blow my nose and get myself under control. As I blew my nose my PI said “oh do you have this cold that is going around”. Honestly, I snapped. “No I don’t have a cold; I am trying desperately not to cry because I am so angry I can’t speak. Do you not realize how you have disrupted my life, cost me thousands of dollars, and you didn’t even explain what the problem was.” I explained the fact that I had been in this same office on the previous Friday and no indication was given that there might be problems, was really insulting. Going forward we were all going to have to communicate a lot better and if there was a problem I needed to be told immediately, that I couldn’t read minds. Both of them were floored to say the least. One of them hadn’t recovered by the end of the meeting (2 hrs later), in fact he kept saying things like “but it will be better for you”…in the end I had to reiterate that I wasn’t going to argue about the reasons for postponing but that the method and communication was a complete failure.
A month later when I finally defended it was almost worse that they acted so proud like they knew I was great and always had faith in me. “Grad school is incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t need to be demoralizing.”—Color Blind Chemist I left feeling little pride and a lot of relief.
I think my biggest revelation is that they system is broken (I know it has been discussed before). In the current system the PI has complete autonomy. While I know that an advisor has a lot of rolls to fill and you can’t expect everyone to be good at all of them, I never asked my PIs to be more than they were. I found an outside mentor; I attended workshops on writing skills, speaking skills, and career development on my own time. I found outside money to attend conferences. I was frugal with my research budget and I took the initiative to start and maintain collaborations both inside and outside our university. When at a meeting in my 5th year that one of my PIs asked if I had looked at the literature and I brought up a slide with the literature summary, on the one hand I was insulted “you have known me 4 yrs and expect that I didn’t do my research?” and on the other hand I knew he would ask this question and wouldn’t remember what we had discussed last time so had come prepared. This kind of high stress environment is part of the grad school experience but the current structure gives all the power to the advisor and doesn’t have good structures for the student to use if they have issues. It is all very hypocritical. The same week I ended up defending, one of my year mates was also defending in my group. Somehow he didn’t have to jump through the same hoops I did. Not that his defense was without critique but it is extremely frustrating to have everyone held to such different standards. I know it is not possible to make life fair and I have been told that better students are often pounded on more and more is expected of them but while this might build good scientists (I find this highly debatable) it definitely doesn’t build comradery between graduate students or scientific collaborations between PIs and students but instead fosters power struggles.
My best friend was one who left with her masters after 4 years in graduate school because her boss thought that her year mate always worked more and got more done than she did (very simplified version of story). Now the fact she worked more hrs every day and the other student didn’t work on the weekends at all was not as important as his perception of their personalities which he equated with work ethic. Now the year mate is also leaving after 5 years.
This is a huge problem. As has been noted by others, choosing your group and advisor is critical but there is no way to know everything before you are really there. You can have a great relationship for 5 years and still have major problems, I did. Students are at the complete mercy of the advisor when it comes to projects, publications, graduating and moving on, and letters of recommendation in the future. Student have no leverage, no bargaining power, no compensation and nowhere to go when they are struggling (yes I know there are good counseling centers at many schools-including mine but this has no actual direct impact on the advisor-advisee relationship). Basically by the time you get to any major problem it seems like the most productive thing to do is move groups. This is demoralizing for most and if nothing else complicated logistically.
Now I am in Sweden and I have been looking around at the system here. I can say the method of finding a graduate position is much more stressful, as they apply directly for a specific project or group or grant. Also having the announcements be posted at any time of the year there isn’t the same structure of everyone in your class, and going through orientation together. However, it seems like most students have better work/life balance or at least don’t have to sneak around as much to have it. There are more department discussions of alternate careers and what is expected in academia (I have started a lot of these discussions but everyone has joined in, including some of the most senior professors).
I don’t know what the right fix is but I am glad that there are groups of people discussing this at length. With more conversation comes more exposure and hopefully a shift in the autonomous culture of chemistry graduate school programs in the US.
Original Conversation between Chemjobber and Not the Lab
Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 1
Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 2
Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 3
Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 4
Is Graduate School in Chemistry Bad for Mental Health 5
comment from professor about choosing profs: http://chemjobber.blogspot.se/2013/01/is-graduate-school-in-chemistry-bad-for_11.html?showComment=1358035454449#c4473973353610582084
Post by others in response to initial conversation:
Chemjobber’s Summary of the Conversations