Required reading for our graduating students who plan on pursuing a career in science


We tend not to talk about this stuff: when we tell our undergraduates about graduate school, it’s all about getting to hang out with smart people all the time and doing science in a lab and constantly learning new things. We avoid talking about the grind, the fluctuating amounts of pressure, the unsupportive pricks who run some labs, and the fact that the whole enterprise is an engine for depression. You’re working on tiny, tightly focused problems in ways that no one has tried before; you’re going to fail and fail and fail, and only occasionally see a flicker of cheerful sunlight. It can be tough.

One scientist writes about the black dog of depression that haunted him throughout grad school.

The days merged into weeks; the failures continued. My supervisor called me to his office. He was unimpressed. I needed to do better, work harder, get it right. Walking back to my bench that day, a black dog walked with me. When exactly it had arrived I can’t say. I was 21. My ramshackle mental defences had been crumbling for a while. I’ll never know what tore the breach. It may have been an admonishment from a lab technician or just one more cloudy culture bottle. Whatever had splintered the final defence, depression was my new master.

It is amazing how we can maintain a facade of normality while behind it a maelstrom of disintegrating sanity roars. By Christmas, I was thinner and quieter, but still me. Time with family and fiancée kept the black dog subdued. It waited.

Instead of seeking help, I counted down the remaining days of holiday like a condemned man. Sometimes you can see deep depression coming for you, slamming doors of escape, tightening the orbits of desperation. Deciding I would kill myself was a relief. I wrongly felt that it was the only door left open. One place the black dog could not follow.

He didn’t kill himself, obviously. And he later found support from other people and clawed himself out of the pit.

But still, when I think back…I am not prone to depression, myself. This is not to say that I don’t experience stress or self-doubt, but that somehow I’m emotionally rather unperturbable (which isn’t always a good thing), and I don’t spiral into that bleakness I see in others experiencing depression. I’m lucky that way.

I can see how the circumstances of grad school can do terrible harm, though. I spent a lot of time alone, slicing away at a microtome or sitting in a dark room feeding copper grids into an electron microscope. There was one faculty member who literally hated me, who would hiss at me in the hallways and once hauled me into his office on a whim so he could tell me to get out of science, that it was his personal goal to destroy any career I might have and prevent my graduation. Less coarse-souled people than I might have been wrecked by that.

Fortunately, I was in one of the good labs — you know, the ones with a helpful advisor and a team of supportive grad students and post-docs, which also helped immensely. Still, I worried when my daughter went off to grad school. It felt a little bit like watching her leap into the maw of a wood chipper, although it’s one where some survive unscathed, others gather scars, and others get ground down to a pulp.

Not to discourage anyone, but you should be aware of this problem.

Comments

  1. MHiggo says

    Many thanks for this, PZ. I start grad school in August, and I have a feeling I’ll be referring back to this article and some of the sidebars.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Soccer and alcohol got me through. Alcohol definitely not recommended.

    I suspect the same problems could arise in any discipline, not just the sciences.

  3. cartomancer says

    I found loneliness to be the biggest problem, Particularly as, in the humanities, one tends not to collaborate with others at all and just spends long hours in the library.

    Then again, I found the same problem with my undergraduate years and adult life after leaving university too.

  4. Chiral says

    I went into grad school already depressed, with no support network, and it almost killed me. I managed to get my MS, somehow, and then I left.

    My depression got much worse in grad school, I developed social anxiety and I still haven’t really recovered.

    It’s discouraging because I was good at science. I just couldn’t live with the environment. There’s no reason it needs to be as awful as it is.

  5. weylguy says

    Dr. Myers, by mentioning your daughter’s situation you rightly touched on what the stress and grind experienced by grad students can do to their families. Our son finally got his PhD in molecular biology but only after repeated failures in the lab, a demanding, micromanaging advisor, co-worker jealousies and our son’s near mental collapse. I constantly wanted to wring his advisor’s neck or file a complaint with the department.

  6. says

    @Chiral
    That sucks. I wasn’t depressed going in but I became depressed.

    I’m still trying to crawl out of the pit. I gave up. The ADHD diagnosis just made them support me less instead of giving explanations for things that could be used to put a career in science back on track. I took a master’s and haven’t used it since.

    The rest of the decade since was substitute teaching where I got generalized anxiety and PTSD symptoms, and lately I’ve been a janitor at a drug rehab facility. The janitor job was great for thinking about therapy (and discovering some classism to eliminate because there was nothing wrong with being a janitor).

  7. KG says

    Intending doctoral students should also be aware that some aspects of the trauma tend to be permanent – even if you get through. Thirty years after my thesis was accepted (at the second attempt), I still have dreams in which I have weeks or days to complete and don’t have a first draft yet…

  8. Rob Grigjanis says

    KG @7:

    I still have dreams in which I have weeks or days to complete and don’t have a first draft yet…

    Aaargh. The horror floods back. I also have a deep abiding fear that “they” will finally realize my thesis was crap and revoke it.

  9. Petal to the Medal says

    That story resonates with my grad school experience. My first episode of serious clinical depression occurred in grad school. Fortunately, I was able to access good psychiatric treatment through the school’s counseling service. I’ve had recurring episodes ever since, interspersed with periods of remission. I’m lucky enough to have had good health insurance all of my working life, so at least the financial burden was bearable.

  10. says

    A while ago, I wrote a series of posts on why grad school sucks.

    As a grad student I wasn’t particularly overworked, but the job is still full of ups and downs. It’s all about doing very important work, which you’re not good enough to do justice, and which nobody else understands.

  11. jrkrideau says

    I had great supervisors and lots of friendly, supportive, fellow grad students. But this was in psychology. I did survey work and some modeling work so missed the lab grinds. Friends were going in to the lab at 03:00 to feed animals, etc.

    Come to think of it, we had about 30 faculty and even the real assholes were not that evil most of the time.

    We did not have the lab-based demands that one spent 80+ hours per week in the lab . Face time was not that vital though it did help to show up for seminars and meetings with supervisors.

    Overall, I found grad school quite enjoyable.

  12. cartomancer says

    I think it was Hassan’s Kebab Van that did most to get me through my eight years at University. I realised I had a problem when I counted thirteen discarded chips-chicken-and-cheese boxes from a single week, wherein I had eaten nothing else. To this day I still crave the stuff, and associate it with a well spent late night in the library.

  13. naturalcynic says

    I shuddered a little with memories from many years ago. I, too, felt periods of depression and anxiety about not being good enough during grad school. Assays were not as repeatable as I thought they should be, too variable, was I that sloppy with my technique? And having a brilliant asshole for a PI didn’t help at all. Empathy??? What’s that??? Murder seemed to be a possibility buried deep in my consciousness.
    I did come into contact with an actual murder as an undergrad. I did research for a young prof who had been recently hired to replace a faculty member who had been killed by his grad student.

  14. asclepias says

    I was lucky enough to have a supportive lab and supportive faculty. In fact, I collaborated with a few different professors. I only had one experiment failure, and I was able to take it to the weekly brown bag luncheon for grad students and ask for ideas on how to do it differently. I was severely clinically depressed as a teenager (went on medication for it, and all these years later I still take it). I had a bad day with it last year, at which point I decided to start blogging and doing other forms of writing. Graduate school was stressful enough as it was without depression. I can’t imagine dealing with both at the same time. (It didn’t hurt, exactly, not physically, but I felt like there was a bolt of lightning slicing through my brain and my stomach at once.) Good karma from me to whoever is having those problems!

  15. Callinectes says

    Pulp here. I didn’t even understand that my experience was not normal until my third year, which was a retake of my second. Ended up dropping out and bouncing between various medicines, therapies, and support, all of which were unified by their common trait of perfect ineffectiveness. It’s been ten years and I’m exactly where I was then by every metric.

  16. sophiab says

    Long term lurker here,
    I “succeeded” aka got my PhD and even a postdoc and I feel it was the worst mistake of my life.
    Now I can’t get a job cause with a STEM PhD I’m constantly both over- and under-qualified for everything.
    Unless you have family wealth, don’t do prostgrad. Thats where our society is now.

  17. asclepias says

    Sophiab @ 16, I hear you! After grad school it seemed the only thing I could get were temporary field jobs at various institutions across the country. I finally got sick of all the traveling and went to the community college for an associate’s as a paralegal. I did ok for a bit with the Fish and Wildlife Service, but then the powers that be decided to restructure the sagebrush program, and I was left jobless again. I managed to get some part-time temporary work with the county, but that ended in January. Still not finding anything, even after dozens of interviews. There are many days when I wonder if getting an education after high school is worth it.

  18. sophiab says

    @ascelpias
    That is both comforting and scary.
    I somehow imagined a high degree in a wanted, admired field would allow me to escape my parents economic/stability reality. I just feel so lied to…
    And that’s part of the PhD struggles. If you feel it can make ok prospects for you if you do ok, its fine. But it’s more “out of the selection of great people, you are doing iffily, so now your life is destroyed, you bet on the wrong horse”.

  19. vucodlak says

    I never even graduated college, but I can definitely relate. Thanks to undiagnosed, unrecognized, and untreated learning disability and ADHD, I acquired my black dog way back in 4th grade, and it made school absolute hell for the next 13 or so years.

    It was long division that first crushed my spirits. I could solve the problems in my head in just a few seconds, but that wasn’t good enough. It had to be done their way, which took me about 3 to 5 minutes per problem, not to mention most of a whole sheet of paper. At up to 60 problems a night, that meant I spent my entire time from when I got home from school to when I went to bed doing long division, to say nothing of my other homework.

    It wouldn’t have been so labor intensive, but no matter how careful I was it was always pronounced illegible. It got to the point where my teacher sometimes just threw it back in my face when I turned it in, demanding that I “do it right.” What the fuck did that even mean? I asked, “what am I supposed to do?” but I never got a helpful answer. Pay attention? I did pay attention. Do it neater? I did it as neatly as I was able. I drew boxes separating each problem, I circled the answers, I did everything I could think of to make it easier to read and it was never, EVER, good enough.

    The lectures I always got about me schoolwork started with “You’re so smart, but…” I started signing my papers “I am stupid.” That got me ‘counseled’ in a horrible meeting with the teacher, my parents, and (for some reason) the school’s coach. I stopped signing my papers that way, and started thinking about suicide. I was 10.

    In 5th grade, things got easier. Much less homework, much more understanding teachers, and I discovered self-harm. Still, a profusion of bullies almost pushed me over the edge. I started making serious plans to kill myself.

    6th was a nightmare- the teacher was a young-Earth creationist who, after I repeatedly challenged her for telling Bible stories in lieu of teaching science, gave me my first C by creating fake quizzes. I was devastated. It had been another year of absolute drudgery in which all my free time was spent on tedious homework, and it had been (in my eyes) all for absolutely nothing. My hard work didn’t matter at all if a petty tyrant could just erase it like that. If that hadn’t been the last report card of the year, I feel certain I would have killed myself then. Summer saved me.

    7th and 8th grade weren’t much better for me, though the teachers were generally decent. Nevertheless, blossoming mental illness combined with a creeping nihilism born of my 6th grade experiences saw my grades begin to slip. It was damn hard to push myself when I knew everything I’d done could be erased by a bad teacher, but one teacher who actually cared pushed me to keep trying. I’m pretty sure we hated each other by the end of 8th grade, but she kept pushing. I did manage to thank her (and apologize) some years later.

    My freshman year of high school I failed my first class. I don’t remember much about the year, beyond being scared out of my mind for most of it. I’d been put in shop class, which was the school’s dumping ground for academic underachievers and delinquents of all grades, and I’m pretty sure one of the seniors was a bona fide sadistic sociopath. Just the sort of person you don’t want in a room full of power tools and flammable chemicals.

    It was in that class that I attempted to open my wrists. The teacher, a substitute who’d been giving me shit since 1st grade, just watched as I did it. I decided not to give her the satisfaction. I even cleaned up the blood when she demanded, because I am a coward.

    I made new friends that year, including the best friend I’ve ever had, who saved me from myself. By my sophomore year I ceased to care about school at all. I failed every single class in my first two quarters. I put everything I had into to sneaking out of the house almost every night, to be with my new friends. I found a mentor and even got engaged to my bestie. We did wonderful, terrible things together, and they got me through the next few years alive.

    My parents transferred me to an upstart religious school for the second half of my sophomore year. I was half the sophomore class, and 1/8 of the school’s student population. Classes were much easier with just 2 students. Still, I probably wouldn’t have graduated high school if not for the fact that she and I were the first graduating class. It wouldn’t have looked good for the school if half their first class had failed.

    Four months before I graduated high school, my fiancé and best friend was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Two weeks before I graduated high school, my mentor was murdered right in front of me. I had never intended to go to college, but I enrolled in a local university because I had no clue what else to do with my life. By that time, my bipolar disorder was in full bloom and I was suffering from PTSD, in addition to my other issues.

    Despite the university being less than ten miles from my home, I’d insisted on living on campus, hoping some distance might help me to get it together. Instead, I soon found myself almost wholly incapable of leaving my dorm room. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I flunked out of university after my first year. I enrolled at a community college for two and a half years after that, where I did better, then transferred back to the university for another year and a half, where I had a final breakdown. I could no longer ignore the fact that there was something seriously wrong with me.

    Tl;dr- I think school in general does a poor job of dealing with mental illness, which (in my experience) is often dismissed as laziness (is spending 7 hours a day in school and 6 on homework a problem of laziness?), inattentiveness (I could repeat back what the teacher had said word for word on a good day, and explain what they meant even on a bad one), or “poor character.”

    Ten years later, I still have nightmares about school.

  20. nomdeplume says

    I had good support in my post-graduate years and didn’t have the problems you report here. But I think most post-graduates, including myself, feel the uncertainty of how and where their research career can proceed after getting the doctorate. One of my examiners, a distinguished biologist, told me I was unlucky to be going through when I did (mid 1970s) because when he went through (in the 1950s) there were so few people with doctorates you could “get a Chair somewhere if you were able to sign your name”. He was exaggerating slightly of course, but the essence was correct. The 1970s marked the huge wave of baby boomers becoming post graduates and getting an academic/research job after the 7 or 8 years of study that led you to a PhD was very uncertain. I was lucky and did, but some of my contemporaries didn’t, and the situation became much worse in the years following. If you were inclined to anxiety/depression this sense of an unknown future would contribute greatly to your problems even in a supportive post-grad encvironment.

  21. laugengebaeck says

    It also took me some time to understand, that being a PhD student offers nothing but toil, tears and sweat. Anyway, my personal PhD hell was due to the fact of having a supervisor who was constantly “somewhere else”, which was most of the time at least four time zones away. As over the years my supervisor’s travels escalated, culminating in his move overseas in my last year (I only saw him twice in that year — the second time was my defense), I kind of supervised myself and became the de facto supervisor of my more junior colleagues. The uncertainty coming from missing feedback and the missing opportunity to discuss my field and research with an established researcher really took a toll on my mental health. By the start of my fourth year of PhD the candy machine in the basement was a good friend of mine, regular sleeping and eating patterns were a faint memory from the past and I was starting to withdraw myself from social life in a big way. To my great luck, the other PhD students and PostDocs in the department were an awesome crowd that just would not accept my no for an answer and literally forced me to join them for pub nights, the gym or other activities. It is them I can credit with not completely burning out and eventually getting my degree. So now, eight years later on, all’s well that ends well. My graduate studies hell is now just a faint memory and basically the only thing remaining from that time is a number of remarkably close friends I made during that time — even though by now we are dispersed over multiple countries we regularly meet up a couple of times a year, no matter how much travelling this entails.

  22. laugengebaeck says

    @16, sophiab: I know that feeling! Towards the end of my graduate studies I also had the impression of having made the worst decision of my life by staying too long at university and having studied something awesomely complex and abstract (i.e. in my case theoretical physics) which has no real relevance to the “real world”. However, there must be something you picked along the way without really noticing which nevertheless might become the basis for a career. For me, that was the little programming I did during my graduate studies that pathed my way into the software industry. I guess if we are honest with ourselves, at the very root we (that is everybody who went to grad school) just want to keep our minds busy by tackling complex problems. And this does not necessarily have to be in the field we studied in or academia — also industry offers enough niches for people like you and me.

  23. mmLilje says

    I officially suspended my PhD this month. Five years of work. Four of them on antidepressants. Three of them watching the only people working on things even tangenially related to the project disappear. Two of them psychologically isolated and being treated as essentially dead by my supervisors, who had more important stuff to work with. Dunno when I started thinking this was the inevitable outcome. Maybe a year ago. Maybe more.

    Positive to know the author (and other commenters) was able to get away from the Black Dog in the end. Me, I can only feel somewhat positive about the fact that I’ve realized what I DON’T want to spend any more of my life doing.

  24. natashatasha says

    I’ve had two mental health breakdowns since starting my PhD, each of which has necessitated more than a month off to become even remotely functional. My depression and anxiety has made it so that I can barely do more than a couple of hours work a day; PhD is honestly hell, and it’s made me afraid to pursue a career in academia, and with burnout significantly doubt my ability to do anything.

  25. hemidactylus says

    At one point in my life after completing undergrad I contemplated going for advanced degree. I took some postbac classes and contemplated but wound up stumbling into a decent job that kept my head above water as I suffered the tragedies of my folks dying from cig related illnesses. I wound up not going back to school and reading what I want on my own timetable (self-schooling) and eventually the test anxiety dreams went away. After reading this thread I guess my falling away from academia was the right “choice”. I could be more of an anxious neurotic mess than I am now? Not exactly on the road to wealth so retirement might get interesting in a bit over a decade. Somewhere between resigned stoic and jaded cynic.

  26. Compuholic says

    I finally am about to finish my PhD. But the first three years were absolute hell for me. I always heard about depression but I never really understood it. Well, I got a first class education in what depression means. Even when you are done at the office, the problems follow you home, especially when experiments don’t work out as expected. I was unable to sleep at night because every time I closed my eyes my brain was on a loop and I woke up from the panic that you are not as far as you should be.

    Of course the lack of sleep affects you performance leading to more sleepless nights. A vicious cycle. Your mind constantly revolves around comparatively harmless thoughts like “Why am I doing that to myself?” but often the not so harmless “Why not end it now?”. It got worse and worse until I finally went to my doctor asking for help. He prescribed me some antidepressants that at least helped me sleep. Of course that didn’t really solve the problem but it helped me to carry on and it might very well be that the antidepressants saved my life.

    But now that I see the end, things are considerably more relaxed. I don’t have the pressure to publish anymore. I just have to finish my thesis. And unlike other people I do have the prospect of getting a well-paying job afterwards.

    So was it worth it? I don’t know.

  27. says

    i call my grad school experience ‘The Scorpions In The Bottle Experiment”. i came out of grad school (where 275 applied and only 7 of us got in the year i started – ‘best photo school in the country’ so they said) clinically depressed, anorexic, bulimic, suicidal, and broken. Oh and ulcers. I graduated top of my class – with above a 4.0 (they gave ‘plusses’), won multiple awards for my student teaching, was asked repeatedly by the undergrads to attend their reviews as support because they knew i wouldn’t allow the faculty to intimidate and bully them, had one of the best received and attended MFA shows up until that point, and immediately upon graduating sold all my camera and darkroom equipment and had a nervous breakdown. It took years for me to pick up a camera again. It took years for me to step back in to academia. At the moment i am an adjunct, yup just like the rest of us – so i did eventually find my way back to teaching – but that experience, where there was no support, where most of the other female grad students in my discipline fled into other mediums, where every time i achieved a major hurdle the response was – oh you cleared that? so what! let’s just set this next one a little higher! oh you cleared that? so what! let’s just set this next one a little higher! etc etc etc – where the female grads were referred to by multiple male faculty as the ‘stable of fillies’ where when i finally went to see the campus health professional sobbing, convinced that i was dying and he correctly diagnosed me with said clinical depression, his question that followed the diagnosis was “are you by any chance in the photo department?” changed me in ways so profound that i don’t even remember who i used to be. I saw the absolute worst of what humans can do and the absolute worst of what humans can be. I don’t call mine the black dog, i call mine The Abyss, and i am forever just skirting, flirting with the very edge of that profound, and sometimes very alluring oblivion. Grad school did that.
    The lesson(s) i learned in grad school….. Its not how hard you work, or how good your work is, it’s:
    who you know
    who you sleep with
    how much money you have
    and how entertaining you are at parties

  28. npb596 says

    Early on as an undergrad I did volunteer work as research assistant and have interacted with many grad students. Usually when I mentioned my intention to do grad school their response started with “well, I don’t want to dissuade you but…” and they would continue with all the horrible aspects of grad school. As far as I can tell, it is very commonly talked about how bad it is. I’m going to start grad school in August and one thing I worry about is that I’ll encounter a lot of “well-intentioned” professors who try to relate to me by talking about how bad grad school can be or giving me other advice I’ve heard plenty of times before but have themselves already succeeded and just want to lord their power over me and anyone else they can.

  29. mykroft says

    Was I depressed while working on my PhD? Definitely. Stressed? For years on end. But it was far worse for my wife. She had significant health issues while I worked on my degree, including serious and painful surgeries. While I was struggling to balance my support for her, keeping up with the responsibilities of my job, and finishing my research. I emerged with a PhD and an ulcer. She emerged with medical PTSD. We were both scarred, but her especially and I blame myself for that.

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