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.
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.