You'd Prefer An Argonaute

An “unsentimental education”

Posted in Lab Life, Media by YPAA on October 2, 2009

I’ve been thinking about graduate school and mental health recently. Depending on circumstances, working toward a Ph.D. can bring about pressures on the mind strong enough to disturb it. Situations that end in the most extreme outcomes, like suicide, of course can probably never be fully attributed to an experiment gone wrong, an adviser gone wrong, an institution, or impending dismal career prospects. These cases are highly personal; many other people in otherwise identical circumstances would not react the same way. So look out for your chums, and your non-chums/co-workers too.

I was considering writing a piece about mental health among grad students at MIT, although I have now dropped the idea–too close to home I think. But while I was still investing interest in this story, a teacher refered me to an article, by Stephan S. Hall, that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in November, 1998, titled “Lethal Chemistry at Harvard”. It is an excellently written, but nonetheless very sad story about a graduate student in the chemistry department at Harvard who took his life in 1998. In the story, Hall wrote a paragraph describing the archetypal journey of a graduate student in the sciences. I found it so realistic that I think it’s worth reprinting:

Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey.

I haven’t gotten to the defy your mentor stage yet, but boy I can’t wait. I’ve seen others do it and it looks pretty cool.

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