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.
Beer hour 4pm–we’re going to that. Gettin’ trashed there, because I earned it because I ran a western and did cell culture and did 20 minipreps and wrote that postdoc for a plasmid and read that new paper by–you know that paper we talked shit about yesterday? Fuck I need a beer now. Yeah! I did all that t’day!
Hey did you text Stu? He said he was gonna come out last saturday but that bitch didn’t come out. That’s it I’m getting shitfaced today. And then we’re going to the bar afterward and then going to eat huge burritos and hopefully not barf right after. Jeez, gradschool is really long huh? Ok it’s 4 we go talk to the new students and get shitfaced.
This has nothing to do with age. Whether you’re a juvenescent go-getter, or an old, graying curmudgeon, you outrank me. In this profession, the lines aren’t blurred between graduate student and postdoc, and life near the bottom of the food chain can be arduous.
I’m a graduate student: experiencing the first signs of senescence, and poor to boot.
My life is pretty busy. I’m doing science, but I also have the added burden of growing up at the same time, because I didn’t have enough time for this in college because I was too busy hitting the books. Maybe when I become a postdoc I will be mature.
You’re a fleeting example of maturity–I can tell it happened to you at one time, but you still impose on your colleagues for their babysitting and psychiatric services regularly. Whether you’re awesome or pathetic, you’re admired.
One day hopefully I will get the respect you get. I know you worked hard for it. Anyone with a Ph.D. deserves respect, right?
Graduate school: I’m in it–deep in it. And actually it’s fine, pretty fun sometimes, and I could be doing much worse.
For some, it’s a means to an end. For others, it’s a place to kill some time. For all, prolonged woe that may provide years of frustration to vent.
“Graduate School Fantasy”, a new feature/category on YPAA, is for the woebegone, or you, whatever the case may be. These voices, from various made-up names, and inspired by various characters I observe at MIT, channel the consciousnesses of these poor souls. Please give them your sympathy.