The Academic Blues

The hidden epidemic of despair among young scientists and what some institutions are doing to address it

This piece is part of a series on graduate student mental health coinciding with the Berkeley Science Review’s article on the same subject.

A few months ago I opened my email to find evidence of yet another fellowship rejection. Holding back tears borne not from attachment to this particular fellowship but from a general frustration over the hallmarks of scientific achievement, I instead embraced another emotion: anger. This angry feeling has been incubating inside me like a starved parasite ever since my early days of graduate school. I don’t mean to sound bitter. I’m not. I’ve had excellent mentors throughout my career, I look forward to coming to work every day, and I get paid to do what I love. I’m living my dream at Stanford. But one can take only so much rejection before feeling a bit short-changed. And the culture of academic science, these days, seems to be more insult than praise.

My anger is not directed at the reviewers of my applications. Rather, I’m frustrated with the whole sadomasochistic endeavor. The scientific enterprise can be a dungeon and funding a restraint. But research does seem to attract the pleasure-in-pain sort of person. If funding is a restraint, then academia is the Marquis de Sade.

Despite my love-hate relationship with academia, my dream and what I’ve been training to do is to run a lab at a major research university. However, obtaining this goal may one day be out of the question if I want a steady, secure career as a scientist. Which is the exact basis of my complaint. I consider myself an academic, but I don’t always get the impression that academia wants me. I often feel dispensable.

And I’m not alone. The fact that scores of talented graduate students and postdocs (and professors) are bolting for better pay and more appreciation reflects poorly on the state of academic science. But at the risk of bemoaning the future of academia, I want to explore the state of things as they are now for budding scientists. How can the research training experience be better?

New Initiatives

In the early days of graduate school, I somehow forgot everything that used to inspire and excite me, trading it in for my work in the lab, which confused and intimidated me instead. My case was not unique. You don’t have to look far to find evidence of depression among young researchers. Its prevalence should come as no surprise in a field that is constantly testing your knowledge, demanding long hours, paying next-to-nothing, and then giving the impression that you’re not good enough for it anyway.

A few academic institutions have recognized this trend and are taking measures to address the graduate and postdoctoral blues. Stanford University, for instance, offers classes and seminars designed to help you manage stress and cultivate emotional well-being. Just last week the office of postdoctoral affairs offered a lunchtime workshop on mindfulness-based stress reduction. I was too busy being stressed out to go to it, of course, but simply knowing that there are others who feel the need for these types of talks -- and that they are available -- offered me a bit of solace.

Anyone who missed the lunchtime mindfulness workshop could register for a whole course on mindfulness called “Hacking Consciousness”, where students have the opportunity to learn a meditation technique of their choice and participate in an optional group meditation before each seminar.

Across the Bay at the University of California Berkeley, graduate student mental health is getting an unprecedented amount of press and attention. See this article in the latest edition of The Berkeley Science Review for more details on how UC Berkeley is taking steps to improve mental health among the graduate student population. Recent initiatives include setting up satellite counseling offices specifically for graduate students and establishing student-led mentoring sessions between senior and junior trainees in the Molecular and Cell Biology program.

Empowering Emerging Scientists

Just after starting my postdoc, I took a preemptive approach to caring for my own mental health. After all, I had been a graduate student for the past six years; I knew what biomedical research can do to your emotional state. Just after arriving at Stanford, I came across a course that made me do a double take. It was called “Empowering Emerging Scientists” (EES). The course is designed to help you identify and achieve goals in every facet of your life from your career to your relationships, including your relationship with yourself. I signed up to audit right away.

For two years now, the Stanford School of Medicine has offered EES to graduate students and postdocs in the biosciences. The course is led by the Handel Group, a corporate consulting and private coaching company. In 2006 the company’s founder, Lauren Zander, began teaching the flagship course at MIT, calling it “Designing Your Life.” Her dream was to improve the higher educational experience by incorporating universal life skills, such as honesty and communication, into the curriculum. In an interview for MIT TechTV, Dr. David Mindell, faculty advisor for the course, precisely describes the predicament of academia: “MIT is really good at teaching students the content of their profession and…about the wider world that those professions are in. But part of our job as teachers is to help them figure out what their personal goals are and how to get there.” Honesty and communication, while not explicitly taught in the lab, are integral to achieving personal goals.

Grounding the Graduate Experience

Recognizing that a grad student is as much responsible for her personal goals and mental health as for the “content of her profession” (and of her publications) is a significant step toward grounding the graduate experience. Students need roots in order to advance. So encouraging the pursuit of attainable goals in every area of life would translate to better performance in research and happier, more focused graduate students…right?

From the postdoc perspective, I can attest to the efficacy of this approach. Two common struggles that I have consistently encountered over the course of my own career are dealing with failure and recognizing personal success. The no-nonsense black-and-white method to self-improvement promoted in EES is particularly well-suited to tackling these problems. Below I briefly describe these challenges and the steps I’ve taken to overcome them.

Dealing with Failure

It seems like the natural order of academia is the invitation of failure. The daily currency of biomedical research consists of experiments, manuscripts, and fellowship and funding applications, all of which fail before they succeed. Which is why it’s important to have a healthy mindset when things don’t work out. It’s so easy to internalize rejected applications and failed experiments. In a hyper-competitive environment, traditionally successful students have to learn how to fail, often for the first time in their lives.

I’ve recently come to realize just how much negative inner dialogue takes residence in my brain each day. It’s all consuming. If I wrote down all the chatter in my head, it would probably make you concerned. Maybe negativity is a trait inherent to those prone to go to grad school. But I believe that the main source of all these negative thoughts is the pervasive reminder that things aren’t good enough.

Late in my graduate school career, I began reminding myself about what used to bring me joy and made an effort to pursue those things, creating space in my life for happiness. If I made myself feel good, I was instantly more relaxed at the bench and while giving talks. I could think more clearly. I also forced myself to stop placing blame on my circumstances for my unhappiness. I made myself believe that I had the power to direct my life. Then I began to see all those daily failures not as downfalls, but as results -- as the outcomes of experiments I had actively chosen to perform.

Recognizing Personal Success

When you’re consistently setting yourself up for failure, it’s important to recognize your successes. During my first year of graduate school, I was surprised by the complete lack of feedback from advisors and administrators. I had no idea how I was doing, where I should improve and where I was performing well. While structural changes to create avenues for feedback may be a pipedream, it’s always possible to seek criticism on your own. The thought of asking someone, “How am I doing?” was terrifying to me. But giving myself the opportunity to receive external criticism and praise is one of the few ways I could set tangible goals and recognize my own achievements.

I’ve also found it crucial to set small goals that are attainable on a shorter timescale but are still in line with my larger dreams. In this way, milestones occur more frequently. When much of research feels like fast spinning tires in sinking gravel, it’s important to recognize forward progress.

A Bright Future

Advancement is borne out of struggle and discomfort, and today I love working at the bench. However, it’s only from having a healthy balance of lab and personal life that I am capable of enjoying both. I still dream of being a PI at a major research institution, but my outlook has changed: by aligning my actions with my life goals, I enjoy the process more and avoid becoming crushed by anxiety. One of the seemingly novel ideas presented in EES is that you can choose your life. In graduate- and postdoc-land, we so often forget why and how we got here, because we’ve lost the joy of and thirst for discovery. We have forgotten the reasons for our dreams.

My hope is that graduate students and postdocs will be encouraged to pursue the training best aligned with their goals, and that such training will be so widely available that it’s institutionalized. Pervasive feelings of failure, isolation and purposelessness among graduate students should not be tolerated or ignored. Explicit encouragement to take responsibility for your own mental well-being, through the help of institution-provided resources, can only improve graduate programs. Many of the best minds of our generation choose to devote half a decade or so to pursuing a Ph.D. Why not nurture them?