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Graduate School, Science, And Depression


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As a background, I'm a mid-20s student doing a PhD in a scientific field.  I was diagnosed with depression when I was around 11-12 (and honestly probably should have been earlier), and have been on medicine since then.  I struggled periodically through middle and high school; things got better for me (for the most part) in college.  Depressive episodes would come but I would know that I would get through it and soon enough I'd feel better again. 

My first few years of graduate school were great for me.  Stressful, of course, but not all that much more so than a demanding undergraduate schedule, and I loved what I was doing.   I made some close friends and got along with my bosses.  People were pleased with my work, and I felt good about it.  My scientific progress wasn't spectacular, but I attributed it to being on a very difficult project and dealing with the troubleshooting that goes with being in a new, unestablished lab.  I was flattered with the trust that my boss had in me, and excited about how much independence I had.

Things started changing in my third year.  This is a time when a lot of people start feeling discouraged, because in many cases you feel like you should have gotten more done than you have.  My friends, people in the same year as me, started getting publications.  I kept telling myself that this was because they started projects that were already half-completed, and that I was getting more experience with the tougher parts of science. These rationalizations work less and less as time goes by.  I used to relish in getting in on weekends, working 12 hour days and doing experiment after experiment.  Now I just can't seem to harness that kind of excitement for anything.  Getting out of bed and going to lab is incredibly difficult and there are days that I can't even do it.  There are other days where I sit in my car, parked, for several minutes before I can even get the willpower to walk in.  Every experiment seems incredibly pointless, and I am quite sure that each one will fail, and wonder why I'm bothering with it.

My attitude towards everything is completely different, and I can't help but think it's just because I'm not as naive as I used to be.  I used to like the fact that my somewhat absentee mentor would basically entrust the whole lab to me.  That I had authority and seniority over our lab of mostly undergraduates, and I was willing to take on extra responsibilities and take it as a compliment.  Now I find it incredibly annoying that he is so out of touch with the daily goings-on in the lab, that he can't manage the people he chooses to let into our lab, and that he just trusts that I'll clean up all the messes (and I mean this both literally and figuratively).  I find it disrespectful that when I go to him with these concerns, he treats me like I'm a nagging mother and brushes them off. And I find it frankly terrifying that he has very little idea of what I'm doing on a day to day basis, that he is so hands-off that he frankly couldn't even tell you for sure what projects I'm focusing on right now.  There's independence, and then there's feeling like no one cares that you're drowning.

It really doesn't help that science as a whole has this incredibly unhelpful attitude towards discouragement.  Of course I am generalizing, but if you try to talk about how hopeless you're feeling, or angry, or how much you hate getting crap result after crap result, a very common response is something along the lines of "well, that's just how science is, and if you can't handle it then you aren't meant to be in this field."  Well, maybe that's true but that really doesn't help me right now and now you've just reinforced my suspicion I'm the problem.  It's like having human feelings of discouragement are an inadmissable weakness, and if your response to perpetual failure is anything less than a gleeful "let's try it again with 20 new parameters!" you're not cut out to be a scientist.  I find it impossible to display disappointment without coming off as an overly-emotional little girl throwing a tantrum.  But frankly I'm not that good at concealing things, and the people around me know that my morale is low, and it only takes a few off-hand comments to see that while many of them want to be supportive, many of them also just take it as me being a cynical jerk.

I'm not the first person to have these feelings about grad school life or academia in general.  If you google "graduate student mental health," you see dozens of articles and statistics about the huge rate of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in doctoral students.  But for some reason we still can't admit it's a problem we're having. We laugh and made jokes about 'grad school life' and justify being 'high-functioning alcoholics.' I hide how unhappy I am with humor and sarcasm.  Most of the time I'm convinced that I'm just lazy and whiney.  I don't work nearly as much as I should be working, I'm not as productive, and I sometimes can't even follow through with experiments because I can't bring myself to care enough when I know it won't succeed.  I am fundamentally changed as a person.  I'm anti-social and angry, which is a stark change from a few years ago.  I am tired all the time, regardless of how much sleep I get.  I have gone from being extremely confident and loving giving talks, to hating it because I'm certain that everyone will see what I already am quite certain of, that I no longer am worthy of a stipend or a place in the program.  I'm not even stressed that much most of the time, I'm just so apathetic to the whole charade.  And frankly I don't even believe in science anymore.  I've seen how people bend results or selectively choose what data they show, and frankly you more or less have to if you want to get a 'high-impact' paper.  I used to think that you could be an exception to this, that I would do good, reproducible, science the way I wanted to, but now I am certain that this is not even possible.  My work just doesn't seem worthwhile anymore.  People hear "PhD" and "research" and think I'm achieving some great feat for the world, when in reality I would contribute much more to society by bartending at the pub down the street.  

But worse than stress or apathy or feeling like I'm drowning in my office is the self-loathing.  I feel like if I could just feel a little bit better then I could have the energy to better myself in some ways (exercise more, or cook instead of eating out, or socialize more), but I can't manage to do it, and I feel like that is entirely my fault.  I'm a prideful person and I spend so much time just hoping that no one notices how much I'm falling apart.

Last week I saw my psychiatrist and we decided I should go on a second anti-depressant.  I'd been on the second medication for a time, but successfully stopped taking it during college.  I was really proud of being able to stop taking it, and it was very difficult for me to admit that I am essentially taking a step backward.  I am trying to see this as a little bit of a triumph over myself, that I'm actively trying to get better even though it's hard.  And I guess posting this is another way of me trying to take a step forward, admit that I'm not some stoic all-mighty scientist, that I'm a mess and I'm crumbling and I need help to stop it.  I can't decide if posting here is really a good idea, or if it's just another procrastination when I should be working on a presentation for journal club.  I'm terrified that someone would link this account back to me and it would get back to the people I work with.  There's gossip and reputation-ruining in academia just as bad as there is in a high school and admitting to emotional problems is certainly a way to garner bad press.  I don't expect anyone will even read this far, but at least I'm putting things into words, even if it is anonymously.  So if anyone does read this, thank you for your time.

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You deserve more help --- from others, and from yourself!


I have my doctorate and know how difficult grad school can be ( I don't know if action potential refers to your area, but mine was in neurophysiology/electrophysiology).  Your supervising professor should be giving you more contact and guidance.  That's what he/she is being paid for.  My experiments were always discussed in depth with my supervisor before I tackled them, and he wouldn't just leave me floating on a project by myself.  It is not demanding or at all out-of-line to ask to speak to your professor and request that he/she give  you more attention, guidance, input, and feedback.  Maybe schedule a weekly meeting.  He just sounds lazy.  Just my opinion, but you shouldn't have to be supervising other students in the lab, that's his job.


Take pride in your performance.  You are doing very difficult things without getting much or any positive reinforcement for your efforts.  So you are going to have to pat yourself on the back and appreciate the hard work you are doing despite the outcomes of the experiments.  


It is very difficult to stop self-loathing, and I can relate to that feeling.  But know that depression lies to you about your worth, your accomplishments, and your abilities.  You may feel despair, but try not to believe in what it tells you.  You are a valuable and worthwhile person no matter how you feel about yourself.  


There should be counsellors at your university student health center, and that might be worthwhile to check out.  Doctors and medication can only do so much.  Your grievances and feelings are legitimate and understandable, and it might help to have someone to talk to, to bounce things off of, and gain perspective and maybe some help in coping.  

Edited by ellemint
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Thank you so much Lauryn and ellemint for responding and for your kind words and support. I honestly did not expect how nice it would be to just put everything out there and hear validation back.  Even though I can of course talk to people I have here, I always feel really guilty, like I'm burdening them or something.  We all vent about our bosses/labs, but it's really a relief to kind of put the more depression-driven aspects of how I'm feeling out there which I keep to myself most of the time out of pride and because I don't want people to worry about me.  I have a boyfriend who is the most supportive person in the world in terms of a lot of things, but I feel like I can't talk to him about these things some of the time.  He wants so badly for me to happy and he tries so hard to do everything in his power to relieve stress for me and help me out, and I feel like he kind of takes it as a personal failure when I'm feeling down and can't fix it.  I know how lucky I am to have him, but it's hard to articulate that this is a problem that neither he nor I can fix in day. So it's just so refreshing to be able to say what I'm feeling, honestly, and not worry about upsetting people or altering opinions of me.  And of course it's nice to kind of say the worst and be like, "look.  no one is swooping in to tell you you're ungrateful or whiney or just wrong." as silly as that may sound.


In answer to your question, ellemint, I am also neurophys/e-phys. I thought action_potential was kind of appropriate as a username because it refers to something in my field but also if you think about it as 'having potential for action' it describes how I feel a lot of the time.  Like yeah there's potential for lots of good stuff but the follow-through can be the problem.  This seemed wittier at the time.


The good thing I have going for me in terms of mentorship is that I am co-mentored.  Mentor #2 is a lot more hands-on, does weekly meetings, and is much more present.  He is really supportive, and does his best to help me through issues he knows I am having with Mentor #1.  His lab is smaller and he is more involved in everyone's day to day schedule.  It's hard because at the current moment Mentor #1's major research focus is more involved with the things that I'm doing on a day to day basis right now, and I spend most of my time in his lab, both because of logistic things and because of responsibilities in the lab.  I feel guilty a lot of the time for kind of dragging Mentor #2 into my and my problems.  It's not like he wants to be dealing with this crap either, and even though he would never say so I wonder if he regrets entering into the situation in the first place when he doesn't get much out of it and puts so much time/effort into me.


I don't want to make it out as though Mentor #1 is a bad or uncaring person because I actually like him as a person a lot.  I know he cares about my future and I know he wants to do right by me, and to an extent appreciates what I do for the lab and for my own work.  A major part of the problem I think is, he has always been in very established, big labs with multiple techs and lab managers that have things running like clockwork.  He doesn't know how to set things up like that and trusts it to whomever gets it done.  I'm not sure if he really realizes how much goes into keeping a lab running from day to day, like making sure we have appropriate supplies and things are working, and he thinks I'm exaggerating the problems.  He also doesn't realize that when he tells an undergrad "do x y and z" without specific further instruction, they just don't have the skillset, nor should they be expected to, to take that instruction and figure out every step necessary to get it done.  So since I'm the most senior person in the lab of course they come to me and it becomes my problem. Both mentors tell me to just ignore things that don't directly pertain to me and be like 'that's not my problem,' and I am getting better at that but it is hard for me to just be like NOPE FIGURE IT OUT when they don't have anywhere else to go, because Mentor #1 is not in the lab a good deal of the time due to travel, meetings, etc.  So I feel left in the dust and like I'm just being used as a backbone for the lab, without getting what I need to out of it.  He also just kind of throws out big ideas and experiments but I'm expected to make things happen on my own, which often involves a lot of stuff I just don't feel capable of planning by myself.  So I feel incompetent and lazy.  And again, none of this is in any way intentional on this part and I really think he just can't see it happening. 


On a more optimistic note, I'm actually feeling pretty good today. I just gave a presentation for an audience of fairly critical people, and it went really well.  It wasn't directly on my work but it's stuff I know a lot about and I felt good about being able to talk confidently about something and see that acknowledged by the people listening.  One professor in particular is not always gentle to people presenting, but he seemed impressed by my presentation and my ability to answer questions, and told me I did a very nice job at the end.  So it's a small victory but I'm taking it as a big one because why not. I'm just happy to be reminded that there are things I can do right.  I also stood up to my boss a little bit yesterday and basically put my needs before the lab's which was difficult but good I think.


I think that maybe I would benefit from counseling or therapy.  I'm kind of hesitant because I've had some bad experiences in the past and also because scheduling is hard.  Especially when I'd eventually have to explain to people why I mysteriously have to be gone once a week at a certain time.  Because I assume most office hours are also the hours I am at work. But given that I've now twice ended up rambling on for far longer than I intended to apparently I have a lot to get out...


Thanks again for listening, and thank you again Lauryn and ellemint for responding.

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Action Potential, yes, the significance and applicability of your name was not lost on me --- good choice!


I am glad it gave you some relief to at least lay things out in a non-critical environment.  I have always found depression  forums a very supportive place.  I would not worry about anyone identifying you---many a grad student could relate to what you write.


I also went through how to explain a weekly or bi-weekly hourly appointment,, but the thing is you don't really have to explain to anyone.  Unless you are being paid to be in the lab from 9 to 5 or something, then your schedule should be self-managed and somewhat flexible, am I correct?  If you feel compelled to explain yourself, which I don't think you really have to do, you could always say that you are getting regular physiotherapy or chiropractic treatments for headaches or your back or something like that, or schedule appts at the end of the day and simply say today 'I have to get out of the lab by 4 pm on Thursdays, or maybe you could work a mid-day appointment into a long lunch, just say you have a weekly obligation, or a yoga class,  no one should really be questioning you about that.  It's none of anyone's business.  I mean there are people with all kinds of obligations, like students and workers who need to leave promptly each day to pick up kids from daycare etc.  Main thing is you have to take care of yourself.


It is hard to find a good therapist or counsellor, you may have to shop around until you find one that is a good fit.  


That is so great that you gave you a good presentation and received praise from a critical prof.  That's amazing!  


"So I feel left in the dust and like I'm just being used as a backbone for the lab, without getting what I need to out of it.  He also just kind of throws out big ideas and experiments but I'm expected to make things happen on my own, which often involves a lot of stuff I just don't feel capable of planning by myself.  So I feel incompetent and lazy.  And again, none of this is in any way intentional on this part and I really think he just can't see it happening."  
I don't have a solution for this, but if it is something that is going to be excessively stressing you out, it should be dealt with.  Maybe there is no perfect solution, but maybe some options could be explored to improve things even slightly.  I'm just brainstorming but for the other students that you are assisting maybe ask them first to find what they are looking for in the Methods sections in papers,  and if it is about learning a technique or equipment, there are manuals for equipment, and even most techniques are written up somewhere, although I know some things can only be learned hands-on.  
I don't know, you may just have to go to the big man, and tell him, 'I need to discuss with you the steps to implement this experiment because I don't have the experience yet to take it from idea stage to completion.'  You are after all still a student.  It is expected that you are still learning, and don't just instantly 'know' everything.  And maybe he has forgotten this.  I think it is very true that the further away some researchers get from the days when they were hands-on spending many hours in the lab themselves, they forget how much work is required.  But I think you need to set realistic limits on what is possible, and communicate that to him.  It certainly doesn't mean you are incompetent or lazy!!!
I hope you accept you have value as a person, just for being you, yourself, cheerful or not, competent or not, and cherish and celebrate yourself.







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