If you’ve been following the chemistry blogosphere, you know that Chemjobber and Vinylogous have been having a conversation of sorts regarding mental health in graduate school, and I figured I would give my input.
To give some background, I am a second year graduate student at a top five program in organic chemistry, and up until ~ 6 months ago, I was miserable. However, I think it honestly had little to do with graduate school itself, and more my working relationship with my advisor; I found out the hard way, like many on the participating blogs have pointed out, that a horrible advisor can account for the greatest source of stress in graduate school. I changed advisors, and I was tempted to write about it at the time, but decided not to for a variety of reasons.
Given that I don’t have the benefit of anonymity, I won’t discuss the terms of why I left my previous lab. However, I will say that I was under a lot of pressure to produce results, and the manner in which the lab was run isolated students in terms of how obvious it was around the lab that someone was taking a beating. As a result, the weeks where I would work all seven days, only sleeping at my desk for a few hours, it was very easy to feel cut off from the world, even within the chemistry department. The person I shared a bay with was a seventh year graduate student fighting to get out in one piece, and with student-advisor conflicts arising constantly, I very nearly dropped out of graduate school altogether. I remember going home to visit family one holiday and nearly having a nervous breakdown describing my work schedule, and that feeling just built over time. By the time I had spent a year in the lab, I was reclusive, paranoid, quiet, and downright depressed.
However, my story has a happy ending. As I was thinking very seriously about calling my boss from a company I used to work for and beg for my old job back, I happened to meet a new assistant professor in the department, who told me about her research. I was interested enough that I made the decision to stay and switch advisors; once you drop out, you’re done, but if I could make it work in another lab, maybe I could at least get a degree out of this mess.
The biggest barrier to actually changing labs was somehow convincing myself that I wasn’t a bad person for doing so. For some reason, I had it in my head that I would be seen as a failure or a weakling if I changed groups. “He couldn’t cut it in Prof. X’s group,” they would surely say. “He’s so pathetic,” they might add. I can’t say for sure whether that was or wasn’t said, but I swallowed my fears and realized that if I was going to be sane and healthy, I couldn’t give a crap about what other people said. I remember discussing the possibility of working with Alison on a Tuesday (at that point I hadn’t realized that she had only started at the University two weeks before, and so I can’t imagine in retrospect how crazy it must have been from her perspective), and by Friday night I was in her lab, setting up reactions.
I make it seem somewhat straightforward, and I admit that making a change sooner than later likely helped the situation along, but it was terrifying. For weeks I was worried if I had made a mistake, if, had I stayed in my previous lab, I would have persevered and seen a happier me on the other side. It was a surprisingly stressful time, largely because no one really tells you how changing groups will go. You hear stories of people who have done it, and you know that it’s possible, but it’s not something that many people encourage. However, if you’re having problems with your advisor, know that history repeats itself. Be proactive about yourself and your career. Regardless of the outcome, at least you will have exerted some control over your situation. For me, it was like night and day. Alison and I work together phenomenally well; we share many fundamental ideas of how research should be done, she respects the skills that I have, and she’s also not afraid to teach me to do things better. More than anything, though, being on the same page has made it much easier to understand what’s expected of me, and know where I stand. I still work just as hard, but now it’s because I want to, not because I’m being pressured by an advisor. To wit, we’re already putting the pieces of our first manuscript together, six months in, something I was worried I would never get to in my previous lab.
More importantly, though, the above changes in perception to how I operated in the lab made me feel more relaxed and outgoing than I ever was previously, despite still working “crazy” hours. Shortly after changing labs I began seeing my current girlfriend, I started some hobbies (as you may or may not know, I am a budding amateur aquarist now!), and overall I respond to “how are you doing” with “pretty well” instead of “I’m not dead yet.”
I suppose this was an ad hoc story that summarizes to the point that grad school is incredibly difficult, but it doesn’t need to be demoralizing. I think too many people (especially organic chemists) assume that being beaten down by their advisor is “part of the process,” but I think I’ve proved that this is hardly true. By taking control of the situation and identifying what was bothering me (my choice of advisor) and changing the heart of the problem, I’m happier and more productive than I ever would have imagined I could be in graduate school. That said, I’m still poor and tired, but at least I’m still living the #phdlife.