Mental health in academia

I was doing some work in the lab on a Sunday afternoon when I ran into a guy from a neighboring lab. He was awarded a PhD earlier this year (his 6th year in grad school), and he was enthusiastically telling me about his job offers. One is a postdoc position with a very well known and respected professor in the field, another is a position at an engineering consulting firm in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Both of these options sound great! I shared his enthusiasm. Though I didn’t quite understand why he was having trouble choosing between them. These were completely different career paths, and I imagined for someone who had spent that much time in grad school, he should have figured it out by now. So I asked him. He said he has always wanted to pursue academia, but during his time in grad school he realized academic research is full of ups and downs. He paused and looked down. and a few moments later, he made eye contact with me again but with a slight frown, he said that there has been way more downs than ups. Days like this, he continued, doing work on Sunday afternoons, it gets old after a while. He paused again, looking at me for affirmation. I know what you mean, I sympathized.

For some reason, people in academia tend to work extra long hours. If you are not working at least one day on a weekend, you are bound to feel guilty when you return next week and find out everyone else had kept working. I asked him about the work life balance at the engineering consulting firm. He seemed delighted to change the topic of the conversation from academia to the industry offer. He told me that people at the firm work standard 9-5 on most days, with his eyes beaming with excitement, he went on and told me that it would be so exciting to interact with various companies and solve industrial level engineering problems, as compared to in academia where the researcher is only expected to focus on one (usually tiny) problem at a time. In addition, the multi-fold increase in salary would finally enable he and his wife to start a family. Although he still haven’t committed to an offer yet, his body language was clear to me enough that he was ready to leave academia. Despite that, he was still determined to finish strong in his last leg of lab life. I left lab that night at 10:30 PM and saw him still working hard at the chemical vapor deposition chamber.

So many people leave academia after their PhDs, in fact, a significant portion do not even make it to the end of a PhD. It is a long journey, depending on the school and department, the length is usually 4 – 7 years. Although you will have lab mates, you are expected to work on your own project, and publish multiple papers in the field before being eligible for graduation. The nature of scientific research is to conduct experiments that no one has done before, therefore experiments are statistically expected to not work than work, hence “more downs than ups”. Your social circle is usually quite small, and confined to a few people in your lab. For people who have lab mates who are hard to get along with, they are even more likely to be lonely and depressed during this arduous and lengthy marathon. Another key factor to consider is money. One guy in my lab is in his early 30s with and wife and 2 young kids, 1 and 3 years old. Despite the 4 of them (sometimes 5 when a parent or in-law comes to visit) cramming in a small 1 bedroom apartment, he confessed to me that the rent and the day care for the 3 year old girl were already more than his salary, and that he has to ask his family back in his home country for financial support. Despite having two young kids at home, he constantly feels pressured to stay in the lab till late on most days, hoping that way he could finish his degree sooner and get a better paying job upon graduation.

This week, the biannual meeting of the Materials Research Society is happening in Boston. Some of my friends are going, but I was surprised to find out that the most senior guy in my lab, who got his PhD earlier this year (his 7th year in grad school), was not. He usually has the most fascinating results during group meeting presentations, and I thought he would want to share his findings with the greater research community as well. Upon my inquiry, he paused for a few seconds and then responded without making eye contact, the reason he didn’t want to go is that he gets depressed at these conferences. Everyone seemed to have made impressive progress, whereas he felt like he had done nothing, he added. I was at a loss for words. I had always looked up to him and hoped that I could be as knowledgeable as him someday, I couldn’t believe that he was feeling like an imposter while I was secretly admiring him. It had then occurred to me, maybe everyone experiences the imposter syndrome, regardless of how successful they may be. I admit that I have also felt incompetent in the lab at times, but maybe, just maybe, I am not as bad as I thought, knowing that everyone experience this feeling from time to time too.

I have more anecdotes but It is time to wrap up. An article in Science magazine cited that 40% of the PhD students are depressed. There is no fast and easy solution to address this problem. However, here I offer a few easy steps to take to make your PhD friends’ life easier: do not ask when we will graduate, offer hugs if we look sad, and maybe buy us dinner (because you care for us) every once in a while 🙂 every bit of kindness will be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Mental health in academia”

  1. Hi Emma, hope you keep healthy in your graduate study.

    Scholars are a very smart group in the world, but they still have the same experience as other people outside the academic area. As human being, we like to compare with others. I guess those senior people in your lab tend to use the academic career status to define themselves. If someone else does better, they may think they are losers. However, a job or career doesn’t define ourselves. It is a part of our life. If we only rely on the narrow academic experiences, we will lose in the high pressure competition, which creates the metal issue easily.

    So a easy solution is just to think broader in our lives. I remember there was a guy shared his professor comment about dealing with academic pressure: If you are unhappy in your research progress, fuck it. If I make you unhappy, fuck me. It is not a polite description, but the idea is simple here: Don’t let your PhD study or academic career define and limit you. We are innovators to create new things. Why do we let these things make us stuck and unhappy?

    When being unhappy, don’t think it is our faults. You don’t believe so? “The Guy” in White House provides the example to deal with pressure. (Although it’s not a good example.)

    Hope you continue to be healthy, happy and do something fun in your PhD study!


    1. Hi Hong,

      Thank you for taking the time to leave this comment! You are right, it is easy for us to define our worth by our research progress, but a healthier way is to realize that we are much more than the research we do, and when things do go wrong in the lab, it is not the end of the world.

      Hope you stay healthy and happy too!


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