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Depression and Anxiety in Graduate School

According to this new survey, depression and anxiety are far more common among graduate students than in the general population. This should surprise no one at all, but it’s good to have some quantitative data on the problem. There are limitations to the study – for one thing, it’s quite possible that (self-selected) respondents were among those more likely to have experienced these problems. The survey was done across 26 different countries (over 2200 respondents), 70% female/28% male/2% transgender, and the fields of study involved were 56% humanities and 38% physical sciences – no breakdown of the numbers by these categories is available.

Even with these reservations, I have no trouble believing the overall conclusions – based on my own experience and my observations since, I think that anxiety and depression are very close to inevitable in graduate study, and that students should be aware of what they’re getting into. What’s happening, in any field, is the rubber finally meeting the road: you’re not just sitting in classrooms; you’re doing what practitioners of your chosen line of work actually do, and you’re finding out what that’s really like and whether or not you’re any good at it. If that doesn’t bring on the occasional bout of anxiety and self-doubt, then something is off.

Moving from that to depression is not such a huge jump, either. All of us who have been through grad school have seen people who sort of freeze up at some point in their progress. Sometimes it happens near the beginning, such as when chemistry graduate students move out of classes and into the labs – some of them just can’t seem to get anything going. I remember people who were always just about to start something, just about to figure out what went wrong with the last thing (which was spread out into a bunch of inconclusive samples around their hoods), just about to really start making some progress. But they never did. Later in the process, another familiar figure is the person who’s been hanging around for years in the lab, running ever more experiments to avoid writing up, as is their near-relative, the person who’s actually out of the lab, writing up that dissertation/thesis, expected to set a defense date pretty soon. . .and who in the end, is never heard from again after a while, finding themselves unable to get the thing done. After a while, the official notices from the department come back stamped “Addressee unknown”.

Depression might well be a good description of what’s going on in many of these situations. Someone finds themselves in an untenable situation and sinks into a state that makes it more untenable every day. David Foster Wallace defined a harmful addiction as something that offered itself as the remedy for the problems that it itself was causing (as with alcohol), and the downward-spiral mode of life has some similarities, as a big factor in what put you into this spot makes you ever less likely to do anything about it. The canonical view of major depression from the inside is William Styron’s Darkness Visible, but you don’t have to be as far along as Styron was to be in real trouble.

I don’t think I got quite as far as depression myself, but there’s no doubt that I was under significant stress. Even the stock of stories that I have from grad school illustrates that. So many of them feature me losing my temper about something, and honestly, I rarely do that out here in the real world. I well recall unnerving bouts of fear and uncertainty, wondering if I was doing the right thing with my life, wondering if it was too late to do much about that even if I were, wondering if my research was any good or if I was any good at doing it, and what I was going to do about it if the answer to either or both of those were actually “No”. And so on. By the end of it, I was thoroughly sick of my project, wildly ready to get out the door and see what the post-doc life was going to be like (and very much wondering if it would turn out to be more of the same, in a different location).

I saw some outright breakdowns while I was in grad school – there’s no other way to describe them. In some cases a person’s hours and behavior would become erratic, their actions hard to understand or predict. Sometimes in these the ship would apparently right itself and sometimes it wouldn’t. I saw examples of just those situations mentioned above, with people unable to make a real start in research or unable to write up at the end of it. And there was one flat-out suicide attempt, very nearly successful and permanently damaging to the person involved.

At my own worst moments, I would be standing there in the lab feeling like a pitcher out on the mound who had just shaken off every pitch he knew how to throw. I was hauling material up the mountainside of a long linear synthesis, and I was frustrated to a degree beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I didn’t feel like working up the reactions in front of me, and I didn’t feel like setting up others. Waiting for me was my reward at the end of twenty-odd linear steps, the chance to risk all my hard work by trying (finally) some new chemistry that would probably not work and might well destroy my starting material in the process. Oh joy.

I think I’ve told this next story before, but can’t track down the post where I did. At any rate, a pivotal moment was when I was bashing along with the largest load of starting material I’d ever made. Up at around step 9 (I was still in liter-sized flask territory) I was ready to work up the whole batch after a late-night reaction. I added some ammonium chloride and extracted the black mixture. That didn’t worry me; it was always black. I evaporated it down to a bunch of black oil and loaded it on a big gravity column of coarse silica gel – from prior runs, I knew that would hold the black crud at the top and allow a big yellow band of product to elute. Except this time the whole column turned black. Must have overloaded the column with this big pile of material, I thought. I collected a bunch of black fractions and rota-vapped them down, only to find what I sort of thought was a lot less oil than I’d been expecting. Reserving worry, I set up another column on that stuff, and this time the whole column turned black again, and nothing at all came out the other end but slightly discolored solvent. I had, in fact, destroyed my entire huge batch, because at 2 AM I was too groggy to remember that I was supposed to work it up with saturated bicarb, not ammonium chloride. All gone.

I stood there, alone, in the middle of the night, looking at all the mess I’d created. Ruined, all that batch of material that was going to finally get my synthesis finished and get me out of this place. I shook my head, cursed loudly, and went home, and to my surprise I fell asleep fairly quickly. What else was there to do? I woke up the next morning and went through that terrible disorienting feeling when after a few seconds you suddenly remember that something bad happened the night before. And then I got up and went to the lab, and set up an even larger batch back at the beginning of the synthesis, step one. Looking back, that night and that morning were a key episode in my graduate career and my life in general, because that batch I started that next day really did get me out in the end. I had bent and come very close to breaking at times, but it turned out that the worst had happened and I was still in one piece.

Things definitely could have gone in other ways, though, and if they had there’s no telling where I would be now or what I would be doing. If that incident had happened to me a year before, I don’t know how I would have taken it. By the time I speak of, I had my eyes on the door and a PhD defense, having decided that the shortest way out of this awful situation was in that direction. I was devoting all my efforts to it, in an “OK, did today get me closer to defending, or not?” sort of way. Earlier, though, I was too far from the beginning and too far from the end to have that mindset, and a whopping failure would not have gone down well.

I think it’s important for graduate students to realize that everyone has these doubts and bad stretches. Everyone has these moments when they wonder what they’ve done to their lives, but having these thoughts is not a sign that the exact failure you’re fearing has arrived. That doesn’t mean that thinking about your purpose in grad school is a bad thing, but it probably is a bad thing to try to do it at periods of peak emotional stress. If you feel that it really is getting too much, definitely talk to someone. Universities have people around for just that purpose – more so than in my day, fortunately – and if you find yourself wondering if you should reach out like that, then odds are that you should. Do it. I wish some of the people I worked with had, or had been able to.

Any meaningful graduate degree is going to be a test of your abilities and your resilience. Recognize this, and avoid the two extremes. On one end are the macho types whose response is “Eat stress for breakfast! That’s what I did in my day! If you don’t have the fire in your belly you don’t belong here!”. And on the other end are the voices, some perhaps external and some internal, telling you that you’re a failure already, an imposter, and that you’re never going to measure up anyway. These are two different sets of lies, and everyone has to steer their course between them.

130 comments on “Depression and Anxiety in Graduate School”

  1. Jeff says:

    This has far broader application than to graduate school, and points up the danger of conflating what we happen to be doing with who we are as a person. Thanks for the post!

  2. James says:

    I read that paper this morning and was filled with despair. Feeling torn between something needing to change with grad school, and that it can’t without completely devaluing graduate degrees. Your perspective is an important one that I think every grad student needs to hear, one that we are often incapable of seeing at the time. Wise (and reassuring) words that aren’t heard enough around academia.

  3. JH says:

    I thankfully hadn’t experienced this as a graduate student but recently read “Chemistry: A novel” by Weike Wang and found it to be really interesting, rather short, and beautifully written. The narrator is a struggling chemistry graduate student.

    1. Chemjobber says:

      I agree. A really enjoyable book.

    2. Margaret says:

      That book was amazing. Also incredibly painful to read especially since I was trying to figure out a transition at the time. It finally gave me the words to succinctly explain why I was getting out of lab work. I actually had the opposite problem from the protaganist: I made a good researcher but a lousy technician.

  4. Cato says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Derek. It’s been a couple years since my graduation and that time (especially year 4!) seems like a distant bad memory and now blue skies are ahead. To any grad students with stalled projects and harsh PIs… it gets better! And if you end up being a PI, remember how it felt to be a grad student and offer them all the help you can.

  5. Tired says:

    Grad school wrecked me. Broke me. I lost it, lost myself, eventually lost a lot of health and the signs were obvious to everyone from my coworkers and my advisor to my friends and family members. I tried to be a man and pretend I was too proud for help but I was not. I completely crumbled. Nothing was offered to me by my advisor in terms of mental health support or encouraging words to finish my PhD. Instead, I left, head down. If it wasn’t for the girl I was dating at the time, I’d likely have tried to kill myself or would up homeless or something. I somehow got employed in the field as it was the only thing I was very good at and am still employed in the field to this day, however grad school made me physically HATE chemistry 100% and am looking forward to getting out of lab one day.

    1. Michael James says:

      “If it wasn’t for the girl I was dating at the time, I’d likely have tried to kill myself or would up homeless or something.”

      They are what civilize us. Check the background on all of these wack-oh’s that walk into schools or train stations or whatever and start shooting people or blowing things up. What do almost 99% of them have in common? No girlfriend.(Note i didn’t say wife).
      So i gotta ask…….
      Whatever happened to the girl?

      1. Tired says:

        Her and I are still together. I often push her away and she sometimes tells me that I have no emotion. She understands it somewhat as she’s also gone through heavy depression/anxiety in life events but is far more open about it where I’ve kept it a dark secret in my probably dead soul… I’ve began some counselling regarding it where in the past I thought that stuff was really stupid. She also goes to counselling for her issues and she is the only reason I ever admitted that I should perhaps go forward with counselling.

      2. arcya says:

        bud absolutely do not put the responsibility for your emotional health on women. Feeling sad? Call your parents, talk to your friends, deal with your mental health by seeing a therapist. Women are not here to “civilize” ya’ll, and I fully believe that you are capable of controlling yourself.

        further, implying that women could stop mass shooters is reprehensible, especially in light of the number of shooters who previously committed domestic violence.

        1. NQ says:

          I know this is an old post, but FWIW I’ve been that girlfriend. I don’t date men any more, partly because I have a different type of attraction to men and women, and partly out of choice.

      3. tangent says:

        Correlation and causality, my dear sir.

        It’s not that these guys are mass shooters because they haven’t been given(?) a girlfriend. Girlfriends have avoided them because they’re unpleasant to be around, often showing danger signs, and often with a track record of violence against women. For that matter they rarely have real healthy relationships with male friends either.

        You may have noticed a girlfriend’s emotional intelligence and decided to work yours up — that’s awesome! These guys aren’t like you. Some of them just don’t seem to be wired for it for whatever reason, some of them would see that as a total pussy idea and get very angry. Maybe a different environment when they were children, who knows.

  6. John says:

    Great post – thanks for writing this!

  7. Some idiot says:

    Good post Derek. That description of what I call “the grad school wall” is a good one. As I heard it once described: everyone doing grad school hits it at some stage. It is what you do after you have hit it that determines what you do. Whether you get out completely, climb over it, dig yourself under it, or bash your way through it with your head or whatever, that determines what you will be.

    I also love your description of the disaster and re-start. I can vividly remember something similar. However, I would like to stress that this is not depression (and I speak from experience, having had both a first heavy dose (later in life) and then a relapse later again). The main point is that at the time, you could take the decision to do the hard work and put a bigger batch on (similar to what I did at a similar stage). But (generally speaking) with depression, that decision is not a possibility, since the workings of depression cut far, far deeper.

    That said, I would like to stress that I am not disputing that depression is a significant problem in grad school. My heartfelt hope is that more people would talk about how they are feeling earlier, so that they can be given tools which can help (not always enough, but a damn good start). And by all means resist the macho bullshit and say “I’m alright…”

    Good luck to everyone out there!!!


    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Absolutely right – a depressed person would not have been able to get out of bed the next morning, most likely! That’s what comes across in Styron and others who’ve been able to write about it. It’s not only anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure in things you should – added on to that can be the inability to feel what you think you should feel, bad or good, interested or irritated, about much of anything. Which is what Sylvia Plath was, I’d say, trying to describe as the feeling of a bell jar coming down over a person.

      1. Some Idiot says:

        “Bell jar” is pretty darn perfect. With the addition of infinitely soft walls, ceilings and floors. Nothing to push against, nothing matters, nothing except the big black hole where the feeling and emotion spirals into.
        And the apathy: that is kinda wierd… As for me, I was a kind of a walking Zeno’s paradox…Putting your running shoes on, getting up and going for a run was impossible. Because you suddenly started to see all of the small things that neeed to be done to make that happen, and the sudden mountain of micro/events in front of you made you realize that it was probably impossible just to stand up… (of course, on the occasions when I _could_ get up, that particular mountain sort of vanished, and for a short while, whilst I was running and for about an hour afterwards, the bell jar loosened its grip. Temporarily…).

        One thing that was kinda wierd happened after my relapse. After discussions with my (actually really, really good) psychiatrist, I changed medications. We agreed on the “straight swap” model, which is (a) fastest, but (b) most uncomfortable (i.e. informed choice from my side). Being both a patient, a chemist and a nerd, it meant that as concentrations of the one drug decreased and the other started to increase, I could feel very clear changes in my brain on the way. In many ways it was hell on wheels, but in others, there was still the nerd side of me thinking “Ok now, that is interesting… That feeling is probably due to the fact that the such and such pathway is now not really stimulated any more, but the others aren’t up and running yet… Oh yes, now I can feel this one starting to come up” and so forth until I achieved what can perhaps be described as normality (for certain values of “normality”, at any rate…!).

  8. Chrispy says:

    Graduate school has fundamentally changed since I went over twenty years ago. On the one hand, much has gotten easier: searching for information, writing, references, graphics, all are a hundred times easier. On the other hand, there simply aren’t positions available for the vast majority of PhDs anymore. The whole Ponzi scheme of running labs on cheap talent has left us with a glut of PhDs who, having completed their second postdoc, realize that there is no “real job” at the end of the tunnel. “Non tenure track” teaching gigs or further study in something marketable like patent law awaits. Industry jobs have been gutted. Some specialties (like organic chemistry) are much worse than others. I find myself regularly counseling people against graduate school (“Get an MD instead! Have you considered dentistry?”) unless there are other motivating factors, such as a real love for a subject. But the days when a PhD could be counted upon for a career are dead and gone.

    1. Pfizer Joe says:

      I have to agree! the chances of getting a job in the pharma industry that will last more than 5 years is not very promising. To make matters worse except for the coasts, the chances of reemployment are even worse. Look at what has been happening! New graduates are competing with the hundreds of people who have been let go in the ever occurring 3 year reorganizations. Those who do find positions are often in much more expensive cities to live or have their salaries cut or even worse become contractors with virtually no benefits. I think that academics who take on students need to think about the student needs a lot more and reflect on the future of chemistry.

  9. Killing joke says:

    Not so funny, but one description I’ve heard when to tell you’re ready to get out of Grad school is when you turn from suicidal to homicidal (toward your PI).

  10. Isidore says:

    It is clear from the post and the responses that an understanding PI and a supportive research group/lab environment are critically important in dealing with graduate work related anxiety and perhaps in avoiding having it develop into full scale depression. Looking back into my graduate school days, decades ago, when such issues were less well understood and less effectively addressed and whatever resources were available seemed more directed towards undergraduates than graduate students, I can appreciate how important the PI’s attitude was and how it set the tone for the whole research group.

  11. myma says:

    I wouldn’t know where to start the stories, only to put it briefly that my professor was an absolute Jerk, and that is putting it nicely.
    I survived and got that paper only by my wits.

  12. EJC says:

    All that matters is that you finish the synthesis with 99% yield on each step. We’ll both be happy then.

    1. regularguy says:

      Hahaha “EJC” thats a good one

  13. EMC says:

    “If you are unable to meet the expected work-schedule, I am sure that I can find someone as an appropriate replacement for this important project.”

    1. Coddled snowflake says:

      Screening will set you free

  14. Amy says:

    Graduate school is hard on everyone – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cried in the bathroom with my friends. I think what really helped me is that you have to choose to be happy. One advice that my PI gave that really stuck was that if you can’t handle grad school you can always get a masters job. PhDs are for people with the determination and stamina for it. We knew what we signed up for! Good luck to everyone struggling!

    1. NHR_GUY says:

      “PhDs are for people with the determination and stamina for it.” Absolutely agree. You have to have a certain amount of fortitude to make it through. You also have to be willing to work hard. I guarantee I was not the smartest guy in my group, but I worked harder than most and that is what got me through. Being smart will only get you so far. If you don’t have the mental fortitude (the ability to withstand hardship), the passion for the science, and the willingness to work then you will not succeed. Twenty plus years post-PhD and a fairly successful career, I Iook back at those long days (and longer nights) in the lab with a great deal of fondness. The exponential jump my knowledge of my craft took has never been repeated in my life. It was hard, but in retrospect it was fun, definitely worth it, and I have zero regrets.
      1) Work hard
      2) Realize this period of time is only temporary
      3) Being smart is only a small part of your eventual success
      Good Luck!

  15. me says:

    There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh
    God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these
    people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?

    1. Some idiot says:

      Wonderful… Where does that come from?


      1. db says:

        It is very hard to answer that question without spoiling a wonderful short story.

  16. anonymous says:

    I was probably depressed in grad school and certainly depressed during my post-doc. It took me a long time to go see a doctor. Being scientifically-minded, I would periodically check my symptoms against the DSM IV criteria for major depressive disorder (and other mood disorders). I never met *all* the necessary criteria so I didn’t go in for three years.

    I don’t know what the DSM V says, but a word of experience: an hour-long appointment for depression screening isn’t much out of your work schedule, and it can save you a lot of pain down the road.

    1. YH says:

      I stopped going to the counseling center on campus when they wouldn’t prescribe me meds

      1. anonymous says:

        But did you go somewhere else afterwards? I think getting the process started is really important, whether it’s at a campus health center or not. Then you follow up however you need to. (I ended up going through my PCP instead of the campus health center, myself–and did get a prescription.)

  17. psycho says:

    Now let’s study PIs and find out how many of them are maniacs or bipolar

  18. Meh says:

    Good topic and one that hits home for me in retrospect. Even though it’s been 15 years since, only recently have I really looked back at my behavior and realized what a mess I was in grad school. While I loved working in the lab, had a great PI, and supportive colleagues, I was a wreck outside of the lab. Bad relationships, antagonistic towards my family, and lots of excessive drinking (greatly enabled by the lab’s culture of drinking). Perhaps it’s a confluence of life events and pressure, i.e. trying to get a Ph.D. and also trying to start your life with relationships and a career plan. It really took me almost 5 years afterwards to really pull myself together and get my personal life back on track as well as confront my drinking issue, despite having a good career in industry established. I now look back with regret at missed opportunities and the sacrifices I made to my life outside the lab as well as my own well being. If I had to do it again, I likely would have put more limits on my work-life balance and gone into the lab with the attitude of “this is just a job and the research is really not very important…it’s just academic” and tried to balance it with outside hobbies, friends, and physical activities. Unfortunately, I feel most PI’s would actively discourage this type of thinking among their students….

  19. Another Guy says:

    I graduated 21 years ago and haven’t worked directly in chemistry since almost that day. There are many other fulfilling careers awaiting you besides academia or the lab bench. Maybe there is an underlying toxicity culture in grad school that browbeats the candidate into believing they will be branded a traitor if they don’t continue their careers in a straight line? That completing a 20-step synthesis is the only worthy achievement in life? Maybe the road to happiness and sanity is about shooting for the stars but still landing in a good place if you don’t quite make it that far.

  20. Mark Plummer says:

    I always find that balance helps. I still have very bad days in the hood as I did in during natural product synthesis in graduate days, but when I get home I might set a PR running or cycling, catch a nice fish with my fly rod that offsets that glum feeling. In graduate school when I couldn’t do any more at the end of the day there was one thing I always did: wash my dirty glassware. Sounds trivial but for me after a tough day the next day was always better when I had cleaned up allowing fresh start in the morning with the failure washed away.

  21. Curious Wavefunction says:

    I was extraordinary lucky in having graduate school advisors who never made life stressful for me. And of course, it’s not just when the work isn’t going well. There were always moments, like when my mother passed away suddenly, when both depression and anxiety were very real. What got me through that time was the support of friends and family and – to some extent even more importantly since friends and family could not be around all the time – my own hobbies of reading and writing.

    In fact I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to have a hobby, something that you can call your own and which you are good at, a world in which you can retreat into, as a fallback. Because when your advisor is being a tyrant, when your experiment tries to beat you into despair, when family or friends are busy with their own lives, about the only thing that can be your friend all the time is your hobbies. It won’t be the complete solution, but it won’t leave the world feeling like a black hole.

  22. 10 Fingers says:

    This is a great topic – useful for those in the throes of graduate school, and perhaps more for those who haven’t shaken off the effects in the subsequent decades.

    One aspect not touched upon here is the issue of ritual hazing – a common aspect of top programs when I was in grad school. Not unlike some military programs, the philosophy of “we will break you down and build you back up to think *correctly* about things” can be effective if you have the ability to recognize what is happening – and survive being “broken.” Some are not the same, whether they make it out with their PhD or not.

    I recall a colleague on the edge of the abyss: he had one set of reaction kinetics experiments to obtain – a difficult gauntlet of experiments involving easy-to-break, often-shattered equipment. He began laying out equipment in ritualistic fashion and leaving for a couple of days, before returning and shattering something anew. He blamed some of it on birds that were waking him up in the morning, and began carrying a cap pistol to work (allegedly used at home to scare the birds). As he braced himself for another attempt, he would stand at the window of the lab, looking out at the birds in the surrounding trees. This was eventually followed by “Make my day!” whereupon he would whip out the pistol and click the trigger at the birds repeatedly for a while. After several months of this, he got his data, wrote up, successfully defended and left for a job. I don’t know if he ever found peace. Sometimes I think about him as I watch people in the workplace, and I have skills now to recognize the beginnings of serious stress and intervene. I wonder if that is true in grad schools today. Our PI was a saint, but no psychologist.

    However, 30 years later, I vividly remember pulling myself out of depression – and a months-long dead space of no useful results – by telling myself that I could not let myself become “that guy” – and that I had to focus on the steps that would get me to my thesis and out. I kept a blackboard list of experiments (easy and hard) and tried to just focus on crossing them off in some semblance of order and sanity.

    The latter was relative. I received the nickname I use here due to the fact that I worked with fairly large quantities of air and water sensitive reagents, and would celebrate the end of a day fraught with peril with hands intact, by setting off several small explosions of one sort or another (perfectly controlled, of course………….).

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      There you go – that bird stuff is exactly the kind of thing that I had in mind when I referenced “erratic behavior” as people were breaking down.

  23. RM says:

    The biggest issue for me was the often implicit (but occasionally explicit) “you should know this”-type criticisms/expectations, often without any sort of backing of where it was I should have learned it or (worse) where I should have gotten any indication that this was a topic I should be learning about. It was the incredulity expressed by faculty and my committee members that I somehow didn’t magically pick up these “unknown unknowns” that was often the biggest gut punch.

    It might have been okay if it was something like a “You don’t know [named reaction]? Everyone should know [named reaction]!” type thing that was easy to look up and remedy, but it was often the “soft” part of research which got the criticism: how to plan out experiments, how to approach the literature, how to approach writing a paper, etc. — You know, the things that are rather critical to the day-to-day working of a scientist, but are typically never actually taught formally.

    Now, I’m not saying that the senior faculty who made these types of criticisms weren’t genuinely concerned for my development as a scientist, but it’s the way they’re presented – criticisms without any offer or suggestion on how to improve things – that’s the kicker. It’s really hard to take a “You are a failure at these fundamental scientific tasks” as constructive criticism (rather than as a judgment on your worth as a scientist and a human being) if you don’t feel like there’s any support towards making improvements.

    Failure that you feel you can pick yourself up from and re-attempt is nowhere near as soul crushing as a failure which seems insurmountable and intrinsic.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      That’s what I hated about the “fire in the belly” type criticism: it made it sound as if there was something fundamentally unfixable in your own makeup. Which is rarely the case!

    2. Hap says:

      Maybe it’s more as to whether they were concerned for you as a person that makes the criticism acceptable or not. Science is good, but studying it is not all.

  24. miles says:

    In an entirely different field, I’ve been half a million lines of code and a year into a project knowing it was wrong, cursing the idiot architect who thought it a good idea to recursively parse huge, variable by the week, data structures into a normalised schema of 400 tables, in real time on an EDI gateway processing the UK consumer energy market!

  25. miles says:

    In an entirely different field, I’ve been half a million lines of code and a year into a project knowing it was wrong, cursing the idiot architect who thought it a good idea to recursively parse huge, variable by the week, data structures into a normalised schema of 400 tables, in real time on an EDI gateway processing the UK consumer energy market! In K&R C.
    Then in UAT it was 1000x too slow
    Had a sulk. Then reached for knuth and put is every algorithm invented by mankind to hash, cache and match all the data dictionary values, seventeen references in the code to Talking Heads tracks, and spitting out messages on the server console on the subject of bottoms and the words of the old Pathan folk song “Wounded Heart”….” there’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach but alas I cannot swim”… that earned me a final written warning. But it worked and for five years processed a few ten millions of “change my energy supplier” messages!

  26. CR says:

    I don’t have a lot to add that hasn’t already been said. Only to add my experience. I was in graduate school in the late-90’s working for a notoriously tough PI (luckily we had a good relationship overall, but that didn’t stop the madness). I had two saving graces while in graduate school: 1. I was married and my wife did not work in the field. This helped immensely as it gave me perspective as to what outside life looked like. 2. Friends outside of graduate school. In fact, I don’t believe in my 5+-years of graduate school that I ever did anything social with any graduate school colleagues. This helped me as well, again, leave some of the troubling behavior behind, but it also allowed me to have an outlet and not just wallow in misery. Nothing wrong with socializing with colleagues – I just knew it would only lead to talking about the one issue I did not want to talk about on the one evening I had off. I don’t think I ever got to a point of real depression, but did hit the graduate school wall.

  27. Uncle Al says:

    Undergrad takes your money, grad takes your labor, post-doc takes your soul, assistant prof takes your life. So it can’t be done, so what?

    Each day I inspect the newspaper’s obituary column. If I’m in there, I get up anyway.

    1. NJBiologist says:

      Am I losing it, or is that post genius?

      1. me says:

        A major indicator of psychosis listed in the DSM V is agreeing with an Uncle Al post.

        1. NJBiologist says:

          Well then, it’s a good thing I don’t own any edition newer than IV.

  28. Walker says:

    Having graduated with my PhD less than a year ago, this is absolutely true and a problem that departments try to sweep under the rug far too often. Recruitment weekends for students are all about how great a PI’s research is and the friends they’ll make while there. Not once did anyone say it would be more important not to lose yourself, to recede into yourself until you can see nothing else.
    I never knew how much I repressed all of my stress and anxiety until about a week after my defense. I sat and cried for hours not knowing why, but it felt so cathartic I couldn’t stop. It finally dawned on me that for the first time I wasn’t worried about going to a lab that I would inevitably be hounded at for my results and worry if they weren’t good enough. I was actually relieved and happy, but I forgot how that felt. Anytime I encounter someone that reminds me of my adviser, my stress levels shoot through the roof and I hear his voice barreling down on me. It may not be the same as other traumatic events and the depression experienced may go away, but it can still linger as a mild case of PTSD. I think it will be a long time before I can get those experiences to stop happening.

    1. Tired says:

      PTSD is exactly what I would call it when recounting my graduate experience.

  29. NMH says:

    I was obsessed with hating my postdoctoral advisor for about 2 years after I quit the lab due to stress. Every single day, a large fraction I spent thinking of all of the crappy things he did, my miserable experience, and how any future career was ruined. I am pleased to report the thoughts slowly went away and 20 years later dont think about it.

  30. Nick K says:

    The behaviour of PI’s towards their grad students and postdocs rarely helps. I very nearly cracked mentally when a postdoc with a very well-known Ivy League big name. He used blackmail, openly telling me he would ensure I never found a job in Chemistry unless I got things to work. It was a horrible experience.

    1. Ibrox says:


  31. Kelvin says:

    One of the best and most important posts on here, I think everyone will find them self here at some point, thanks for sharing.

  32. Bob Seevers says:

    Two thoughts: 1) The quote above is from Arthur C. Clarke’s short story, The Star and 2) In the past four decades since I got my own Ph.D., I have steadfastly maintained that you don’t have to be a supergenius to get a Ph.D. in science, although a certain level of intelligence is necessary, what really matters, is that you have to WANT it sufficiently to put up with all the crap.
    OK, a third thought—at the University of Michigan up to the 1980s at least, there existed a hard-eyed little old lady whose only job in the grad school as far as I could tell was to hold a frame over each page of your dissertation and if anything was outside the lines, you had to do that page over again. You have to really WANT it.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I got held up by one of those. Same technique, and despite the margin settings in Word 3.02 on a Mac SE, I was apparently about a half-letter over her template every three or four pages. Reset margins in a bit, repaginate, reprint it all. . .

      1. Chrispy says:

        Just be glad you hadn’t written it on a typewriter! I used to browse the old theses at my school and marvel at the typing and hand-drawn structures.

      2. fajensen says:

        I found that learning LaTeX was a less painful process than getting MS-Word to layout properly –

        I am so old that can clearly remember that when we stopped using typewriters and photocopying stuff with images taped onto the pages for reports and papers, what happened next was that the promised gain in productivity by using “smart” DTP-software was rather immediately absorbed by excessive lay-outing, formatting and make-pretty -work that did not matter before!

    2. Barry says:

      At Univ. Wisconsin, Madison, the corresponding hurdle was known only as “the witch on the hill”. Elsewhere, a post-doc arrived a couple of months late in John Brauman’s labs because a disagreement between members of his PhD committee on the proper use of the passive voice in his experimental section required him to re-type it (those were the days)

      1. The Iron Chemist says:

        Wisconsin and Stanford. Are you THAT Barry?

    3. anon the II says:

      Ah yes, the thesis secretary. I remember one guy a couple of years ahead of me had a dozen roses and a bottle of champagne sent to her on the day she got his thesis. If I remember, he got through without a problem. I typed my thesis a few years later on a Prime computer and used the Runoff program to print it. I taped down all my structures on vellum paper and ran it all through the physics department’s Xerox machine onto Cornell bond to get the final copies. I had a few pages with “widow lines”, so I had to go back in and add a sentence or two to get rid of them.

    4. NJBiologist says:

      Bob, Rackham must have gotten rid of her–the format check I went through in 1999 took about three minutes.

      1. NJBiologist says:

        Also, a belated shout-out to the woman at Bessenberg’s print shop who looked at my pile of thesis and addressed me as doctor. I still get a warm, fuzzy feeling thinking about that–and it was part of the turnaround in my mood post-defense.

    5. Fluorine Chemist says:

      Ah the ‘graduate school thesis checker’… had a nerve wracking experience with them. Had submitted my thesis in the proper format well before the deadline. Shockingly, on the very last day, at about 4:00 pm, got a call from them telling me they can’t find my thesis! Broke all records running from my lab to the dean of the grad school (it was snowy too!). Seems they had misplaced it, and someone else found it at the last moment. If I had missed the deadline, my graduation would’ve been delayed by a semester.

      Though I had printed it out in the prescribed format, I still got 4 pages of corrections, including one suggestion that I print out my entire thesis in the Courier New Font! Chose to ignore that comment and graduated successfully!

  33. 4th year postdoc says:

    Very informative post.

    Funding climate is tough; tenure expectations are high; low hanging fruits are gone…leaving PIs no option than slave driving!

    Science is getting easier to do, however, to contribute anything meaningful it takes years of toil…that’s why PhD has been a real calling. Just do not sign up for it thinking that you can get TA/RA assistance and 5 years of comfort zone to hide your self from real life problems. If you did, try and maintain the sanity by following some of the suggestions such as social life, hobbies, work-life balance ( do not fool around in the lab for 4 years just texting/browsing) and have passion for what you choose ( be very careful before you choose the field and the PI, and be able to say that you do not have what it takes i.e., dedication and passion). It’s not every body’s cup of tea….not every one needs to have a PhD to find a meaningful job.

    1. CR says:

      First, let’s ease up a bit on the slave driving language – graduate students can leave – big difference.

      Now onto your message, first, the behavior of PI’s is not new. Even back when funding was at a much higher level, there were still PI’s that felt as if they needed to try and control the lives of their students. Funding getting tighter hasn’t made this worse. Second, there is always a second option than treating your students unfairly. What has changed is the willingness to talk about it. Thirdly, your statement is almost saying that students should know what they are getting into and thus just simply deal with it (not every body’s cup of tea…not having enough dedication and passion). One person’s dedication and passion is another person’s laziness.

      1. 4th year postdoc says:

        CR, Agreed on every account. Be able to quit…do not fall prey for the whims of the PI and do not associate too much with the project. “As the 3rd year PhD ” says below just pick the projects that would work. I agree that I did not say as well as ” madeyourbed” says below, however, the essence was same. Be willing to either pick a easier project just get through with smaller number and low keypapers ( do not fall to PI’s words…be your own judge!) or be willing to accept the failures and difficulties as part of the ambitious projects/labs/fields.

        It does not have to cost mental and physical health…after all PhD is for life and life is not PhD!

  34. Mina says:

    I recently read a now several decades old New York Times piece on Jason Altom, a young man who killed himself while working as a graduate student in chemistry at Harvard in the 1990s. A tragedy all around – by all accounts a truly talented, kind young man – but perhaps the most poignant part of the story for me was how surprised his peers, friends and mentor all were. All of them knew he had some struggles in his work, but none of them seemed to have any idea the extent to which he had internalized those struggles. “Any suicide is shocking, but this one was especially so: widely known and well liked, Jason was by all accounts the golden boy of the Corey group, perhaps the finest synthetic organic chemistry laboratory anywhere in the world.” To have your community believe in how talented you are, but to still feel so hard pressed that you can’t see enough talent in yourself is one of the most destructive traps of the grad school season, I think.

  35. 3rd year PhD says:

    I’m currently a 3rd year PhD in a top 10 chem program. Things are looking good now, but about half a year ago they were not: I was naieve and haughty and picked a very hard project when I entered my PhD. My boss was absolutely useless: I was the only one coming up with ideas and ended up really banging my head on the wall and I was very hard on myself. My boss failed to give any constructive advice or contribute any ideas. He would pressure me, compare me to other people, or offer vague proverbs. When I needed a mentor most he was not there. I made it to my qualifying exam, passed (my committee was reasonable) and then quit the project, found another one which is working well now. AND NOW HE IS NICE TO ME. Lesson learned…

    1. NMH says:

      Most advisors range from a little helpful to absolutely useless (my post-doc advisor in my case). As my graduate advisor said: “the most you can hope for is that your advisor does not interfere with things are working.” I really dont understand how they, for the most part, become dysfunctional.

      1. Dr. Useless says:

        Mentors receive almost no training. The best we can do is tell you what worked for us, or others that we know. Usually the truth is we kept trying stuff until it worked. For better or worse, long hours of study and work, combined with a little good intuition will eventually lead to success. We can tell you what is unlikely to work, but the only way to know if something will work is to already have done it–in which case you wouldn’t want to do it anyway.

        1. 3rd year says:

          Problem is either my boss clearly had no intuition as to what would not work (looking back now it was obvious it wouldn’t) or knew and encouraged me to work on the problem anyways…

    2. fajensen says:

      I was the only one coming up with ideas and ended up really banging my head on the wall and I was very hard on myself.

      My psychiatrist* explained that it is very important for ones health that one treats oneself as an old friend.

      We would never bang a friends head into the wall or berate them viciously over their many human and normal failings, so, we should not treat ourselves like that. Probably, we would joke over whatever went wrong over a beer or two instead.

      It takes a while to learn the techniques but it really works (also, it has been my experience, one performs better with a more relaxed, forgiving and therefore fluid mental stance and everyone around are happier too. Which is positive reinforcement).

      I think young people maybe listens too much to old geezers and gets the wrong messages on how hard something should be, so they make it harder to not have an image of themselves as lazy slackers – especially those who are really smart so all those hard things actually feel and are quite easy for them.

      I often read that “one should be prepared to work minimum 18 hours a day and eat only cup noodles for 5 years to start a business” while all the successful business people I know did it in 2-3 years using normal hours and low leverage. Quite a few of them “cheated” by quitting a failing venture after only 1 year and got it right on the 5’th or 6’th attempt.

      *) as part of my cognitive therapy over a case of depression caused by stress and overwork.

  36. madeyourbed says:

    Depression and anxiety are real issues in science, and we need to do what we can to address it. But I am struck by the fact that everyone here acts as if this is unique to science (or chemistry). Do you think that students in any competitive, creative endeavor would have a different experience?? At least from their point of view? The highs and lows of science (and grad school that gets you there) is inherent to working in the unknown. Eureka moments require years (maybe decades) of mundane, sometimes crushing, disappointment. Do you think things would be different if you talked to students in training for art, or music, or culinary arts? When you truly seek the unknown, failure is commonplace, and if you are invested in your work (which you better be), then this will not be a fun experience much of the time.

    1. Kazoochemist says:

      I fail to see where all of the responses to this post are acting as if this is unique to science and chemistry in particular. Most do refer to experiences involving chemistry, but this is a CHEMISTRY blog after all. I wouldn’t anticipate many anecdotes about other fields in the responses. You seem to be belittling the posters as being unenlightened or uncaring about those in other fields of study. I don’t get that message from their posts.

  37. Ajscov says:

    Around the middle of my second year it was obvious that my PhD was dying on the vine so I just redefined my definition of success. I doubled down on going to the gym and formed a clique. I derived my self worth by renting the most expensive place I couldn’t afford and threw epic parties. After all, I definitely would have got a job if I wanted to.

  38. HFM says:

    Yep. Grad school nearly broke me. I’m happily working in my field now, but I had to take a year’s detour after graduating – it took me that long to be able to look at my thesis data without crying, which is unfortunately a required step for giving a passable job talk about one’s thesis.

    Part of it is that not everyone has the temperament for blue-sky research – I don’t. Tell me I’ve got two weeks to optimize the XYZ process, and what I’m optimizing FOR, then I’m awesome. Tell me I’ve got five years to impress you, and give feedback along the lines of “eh, not impressed yet”, then I turn into a sad puddle of analysis paralysis. So I genuinely can’t be a professor. Better that I figured that out during grad school, which is at least in theory about training professors.

    But another part is that you’ve got one project and one PI. No room for error. You make it work, or you’re permanently branded a failure, unsuited for more than menial tasks. You probably don’t have much experience outside your field, which you’ve been training in for years…or much experience with failure. It’s rough.

    Also, the PI has likely become professionally identified with their pet hypothesis / protein / technique / etc, which MUST produce results, or the PI will be tainted by the same stench of failure. They’re not going to be happy about your desire to stop beating your head against their favorite wall. (Technically, my PhD program required a publication to graduate. I had enough data for multiple papers; Paper #1 went to 60+ drafts before my committee stepped in. My data couldn’t be reconciled with “basic literature results” from the PI’s own thesis…)

    In the real world, the incentives strongly favor killing off the weaker projects. I design stuff for customers. My boss gets judged based on how happy these customers are, and whether they return for more stuff. There’s nowhere to hide. If I tell my boss that something isn’t going to work, or is already about as good as it can get, he listens – or at least explains why he thinks it’s worth my time to have another look. Because we’re not here to carve out our place in science history, or to prove anything to anyone. We’re here to convert technical know-how into dollars as efficiently as possible. Thank goodness.

    1. recent_grad says:

      “Also, the PI has likely become professionally identified with their pet hypothesis / protein / technique / etc, which MUST produce results, or the PI will be tainted by the same stench of failure. ”

      I trusted my gut and ran, not walked, after I rotated with one of these profs. Probably the best choice I made in grad school. Those labs are truly trainwrecks.

  39. luysii says:

    Sad to read all this stuff. I guess the good old days (1960 – 1965) really were good. Chemistry grad students back then got a tremendous boost from Russia which launched sputnik in 1958 slapping America’s supposed technological superiority upside the head. The result was a tremendous expansion of academic science. So anyone who wanted to become a professor could do so if their thesis work was reasonable. There was little or no angst among our group about the future. At one point I asked another grad student (who subsequently authored a textbook with his wife selling 250K + copies) if they were really paying us to have all this fun. He said they were.

    About 10 years ago I audited a graduate math course at the local university. The grad students were a very unhappy lot.

    As someone we know would tweet — sad ! !

  40. TA says:

    It’s one thing to ask people to recognize the two extremes, but don’t we as chemists have a duty to provide some policing? Your comment about ‘fire in your belly’ types immediately made me think of Phil Baran, and I’m sure I’m not the only one: he’s an incredible chemist, certainly, but every time I hear him divide the world of research into those who live and breathe chemistry and those wastes of space who just need to get out the way it really makes me wonder if he should be in charge of vulnerable young people. This isn’t necessarily to pick on Baran in particular: there are definitely other similar researchers (especially in synthesis, especially in the US).

    Prospective students looking to apply to groups like this will often receive a few quiet words of warning or advice, but that’s hardly a consistent method of self-regulation. Is something more needed? If so, what could it look like?

  41. awkward_pickle says:

    I thankfully (?) hit my chemistry-induced depression and anxiety in undergrad. Dropped out, took a year off, and am finishing up my chemistry degree now. Fortunately I have a career path lined up outside of chemistry when I graduate.

    Mad respect for those who stick it out and get PhDs. You’ve just got to know what you’re signing up for, and I knew I didn’t want any of it (but it took me a while to come to terms that chemistry wasn’t for me)

  42. Fluorine Chemist says:

    Thanks for the wonderful post, Derek. Let me add my experience here. I guess I got a bit lucky, but here goes: I did my PhD in a Big 10 University in the mid 1990s. My PI was an absolute gem (he’s no more now, sadly), who was among the best ogranofluorine chemists out there. I went through a lot of frustration when my reactions didn’t work, but my PI was never critical. He knew I was working hard and in fact, encouraged me further. He had a great sense of humor, which really helped. When things were going wrong, we used to change the topic and talk a lot about football!! An interesting aspect of his mentorship was that he never used to give solutions… with a few subtle hints, he put me in the right track. In addition, during my second year I got married and in my final year, my daughter was born, so I had a bright experience.

    However, I cannot say the same thing of my labmates… a couple of them were absolute a*******. They were supposed to train me, but they actually screwed up my distillations – worst moment was when a 2 L pot of distilled dry DMF broke after I listened to their suggestions! They actually took great pleasure in misguiding my on my 19F NMRs! I didn’t complain to my PI, but this made me learn the stuff on my own and now I feel that was the right decision.

    Yea, thesis writing was a bit of a pain. My thesis was about 350 pages, and my PI was not very fond of computers. So, it was 6 iterations of hard copy! The grad school people were even worse. If the formatting was off by even 1 %, I had to reformat and reprint. Worse, they actually misplaced my final copy!

    All in all, I guess I was one of the lucky ones who had a positive graduate school experience. I also had two very good post doctoral experiences, where the PIs were really good.

  43. Isidore says:

    It occurs to me, after reading the various responses, that anxiety and depression may often be a manifestation of wrong choices. How many of those pursuing a graduate degree in Chemistry (or in any other area, since the study was quite general) are doing so because they love the discipline and want to do research in the field or because employment prospects with just a bachelor’s degree are pretty dismal, worse in some fields than others but dismal overall. Friends have a daughter who graduated from a prestigious private undergraduate college with a degree in Sociology. She is currently in graduate school, not necessarily because she is in love with the subject but because employment in the fast food industry or similar was the only choice with her degree. Needless to say, she is quite stressed out.

    1. Isidore says:

      So the lack of “fire in the belly” comments may have some validity in as much as they reflect the reality that many of those who pursue graduate studies are doing so not because they really want to do push the frontiers of their discipline but because being a graduate student for the next 3-6 years (and maybe an additional 2-4 as a post-doc) is the least unpalatable of their options after graduating from college.

      1. Anonymous coward says:

        I was depressed early on in grad school. I think my depression was not because I didn’t want to be a chemist (or wasn’t driven to be one), but because 1) I didn’t understand what the graduate school experience was or what it meant (how do you get into a group? what do you do? what do you need to do to graduate?) and 2) the process was rather ill-defined.

        I didn’t do enough (almost no) real research before I went to grad school, so I didn’t know what it was really like and if I could do it; one of my early lab TAs was not enthralled with my lab abilities (with reason). I liked and like knowing how chemistry worked but didn’t understand where all that knowledge came from or where I got. To complicate matters, there were a lot of people who wanted to do what I wanted to do my year, and people were not sure they wanted to take on someone with unknown skills (and temperament). The process of getting a research advisor didn’t have many signposts, and I missed the ones there were. In the end, I got an advisor in a close field and worked in his group. He was nice to me, but I wasn’t successful and left; I found a job not in the lab that fits my abilities and can do well.

        My opinion is that it would help to have a better understanding of what grad school is and what it is there to do before you go – the idea of treating it sort of like a job with defined goals and mindset, while hard to square with research with unknown ends, seems better than what I did. The system where I went, I think, was designed to optimize for the best people, so that they could excel, but it didn’t work as well in abnormal circumstances; having a known process for getting into a research group, and understanding what everyone wants from it, would have helped me. It also would help to have something outside of your lab, or lab at all – the isolation once first year was over and everyone was in their own lab communities was unpleasant, and if your lab environment is unsupportive, the isolation is likely to be rather harmful. I got help, and my group was good to me, but those things are not always going to be true.

    2. Some idiot says:

      “A manifestation of wrong choices”: in some cases, undoubtedly. However, in many other cases (as Derek mentioned) it may be a reflection of the fact that for the first time people are on the bench, pushing boundaries that no one has tried before, and finding out that a small amount of time, it opens, and the rest of the time it hits you back in the face. And the not unnatural self-questioning about whether or not this is something you want to do for the rest of your life (or the next 3 years minimum). My theoretical chem prof (really good guy…!) described quite vividly some experiments he was doing that went gloriously pear-shaped, and he realised at that moment that he was not cut up to be an experimental chemist.

      1. Will there be Cake says:

        I agree Some idiot
        “a manifestation of wrong choices” indeed. I’ve see it happen but its rare. Cases similar to what went on with Anonymous coward (I’m glad you got a happy outcome eventually). But I’ve never seen one of those last more than 1.5 years. Any decent grad school has a number of hurdles you must overcome to stay in the program and eventually graduate. They are stressful. They can only be dodged for so long.
        More than that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a situation where graduate school actually is the “least unpalatable” option. Not once you’ve had a taste. Minimum wage jobs pay more per hour, and come with far less stress.
        There are many causes of stress in grad school, I think the one Isidore points out is fairly minor considering the people experiencing it tend not to stick around. Whereas imposter syndrom is likely a far bigger source of stress.

        1. fajensen says:

          Any decent grad school has a number of hurdles you must overcome

          Well, “They” New Public Management-ed education also so now the universities gets paid “per graduate produced”, which means that they will do what the incentives says and keep unqualified and unmotivated people on board for as long as they can. The NPM-tribalists also restricted access to universities so one basically gets one shot at it – so it sucks picking the wrong thing.

          In my day, where “quality, ambition and tenacity”was the only important thing, the basic idea was to fail as many as possible early on so the resources could go to the later years where they were not “wasted on dum-dums and slackers in jeans” (as my electrodynamics teacher would gently explain to the 1-st year crowds). We lost 60% on my university in year 1-2. In some ways I think it was better to get it over with fast and make a different career choice while one has time (but – maybe this is Old Me thinking, Young Me would have felt a failure, idiot and useless had I flunked out)

          Minimum wage jobs pay more per hour, and come with far less stress.

          Nope. Not at all true. Having worked both minimum and very large wage jobs, I can tell that the larger, the more obscene the pay-check, the more authority over the circumstances one has and the less stress one will of course have.

          I can go mountain-biking right now, post pictures of my trip on Instagram, break something and come back six weeks later and everyone will think that is OK, him keeping healthy and stuff to work better. Try that in a minimum wage job and see what happens.

          In the same way, it is way, way easier to manage a project with a budget of 20 M EUR than it is to manage one of 10 kEUR! With the 20 M, one gets support people and attention, lots of little mistakes goes into “rounding errors”; at the 10 k level, the entire project *is* a rounding error, nobody gives a shit (except they *will* check all your expenses with extreme care since they are comparable to a household budget, thus comprehensible to any idiot), and you are entirely on your own since there is no budget for support!

          Apart from anecdotes: In Denmark, people working low-wage jobs statistically will die 10 years earlier than people in well paid job (stats cleansed for drinking, smoking and whatnot). That outcome is with a pretty competent and fairly comprehensive health service. Imagine the outcomes when it is ruinously expensive!

          Money really, really matters. Unless one wants to work minimum-wage for oneself, brewing cider, building guitars and whatnot. Those people are mostly happy too. A lot of engineers go into cider, beer-making, healthy jams and so on rather than working for less money that they “need” to control outcomes.

    3. awkward_pickle says:

      I think this is a large part of it actually. To do well in grad school. you need a genuine passion for the science. A lot of people I’ve seen just end up there, as you said, because bachelor’s job prospects are dismal. Some people drop out because of it, others power through. They will not have an easy go of it though, and the mental trauma discussed here will probably befall them at some point. It’s too bad.

  44. Calvin says:

    Wow. This is really brought back some memories of my own time doing my PhD back in the late 90s. All I can really remember (and I’ll get to why) was that the group I worked in ran the “work hard, play hard” approach. But with an amazingly aggressive confrontational atmosphere. Fights, shouting matches were all pretty common. It really was sink or swim. Strangely, perhaps, there was no outright sabotage of experiments or anything. It was just a really aggressive place that always ended in the pub where things generally calmed down. The weird thing for me, is that I remember many times being extremely low and questioning my own abilities (the macho culture of “I’m smarter than you” was designed to squash those of lesser abilities or those less confident) but in general I can’t really remember huge chunks of my PhD (I was not a big drinker). I have a vague recollection of stuff that happened, but there are definitely huge chunks where I don’t remember anything, almost as if I was a different person. My PhD was a real struggle which I sorta pulled out of the fire towards the end but it’s as if I’ve deleted entire sections of what happened in the lab. What saved me, was a set of friends outside the lab who is did sport with and they have all remained lifelong friends. I can remember all of that; I’ve just deleted what happened in the lab. I barely keep in touch with any of my labmates. I met one (who I’d often clash with) some years later and he didn’t recognize me or really remember much at all. So perhaps we all went through some kind of amnesia. Or maybe we all just grew up.
    My post-doc experience was totally different and was much more positive and then the move into industry was, in many ways, my savior. I always had good bosses, who actually cared about people and while there were ups and downs (like being made redundant or changing career) I have generally found industry to be a much better environment. I appreciate that isn’t the same for everybody, but in general, academia is the worst environment for pushing young people into depression; a non-supportive environment together with people who are still young, learning their trade and learning about themselves. I don’t miss that period at all, made slightly better by the fact that it is largely a bit of a haze

  45. A Nonny Mouse says:

    Wow, sounds like our group but 10 years before!

    Lots of alcohol (including in lab), lots of fights (including knocking down a cylinder and shearing the head- fortunately empty!) and lots of alcohol. Verbally abusing people in the group and those from the “new” building as an inferior species (ask Nick K who posts here as he got a lot of stick from his year group when he came to drink with us- to be true, they were boring in the other building, so I could see the attraction. To be honest, the PhD supervisor was as bad as anyone in that respect).

  46. drsnowboard says:

    I am remote from academia now , being an old git in industry and no longer lab-based but I empathise with a lot of the comments. My PhD was relatively uneventful because I had an understanding supervisor (UK) and despite my father dying suddenly in the first year, I had enough support and enough results to complete unscathed. I have seen people work under stress though and obviously it’s not unique to the PhD environment except it’s a change in the way of working for people at a relatively young age , where their only management is one person. Even in a small company I’ve seen people get isolated, frustrated and start to behave oddly. Fortunately in that environment , there’s normally more than one person who notices and more than one person who can offer help.

    1. Design Monkey says:

      Eh, somewhat different style and culture of PhD making in Europe. Which produces lower count of dead bodies by suicides, but on the other hand I’ve witnessed a few pretty patalogical “PhDs” “defended”, like, when there are undergrad level errors in it, and neither grad guy, nor his supervisor both did not even understood, that they are writing nonsense.

      1. Derek Lowe says:

        Happens sometimes over here, too. I’ve told my children that anyone who thinks someone is intelligent or competent just because there’s a “PhD” after their name, really needs to get out and meet some more PhDs.

        1. MoMo says:

          Derek- my kid has hung around PhDs all his life and met bench chemists to Nobel Prize winners-

          Calls them PH- Duhs!

  47. MoMo says:

    You all are experiencing Social Defeat Stress- which in psychiatry terms is known as environmentally induced Depression.
    Its been shown in rats that placing a submissive rat in a cage with hormonally charged agressive rats can cause changes in brain chemistry and function, mimicking PTSD and even brain trauma. In short, bullies and adversaries in educational situations are the root cause of most SDS-based depressions, forming bad synapse connections and affecting overall health.

    Just remember you don’t have to be there. No one is twisting your arms to become a scientist, so stop crying/complaining. And go tell Aggressive Rats to screw off, and move on with your lives. All of life is stressful, pick a vocation- Any vocation….

    1. Let's not blame the victim, okay? says:

      “Just remember you don’t have to be there. No one is twisting your arms to become a scientist, so stop crying/complaining.”

      This sounds a lot like pre-#metoo Hollywood: no one is twisting your arms to become an actress, so stop crying/complaining…

      1. MoMo says:

        It also applies to young American males who go on shooting sprees.

  48. Sorrytobreakittoyou says:

    Stop blaming the PIs. Like we have it better. Last I checked we don’t get paid if your science doesn’t work. Why don’t you try that: someone else’s expt doesn’t work and you can’t make rent. It’s the whole system and it ain’t changing. NIH wants loads data and investors want “sure” hits. It’s everyone

    1. sorrytobreakittoYOU says:

      If you think that this justifies abusing your students then you deserve to not get tenure.

      1. Sorryforreality says:

        Where does it say I don’t have tenure and where does it say I abuse students? Or even if my students enjoy Their PhD or not. The lower job opportunities for recent grads and publish or perish is the issue. Also the young profs (the sociopathic PI and good ones according to you) don’t last anymore and leave to never be heard from despite whatever 1 success story CandE news shows you. It’s a pressure cooker like it or not. My sense it that it’s a distribution of grads and PIs with their feelings but it’s driven toward depression/anxiety more by the way the system setup. Currently not a lot can be done about that. Gov won’t increase funding rate, investors won’t care. Bottom line:it’s not a bunch of PI having a easy go of it being bored and ruining lives for entertainment.

    2. Moloch says:

      I’ll quote the comment right above “Just remember you don’t have to be there. No one is twisting your arms to become a scientist, so stop crying/complaining”

    3. NMH says:

      LOL! At the school where I am a research associate tenured faculty are paid 100% full, 6-figure salaries even if they no longer bring in grants and their lab is closed. The faculty have a great job. I wish I could sit on butt and read papers all day if I didn’t get positive results–instead, I become unemployed, and go on Obama-care ($10000 a year for a high deductable).

      My general observation about teaching / research institutions—the richer the institution, the better the job at the high end.

      I would love nothing better to see these faculty members stripped of tenure and forced to make ends meet adjuncting 5 classes at $30 K a year. That is what I’m looking at once I lose my job.

  49. Don says:

    I must be an outlier- Organic PhD at a top 15ish program in the late 90s and I had a blast. Worked 6 days per week, but the boss wasn’t a bad guy and he treated us like real people. Made friends from all over campus, went to all the major sports events, played IM sports, etc… And there’s no doubt the lesson is find balance, a support system, and a life you also enjoy outside the lab.

  50. Adamantane says:

    I think part of the stress doing experimental research (e.g. organic chemistry) in graduate school stems from the fact that you’re training to be a scientist while simultaneously working at the frontier of your field. If the reaction fails, is it because you messed up somewhere or does it genuinely not work? There’s no way to know for sure, and because you’re still a student, it’s easy for both you and your PI to blame you.

    I had a particularly tough time in graduate school partly because I had minimal research experience in undergrad. I also did it for pretty much the same reason that others have pointed out here – the lousy career options available after a bachelor’s in chemistry. My lab was also dominated by international students, and for several years after joining, I was the youngest member because all the incoming students had master’s degrees. For that reason, I didn’t really have any labmates I was close with, and after finishing my PhD and leaving, I’m barely in touch with any of them.

    I faced severe depression during my PhD as well, and fortunately my PI was patient with me and gave me space to figure things out on my own. I think going through this experience has made me a better person emotionally since I know where rock bottom is, and intellectually I now know what my limits are and what I am and am not good at.

    1. tlp says:

      I like that explanation from the first paragraph! I’d add on top of that the high-achiever-in-the-classroom mentality meeting problems unsolvable by pure thinking. And the same high-achiever mentality that blocks seeking for help or admitting and accepting mistakes.

  51. Applebee’s says:

    Does science select for personality types prone to depression and anxiety?

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Not a crazy question at all, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Note that the survey I mentioned early in the post is majority humanities.

  52. Peter says:

    Judging from the posts, looks like I was in a different universe. My boss would produce PhDs like an assembly line. As a student you could do no wrong. It was a great place to get an industrial job but terrible if you wanted to go to academia. I felt totally out of place as my idea of Grad school was one of intelectual challenge, inquiry and exchange of ideas. Instead, it felt like vocational school where all we learned was how to run instruments.

  53. Fluorine chemist says:

    Just continuing with what I said earlier – my PI never ever came into the lab. He also didn’t care about our working hours – we had to show our work during group meeting time every week. If a reaction didn’t work, instead of blaming us, he would ask us to figure out why it didn’t work and what can be done to make it go. But we had to put in our efforts, no matter what. My PI was also generous in giving me permission to go home (I am from India). We had to come up with articles for EROS, which I wrote and he approved. He got paid for that, and he passed the entire amount to me!

    So, I guess I am an outlier here, as my PhD was not all that stressful, and I had a wonderful PI!

  54. A Chemist says:

    A Woodward story. A student submitted his “final” thesis to the Registrar who rejected it because it was on the wrong kind of paper. (Harvard had a weird requirement for something other than standard 25% rag thesis paper at that time.) The registrar said it had to be retyped. RBW, Donner Prof of Science, intervened and “ordered” the Registrar to accept the thesis. Done. … But the graduating student didn’t mention that detail to the next PhD writing up when he gave him his leftover thesis paper as “a gift.” The Registrar was less agreeable to make an exception the second time.

    As an undergrad, the two nicest, most helpful chem TAs that I had left the program early, without getting their PhDs. The two meanest, most horrible chem TAs that I had went on to academic positions. (One got tenure. One left for industry.) As a grad student, I understood what happened. If you are too nice and waste time on undergrads, you are weak and unworthy of a PhD.

    In my undergrad research, I participated in projects where strange results and unexpected outcomes were investigated (to varying extents) and no one was blamed when it was learned what went wrong. (One of the unexpected results was a very important discovery and a highly cited paper for the Prof and grad student (I’m not on the paper).) In grad school, I started out by proving myself on some short projects and then the real research kicked in. I spent several months trying to reproduce a previously published result (same PI) without success and getting beaten up for it. It turns out the reaction had only ever worked once (on a model compound) out of many, many attempts. Further in, I encountered another paper that could not be reproduced and actually obtained a different product mixture than what was published (same PI). Then came paper #3 (same PI) that had a major error and didn’t work; I came up with a very simple fix, based on known chemistry. (That one was surely an erroneous write-up, not a false claim, but it really irritated the PI … and, of course, it was my fault.) Then came published paper #4 (same PI), an earlier analog of a reaction I was supposed to be doing: the wrong product had been published and that sunk my project and it was all my fault, of course. Paper #4 was eventually repeated identically by another group (a few years later) who reported the CORRECT product. I caught hell for all of bad stuff even though my results were later confirmed by others (either in the group or by publications of very similar “anomalies” from other groups). (I don’t think that the errors in papers 1-4 were ever corrected or acknowledged in print.)

    The students who produced the sloppy, unreliable, sometimes perfidious results got their PhDs and went to successful careers in academia and industry. I was, almost literally, beaten up every day, accused of getting the wrong results on purpose(!), etc.. It was a very difficult time. And there was NO ONE to talk to or to go to for help.

    1. whistleblower says:

      Well, kudos to you for integrity and stamina! I had same kind of experience with loosing trust to colleagues, not being able to reproduce published results, re-analizing samples they shared (concentrations could be off by 1000-fold, contaminated bacteria stocks, sloppy manipulations with raw data, reluctance to share protocols, etc, etc). Much of that was product of THEIR anxiety and depression, but whatever, it’s just unprofessional. And for sure got a lot of blame for being non-productive and even toxic for the lab environment. At least this taught me really good practice of setting extremely mundane control experiments to cover my ass, and propelled me out of the lab.

      1. whistleblower says:

        Also, there was a research integrity/fraud ‘anonymous’ phone number I once was tempted to call. I’m happy I didn’t otherwise it’d end much worse for me. For sure all these were honest mistakes, my ass.

  55. Medchemist says:

    Derek- thank you for posting this topic and your story. It has been a few years since I left graduate school, and although I recognized at the time I was developing a fairly severe anxiety problem (probably with a a hint of depression), I did not recognize the full extent of it until I left. I found myself worried about experiments all the time- not infrequently getting up at 2am to go to the lab and take a TLC just so I could sleep the rest of the night knowing my reactions were ok.

    I currently work in a major pharma company, and it took a lot of work for me to shed the graduate school mentality and to gain self confidence in my work. My wife convinced me to see a therapist to deal with it, and ultimately a combination of therapy and SSRIs brought me back to something more like my old self. I sometimes wish that I sought counseling during graduate school— but honestly, I think it was partially the adrenaline from my extreme anxiety that pushed me to get all those experiments done.

    I hope other younger students reading your post recognize this can be a problem for themselves and try to treat themselves better than I did.

  56. Another perspective says:

    Here’s the part that has not been touched on above. All that abuse and stress and anxiety that graduate students experience is often then carried from that graduate school environment right into their work place where they – the now former grad student – subject their non-PhD direct report(s) to the exact same abusive and stressful environment that they experienced in graduate school to make sure those non-PhDs get to feel exactly what they went through. The only problem is that those non-PhD chemists don’t get a magical piece of paper at the end of 4,5,6 years that lets them into the club for the rest of their life. No, they just get treated like dirt for the rest of their career in science. To be sure, not all PhDs engage in this sort of behavior but I can tell you that it’s certainly not a low percentage either. (Maybe, you should do a post on all the non-PhDs in industry and what they went/go through from their supervisors. I’ve never seen that topic on this blog.)

    I got a BS in 1985 and went directly into industry. I worked my way up to the Group Leader level as a non-PhD medicinal chemist in large Pharma which most people would tell you is not an easy thing to do. One thing was for sure, no one thought I did it by kissing up to management. That definitely was not my reputation. In fact, the opposite.

    In reality, working as a non-PhD at the PhD level for so many years was very, very, very depressing. I found myself on SSRIs for 10 years. There were colleagues and even bosses that were very supportive but being the highest level non-PhD in the division was not an enviable position. The higher level PhDs were pissed that I was at their level. The lower level PhDs were pissed that I was at a higher level than they were and the non-PhDs were pissed because I was the Token Non-PhD at that level.

    Through a long series of events and circumstances, I am no longer working as a medicinal chemist. And here is the irony for this post. I currently run a medium sized Mental Health Counseling center with my wife (a therapist who I did not meet through therapy). And all those therapists that some of you have suggested grad students seek help from? I gotta tell you, they are far crazier than all of you (my wife excepted). And if you confront them on it they will admit, “Yeah, we’re all nutters.”

    “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.

    But not everyone agrees:

  57. Zeltm says:

    I ended up quitting ABD after a long bout of grad-school depression left me unable to look at thesis.tex without some degree of panic. Though I was a bit of an unusual case – my lab moved from the US to CH on my 5th year, and so as I was trying to really get things done suddenly my entire social network was gone, I felt like a complete stranger in my new country, and soon jumping in front of the train by my apartment started sounding real appealing.

    With that said, academia is a pretty shitty environment for a lot of people. The flux of people from grad school to postdoc to professoriat doesn’t work out, if you want to look for careers outside of academia things you’ll need take a lot of initiative to prepare yourself, and I’m watching friends of mine hop the country from postdoc to postdoc and be unable to settle down and start a family. How do you tell who the most distinguished organic chemist in a department is? Count how many of their grad students have committed suicide…

    Submitting my paperwork to withdraw from grad school and moving on with my life was one of my happiest moments. Industry has it’s own nonsense but at least I get far more flexibility in where I get to live and I get a real salary.

    1. Adamantane says:

      Were you working for Erik Carreira?

      1. Zeltm says:

        No, thankfully my advisor was pretty understanding when all was said and done. I’m still peeved they moved, and was amused when they moved back to the US because they also found Switzerland a cold, unwelcoming place.

  58. KT says:

    I mastered out of grad school almost 15 years ago, and I still have recurring nightmares (as recently as last week) that my advisor somehow forced me to go back and do more experiments as a condition of keeping my M.S. degree.

    Looking back, I wish I had never gone to grad school. I did learn a lot, but I feel like I missed out on my twenties because I didn’t feel good about myself for several years after leaving, and the level of self-confidence I had as an undergrad didn’t return until my thirties.

  59. Poor little student says:

    I love these articles becuase they are meant to discredit the phenomenon. “Oh, look how depressed you are, poor you”. The subtext is ” grow up “. In fact, Im not depressed becuase of grad school, im depressed becuase my PI just accepted 5 years of employment from me, just to cut off my authorship and then not write a rec letter so i spent 6 mo unemployed. Also, filed a lawsuit against me where he lied so much the police didnt beleive the story. Go figure why grad school doesnt go well with mentors like that.

  60. B. Seriouser says:

    Having read or skimmed this entire page, I’m left with the impression that as a group we scientists have no better grasp of what it means to suffer severe mental illness than the lay public. What I see here are mostly descriptions of transient bouts sadness, frustration, and worry, all of which can reasonably be expected when students are placed under prolonged mild- to moderate stress. One major difference is that for most there is a conceivable end to the suffering, one where a “if I can just get through this phase” mentality often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    I’m more concerned for those who simply don’t see a way through, who cannot get out of bed due to depression, who can’t answer the phone due to anxiety, who starve themselves, overeat, cut and burn themselves, abuse stimulants or spend prolonged periods of time intoxicated or on stimulants simply to cope. These folks are far more likely to commit suicide, and on rare occasions commit acts of workplace violence.

    IMO, the real issue that needs consideration is that the long workdays, social isolation, poor sleep hygiene, poor nutrition, and lack of exercise so typical of grad school and post-doc life drives people with underlying organic brain disease into places where their coping mechanisms fail, revealing propensities towards deep, clinical depression, crippling anxiety, mania, and even psychosis. These are not merely impediments to finishing or finding a job, they are life threatening.

    It is critical to recognize symptoms that warrant medical care or hospitalization, and to guide sufferers to get medical attention. No degree is worth that level of suffering.

  61. rockridge98 says:

    Did a year in the PhD program in pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF in the late 70s.
    Fascinated by the subject, but once I started looking seriously at actual career options I just didn’t think I was cut out for working at an established pharma company, or the years and risk it would take me to make it in academia. I met too many perennial postdocs as an undergrad.

    If it had been even a few years later I might have stuck it out and ended up in biotech,
    but that word had just been invented in 1977 so I cut my losses.

    Got a masters in computer science and had a rewarding and lucrative career.
    I sometimes look back and wonder what if, but on balance I made the right choice.

  62. rockridge98 says:

    Did a year in the PhD program in pharmaceutical chemistry at UCSF in the late 70s.
    Fascinated by the subject, but once I started looking seriously at actual career options I just didn’t think I was cut out for working at an established pharma company, or the years and risk it would take me to make it in academia. I met too many perennial postdocs as an undergrad.
    Also switching from a general university to a med school environment was a huge culture shock.

    If it had been even a few years later I might have stuck it out and ended up in biotech,
    but that word had just been invented in 1977 so I cut my losses.

    Got a masters in computer science and had a rewarding and lucrative career.
    I sometimes look back and wonder what if, but on balance I made the right choice.

  63. Susanna says:

    Hi Dr. Lowe!
    Thank you for publishing this piece! We recently (~10 days ago) started Instagram and Twitter pages with the handle


    to increase visibility about this exact subject! Please check it out and help us fight the stigma of mental health issues in graduate students and completed PhD’s!
    Best, Susanna

  64. Daniel says:

    I had an anxiety episode in the beginning of my last semester of my first master’s degree. It was terrible and debilitating for a few weeks – I wound up having to take off work for three days in order to continue to attend classes and work on my practicum. I would have panic attacks every few minutes for whole days where I would feel bodily anxiety like snakes wriggling inside my arms, chest and back; I couldn’t sit or lay down because it would make it difficult to breathe and then I would get tired and sore from pacing and walking all day such that I *had* to lie down, at which point the discomfort would become almost mentally unbearable. Throughout this I would breathe manually for hours on end because I couldn’t stop thinking in a loop about dying suddenly of imaginary ailments related to my heart and lungs. I was 28 years old and had never had a panic attack or heightened anxiety before in my entire life, so it felt like a bolt from nowhere designed to stop me from achieving my goals. I got back up on the horse and finished my master’s degree that semester anyway, but I wonder if perhaps I might have been better served by taking some time off. I know at the time it helped me to think of anxiety as a wound I was recovering from, and I treated myself gingerly as I re-accustomed myself to my work load and my life in general. Six months to a year later I was fine and in many ways better – my personal habits improved and I stopped procrastinating in order to limit the anxiety I felt about my stressors. Regardless it was an eye opener with regard to how other people live – it never occurred to me that anxiety might be as bad as it is until I experienced it myself.

  65. PharmGirl says:

    I’m just a second year pharmacy student going through a really rough time right now, and I happened upon this article. I have been thinking about hurting myself for the past 2 days but reading this is gonna make me ask for help.

    Thank you so much.

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      I am very glad to hear about that decision!

    2. Scott says:

      I am also very glad to hear that!

      Take care of yourself, then go kick some butt in the next semester!

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