Our hot off the presses magazine article, “This is your mind on grad school,” has clearly struck a nerve. In just five days it has had over 27,500 views and is the most viewed article in the history of the BSR website. We are hoping that the popularity of this article will inspire open discussion about how graduate school affects your own mental health, and different strategies you use to maintain a balanced, happy life. To kick us off, Whitney Ellen Heavner wrote a fantastic post for the Stanford Neuroblog describing her experience and the resources available on the Stanford campus. In addition, I put out a call for personal accounts and received many honest, relatable replies. You can read some of these below. Please keep this conversation going by sharing your own stories in the comments or elsewhere.
Be kind to yourself
One thing Heavner wrote resonated deeply with me, and it was the advice to recognize your personal successes. We are all so quick to focus on our failures and those areas where we need to improve that we forget to pat ourselves on the back for things we do well. It is important to celebrate the small victories, especially when the big ones can take years to achieve.
My own experience as a graduate student was a good one. At my defense I described myself as “the least bitter graduate student I know.” I looked through my old lab notebooks to gather musings for this blog post and found myself feeling proud of the work I did. There were many failures, of course, but they were treated with emotional indifference, then on to problem solving. The failures were not a reflection of my abilities or character, just part of the process. And I love troubleshooting. That is where I get my joy, from overcoming the many technical difficulties you face as a scientist. It is similar to making a puzzle: with each successfully placed piece I feel a burst of happiness.
My postdoc has been much more trying. It turns out I don’t enjoy the daily work of using my current animal model, or closing myself into a dark room to do experiments. If I were generating amazing data perhaps I could overlook these working conditions, but my project has been plagued with both technical difficulties and weak negative results (as opposed to strong ones, where you provide solid evidence that something is not happening). I was determined to study the elusive role of glial cells in the development of neural circuits, but did not get a positive result for a full two years. With so much effort for so little reward, it became hard to be indifferent. It broke me. I stopped trying to troubleshoot. I started to assume that every experiment would fail so that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
So how did I put myself back together again? I have been seeing a therapist. The most relevant and useful advice she has given me is quite similar to what Heavner wrote. She said to be kind to myself. Of course it is one thing to hear that, and quite another to live it. Part of what it means to be kind to yourself is to recognize your successes, and if those are slow-going, then to at least recognize your efforts. Also incredibly important for me is to be part of a community of supportive friends and colleagues. I am grateful to work in a lab with wonderful people, and to work with like-minded folks at the Berkeley Science Review. Lastly, engaging in other things that I am good at has brought me back to life. As Hillenbrand says below, sometimes the answer is not to do less, but to do more.
by Georgeann Sack
Feller Lab, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology
Graduate school has definitely been intense and overwhelming at times. My first semester, I was getting sick constantly, and when I was studying for quals, there were a lot of tears (not my usual MO). It can be hard when your friends don’t really understand the nature of your work or the pressures, or think you don’t have a “real job” (most of my friends are not in academia).
There are A LOT of things I do to try to stay sane – my boyfriend and I have a sit-down dinner pretty much every night, I turn off my computer at 7 PM (I do most of my work in the early morning/daytime), I go to the gym regularly, I DJ at the university radio station, and I do at least one or two social activities each week. I am also trying some different time management strategies to work more efficiently and prioritize what needs to get done, so I can treat graduate school more like a job and not like a soul-sucking 24/7 sponge.
by Mikel Delgado
Jacobs Lab, Department of Psychology
The daily rounds
You put yourself together, you fall apart. You swing from languid boredom to panicked incomprehension, and you procrastinate pathologically. The rhythm of the life you have led for all three years of your PhD. Equations appear in white chalk against black background, and you’re interested to realize your own notes are a photographic negative. You’re sad to realize you’ve been sitting in front of blackboards for literally as long as you can remember. You turn in your code. You pass your tests, your prelims, your quals. You think you’ve escaped your demons. But you look in the rearview mirror to find they’ve been tailing you all along. You’ll never pass enough tests to feel good enough. No piece of paper will ever prove you’re smart enough. You have a desperate desire to go home but suddenly you’re old enough to be unsure of where exactly home is. You fall apart in the morning over cold leftover oatmeal, facing the prospect of another wasted day. You stitch yourself together and feign a smile, you scrabble and falter and fall apart in the evening on a bus rattling nauseatingly over the cracked pavement of Center Street.
You pick up your pieces and walk through downtown, past the BART stop residents asking you to give them a dollar or give their belief system a try, past open-air cafes and theatre marquees; past the S-curve of an old man’s spine moving ever-so-slightly beneath a thin grey wool coat with every puff of his cigarette. You put yourself together and put on falling-apart running shoes. Surely this sunset is the most incredible you’ve ever seen, mist gathering at the foot of Mt. Tamalpais, gradients of gray and feathers of purple, and everything shot through with liquid gold. Nine miles is more miles than you’ve been able to run in awhile. You return in near-darkness, you chop onions and hope for rain. You remember laughter, you fall apart, you gather the shards of an almost-but-not-quite shattered day as you slurp jasmine tea from a thrift-store mug, you sleep and awaken to a mixture of grayness and light, and you do it all again tomorrow.
by Anna Lieb
Department of Applied Mathematics
A mixed bag
My grad school experience was mixed at best. On the one hand, I will forever be grateful for the opportunities grad school presented to learn fascinating material and befriend intelligent people from all over the world. Indeed, they and my other friends in the Bay Area are a big reason I’ve managed to maintain any semblance of sanity these last several years. Thanks to my grad school friends, I have many fond memories of dinner parties and weekend trips to Lake Tahoe. Other factors bolstering my sanity include my exploits in cycling and music. The Bay Area’s climate allows me to ride nearly year-round, while its topography makes my rides more challenging and interesting. In turn, thanks to the academic world’s flexible hours, I was able to play my violin in the University Symphony Orchestra (the best orchestra in which I’ve played, incidentally) and coach violin sectionals and chamber groups at my old high school, Berkeley High.
On the other hand, I went from an adviser who constantly breathed down my neck (yet hated it when I would approach him for guidance) to an adviser who was so over-committed I all but had to battle dragons to get his attention. Though I liked the other senior scientists in my group as people, I never felt comfortable approaching them for either technical or personal guidance. Long story short, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to at my lab, my campus boss left for another university, and my department on campus increasingly marginalized my research area.
From about six months after I passed my qual, I wanted desperately to escape with my PhD. Until I finally did manage to graduate, I felt trapped and isolated, despite having many good friends both in and out of my program. Seeing them graduate, get married, start families, etc. made me feel that time and life were passing me by. Worse, every research obstacle I encountered made me doubt my intelligence, capabilities, and life choices. I entered the academic realm bursting with ideas for what to do with my life. Within a few years, I was convinced I had ruled out everything I thought I would enjoy, either because I had actually tried it and didn’t like it, or for fear of the time and effort it would take to switch to the field in question.
These senses of professional and personal inadequacy brought up deep feelings of resentment, bitterness, and jealousy. Those feelings ended up affecting my personal life. Near the end of my grad school stint, I was in a romantic relationship that, for the first time in years, made me feel like a worthy human being. Unfortunately, my girlfriend saw enough of my residual anger about my life history hidden beneath my happiness that she eventually broke up with me. We had talked for months about getting married. I had asked her mother for her blessing. I was just about to start looking for an engagement ring. The breakup represented the shattering of the main source of happiness in my life. For months thereafter, I was suicidally depressed. Fortunately, I managed to find a counselor who runs a group for men working on anger management. It took a while, but they gained my trust, I no longer want to kill myself, and I’ve gotten at least a little better at controlling my outbursts.
Despite everything, I did manage to earn my PhD. I was euphoric for several months afterward. Now, though, my old feelings of bitterness and jealousy have returned, along with the frustrating sensation of not knowing what to do professionally.
To summarize my entire grad school experience, I entered my program because I thought it would help me learn what I needed to help save the world. Instead, I’m more lost and insecure than ever.
by Sven Chilton
Feeling good and doing more
Can I recommend David Burns’s ‘Feeling Good’? A nurse friend recommended it. It’s cheesy, simplistic, and self-helpy (and from the 80s) but speaks directly to the kind of self-critical thoughts grad students have. I think it’s important for grad students to seize control of their negative thoughts before they are consumed by them, even if that means picking up a self-help book and doing all the little on-paper positive thinking exercises.
Another thing that has helped me is realizing that the answer to grad school stress is not doing less, but more! Finding things (like writing) I enjoy has helped, and the motivation has trickled in to my research, if only so because I am eager to graduate someday. It’s been nice to have my cohort to talk to about these things, as it helps me feel less alone and is inspiring to see them blossom into new interests, too.
Also, taking time to get outside is super clutch. The fire trails by campus (behind I-House–I printed many google maps to find my way) are great for people who don’t have cars, and I’ve gone up there to meditate, do my little positivity exercises, etc. a few times since we went with A.S. I love it so much that I’m even hesitant to share it with others 🙂 Now that the sun sets later, if I leave I-House around 5:30, I’m back there around 7:30 feeling like I’ve been away for much longer, and feeling much better.
by Sarah Hillenbrand
Ivry Lab, Department of Neuroscience
Failing my qualifying exam last year was the worst thing that happened to me during my first three years in graduate school. Little did I know then, it was also the best thing. It was like the wildfire that allows a dormant seed to germinate.
What happened to me? I was watching this person struggling to answer questions, but it wasn’t me. I was totally disassociated, just watching indifferently. But this person was me. When they told this person that she didn’t pass, I think she thanked them. What happened? I couldn’t figure it out. I thought I understood what it was to feel “anxiety”, but in this situation it did not occur to me that this is what I was experiencing. How could I know? I figured that it might have something to do with confidence, but how do I improve “confidence”?
Subsequent to this experience, to work on “confidence,” I began a singing class and continued attending a contemporary improvisation dance class. In both of these classes, my instructors told me, “You’re hesitating!”. Hearing this, in both cases, brought me back to those moments during the exam, when I also hesitated, and that feeling of being filled with an internal, eternal black hole of uncertainty. It was something for me that felt perfectly natural, but something I felt like I needed to change.
How can I change something I do that feels so innate? Should I even? Similar questions arise whenever the topic of “mental health” comes up for me. There is a tricky boundary between individuals being molded to conform to a certain behavior that facilitates positive growth and society pressuring individuals unrealistically to conform to a normative set of expectations.
All I can say is without scheduling an appointment at CPS, without going to the support groups that I found useful, without my closest friends and considerate staff and faculty, I would still be under that dark canopy. It was an amazing first step for me to become aware of which physiological changes I could associate with emotional states, and it is something empowering I will take with me beyond the rest of my time at graduate school.
by Kristina Kangas
Bentley Lab, Department of Integrative Biology
IB Graduate Assembly Delegate
Cloud of guilt
When I think about my years as a graduate student at Berkeley, I think of days filled with a vague, ever-present cloud of guilt and anxiety. Small victories were very hard to come by. There were hard, poorly articulated tasks to accomplish every day – seemingly mountainous chores for which I felt inadequately prepared – and the support to help you accomplish them was equally poorly articulated. Sometimes the support was there, in theory, but it was not advertised openly or loudly. Instead, there was an unspoken sense that Berkeley grad students ought to be able to do it alone, that one should smother any human need for support, lest one be seen as weak or ineffective. To talk openly with one’s advisor about the realities of the graduate student psyche and experience – the reality of feeling unprepared, of feeling like an imposter, of feeling like one could make progress if only given some support and guidance but that without that support one might flounder around forever – was virtually unimaginable in a world of results and deadlines and prodigies. More days in lab were spent surrounded by brilliant people striving for something great than by supportive people looking to facilitate each other’s growth.
My advisor did not see herself as a mentor in any but the most shallow sense. She did not have the awareness or the capacity or the desire to mentor me in the ways that a grad student ought to be mentored, in ways that acknowledge the fact that grad students are human beings and that human beings require nurturing and support. She did not help me to find my place in the scientific community. She did not train me in any but the most shallow way in which “training” could be interpreted. She expected productivity without putting in the effort that would have been required to support a novice possessing talent but neither confidence nor expertise. I was not an individual with unique strengths and weaknesses and a rich emotional ecology that affected my work… I was, quite simply, someone who would either contribute to the research agenda or not.
My advisor’s office was not a safe place. It was more often a place of judgment than a place of encouragement, more often a place of spoken or unspoken criticism rather than a place of support.
There are always ways to blame oneself as a grad student – after all, we’re Berkeley grad students and we’re supposed to be able to go it alone – but at some point one must give oneself a break and accept that smart, talented grad students require support and guidance like anyone else does. Guilt and feelings of inadequacy are not hard to come by in grad school, but the reality is that it is not reasonable to expect someone to know how to do something before he or she is taught how to do it; yet that was often what it felt like. Grad students are STUDENTS for a reason, and ought to be treated as such. Instead, I was often evaluated in the most narrow and arcane ways, not by what I learned or how I grew as a person, but rather by the speed and ease with which I moved through the graduate school stages (or did not). That is a flawed model of apprenticeship, and it filters out many talented people who could become fantastic scientists.
Put simply, Berkeley graduate school often lacked a sense of humanity. It was robotic and top-down instead of collaborative. Objectivity was a virtue, and genuine emotion was weakness.
-This author prefers to remain anonymous. An excerpt from his story appeared in the article “This is your mind on grad school.”
Par for the course
I often imagine my dissertation to be primarily made up of large figures, triple-spaced font, and empty space. My PhD, and I’m sure many others’ as well, has been plagued by technical difficulties. My project is technically-challenging by nature, so this is par for the course, but the techniques I use are unique from what the rest of my lab does. I constantly envy students in labs where everyone uses the same exact technique, so that when things don’t work many people are able to help them find a solution.
When problems delay my progress and I feel down, I sometimes fall into an endless Netflix and internet cats slump. But then I try to remind myself what people in the lab keep reassuring me: “As soon as everything works you’ll be able to gather all your data in just a few months!” And I try to view grad school like a day job instead of something that my well-being is inextricably linked to. Maybe this isn’t the healthiest approach, but (for good or for bad) it’s kept me from quitting.
Getting a few beers and ranting about how much science “sucks right now” with other lab members doesn’t hurt either :).
by Alexis Fedorchack
Kramer Lab, Department of Bioengineering