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093: The Grad School Mental Health Crisis, and What You Can Do About It

Susanna was experiencing insomnia that began to interfere with her work and life.  She visited the campus health clinic, and they referred her to mental health resources on campus.

There, the doctor recommended medication for depression and anxiety, and therapy to work through the issues that were interfering with her sleep.

“We’re actually really worried that you’re severely depressed,” the doctor explained.   Susanna’s reply: “No, I’m just in grad school!”

There’s no question that graduate training is stressful.  Rotations, qualifying exams, committee meetings, and the constant struggle to make experiments work can push every student toward the boiling point.

But lurking under Susanna’s protest is a dangerous assumption many of us share.  We believe that anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and other symptoms of mental illness are a required and normal side effect of graduate training.

And we’re not wrong.  A recent study published in Nature Biotechnology (summary here) found roughly 40% of graduate trainees measured in the ‘moderate to severe’ range for depression and anxiety.  The authors  surveyed over 2,200 trainees in 26 countries, in fields ranging from the humanities to the biological and physical sciences.

Rates of anxiety and depression in graduate trainees.
Evans et al. Nature Biotechnology 36, 282–284 (2018)

In contrast, moderate-to-severe depression affects just 6% of the general population when measured with the same inventory.

“Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the study says.

These alarming numbers reveal a latent mental health crisis brewing in our classrooms, labs and libraries. But what can we do about it?

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Mónica Feliú-Mójer

092: Making Time for Science Communication with Mónica Feliú-Mójer

“Things are not progressing as they should. You’re having a hard time focusing on the research, and we know that you don’t want to be in academia anyway.  Do you want to quit?”

The question landed like a punch, and Mónica’s committee meeting took a turn she hadn’t expected. She was in the fourth year of her PhD training at Harvard, and her committee had just asked her if she wanted to leave the program.

“That was incredibly devastating to have these four people that you respect, and that their main role is supposed to be supporting you and helping you, and to have them ask you, “Do you want to leave?” It was devastating. But I somehow found the strength to say, ‘I don’t want to quit!'”

Mónica Feliú-Mójer finished her PhD and went on to a dream job doing science outreach and communication, but that committee meeting was a turning point.

Her story holds a valuable lesson for any graduate student considering a career outside of the academic tenure track.

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091: Cross-Train for the Faculty Track with the Academic Pathways Postdoctoral Fellowship

Think about your training as a grad student and postdoc – you spend countless hours at the bench, running experiments and reading papers to finish your personal research project.

Now think about your PI or faculty advisor.

Does she spend time at the bench?  Or are you more likely to find her in her office, writing grants, attending departmental meetings, and managing people, projects, and money?

If you’re noticing a mismatch between academic training and the actual work of a faculty member, you’re not alone.  The skills and traits that make us successful students may not translate into making us successful professors and PIs.

That’s where a unique postdoctoral fellowship steps in to bridge the gap: it’s the Academic Pathways program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their goal is to prepare postdocs for entry-level faculty jobs, with a special focus on increasing diversity at the highest levels of academia.

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011: The 8.5 Fixes That Will Save Biomedical Science (R)

Josh and Daniel are on the road this week, so we decided to bring you some goodies from the archive.  An 8-ish step plan to save science!  

Biomedical science is broken.  Funding is unpredictable, training programs drag on indefinitely, and some of our best scientists are drawn to careers outside of the university or drowned in paperwork if they stay.  Can anything be done to support research staff and boost lab productivity?

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090: Maybe Grant Funding Feels Random and Subjective Because It Is

Have you ever submitted a grant, only to have it rejected?  You respond to the reviewers’ comments, addressing weaknesses and tweaking the protocol to honor their suggestions.

Then, when you resubmit, the proposal is rejected again.  This new group of reviewers suggest changes to the protocol. And guess what, their suggestions sound a lot like your original idea that you removed to satisfy the last group of reviewers.

Are you the butt of some cruel academic joke, or is the grant funding process really this subjective and unpredictable?

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