The best thing about the Hello PhD podcast is our amazing audience of grad students, postdocs, and career scientists. We get emails, tweets, and website comments full of thoughtful questions and insightful observations.
And though we try to read and respond to each message, not every question makes it into the show. Sometimes, we can reply with just a few words of encouragement, or a link to a prior episode.
But this week, we wanted to dig into the mailbag and offer a rapid-fire response to some of the burning questions you’ve sent over the last few months.
A PhD takes years to complete, so it’s no surprise that your situation may change during that time. Your PI may move to a different University, your spouse may take a job in another town, or you may need to move back home to care for ailing parents.
In these situations, you’re forced to make a difficult choice: “Should I stay with my lab and finish my work, or find a way to finish this PhD remotely?”
That’s exactly the question we got from “Walker” this week. He and his wife desperately want to move to a new city, but he also wants to finish his degree.
We got an email from a first-year student who seems to love everything about grad school… except the tests. He’s wondering: Do grades matter?
Dear Josh and Daniel,
I am a first year chemical engineering PhD student and am currently working through a class-filled semester. For two of my classes, my midterm grades were much less than desirable for me. Now, I’m not the quickest when it comes to math, so a lower score in classes like transport compared to other students has been the norm, but these scores are even lower than what I usually expect.
Nerves have been a typical part of my exam state of mind, but past experience has shown I can usually overcome them. I feel like I understand the concepts, and my homework and quiz grades for the class would seem to indicate that. However, the tests have gotten the best of me both times.
I have to maintain a certain GPA and while I don’t know what the final grades will be yet, I feel like I should be doing better.
I guess my real question is, are class grades indicative of whether or not a PhD is right for me?
I have a master’s and have done research for more than 3 years, so I feel that the actual research portion of the program will not be the issue. And every time I get to talk research with my lab group and new advisor, I love it. For now, it just seems like my grades aren’t indicating that I’m a good enough student for the program, and I really don’t want that to be the case. I plan on talking to my advisor about it all soon as well as older grad students.
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.
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?