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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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New Year's Eve Fireworks

086: Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists

Turning over the last page of the calendar seems to naturally invite some reflection on the previous 365 days. When you look back at 2017, what went well? And what do you wish you could change in the coming year?

This week, we take the opportunity to reflect back much farther – to our days in graduate and postdoctoral training!  With years of hindsight, we offer advice and perspective to the scientists we were, and devise some resolutions you can adopt in your scientific training.

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063: PhD Biography – Compton to the Ivy League

Statistically speaking, Teresa Ramirez didn’t stand a chance.

She was raised in Compton, California, a city south of Los Angeles and the eponymous setting of the N.W.A. album “Straight Outta Compton.”

Teresa loved books. She asked questions during class. She put in extra time to help out after school.  In a high school where gang violence was an expectation and higher education was not, Teresa stood out like a sore thumb.

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