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.
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?
“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.