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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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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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person pulled down by project

075: When Research Sucks

It’s inevitable.  At some point in your research career, you’re going to get that sinking feeling.

Your experiments will all fail, your PI will get on your case about finishing that paper, and your graduation date will drift maddeningly out of reach.

So what can you do when your research starts to drag you down?

Coming Up for Air

This week on the show, we share some practical advice from the Academic Mental Health Collective on ways graduate students can get going when the going gets tough.

Stress, anxiety, and depression are inevitable in your graduate training. At least they were for us!

At the same time, these painful emotions can be a valuable signal that it’s time to step back, take stock of your situation, and ask for help.  There are resources on, and off, campus to help you through the hard times.

By thinking ahead, you’ll meet your training challenges with a tactical plan and a team of supporters to help you through. It does get better, we promise!

The Check is in the Mail

Science in the News brings us the story of a New York court’s $15 million judgement against Sci Hub, the online research paper pirate ship.  We explore the legal and moral implications of the action, and make bold predictions about the future of scientific publishing.

If you’re interested in the history of academic publishing and how we got into this quagmire in the first place, we highly recommend Stephen Buranyi’s Guardian piece titled: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?

We also celebrate the beginning of summer by breaking our IPA fast. We’re drinking the Nectar IPA from Humboldt Brewing Company. This golden beauty has a sweet start and a bitter finish, sort of like my first marriage!*

(*Yes, this is a total lie, but the setup was perfect and impossible to resist.  Sort of like my first marriage!**)

(**Okay, I’m done.)

071: Practical Advice for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome with Dr. Maureen Gannon

Imposter syndrome might make you feel all alone in the world, but ironically, many graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members experience the same feelings of inadequacy.

This week on the show, we interview Dr. Maureen Gannon, PhD, about the sources of imposter feelings and the practical steps you can take to work through them.

By every objective measure, Dr. Gannon’s career has been an unqualified success.  She went from private high school through a Masters degree with full scholarships, finishing her undergraduate training in just three years.  She completed a PhD at Cornell and is now a tenured faculty member at Vanderbilt University with appointments in several departments. She leads and chairs multiple organizations and committees, and is invited to speak internationally about her work.

And yet, for much of her training, Dr. Gannon didn’t feel successful.  She sometimes attributed her personal wins to outside forces or good luck. She wondered when others would discover her shortcomings as a scientist.

Then, she attended a workshop that put a name to the feelings: imposter phenomenon.  With the name came a realization that many of her peers were experiencing the same thing.

Now, she speaks to students, faculty, and professional groups about her experience of overcoming imposter syndrome and getting on with her career.

In this episode, Dr. Gannon shares some of the common triggers for imposter feelings and the steps you can take to work through them.

Here are the books and resources she recommends:

Take the test yourself: The Clance Imposter Scale

The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success

The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life

Man vs. Machine

Science in the News brings us another reminder that computers are going to take our jobs.  This week, machine learning algorithms outperform human doctors on predicting which patients will suffer from heart disease.

Now, when the robots rise up to kill us, they’ll be able to make it look like ‘an accident.’

We also sample a tropical ethanol with the Big Wave Golden Ale from Kona Brewing. It’s not clear why this allegedly Hawaiian beer was featured on a cruise in the Caribbean, but it’s best not to argue.  Any port in a storm, as they say…

Like the show?  Support us on Patreon!

070: Imposter Syndrome

Meeting a new cohort of graduate students on your first day of class can be intimidating.  These are the brightest students from their undergraduate programs. Some of them have years of research experience, first-author publications, and a depth of knowledge that seems encyclopedic.

Feeling intimidated by your new colleagues is normal, but some of the people you meet will suffer a more insidious type of anxiety. Some students actually see themselves as charlatans who are just play-acting at a scientific career. So far, they feel, they’ve successfully bluffed their way through college, entrance exams, and interviews.

But they fear that at any moment, they will be discovered as frauds and rejected from the program.

This daily battle is the emotional reality for people suffering from “Imposter Syndrome.”

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