Man, it has been a while since our last conversation. Hard to believe that it was 4 years ago when we first had this dialogue about mental health around graduate school in chemistry, and it’s been another 2 years since we had a short update.
What’s new with you? Since we last wrote, I’ve managed to stay in the same job. (I’ve purchased and moved to a house of my own, which was its own unique stress-inducing event.) Between the house, my friends, family and community, I’ve found a lot of joy and not a little work outside of work that has kept me busy and happy. (Now if I could only find some time to work out a little more.)
My immediate family is doing just fine, no complaints there. (My retired father is another story, though: after a couple years of peaceful retirement traveling, he’s going to be undergoing some medical procedures this year. I’m happy to be helping my father out, but I am a little bit sad that my parents aren’t going to be able to travel this year. I didn’t expect to be taking care of him from a health perspective for another ten years. Here’s hoping it’s a passing thing.)
A couple of things that I’d like to raise in this short conversation with you:
We should probably start with your important and appropriate definition of mental health issues from last time:
Having a problem with mental health doesn't have to mean severe mental illness. It is a strain on emotional and/or cognitive well-being. It doesn't have to mean severe depression. It can--and that's common--and it's okay.
This is the best way I've heard it phrased: every single person on Earth has some degree of mental health issues.How are we doing? I think academia might be doing better than two years ago about these issues, but I'm not sure. What do you think?
Distractions: Do you think our modern times are responsible for some of the mental health difficulties that graduate students face? I don't think I was a paragon of mindfulness or presence in graduate school, but I think today's graduate student faces an array of distractions that are an order of magnitude larger than anything I faced. Twitter, Facebook, e-mail (and yes, blogs) are both a source of comfort, friendship, community, laughs and procrastination.
I suspect the expectations on graduate students hasn't gotten smaller, but I think the online distractions have only gotten more powerful. I think that tools for procrastinating have only gotten more and more addictive (I can quit Twitter anytime, by the way.)
I’ve read a couple of articles about this guy Cal Newport about his book “Deep Work” and his idea that we’re losing our ability to focus for long periods of time on work that is additive and that builds on itself. I suspect it’s true of myself. (Maybe I should take his advice and find some time to think deeply on a regular basis.) I wonder if it’s something that contributes to deadline-related stress and stress that we might feel in graduate school? How did you deal with it towards the end of your time in graduate school?
The “I Quit” Series: I never got the chance to thank you for inspiring the “I Quit Graduate School” series. I learned so much. I wasn’t surprised at how much people didn’t like graduate school (I think the people who really enjoy it are relatively rare), but I was surprised at how happy people were to have left. I haven’t made a solid count, but of the people who wrote in, most of them answered the question “Are you happy you left?” with a resounding “yes.” (I should note I am aware that soliciting “I left” stories introduces a huge amount of selection bias for people who would answer in the affirmative.)
I wish I had some way of forcing graduate students to confront the question of “should I leave?” with some kind of rational test. I wonder if it would be worth it for 1st year graduate students to write themselves some kind of letter that said “if I ever got to this point” (whatever that point might be) that would give them the realization that it was “all right” to leave graduate school.
What do you think? Are we looking at this wrong? Should we be encouraging people to stay no matter what? (Do graduate students need more ‘grit and determination’?)
It’s getting late and I’m getting tired, so I think I will stop. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to talk more fully about my feelings about the “depression and suicide in graduate school” post that I wrote last year. I’d like to do something to acknowledge the problem exists, but I just can’t figure out what that might be.
Did I miss anything? Hope all is well and here's hoping for a fruitful conversation.