Mental health problems in graduate students have existed for ages. The constant and ever-increasing competition both in and out of the academic realm puts an extra toll on young students who already must deal with harsh economic conditions, an uncertain future, and the general unrecognition from society, not to mention sometimes a bullying environment from advisors. Back in the old days, struggling students were said to be ‘cracking under pressure‘, only for the heightening of thriving students who, in comparison, were deemed superior.
The story of Jason Altom is an extreme example of how a highly competitive environment may transform into an abusive one. Jason took his life in 1998 by ingesting potassium cyanide during his final years at Harvard. He was 26. The molecule he was trying to synthesize was completed the following year, and the corresponding report in JACS listed him as a co-author. It was also dedicated to his memory in the acknowledgements section. He was also not the first in the lab to take his life but his suicide note, as reported by The Crimson, suggested some policy changes like having not one but three supervisors per student.
Research institutions outside the top highest in the world, have also a lot of pressure put on students and young researchers even if the stakes are not Nobel-Prize-high. At the same time there are more graduate students now than ever before; the high demand for higher qualifications without the proper emotional development led to a critical mass of frustrated students who become bitter against the same activity they were first drawn to.
Getting a PhD, a real one, is tremendously hard, no question about it, but it shouldn’t be something you lose your mind for. Nothing should. One of my dearest mentors, Prof. Raymundo Cea-Olivares whom I’ve quoted many times before in this blog, often said that any human activity is hard, especially if you try to push its limits, yet PhD students are six-times more prone to suffer some kind of mental issue than a person the same age in the general population. To me, getting a PhD -or doing research for that matter- means you are trying to solve a question nobody else has been able to answer with methods you first need to master before even knowing whether they’re entirely suitable or not. A recurring theme in troubled students is not fully understanding what they are doing or why things are not going out the way they’re supposed to, which only increases the ‘impostor syndrome’ we all feel at some point or another. By definition, you are only an impostor if you’re working unethically, faking or stealing data, otherwise you’re welcome to my lab always; in fact, I prefer to deal with colleagues suffering from impostor syndrome than Dunning-Kruger‘s any day of the week. Here is the bottom line: superior or inferior its a relative term that only exists when you compare yourself to others. Don’t. Ever. The amount of time you devote to comparing yourself to others or indulging in self pity is wasted time you could well be using in doing something for yourself, whether it is studying, working or living.
If I should say something to struggling students is this: You are better than you think. That’s it. Seriously. You got into grad school and more importantly you will come out of it.
Nature has recently curated a collection of articles and essays addressing the mental-health problem in academia. Also, Prof. Christopher J. Cramer has a popular video on the matter, and somewhat tangentially so does Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are many other resources at your local university to help you cope with your PhD-derived anxiety, because remember: You are not alone.