The Race to the Publish Line – Climbing the Wall

September 11, 2013 | Posted by Fraser Tan in Grad School Help |
Photo Credit: Gaelen Hadlett on Flickr

Photo Credit: Gaelen Hadlett on Flickr

It wasn’t until years into my research that I had to deal with severe stress-related mental issues that threatened my work and my health. High school and college taught me to excel in a particular learning environment, so the first year or two of grad school weren’t that stressful for me. I was taking lots of classes, and I knew how to handle the papers and the tests and the homework.

The rest of grad school is really an apprenticeship; writing essays didn’t help me for reach out to professional connections and establish collaborations, and taking tests didn’t prepare me for repeating an experiment ad nauseum. Satisfaction was more elusive. I loved science, but I had no idea if I was doing well, and if I wasn’t doing well, I had no idea how to do better. I never really talked about it that much – at least not to my labmates. I thought I was handling it pretty well. I never bought into the myth that productivity was measured by hours in lab. I made sure to get eight hours of sleep a night, to eat well, to take time to relax (and sing!).

But at some point, that stopped working. At first, I couldn’t sleep. Then singing became a drag. I stopped making the effort to see friends, and my hours in lab crept steadily upwards. Even as my hours increased, my productivity decreased. I started making (even more) mistakes. I was miserable. My stress levels induced migraines – lots of them. Just walking into my building gave me massive stomach cramps. I realized that it wasn’t the science itself that was the problem, it was the academic culture surrounding my science. It was the “perfection only” mentality, the “sacrifice everything on the altar of your work” expectations, the questions about why I wasn’t in lab at nine A.M. on Sundays. Every time I finished one experiment, my professor would give me several more. The goalposts moved each time I came near, staying always just beyond reach. It felt like my work was never good enough, like I was never good enough.

Despite how it felt, I wasn’t alone in what I was going through. In 2009, The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted a survey of graduate mental health (the original article is behind a paywall, but I found a relevant quote on this blog):


Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the graduate students surveyed were not aware of mental-health services on the campus. And another Berkeley study recently found that graduate students were becoming increasingly disillusioned with careers in academe and did not view large research institutions as family-friendly workplaces (The Chronicle, January 23)


This is the dirty little secret of academic research. We hear tales from older students and postdocs, shared over a beer, whispered clandestinely. We hear about people having nervous breakdowns, needing psychotherapy and medication, and sometimes even committing suicide. Perhaps we even think “That won’t happen to us”. But eventually it will. Please go talk to someone about it – a friend, a labmate, even a therapist. They can really help. And if you need to, take some time away – a sabbatical can give you the time to destress and evaluate how you want to proceed. Leaving your program is also a viable option. I was lucky to have a really supportive circle of friends, and an incredibly supportive partner. He is probably single handedly responsible for keeping me sane during my final years grad school. He helped me realize that, despite how bad I felt, it was my choice to finish my degree, an understanding that helped me push through the obstacles in my way.

Even though I didn’t believe it would happen, I did end up graduating and getting a great job (but more on that next post!). No matter how bad it seems, you will get through it, and you will survive. Like the saying goes – if you’re going through hell, keep going! Make sure you’re happy, because if you are not, then nothing else really matters.

About the author

Fraser supports our customers on Science Exchange. She completed her graduate and postdoctoral studies at Stanford University and served on the Marketing and Development Team for before joining Science Exchange..

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