Yep, it's hard - a guest post from iGrrrl

Apr 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

I love when excellent blogging leads to more excellent blogging, and I don't even have to do any of the blogging myself! Inspired by the amazing Potnia Theron's thoughtful post on the relationship between rejection and depression in academia, the brilliant and wise iGrrl had some thoughts of her own, which she has graciously put into sentence form for all of us. This is important stuff, folks. Read.


I had previously worked as a tech at the school where I matriculated, and one of my former PI's collaborators came up to me at the 'welcome new grad students' reception with a Why are you here? expression on his face. When I told him I was entering the neuroscience program, he said, "Ah! Getting your union card, I see." He was so right about the end product, but the process? When we're long past it, it's like childbirth: you forget how bad it is.

Being a student again was a shock. I'd gone back for my PhD at 30 after a peripatetic early adulthood. The intensity of that first year, the sense of how high the stakes were, of being molded into something very new and different, can be easily forgotten. I hated the more senior students who dismissively said, "It's fine, you'll get through it." I figured they'd just forgotten, like childbirth. I swore on a stack of Stryer; Kandel, Schwartz & Jessel; and all those journal articles I'd photocopied to read for class that when the next crop of grad students came in, I wouldn't feed them that dismissive line. I would tell them the truth: First year of grad school sucks, and is hard. Plenty of them thanked me for it, for recognizing that what they were going through was insane and hard.

And that's true, but the rest of graduate training is hard, too. I won't argue for a kinder, gentler PhD program. To survive in academic science, you have to learn to be in charge of your own education, to realize that you will be judged harshly for the rest of your career (grant review sheets, anyone?), etc., but you also have to find ways to deal with the self doubt and depression. It may be that not everyone experiences it, but most admit to experiencing some level of both after their second beer.

We joke that the only praise in academe is the absence of criticism, and that feeds into the problem that smart, competent people often have, which I'll call the anti-Dunning-Kruger effect. True Imposter Syndrome is the more extreme example of this, but it's that constant feeling that you're not measuring up, but you're not exactly sure what the standards are, or that they are unobtainable. There is no better way to for smart people to get depressed and self-doubting, and when the culture is that your work is your life and your self, research setbacks have an outsized impact. This changes with time and perspective, as Potnia Theron recently blogged, but when you're in the middle of it, well, let's just say that most of us deal with cortisol excess.

I spent years in grad school where I was angry all the time. The anger was a mask for depression. Lab work did not go well my first three years, and I had to switch projects. Having to throw away all of that work = life = self was infuriating and depressing. I started looking for other avenues to get any kind of positive feedback, so I developed on-line relationships in a tech community and wrote a terrible novel*, but those activities were 'distractions' from research. The combination of oblique comments from others and my own self scorn (born of buying into the work = life = self) just made everything worse.

I would never have finished my PhD if I hadn't taken two weeks completely off, visiting friends who were not scientists, learning to scuba dive, and hiking Oregon mountains. I went back with a sense of perspective that work was work, that the love of science was a part of my self, but not the whole thing. I was reminded of the world outside the hermetic bubble of graduate training, and that perspective allowed me to get out from under the anger and depression, buckle down, and get my union card.

*After writing a novel, writing a dissertation wasn't scary. So, no, I don't consider it a wasted effort w/r/t my time in grad school.

14 responses so far

  • Ashley says:

    I HEAR YOU! Taking vacation time has honestly been the most helpful thing in pressing forward. Thanks for writing.

  • becca says:

    A lovely piece. I do think it's hard to talk about what it's like accurately in retrospect. Personally, I had to look, but I *could* find good first person accounts of childbirth. I knew a variety of physiological responses were possible- it's certainly not the same for everyone. But I had an idea what to expect, and the process of recognizing what I was going through in the descriptions others gave me helped me deal with the experience. In contrast, there was no way of communicating what the experience of grad school was like for me. It's not that everyone just glossed over it with "you'll get through it", it's that there's something missing in "it's hard" or "it's depressing" or "Identifying with your work too much leaves you vulnerable" or "you have to find ways to deal with self-doubt". Because that's all true, but in kind of superficial ways.
    I think that part of the issue for me is that for the most meaningful senses of communication, the self-doubt and hopelessness that are part of clinical depression are not fathomable to the undepressed mind. And the resilience to criticism and optimism possible are equally unfathomable to the depressed mind. Even if it's the same person in the two different states.
    Andrew Solomon put out a Ted talk about depression gets to some of this :
    " People say to me, "Well, is it continuous with normal sadness?" And I say, in a way it's continuous with normal sadness. There is a certain amount of continuity, but it's the same way there's continuity between having an iron fence outside your house that gets a little rust spot that you have to sand off and do a little repainting, and what happens if you leave the house for 100 years and it rusts through until it's only a pile of orange dust. And it's that orange dust spot, that orange dust problem, that's the one we're setting out to address. "

    Everyone rusts in graduate school. Some of us rust for 100 years, and are convinced no one even notices.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    I hope that was one two-week vacation, not two weeks total in grad school…

  • iGrrrl says:

    SN, that two-week stretch was the longest period of time that I did nothing related to grad school. I'd had long weekends up to that point, but not enough completely disconnected time to actually disconnect. It made me understand the European approach to vacations, because I went from angry burnout to ready-to-wrap-this-up.

    Becca, you're so right that simply saying it's hard and that you have to watch the problem of over-identification doesn't solve anyone's problem. But simply having someone acknowledge that they weren't crazy for thinking it sucked and was hard seemed to help the younger students find ways to cope. But this thing you said?

    I think that part of the issue for me is that for the most meaningful senses of communication, the self-doubt and hopelessness that are part of clinical depression are not fathomable to the undepressed mind. And the resilience to criticism and optimism possible are equally unfathomable to the depressed mind. Even if it's the same person in the two different states.

    That's a core truth.

  • mytchondria says:

    Preach it. Well done.

  • katiesci says:

    Thank you for writing this. Seriously.

  • FSGrad says:

    It's not just that I survived the first year and have a hard time accurately expressing it. It's that, as you say, the rest of grad school is also hard. For me, the first year was a breeze compared with writing and defending a thesis proposal, and after that it got a little better. When first year students discuss how hard they are finding things, all I can think at first is 'god, I would give anything to only be taking classes right now, at least they don't have to [insert whatever I am dealing with here].'

    After I survived my first year, I remember saying to a senior-student mentor of mine "well, it gets easier, at least." She laughed. I was shocked. But I was and still am glad that she was honest with me. It's all hard.

  • I gave up PhD studies three years ago after a four year chase. I've given some thought to restarting it once my three kids have moved on with their lives. With my youngest 15 months away from high school graduation my motivation to reboot hasn't coalesced to anything resembling a pragmatic state.

    Some months ago I started following several scientists on twitter; most are on a tenure track. Reading their stories of struggle I can't say that it's something I'd chase. Where I am career-wise a PhD, well, I dunno that it would benefit me.

    Who are you on the tenure track for? How will you be different for it?

    Thank you for sharing.

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