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Science Training and Mental Health

Does the scientific community have a responsibility for the mental health of its trainees?

“How many of us saw something frighteningly familiar in the accounts of the circumstances leading up to the shootings?”

In light of the Aurora, Colorado, shootings, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people and was allegedly carried out by a troubled former graduate student in neuroscience, it's a compelling question. It is especially compelling to those of us who have lived through scientific training and experienced its dehumanizing effects. There is something especially destructive about failure for those of us who have always considered ourselves high-achievers.

I do not mean to suggest that the scientific community is responsible for the shootings. On the contrary: That was a heinous, individual act. I am suggesting, rather, that it would be a good thing if that event were to motivate some self-analysis within our community about whether we're paying as much attention as we should be to the psychological well-being of science trainees and early-career scientists, from the undergraduate years through the postdoc and beyond.

When I heard about the background of the shooter—a science graduate student who withdrew from his program and, according to one widely cited report, failed preliminary exams—I felt a desperate need to start such a conversation, because I am sure that many science trainees who suffer and fail could excel if they just had a little more support to help them build resilience in the face of failure.

The 2004 University of California, Berkeley, Graduate Student Mental Health Survey, from the Berkeley Graduate and Professional Schools Mental Health Task Force, concluded: "Almost half of all graduate students participating in this survey reported an emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected their well-being and/or academic performance in the last twelve months." Almost 10% of those surveyed had seriously considered suicide. "In spite of these high levels of reported mental distress," the Berkeley task force concluded, "respondents commonly perceived no need and no time to use mental health services.”

That was in 2004. Things are worse now, and things are worse still for the members of the underrepresented groups we're so interested in recruiting, because they—we—are more isolated than our peers, by definition.

How many of us saw something frighteningly familiar in the accounts of the circumstances leading up to the shootings? According to press reports, until graduate school the alleged shooter had a stellar academic career and no encounters with the law except for a speeding ticket. How many of us were reminded of someone we once knew, or of a rumor we heard at a conference about a student/postdoc/faculty member with a bright career who flamed out? How many of us have watched unstable peers break down at group meetings or after having too much to drink at parties?

Some of us may even have been reminded of our own struggles. Sure, none of us walked into a movie theater and opened fire, and that is a very important difference. But we may have been reminded of what we felt like during a particularly bad patch in graduate school.

Why should the community care? It's not only because trainees are suffering; it's also because intellectual health is linked with psychological health. Most of us are at our most productive when we're well adjusted—when we feel respected, valued, and confident in our potential. Unfortunately, that describes a rather small fraction of the science-trainee population.

Protecting our intellectual and mental health means viewing us as more than bags of facts and esoteric skills to be deployed for the sake of advancing the scientific and technical enterprise—or to advance the careers of our advisers. Scientifically and personally, we are individuals, with individual gifts and skills that should be respected. Everyone has a story, needs, feelings, hopes, fears, desires. We should be recognized and nurtured.

One of the things that make us so special is an urgent desire to work hard and to achieve—but that same quality makes us vulnerable to having our self-image shattered by failure or disrespect. Under intense stress, even well-prepared students may fail preliminary exams or qualifiers. Experiments usually fail. Yet, far from being taught that failure is a part of science, we sense that our advisers—themselves stressed out and desperate to achieve—are losing faith in us, with dire consequences for our self-images and our futures.

I speak from experience. Anyone familiar with my byline will remember that I wrote a monthly column detailing my experiences from my first year of graduate school through my postdoc. I shared my encounters with failure, the sacrifices I made, and the capricious nature of the graduate school system as I experienced it. Six years after finishing my Ph.D., I am still trying to prove that I’m not useless. It’s still that raw.

The part that's probably worst for our mental health is the gradual realization that in pursuing science, we have not set ourselves up for the success we expected. Instead, we find ourselves stuck in postdoc positions with few alternatives besides a long shot at a faculty position or a wholesale career change. Years of being beaten down have left us psychologically ill-equipped for wholesale changes. We have become risk-averse. That same risk aversion makes us unlikely candidates for starting companies or going for a high-stakes, high-risk scientific prize. What a waste.

For all the discussion of diversifying the workforce—we’ve opened the pipeline wide, and things are more accessible now—have we made things better for everyone? Or will we continue to repeat the same neglectful and abusive behaviors? If we choose the latter course, any pipeline gains are likely to be in vain and short-lived. The process for completing a degree and being a competitive member of the scientific community is not aligned with the realities and expectations of junior members of the community. When we decided to pursue a Ph.D.—a necessity for the careers we thought we wanted in academia, government, or industry—we didn't understand the cost of the choice we were making. This lack of understanding is why I began to write about the challenges I faced. How could I have known that I would be looked down upon for seeking a life outside of the department? What opportunities, relationships, and other elements that contribute to adult life outside of the lab will trainees forgo in order to be perceived as good, so that they can graduate? How long did it take before I forgave myself for moving away from the traditional path I trained for?

When will we start worrying less about the pipeline's leaks and do more to address the corrosive nature of the pipe that we funnel people through? When will we start to truly value the people who come to science wanting to bring their very best? Assuming this conversation takes place—honestly and publicly—how are we going to fix things?

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