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Stressed out
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The Stressed-Out Postdoc

After he defended his dissertation and moved to a new lab—at Dartmouth College for a postdoc—Ian Street hoped his battles with anxiety and depression were over. He was happy about his successful thesis defense—in botany, at Washington University in St. Louis—and a change of scenery seemed just what he needed.

Then, after a breakup with his girlfriend, with the pressures of being a new postdoc taking a toll, he found the sadness, isolation, and worry returning. In St. Louis, Street had an array of resources he could rely on, available to all graduate students, from on-campus counseling to support groups. As a postdoc, however, he was no longer a tuition-paying student, and he found himself cut off from his familiar sources of support.

[I]f you love to dance, then make time to dance every day.

—Jennifer Cohen

Not long after he started his postdoc, Street found that his creativity and motivation were shot. His productivity suffered, and his feelings of inadequacy grew worse. He worked longer hours to try and keep up. “The depression I was having was a lot like organ failure. My brain wasn’t working right—it kept getting in my way,” he says. “Science is amazing, but being a scientist is really, really hard. Soon, my biggest aspiration was just to survive.”

Ian Street

Ian Street

Courtesy of Ian Street

As his depression and anxiety deepened, Street found himself without close friends or family nearby, a principal investigator who didn’t know his history, and no therapist to turn to for professional support. He noticed that his mind kept returning to thoughts of harming himself; only then did he recognize that his problem had grown more serious than he had so far allowed himself to believe.

Postdocs and stress

Increasing attention is being paid to mental health problems among undergrads and, to a lesser extent, graduate students, but the prevalence of mental health issues among postdocs remains almost entirely undocumented. There is little doubt, though, that being a postdoc is stressful. Most postdocs work extremely hard, often for long hours and at low pay. Faced with the pressures of work, they may not take time for healthy diversions and exercise, which could help mitigate stress and reduce its health effects. Because of their commitment to work, they often are isolated from close friends and family. Like Street, many postdocs find themselves far away from home, profoundly stressed and lonely, with no clue where to go for help.

“Postdocs have many of the same stressors as graduate students, but they’re only exacerbated by the increasing pressure to be productive. Isolation from family, being away from your family and even your culture—these all take a toll,” says former postdoc Mahadeo Sukhai, vice president of the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association.

Cleyde Helena

Cleyde Helena

CREDIT: Charles Badland

Amplifying the distress caused by long hours and low pay is the increasingly grim job market for science Ph.D.  researchers. “There’s never been any good news on the career front for this generation of scientists. It’s really hard to stay positive,” Street says.

“I’m kind of freaking out," says Cleyde Helena, a neuroendocrinology postdoc at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "I always wanted a tenure-track position, but with my CV and current abilities, I don’t think I can get it,” she says. “I could do another postdoc, but that takes time. I’m 37.”

Psychologists note that, while a little stress can be a good thing, too much or chronic stress can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression. And when this happens, postdocs may find it hard to seek help. Even acknowledging the problem is a major barrier, Street says: Because competition among postdocs is so intense, “people are afraid to admit they can’t hack it.”

Jennifer Cohen

Jennifer Cohen

Courtesy of the National Science Foundation

When Jennifer Cohen, a current AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow (AAAS is the publisher of Science), was a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University, the faculty and staff assistance program, which serves Hopkins postdocs, went out of its way to assure people that all of their services are confidential. “Every communication always says that the program will never notify your supervisor that you called or utilized their services,” Cohen says. Nevertheless, many postdocs, at Hopkins and elsewhere, avoid on-campus help because they worry their research advisers or other members of the lab will find out they are struggling.

There is a mental health stigma in the United States, but it can be worse for those from other parts of the world. “In North America, mental health is stigmatized,” Sukhai says. “In China and India and other parts of the world, any kind of disability is stigmatized. I’m from the South Asian diaspora, and I can tell you that if you have a conversation with someone from this diaspora about a mental health issue, it’s probably not going to go very well. That’s why it’s so important to have that conversation from a culturally competent standpoint, and recognize that norms about what’s okay to talk about are going to be different depending on a person’s background.”

This stigma can be especially harmful for foreign postdocs because they “tend to be much further from home, and … have to deal with these issues far from their normal supports,” says Jennifer Oh, director of postdoctoral scholar affairs at University of California, San Diego.

Jennifer Oh

Jennifer Oh

CREDIT: Alan Decker

Employer help and self-help methods

What can be done? Institutions need to find ways to provide appropriate support services to all postdocs, including those with fellowships. Advisers should be attentive to changes in behavior such as mood swings, working at night, isolation, and emotional outbursts. Christian Gloria of Hawaii Pacific University, Kaneohe, first author of a recent article in the journal Stress and Health that was based on a study of a population of postdocs, says that advisers can offer significant support by reinforcing positive emotions.

Advisers should also be open to having uncomfortable conversations with their students and postdocs. It’s not easy to transition from strictly professional shop talk to questions about well-being, but it can be the first step to encouraging someone to seek much-needed help.

As long as the level of distress is within manageable limits, postdocs can impact their own well-being. One thing they can do is to choose a postdoc lab that fits: large versus small, high-pressure versus laid-back. “Ask yourself if you like the other people in the lab. It sounds like a silly question, but if you don’t fit in personality-wise, it’s going to be a long few years getting through your postdoc,” Sukhai says.

A bit more openness can be a boon, for struggling postdocs themselves and for others who may emulate their example. When you share your mental health symptoms, there is a risk that people might hold them against you, but it opens the door to a number of potential benefits. Mental health issues can qualify as disabilities at some institutions, Sukhai says, so individuals with a diagnosed mental illness can receive accommodations, such as more flexible hours to attend appointments and short-term leave.

Being more open about your experiences also gives friends and lab mates the chance to provide more support, Cohen says. “Just talking about what you’re feeling can be an important first step. Sometimes, you need other people to know that you’re not okay,” Cohen says.

Gloria’s article in Stress and Health suggests that postdocs can help themselves by seeking support, employing “adaptive” coping strategies (such as planning and positive reframing), and avoiding “maladaptive” ones (such as denial, self-distraction, and substance abuse). Institutions, Gloria and his co-author suggest, have a role to play in helping postdocs accomplish these things. “[I]n order to optimize resilience among postdocs, it is important to implement programmes that would aim to increase individual use of adaptive coping strategies, decrease use of maladaptive coping strategies and increase experiences of positive emotions,” the authors conclude. “In turn, enhanced levels of resilience would enable postdocs to adapt more successfully when dealing with stressful situations.”

Finally, it can help just to know it gets better, Cohen says. “Knowing that depression ends, that it won’t kill your future, can be hugely powerful for someone who is currently struggling.”

When to seek professional help

Of course, many cases of psychological distress are beyond the reach of such tactics. There’s no easy answer to the question of when to seek professional help, but experts point to a few warning signs. Always seek professional help, they advise, when

  • your thoughts turn to suicide or self-harm
  • there is no obvious, identifiable cause for your distress
  • your distress seems out of proportion with the circumstances
  • your distress goes on for more than a week or two, and doesn’t improve when something good happens
  • your distress interferes with the activities of daily living
  • you rely on alcohol or drugs to feel better

Beyond these rules of thumb—it’s an incomplete list—perhaps the best indicator that you need more help is that what you’re doing isn’t working. If it isn’t, get professional help.

Dance every day

When things got bad, Street did just that: He sought professional help, just as he would for an ailing kidney. He resumed his antidepressants and headed back to therapy. But he also found his own, idiosyncratic ways of dealing with his depression. One of the most helpful things he did, he says, was to force himself to work less. He discovered running, and now makes pounding the pavement a priority in his life.

He began to view his life as an experiment. He started a gratitude journal and amassed a collection of life hacks to improve his productivity.

He started blogging about his experiences as a postdoc with depression. The response from others in the science community was tremendous and unexpected, he says. As others left comments on his blog, and he began following their travails, he realized that the problems he was experiencing were far more common than he had realized. “I thought I was the only one,” he says.

Given the professional pressures that postdocs face, one of Street’s strategies—working less—may seem counterintuitive. But others agree that it can help to get out of the lab more and do things you enjoy. “It’s easy to forget there’s life outside the lab,” Cohen says. “So if you love to dance, then make time to dance every day. It will keep you sane when everything else gets crazy.”