Beaten Down

While it’s been an unspoken truth for decades, much recent attention has been paid to shedding light on the significant numbers of graduate students, specifically PhD students, who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. However, news of our high rates of mental health problems comes as no shock to any PhD student.

My program has worked to address these issues by educating its students on the university-provided resources available to them including counseling, ombudsmen (mediators), and seminars teaching stress-relief techniques. While these resources are invaluable and I’m grateful to be part of a generation of researchers and students willing to support each other and talk about these still-taboo subjects, I haven’t heard much discussion about why PhD students, in particular, struggle so much.

Some causes for stress are pretty well known and analogous to careers outside scientific fields (or STEM fields, in general). These include pressure from advisers/PIs (i.e. crappy bosses) to get work done and the need to publish – commonly referred to as “publish or perish – in order to graduate (i.e. measurable work output).

One aspect of scientific and laboratory work, that happens to be a running joke amongst insiders but may not be widely well known to everyone else, is that failure is an overwhelming part of our job. I would estimate that in biomedical research, >90% of experiments fail for one of a dozen (or more) reasons.

That’s why, when trying to determine why an experiment failed or yielded unexpected results, it can take a long time and multiple attempts to get the experiment working. And then, that beautiful moment when you know you’ve got an experiment working can be thrown off the rails by results that aren’t what you expected or contradict your central hypothesis. Unexpected or contradictory results then have to be explained with new scientific hypotheses and additional experiments.

Good scientists will check and recheck their results with different experiments, under different conditions to validate their findings. But it’s all too easy to stop once you’ve gotten the results you were expecting, even if it’s one of the times something went wrong.

As PhD students, we take the brunt of this failure. We are the ones who can’t make our bosses happy when things don’t work. If things don’t work, we can’t publish, if we don’t publish, we can’t get funding, if we can’t get funding, the research stops and we will all be out of jobs. On top of all that, we, PhD students, would fail to graduate, making everything we’d done null and void. That’s a lot to put on someone 22-30 years old.

And yet, we do it. We continue to come into the lab, continue to perform experiments, and continue to generate results. It doesn’t simply suck when our experiments fail, it can physically hurt. We are emotionally invested in our research, which makes our failures all the more painful but our successes all the more joyous.

We celebrate our successes whenever they occur, but they are few and far between. Is it any wonder that so many of us suffer from anxiety and depression? We are highly intelligent, skilled, and [predominantly] altruistic individuals who are regularly beaten down by the pursuit of knowledge and the science we love.

Unfortunately, there’s no overt solution to stop graduate students from having mental health problems. We can’t stop our advisers from feeling pressure and transferring it onto us. We can’t stop experiments from failing.

Our work takes time, patience, and resilience. You have to walk into each experiment as if it will work, even if the odds are stacked against you. The pain from failure never goes away.

Our job is to get back up, figure out what went wrong, try something different, and always keep fighting.

Inherent Creativity in Science & Tech

I recently finished reading another book recommended by a career/professional development specialist. This one, titled “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel H. Pink, presents evidence of why “left-brained” jobs are becoming obsolete (in the U.S.A.) and recommends skills that can be developed for individuals in those careers to become more “right-brained”.

While “left-brained” and “right-brained” are not physiologically accurate (pretty much everything we do requires both hemispheres of our brain), the author uses these terms to describe the amount of creativity required to do that job. Examples of left-brained jobs given include lawyers, accountants, and software engineers. While I cannot speak to the day-to-day activities of lawyers or accountants, as I have no experience with those professions, I can speak a fair bit to the skills required to be a software engineer/programmer.

My Bachelor’s degree is in Biomedical Engineering, which required me to take courses in Java & MATLAB programming. The book’s author on a couple occasions also categorized science as a left-brained field. Based on my experiences in the science and tech, I fundamentally disagree with Pink’s assertion that people in scientific and technical fields lack creativity.

I hope that Pink’s beliefs that science and tech don’t inherently require creativity is due to an insufficient understanding, rather than willful ignorance, or what those fields entail. Generally speaking, scientists and programmers are presented with a problem and tasked with discovering or creating a solution. In the case of science, unsolved problems include climate change, limited natural resources, everything we don’t yet know about the human brain, and countless others. In software programming, unsolved problems may include incorporating a new feature into a larger existing software package or creating the next big social media app.

**I apologize that the relative significance of the example problems given for science and tech are starkly contrasting, but I am not personally familiar with the big-picture questions programmers are trying to answer. Feel free to educate me in them.**

Ultimately, the solutions to all of these problems will require creativity to both think up and design experiments to test the solutions. In science, we use experiments to answer small parts of a larger question. It requires creativity and intelligence to think of the fastest and most accurate ways to answer our question given a limited number of resources (e.g. money, time, personnel, equipment, etc.). In programming, they use different coding languages and progressive logic to come up with solutions to their problems.

Two different programmers given the same problem are highly unlikely to write the exact same code as a solution. Both will be able to understand what happens in each line of code and how that contributes to the outputted solution, just as scientists understand how each experiment answers a small part of the larger question.

I would also like to note that especially good experimental designs and software code are commonly described using the same terminology as is used for art and music: elegant, cohesive, balanced, creative, complementary, imaginative, etc. This is not a coincidence.

I found reading Daniel Pink’s superficial assessment of science and tech to be especially frustrating because, while the book is not new (it was first published in 2005), I’m sure that many people outside these fields hold the same misunderstandings of what kinds of people do well in science and tech. I want creatively-minded free-thinkers to know that they have a place in science and tech, and are very likely to thrive here. Even more so, if they don’t already, I want scientists and programmers to recognize and celebrate how creative they really are.