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.

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