The Sassy Scientist – Pull The Plug, Or Persevere?

The Sassy Scientist – Pull The Plug, Or Persevere?

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Georgia asks:

One of my friends recently left the PhD program with some severe emotional and motivational issues. I’m having doubts too. What shall I do?

Dear Georgia,

It’s the summer holidays. No more teaching duties. A lot of his colleagues are out of the country. Even his office mate is gone hiking in some mountain range no-one has never heard of. “Preferring that solitude over my company”, he murmurs as he slouches behind his computer. Blue skies outside. No sunshine in this office; there’s a dark cloud stuck inside. A whirling fog of desperation. Bashing away at the keyboard, heaving at the sight of failure. It hasn’t worked all morning. “Just like last week. Just like last month”, he sighs. The music might as well be turned off. Even Sweet Caroline can’t push his spirits today. Time for a coffee. Oh yeah … out of order, that’s right. ‘Cause maintenance is also off-duty. Why not? It’s not like anyone’s working to a deadline. Returning to work, the only sound piercing the airy silence is a fly. Buzzing carelessly towards an empty mug. Two souls in a square, concrete dungeon of solitude. Scratch that … only one left. The fly did not return from its journey. Wondering what that would feel like, he hears a noise outside. His heart beat increases as he recognises the waddle. That’s his supervisor! In his eyes a glimmer of hope returns. Maybe she has some ideas to fix all problems. She’s always so busy with the other students, but they’re all away now. “I’am the only one. She must come to talk to me!”, he concludes. He sits up straight, closes emails and puts away his phone. There she comes! Just a couple more steps.…. No! What’s she doing? She hurdles past his door, straight into the bathroom. “Why do I even bother? She’s not coming back”, he groans disappointed. She never does. How much longer ‘till this dream of a research project is over? Not so much a dream as it has become a waking nightmare…

I suppose you recognise this sentiment, don’t you? Unfortunately, an increasing number of your colleagues also intersperse their daily work routine with such day dreams. Well, that’s what I presume considering the increasing amount of articles in Nature about mental health and depression over the past two years. Fairly recent studies by Levecque et al. (2017), Evans et al. (2018) and Sverdlik and Hall (2019) even suggest a “mental health crisis”, especially for PhD students (Sohn 2016, Woolston 2018) but also beyond this stage (Reay 2018). I’m certain that by now you’re thinking: “You must be talking about people in the humanities or (bio)medical sciences. I never noticed anyone in geodynamics slip into a depression”. Well, that’s exactly the problem. Even though you’re a “good scientist” when working 14 hours a day, including the weekends, check and answer your email ’til the early hours and attend as much conferences as you can, something may not be that good: your state of mind. The constant pressure to perform so that you can stay in science, and an environment of “strong personalities” provide the perfect ingredients for a swirling depression cocktail. Who needs help, right? We can manage ourselves. The shrinks can stay in their own lane.

So, why has mental health become an increasing problem in science then? Why do you have doubts? I mean, didn’t these problems exist a couple of decades ago, when the people now in charge of the research groups, universities and funding agencies started their own careers? Are you part of a PhD pool that has grown to include a majority of snowflakes who are not able to handle setbacks, rebuffs and hard work? I doubt it. Maybe the current generation of PhD’s is not managed well enough by their supervisors that are too focused on their own career to also consider the various needs of their (sometimes too many) PhD’s and post-docs. Conversely, the aptitude to (be brave enough to) ask for help may also be lacking. I mean, who wants to work with someone in doubt of their own career, who cannot even manage to comfortably meet the deadlines set by their supervisor? Well, you’re clearly way too hard on yourself. Recognising that you’re not doing well (mental health-wise) is actually a strong point; you evaluated your own well-being and came to the conclusion that something wasn’t right. I can only applaud such self-awareness and hope you’ll find a way to fight the demons. You shouldn’t leave science. Persevere, please. Have you spoken to direct colleagues or your supervisor about your doubts? Too afraid? Just do it. Usually (and there are exceptions of course) scientists are fairly social creatures, willing to help their students in any way they can. The cynical side of this is that it is also in their own best interest as you must not forget: you not making it is a stain on their record.

Whilst you’ve been brave enough to ask for help (even though it’s just little old me), the harsh reality is that you’re not alone. So, to finish this endlessly positive story, I can only ask for one thing: talk to each other. Check in on those hermits that have locked themselves away in their office or lab, and who ‘can’t talk, busy’. Reach out to the senior staff (and maybe even HR) because it’s way too late when they find out you’re having difficulties when you’re stuck at home with a major depression or have a mental breakdown in the middle of a lecture room. Not great for them, slightly worse for you. Talk people, we’re usually much better at it.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written in a square, concrete dungeon of solitude.

Evans, T.M., L. Bira, J.B. Gastelum, L.T. Weiss, N.L. Vanderford (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate eductions, Nature Biotechnology, 36, 3
Levecque, K., F. Anseel, A. De Beuckelaer, J. Van der Heyden, L. Gisle (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students, Research Policy, 46, 868-879
Reay, D. (2018). You are not alone, Nature, 557, 160-161
Sohn, E. (2016). Caught in a trap, Nature, 539, 319-321
Sverdlik, A., N.C. Hall (2019), Not just a phase: Exploring the role of program stage on well-being and motivation in doctoral students, Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 0, 1-28, doi:10.1177/1477971419842887
Woolston, C. (2018). Why mental health matters, Nature, 557, 129-131
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I am currently employed at a first tier research institute where I am continuously working with the greatest minds to further our understanding of the solid Earth system. Whether it is mantle or lithosphere structure and dynamics, solid Earth rheology parameters, earthquake processes, integrating observations with model predictions or inversions: you have read a paper of mine. Even if you are working on a topic I haven’t mentioned here, I still know everything about it. Do you have any problems in your research career? I have already experienced them. Do you struggle with your work-life balance? Been there, done that. Nowadays, I have only one hobby: helping you out by answering the most poignant questions in geodynamics, research and life. I am waiting for you right here. Get inspired.

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