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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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January 7, 2013

Grad School in Chemistry - The Mental Health Aspects

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Posted by Derek

ChemJobber is starting a series of posts today on grad school and its effects on the mental health of grad students. I have to say, the story he relates sounds very similar to some of my own experiences during my third year or so. I didn't break any household items, but I recall (for example) several instances of leaving the lab and getting back into my car late at night, but first pausing to shout a lot of foul language at the top of my lungs while beating on the steering wheel.

I really did have some moments where I wondered if I had made the mistake of my life, whether I was any good at all in my chosen field, and so on. Another big worry was that I was, from what I could see, losing my ability to enjoy what I was doing, and I had a great deal of worry about whether it would ever come back. (It did, by the way, but I had no way of being sure about that at the time). One of the biggest factors, I think, was the day-night-weekend-holiday nature of the work. My brain has a lot of things it enjoys doing, and being chained to the same wheel for an extended period doesn't help it any. Being persistent on my own motivation is one thing, but forced persistence is another thing entirely. I ended up (as do many grad students) worrying about every break I took from the lab. I'd go see a movie on Saturday night, and come out thinking "Well, there's another two hours added to my PhD"), which isn't a recipe for fun.

There were other stress factors, and looking back, it's a good thing that I started being able to deal with things when I did. The push I made in my fourth year to get things finished up was not without its problems - there's one story that I was sure I had told here before, where I inadvertently destroyed the largest amount of starting material I'd ever made, but I can't seem to find it in the archives. If I'd done that during one of my lowest points, I'm not sure what I would have done. But by that time, I could see the finish line, and I was devoting all my effort to getting out as soon as possible, having decided (correctly, I've always thought since) that doing so was the single biggest thing I could do for my career and for my sanity.

Having that as a goal was important. I saw several examples of grad students who got trapped at some point in their work or their writing-up phase, and were having a lot of trouble actually moving on to something else. Staying where they were was causing them damage, but they seemed to feel even worse when they tried to do something about it. Some of these people eventually pulled themselves up, but not all of them, by any means. I think that everyone who's been in a graduate program in the sciences will have seen similar cases. I became determined not to end up as one of them.

Comments (53) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. Anonymous on January 7, 2013 9:30 AM writes...

As a European who did a PhD a few years ago whenever this subject crops up it always makes me wince. I can never quite believe some of the stories I read about 90 hour weeks (for 5+ years), bullying bosses, hyper-competitive labs, zero vacation etc etc. It sounds like hell, truly. I worked hard, yes, but my efforts look quite pathetic in comparison

US PhDs and postdocs are undoubtedly some of the smartest and most driven folks around. But at what cost?

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2. Nick K on January 7, 2013 9:45 AM writes...

Ah, the shaking hands, the dry mouth, the cold, sick feeling in the pit of one's stomach as it dawns on you that a key reaction has failed, taking months and months of work with it...

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3. Kevin on January 7, 2013 9:55 AM writes...

I had a decent network of non-chemist friends and don't remember any periods of despair like those. (Of course it was over 30 years ago) I do remember long hours, no time off, "work Sundays or don't come on Monday because you're out" and generally being bullied and verbally abused. 90 hours a week sounded about right thro.

Overall I enjoyed graduate school but I understand the experience has been getting worse and worse.

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4. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on January 7, 2013 10:12 AM writes...

I've heard these horror stories but can't say that I've experienced anything close to them. I typically worked M-F (10-12 hours per day) and a half day on Saturday (by my own choice). I rarely went in on Sunday unless there was something I needed to finish up or I simply wanted to, and I don't recall there ever being many people in the building on Sundays. I was never pressured to be there more than I was. I suppose a lot of this depends on who you worked for and the culture of the department.

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5. Bob on January 7, 2013 10:19 AM writes...

For me, the scariest thing was when two different close friends independently told me they’d been diagnosed with PTSD … AS A RESULT of graduate school. I feel like that says it all about the system (although this was biomed rather than chemistry).

I decided right then and there (for better or worse) that I wasn’t going to see a therapist while I was still in graduate school, because I simply didn’t want to know. During the darkest years, I have a feeling that a depression diagnosis wouldn’t have been out of line, but I felt it was a warranted depression, if that makes sense—no sense in getting medicated when you really ARE in the middle of a dark tunnel with no light at either end, your brain is interpreting your life events correctly.

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6. Perdurabo on January 7, 2013 10:25 AM writes...

I will be following these comments - this one hits very close to home. I received my PhD over a quarter century ago (it sounds more significant that way, doesn't it?), but I honestly can't say it's been worth it, and I wouldn't do it again if I had it to do all over again. I read the news and realize a lot of people have things so much worse than anything experience I've ever had or am likely to have, but even now when I think back to graduate "school", all the feelings of dread and despair come back. I'm now going to get back to work (I am happy to be employed, by the way) and maybe take a look at the news so I stop whining.

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7. Anon on January 7, 2013 10:30 AM writes...

Our school had a good therapist that I would go see once a month to complain about grad school. It seemed that things looked really grim around year three. We easily worked 75 h work weeks (synthesis lab). Seeing that the attrition rate for the lab was near 50 % was a real motivator.

It wasn't until I finished my post doc that I could finally not feel guilty about "wasting time".

And of course there is always beer.

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8. SP on January 7, 2013 10:35 AM writes...

I'm with @4 David, that sounds like my experience, and I am gainfully employed with my PhD and no postdoc- but I was never interested in academic track. My adviser told us we had two weeks vacation a year which I guess is pretty generous for grad students.

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9. HappyGrad on January 7, 2013 10:40 AM writes...

I remember my days in grad school with much fondness. We worked 40 hour weeks and got four weeks of vacation every year. Our lab was funded so well that the PI didn't even feel the need to step in more than once a month. I don't think this led to intensely motivated students, but it was better than the PI demanding results every other day and it did not seem to affect the outflow of papers. Most of us learnt good science and got decent jobs after graduating. Personally for me grad school was mostly like a vacation (and this was at a top 20 department) but I could see how hard it could be for others.

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10. Steven on January 7, 2013 10:41 AM writes...

I've had experience with PhD programs in three countries now, having started my PhD in the USA, finished in Germany and am now supervising PhD projects from the industry side in the Netherlands. Can't say that I experienced any of the negative aspects presented here in any of the three programs I've been involved in. The major difference in the US was simply the hours everyone, including me, put in. I was never told that I had to work weekends, but I was in the lab most weekends. Germany the same story, but since nearly no one worked weekends, it was rare that I worked a weekend in the lab. In the Netherlands, my experience has been that the mere mention of having to do some work on the weekend causes disbelieving laughter from the student. In my opinion, a graduate student is an employee but also a student. It seems reasonable to expect a longer than 40 hour work week with some weekends sprinkled in, with enough time for a social life. Holding to a 40 hour work week and absolutely no weekends is going a bit far in my opinion.

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11. someone on January 7, 2013 10:49 AM writes...

I was lucky enough to make it through without nearly that much psychological trouble. The most noticeable thing after my PhD and post-doc was that I developed the mentality that you should always be working. I had become accustomed to 5-6 hrs of sleep a night, and when I was awake I was always "working" -- either directly in the lab or computational work at home or thinking through problems as I sat doing some menial task (e.g. dishes, cleaning, driving, etc).

After entering industry, it took a while for me to not feel guilty for only working 8-9 hrs and only 5 days a week. Once I got over that psychological hurdle, I saw how terrible of a lifestyle I had. Now I am happy to be at home enjoying interacting with my daughter and wife.

I am very sensitive to the fact that graduate school is a seriously stressful event. One of my institutions had one senior graduate student murder a junior graduate student (and her unfortunately visiting sister), since he viewed her as gaining the PI's favor and he thought she'd get all of the good projects from him.

If you are stressed about graduate school, PLEASE SEEK HELP. Either friends, family or professional help.

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12. NowOutOfLab on January 7, 2013 10:55 AM writes...

I had a relatively good experience as a graduate student but a miserable postdoc. Over time I began to think that many supervisors exert superficial pressure on their labs in ways that don't help them produce.

Specifically, my [postdoc] boss would frown on people doing things that were obviously frivolous -- eating, reading a newspaper in the lounge, going out to exercise etc, or leaving before he did in the evening. And he would circulate, asking questions about how did that experiment go. But if I could figure out how to avoid his surface-level scrutiny, I could languish for months by keeping him fed with "oh yes, I'm trying that again."

He was averse to doing the hard work of thinking about how to make a project progress and why the experiments I had planned were actually lame.

Of course, friends have described their supervisors, some who were not as conflict-shy and were willing to squeeze their students/postdocs much more rigorously. Maybe some of Derek's other readers had those.

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13. cookingwithsolvents on January 7, 2013 11:10 AM writes...

My mom gave me some very good advice when I was a kid. She said 'if you want to make a professional salary, you will have to work professional hours' i.e. no one making bank works 40 hours a week. And that's true of basically everyone. GOOD teachers, businesspeople, scientists, whatever work a bit more. Some work a LOT more, of course. During undergrad I discovered the law of diminishing returns in the 80+ hour workweek (synthetic chemistry) and learned how to budget and manage my time better. I certainly worked a hellish amount but I did not feel as put-upon as some because 1) I knew this was temporary ( an asst. prof. ah well) and 2) I was doing the work for ME and really enjoyed most of it. Now, both my Ph. D. and postdoctoral advisors were not as aggressive as some of the horror story types in the comments above and we all know those.

I strive for work-life balance and have managed to find a wonderful person to spend my life with, traveled, etc. while taking my career very seriously and working quite a bit per week. It CAN be done. Perhaps not by everyone, though, and expectations need to be in line with abilities. On both boss and student sides. I see that more than ever as a PI helping my student to reach their full potential. On top of it, some students go through a phase where they only really respond to a kick in the butt every few weeks, which is painful for all involved.

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14. MoMo on January 7, 2013 11:44 AM writes...

Suck it up weaklings! A little hard work never hurt us chemists, except when your graduate experience traumatizes you and turns you into a zombie.

I had 3 post-docs from Boston once in my car, at a Gordon medicinal chem conference , and I was taking them hiking in the NH mountains. They all exhibited post traumatic stress disorder, and were deaf-mute the whole time, and with a lack of affect.

Ye Gods, I thought! What happened to these blokes? No opinions, no conversation, nothing! Then I found out who they worked for!

They were lucky to be alive!

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15. CynicalFifthYear on January 7, 2013 11:55 AM writes...

Personally, I think one of the biggest contributors to grad students' mental health is the (mis)information around the purpose of grad school. If your whole purpose in grad school is to finish as many projects and publish as many papers as possible to increase your chances of getting your dream job, you will be utterly miserable. At the same time, if you think you can get your dream job by sitting around and "thinking" all the time, you're in for a shock. It takes a great and patient advisor to show students that intellectual growth and maturity, as well as a skilled set of hands, are the goals, and that these skills translate to many different career paths. In the absence of this wisdom, I think a lot of grad students end up conflating their self-worth with their ability to get results in lab or how much their advisor "likes" them.

Unfortunately, I think some PIs just let the misinformation take over - if the students are working themselves into a competitive frenzy, the PI benefits.

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16. CynicalFifthYear on January 7, 2013 11:55 AM writes...

Personally, I think one of the biggest contributors to grad students' mental health is the (mis)information around the purpose of grad school. If your whole purpose in grad school is to finish as many projects and publish as many papers as possible to increase your chances of getting your dream job, you will be utterly miserable. At the same time, if you think you can get your dream job by sitting around and "thinking" all the time, you're in for a shock. It takes a great and patient advisor to show students that intellectual growth and maturity, as well as a skilled set of hands, are the goals, and that these skills translate to many different career paths. In the absence of this wisdom, I think a lot of grad students end up conflating their self-worth with their ability to get results in lab or how much their advisor "likes" them.

Unfortunately, I think some PIs just let the misinformation take over - if the students are working themselves into a competitive frenzy, the PI benefits.

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17. RB Woodweird on January 7, 2013 11:57 AM writes...

Click on my username and be of good cheer - it could be worse.

You could figure out three or so years into your graduate career that your PI has no connections, that he has no money for you so that you do not have to TA your way through, and that leaving means you flush your years already put in down the crapper.

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18. LittleGreenPills on January 7, 2013 11:59 AM writes...

Mine also mirrored #4 David.

But that is not to say there was no stress or paranoia. As I got closer I began to worry that something would happen (fire, flood, etc.) to destroy my data. I also occasionally wondered if I had made a mistake by going to grad school. That was made worse by having three kids by the time I finished and my concern that I was raising them in poverty with no guarantee of that ever changing (my research area was natural product isolation and structure determination and by the time I finished almost all of the major pharmas had cut theirs).

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19. Anonymous on January 7, 2013 12:06 PM writes...

@2: just reading those words made my stomach do a barrel roll.
I'm about 6 months out of a postdoc in a big name group on the east coast. I'm sure I havn't had the hardest go of it, but by no means am I left unscathed.

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20. Anonymous on January 7, 2013 12:10 PM writes...

First, let's not forget Jason Altom who took his own life towards the end of his PhD research at Harvard Chem in 1998. The Harvard Chem Dept instituted new policies regarding research supervision and counseling but I believe things have since reverted.

I was inculcated with a love of chemistry and scientific research that naturally led to grad school. To paraphrase a famous Prof, we weren't in the lab for long hours and through late nights and weekends because of peer pressure or supervisor pressure; we were there because that's where we loved to be!

Pretty sick, huh?

Even worse was when that ceased to be enough.

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21. MDACC Student on January 7, 2013 12:15 PM writes...

I'm currently a 5th year and have received two weeks of official vacation. Two days before I left I was asked to write a review over my "break" that was around 15 pages. Said review sat on the advisors desk, missed the first deadline and the subsequent extension we were granted. It was never read and no feedback was given. I was just assured he would look at it and submit it to another journal. That was two years ago.
Poor lab environment, funding environment, (the higher ups at my University kind of messed up CPRIT, the one funding advantage I would have over others in the county) and pay have led me to seek something outside of academia. And since we don't have pharma/biotech in this city that is going to be far from biological research.

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22. SomeGuy on January 7, 2013 12:37 PM writes...

I think the hardest part of grad school/postdoc for me was the uncertainty of the job market at the end. I ended up with a nice scientist position at a good company, but before I got it I was looking around rather desperately for anything I could find - both in and out of science - because I simply couldn't afford to be a postdoc anymore (living in the Northeast with a family).

When one works 10+ years towards something (a research career) and then realizes he/she has very few prospects in a hyper-competitive and over-saturated job market at the end, it's really stressful and I think the realization of this is what led to most of my stress and self-doubt during the process. And even if you know this when you start grad school, it's hard to know what your life situation will be like a decade later.

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23. RKN on January 7, 2013 1:22 PM writes...

Having that as a goal was important. I saw several examples of grad students who got trapped at some point in their work or their writing-up phase, and were having a lot of trouble actually moving on to something else.

Which brings to mind the best advice I got: Write Early.

Biggest reason being that much of what is involved with getting manuscripts submitted, reviewed, and eventually (hopefully) accepted, is out of the candidate's control, in terms of the time spent waiting. And in most PhD programs publication is a requirement before you can defend and get out.

I saw many of my fellow grad students work feverishly for four years or more, every day of the week, running experiments and accumulating data, and then one day finally saying, "Okay, I've got enough data for a couple papers now!"

Only to discover how painfully long it could take to have their advisor vet the paper, get it reviewed, re-submit after rejection, etc... Another year or more in some cases.

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24. Da Vinci on January 7, 2013 1:54 PM writes...

Of course a very good way of not loosing your marbles during the PhD is not to do it in the States. I did my (neuroscience) PhD in the UK, worked about 55ish hours a week, was in at some point in most weekends (animal work, sigh). However, none of this mandatory weekend malarkey, and I certainly could have gotten away with doing less. Went on Christmas and summer holidays each of my three years. PhDs should be fun as well! PhD students are not bench-robots, an attitude which I've come across in the States far too often.

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25. exGlaxoid on January 7, 2013 1:58 PM writes...

My grad school experience was terrible. My first choice of adviser promised 5 people they could have 2 slots, so three of us had to go elsewhere, and I ended up with someone who kept his students for 5-7 years, expected students to work themselves to death, and ended up with little funding, thus I had to TA a lot also. It was not a pleasant time, and I wish I had done more preparation to find a better graduate school.

However, the group I did undergraduate research was run by an excellent prof. who cared for his students. I would have done far better to continue there or pick better at graduate school time. One of my friends worked for a PI who also had issues come up with his funding, and had a similarly bad time.

The right or wrong PI can make all of the difference, as well as the school and its attitude and leadership, which was had been great in the past but was miserable and going downhill fast when I went. Like the stock adage, "previous performance does not guarantee future results".

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26. yeah on January 7, 2013 1:59 PM writes...

@23 that is great advice. Easier said than done, but things are much easier if you can get at least 1 pub. completely done in your 3rd year or so.

I resolved, before I even started grad school, that I would NOT work 60+ hours per week in the lab, destroy my social/family life and make a head-case out of myself. I found that as long as I managed my time well, I could run almost any experiment I needed to while working 40-45 hours IN the lab, and I did a lot of studying/writing at home. 3 out of my 5 years I was a TA, and the other two I was lucky enough to be funded. I had a great adviser who didn't care how much we were in the lab as long as we got results. I was also lucky enough to have a project that worked - because sometimes, stuff just doesn't work and thats when things get really frustrating.

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27. NoDrugsNoJobs on January 7, 2013 2:03 PM writes...

It wasn't until about 6 months to a year after my Phd that I realized I was capable of relaxing and that stress and suicidal feelings were not innate. I had a good relation with my advisor and enjoyed a very productive research experience in grad school but it was an intense period of personal growth and with that growth came a lot of stress. I think not being able to absolutely control the results of ones experiments leaves one stressful. It seemed that all of my dignity and self worth were directly tied to the success of the science I was attempting to advance. At that age, I did not have a history of accomplishment so I did not have the natural confidence that comes from overcoming problems and soldiering on - thats where I grew so much in grad school itself, I learned how to solve problems when the initial plans did not work.

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28. Fun Times on January 7, 2013 2:06 PM writes...

I am so grateful for the therapist I had for much of my time in grad school. He was very intelligent, he "got" my situation (with all the misconceptions of grad school out there), but he also refused to accept the madness of the situation as normal. I definitely appreciated his perspective.

After I had started seeing him, he happened to gain other grad students as clients, too. He told me "I can't believe how capricious, tyrranical these advisors are. The students are afraid to talk to them." He thought my own advisor, a famous name, was a d*ck (quoting him).

Many years and a new advisor later, I graduated, and I don't think I could have done it without seeking help.

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29. Another Derek on January 7, 2013 2:27 PM writes...

As far as I can tell, it's all about your advisor. I was fortunate enough to have good advisors for both PhD and postdoc (in the 1970s). Both worked hard but not crazily themselves, both expected hard but not crazy work from their students/postdocs, and neither was averse to occasional relaxation - my PhD advisor had a home swimming pool and in summer we'd all go over at least once a week to swim, drink sodas, and eat junk food.

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30. emjeff on January 7, 2013 3:37 PM writes...

It really is all about your advisor. Good advisors are worth their weight in gold. For me, it was never a question of working hard - that part I enjoyed. It was the psychotic behavior from my advisor that was so hard to bear.

I actually think that the Ph.D as designed currently should be abolished and a more structured program put into place, with a requirement that you publish 3-5 papers prior to graduating. The dissertation process is worthless, and the unstructured nature of the current situation is too prone to abuse by professors.

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31. Curious Wavefunction on January 7, 2013 3:57 PM writes...

Seconded. Both my advisors were wonderful mentors; easy going yet rigorous, whip smart yet respectful and always generous in assigning credit and empathizing with your problems. Vacation was liberally granted (upto 4 weeks) and nobody was expected to work more than 40 hours every week unless work demanded it. Basically they did a fantastic job in teaching us how to be both first-rate scientists and decent human beings worth emulating. I would go back to being a grad student with them in a heartbeat.

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32. Pharma NMR guy on January 7, 2013 4:50 PM writes...

I am surprised by some of the responses here. My PhD experience very much mirrored Derek's description and I always assumed that it was the same for most PhD chemists. I had a great advisor but the pressure and expectations were very high not only in my group but throughout the entire department. I typically worked 100 consecutive 14-16 hr days between days off. I did take a week off at christmas to see my family. In a way, the extra work paid off. I had a very productive PhD with lots of nice publications, got a great job straight out of school, learned a lot along the way, and made some life-long friends including my workaholic chemist wife. However, as Derek mentioned, the mental health cost was very high and it took me years to settle down and put things back in the proper perspective.

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33. Pharma NMR guy on January 7, 2013 4:51 PM writes...

I am surprised by some of the responses here. My PhD experience very much mirrored Derek's description and I always assumed that it was the same for most PhD chemists. I had a great advisor but the pressure and expectations were very high not only in my group but throughout the entire department. I typically worked 100 consecutive 14-16 hr days between days off. I did take a week off at christmas to see my family. In a way, the extra work paid off. I had a very productive PhD with lots of nice publications, got a great job straight out of school, learned a lot along the way, and made some life-long friends including my workaholic chemist wife. However, as Derek mentioned, the mental health cost was very high and it took me years to settle down and put things back in the proper perspective.

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34. LimitingRgt on January 7, 2013 4:56 PM writes...

One aspect that drove me especially crazy during grad school was my bosses apathetic attitude. My boss, as a tenured professor, is a student of everything and master of nothing. My biggest beef was his inability to participate in the world we live in. He cared very little about publishing papers and most of us barely left there with a letter. This of course made it that much harder to get jobs and post doc positions. While my boss didn't really pound on us to work awful hours, the flip side of that coin was that he only moderately cared about our research and careers.

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35. J on January 7, 2013 5:52 PM writes...

This post and the comments remind me of one of the key things that I learnt through doing a PhD: it's only worth doing if you're genuinely passionate about the research. Not just 'interested', but passionate, perhaps even obsessed. I try to pass that message on to anyone who tells me they're thinking of doing a PhD. I was a high-achieving undergraduate student who loved biochemistry, but was I passionate about doing research? Meh, sometimes yes, frequently no. On reflection, I don't think I regret doing the PhD (despite the effects on my mental health), but I should have left it there and not gone on to do a postdoc. Inadvertently putting myself through levels of misery equivalent to my first year of graduate school is sadly not made up for by the extra pennies I'm earning.

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36. Old Timer on January 7, 2013 5:54 PM writes...

To PhD students, I say:

1. Stand up for yourself (no doubt easier 35 years ago in the UK than in the USA then and since) - as important a life skill as your PhD, and bear in mind your supervisor needs you as much as you need him or her.

2. Work as long as it takes to be effective - take it from me, a respectable PhD and a productive postdoc can be achieved working 8 am to 6 pm, with weekends (and some Wednesday afternoons) doing sport, hiking and travelling.

3. Mutual respect is vital - make sure you find a PhD supervisor who feels right for you.

4. Keep a sense of proportion and beware perfectionism - writing my PhD thesis ground to a halt, thankfully only for a few days, then resumed supported by a few weeks on tranquillisers and a stiff late night drink.

5. Enjoy yourself! The gift of being young is only given once and once the gift is gone you've had your go...

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37. J. Peterson on January 7, 2013 6:18 PM writes...

Jorge Cham started drawing comics about the stresses of grad school while working on his PhD. The comic ( eventually became more interesting/lucrative than the research he was doing.

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38. Merckguy on January 7, 2013 8:34 PM writes...

I worked for Sam Danishefsky about 10 years ago and a lot of these comments ring loud and clear. Coming from a very abusive phd environment where 9-11 M-F plus weekend time was the norm, I went to Sam's lab expecting to be severly pounded on. Surprisingly he was the opposite. Gave me my molecule and asked a few questions here. But in actuality, I really only spoke to the guy 6 times not including group meeting.

What I took away from that both experiences was that the harder you pound on someone, the least productive they'll be and the faster their sanity will vanish. Conversely, if guys just let people do their damn jobs, good things happen for both parties.

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39. RL on January 7, 2013 8:51 PM writes...

When I was working at a large chemical company, a fellow Ph.D. chemist once made the observation of how self-confident the new B.S. chemical engineers hires were compared to new chemists, most of whom had Ph.D.’s and most of whom were nervous wrecks. He felt that the whole experience of graduate school was demeaning and counter-productive, even though one does learn quite a lot about chemical research. However, the price to one’s creativity and self-confidence was (is) simply too high.
And a lot of the bad work habits one sees in graduate school continued at this company – chemists competing too much with each other, trying to out-best each other, out-smart each other, and so on. Meanwhile, the engineers, even with all the responsibility that they were given from day one, functioned well as professionals when working with each other, rather than tearing each other apart.
The smartest, most successful, most productive industrial chemist I have ever known did not go to graduate school. He told me more than once that he was glad he did not get a Ph.D., since he was certain it would have ruined his drive and creativity. Sadly, I believe he was right.

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40. drug_hunter on January 7, 2013 9:28 PM writes...

The legend is, Sturdevant (Yale Chem) used to give people the key to the lab and say,"here is the key; it works 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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41. Anon on January 7, 2013 9:31 PM writes...

38: My friend just finished a postdoc with Danishefsky, and while he did like the guy (and while there's no doubt about the man's intellect), two things grated on him. a. Sam would call at 1 AM in the morning to check up. c. Coming back to lab after dinner and on Saturday was almost de rigueur and c. He would encourage unhealthy competition between lab members that would almost result in back-stabbing.

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42. Anonymous on January 7, 2013 9:33 PM writes...

I agree with RL's comment. I learned a great deal in grad school, but I remember how much enthusiasm and self-confidence I used to have at 21 before my advisor beat it out of me. Now that I'm in industry, "soft skills" often matter more than scientific ability, and I suspect I'd be better off if I could trade some of my chemistry skills to get my old self back!

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43. crni on January 8, 2013 4:02 AM writes...

Thanks for posting so honestly about this Derek. One of the issues is also that successful scientists often forget about the dog years or do not talk about it. It is important to see that a successful research chemist has had moments of self-doubt and reflection.

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44. Anonymous on January 8, 2013 8:12 AM writes...

crni - I suspect a lot of the folks perpetuating this system didn't have to go through it. The two most successful people I knew in grad school both had projects that went very well, and consequently had a relatively easy time. Both are now professors at big state universities, and probably completely oblivious to the hell most grad students go through!

I think a lot of it is luck - both of these folks were intelligent and hardworking, but so were a lot of my grad school classmates who are now teaching freshman chemistry at some community college.

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45. Nodz on January 8, 2013 9:28 AM writes...

Im not trying to discount anybodys experience, but I strongly suspect that a lot of the "18 hour days" pulled off were solely done for the sake of staying 18 hours in the lab. Then, this becomes a badge of honor - good shock workers! After a while it turns into a version of the four yorkshiremen skit. This arms race can really do a number on someones head (am I working hard enough? do I spend enough time in the lab?). If you are efficient with your time, I feel that there is no need to spend more than 50 hours a week in the lab (with some exceptions, of course). Current grad students - stop the madness! Dont buy into the macho b.s. about hours spent in the lab. Work hard, work efficient, and enjoy your life - you only get one.

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46. Jim on January 8, 2013 9:41 AM writes...

My grad school experience was a very positive one, despite the fact that I probably worked harder in those 4 and a half years than any other time in my life. One of the biggest factors for that was I spent a year prior to graduate school working in the lab as a technician. It taught me how the lab ran, how to work in the lab for a full day, and gave me an idea of how much work actually went into generating enough data for a manuscript. But most of all, the positive experience I had was due to my advisor. Early on, he told me that my job was to focus on finishing (and of course, doing good science). He never viewed grad students as cheap labor and took his responsibility of training scientists very seriously. I am forever grateful to him for that.

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47. marklar on January 8, 2013 8:02 PM writes...

A nice post to vent old frustrations.
Although my grad school advisor was not a big name guy in chemistry, I can relate to many of these horror stories. I remember some group meetings lasting 3-4 hours (mind you that there were less than 5 people in the group) and a few of those times people were literally driven to tears all because of the advisor wanting to make a point. Thick skin was/is definitely a prerequisite.

I have heard other people in the past, including some authors of the comments in this post, talk about having to work smart and efficiently. That was expected. However my advisor's sentiment was: if you were able to get a lot done in 8 hours, then you should be able get even more done in 16 hours. And EVEN MORE done when you include Saturdays & Sundays. Of course the fact that my advisor was a horrible manager didn't help him realize that productivity doesn't scale linearly with hours worked and drops off exponentially as sleep and sanity decrease. It didn't matter though. It was pointless to try to convince him otherwise. I put in the hours, was fortunately productive, graduated, and gladly moved on.

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48. Anonymous BMS Researcher on January 8, 2013 10:39 PM writes...

After one bad day I kicked a stone in the parking lot so hard I wound up at the University Hospital getting an X-ray of my ankle (turned out I hadn't broken bones, just sprained it).

Phd Comics is great, and there's even a movie -- most of the cast are actual grad students. If you get the DVD be sure to view all the supplemental material also.

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49. OrganicLOL on January 9, 2013 1:13 AM writes...

If your PI is a dick, then you have the wrong PI. If all PIs at your institution are terrible, then you are at the wrong institution. If most PIs in your field are terrible (organic chem), then you are in the wrong field. I left a PhD program in organic for a PhD program in materials science and engineering. I now feel like my life has a purpose. There's a reason why funding is becoming so difficult to obtain in organic synthesis. Making the next neato alkaloid natural product is a gross waste of taxpayer dollars. An unfortunate consequence - PIs get cranky and take it out on their students.

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50. overthetop on January 9, 2013 10:14 AM writes...

There is a very good reason that after 5 years of graduate school...I have an MS and not a PhD. Screw that mess. A combo of an abrasive advisor and the fact that I was in a synthetic carbohydrate chemistry lab made for a very easy exit decision. Turns out I made the better choice than my fellow grunts who got their PhD's after 6+ years...I've been constantly employed, and most of them have not.

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51. S. on January 9, 2013 12:04 PM writes...

The P.I. has a huge responsibility towards the young student. Many P.I.s think that they have an employer role towards the student which is simply wrong. A P.I. is a mentor, a person who will guide, help, and support the young student. Being successful only in grad money does not make him/her successful. I've seen many cases where the student is lost, the P.I. does not care and the student just leaves the program. Who is wrong here? The 'lazy' student or the lazy P.I. who failed.

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52. pharma professional on January 11, 2013 1:42 PM writes...

It always comes down to the 'local operating environment' - the PI, their lab, and the department culture. If you have a bad vibe about the PI or their lab (usually go hand in hand), then don't work there. Hang around them long enough, you turn into one of them. I was able to earn a chem PhD (synthesis) in 4yr from a top 20 chem department in the US, and have been gainfully employed for several years. Besides luck, hard work (70-80 hr/wk), and funding, I had a marvelous advisor (nothing like the horror storied listed). While not the biggest name in the field, he was a secure person and family man who really mentored,trained, and respectfully challenged people. At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own success, not your PI. So as in any field, proceed cautiously...

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53. Frust Rate on January 18, 2013 5:06 AM writes...

I totally agree with Derek! "Getting out as soon as possible" was definitely (and sadly) the biggest "driving force" during the final year of my PhD.
And today, after a Postdoc and 4 years in industry, I still consider my PhD (at ETH Zurich) as the biggest waste of time in my life. But I am obviously not alone. There is an ongoing incredible waste of skilled individuals in the chemical world (academia and industry). While academia is almost completely out of touch with reality, in industry, total bureaucracy is suffocating every individual effort. There definitely are more attractive fields than chemistry! I think a PhD chemist has the potential to do more creative things in life than being held as a slave in a Good Manufacturing Paranoia (GMP) system.

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