There is crying in science. That’s okay.

People cry. Scientists are people. Therefore, scientists cry. So why is it that scientists and academics can get so freaked out by a colleague or student crying?

I cried through my entire defense. I was completely embarrassed by it at the time, but, fortunately, my committee carried on without making a fuss over it. I think several things contributed to me crying in that situation. First, I was stressed. For me, crying is very much a stress release (though, fortunately, generally holds off until after the stressful situation is over – just not in this particular situation!) Second, I had just finished giving my talk, which ended with the much longer acknowledgments that are typical of defense talks. That included acknowledging my father. My father and I have always been very close, and he was my field assistant for two summers when I was a grad student. Then, while I was finishing up, he had a major stroke. So, his attendance at my defense talk was a huge, emotional event. It was very hard to keep it together after talking about him. Third, my defense started out with the chapter that I was least confident in, which was a strategic mistake on my part.* Fourth, I’m a woman. I love this piece by Ben Barres on women in science. Barres has a somewhat unusual perspective on this, as someone who is transgender. Most relevant to this post is that, in the box on his personal experiences, he says:

There was one innate difference that I was surprised to learn is apparently under direct control of testosterone in adults – the ability to cry easily, which I largely lost upon starting hormone treatment. Likewise, male-to-female transgendered individuals gain the ability to cry more readily.

Or, as one of my mentors put it when I discussed my defense after the fact, “If we’re going to have more women in science – and I hope we will – we’re going to have more crying in science”. The Barres piece came out a few months after my defense, and those lines made a huge impression on me when I read them.

I was thinking about this again recently after seeing some tweets where a woman scientist who cried at a meeting was told that she needed to not act like a teenage girl. Clearly that is not a supportive response. But it reminded me that this is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about. I also think about this whenever I hear a colleague say that students cry in their offices to try to manipulate them. I’m sure that happens sometimes, but I’d guess that, much more often, the student is mortified about having cried in front of his/her professor. And this topic comes up sometimes when I’m meeting with grad students and postdocs (most often while traveling to give seminars). They generally seem to be shocked to hear that I cried through my defense.

As is probably true of most faculty, I have had students cry in my office. As far as I can tell, it seems to be mostly caused by frustration, anxiety, stress, or embarrassment. When it happens, I generally make sure a box of tissues is within arm’s reach for the student, reassure them that they shouldn’t be concerned about crying, and offer that we can take a break and resume the meeting another time if they’d prefer. As many people know from personal experience, once you start crying, it can be very hard to stop. And, if the person is focused on just trying to stop crying (and on embarrassment about crying), it might not be the most productive meeting. Though, at the same time, I always wonder if this sends the message that crying is wrong or unacceptable. Part of me wants to treat it the way my committee did – just ignore it and continue on with the meeting. I want to be compassionate and understanding without stigmatizing crying, and it can be hard to figure out what approach will best accomplish those goals. (Thoughts and suggestions would be very much appreciated!)

The other thing that can make it tricky to figure out how to respond is that, as was the case with me crying at my defense, the crying may be partially (or entirely) related to something going on in one’s personal life. This again makes it tricky to figure out whether to reach out to the person to check in to make sure things are okay, or to ignore it (to hopefully send the message that crying isn’t a big deal). Plus, if the person cried in a (semi)public setting, I want to avoid having the person be smothered by well-meaning people checking in on them. Still, I tend to err on the side of checking in. I don’t want someone who is going through a rough patch to feel like no one cares. In these cases, I try to reach out in a way that makes it clear that it’s totally fine for them to ignore my email, but that I’m happy to meet if that would be of interest to them.

In the end, I hope that we see more crying in science – because, as discussed above, that will probably mean that there are more women in science. But what I most hope is that people stop viewing crying as someone being immature or emotionally manipulative, and instead view it as a natural form of emotion that simply indicates that the person is passionate or stressed or concerned or tired or anxious or frustrated – or, more simply, that they are human.



*This chapter wasn’t the first chapter in my dissertation, but the first chapter had already been published, so wasn’t discussed much.

97 thoughts on “There is crying in science. That’s okay.

  1. Thanks for this! Yes – more crying in science, and everywhere.
    It is so important that we get to cry. All of us. Crying is a natural human response which helps us heal when difficult feelings come up. After crying for a while we are often more able to think and be more relaxed and pleased with ourselves and life.
    Good on you for crying in your defense.
    It is my experience that the best response to crying most of the time is simply to listen with care and, attentiveness and relaxation.
    It allows the person crying to show the feelings they are grappling with, without us interrupting their process, while they can openly understand we care and are relaxed about the situation.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. And you’re right, crying is such a stress release and it truly helps in stressful situations.
    There’s such a negative stigma around crying – and that females are more “emotional” but we all have feelings and things that stress us out, and if crying helps, then cry. It shouldn’t be associated to a gender and it shouldn’t be a negative thing.

    Thank you so much for this post! Preach! 🙌

  3. Loved your post. I too hope there are more women in science but it is extremely tough to be a woman scientist, especially with children – it really is enough to make you cry. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male scientist crying but they aren’t immune to the pressures. I was so pleased recently when one of the students I helped finally got his PhD after about two years of depression. I didn’t cry in my PhD viva but I did cry afterwards!

  4. I’m an emotional person, so pretty much every emotion you can think of, I express through crying. So right on! Love this post.
    Ps also I have had friends cry in our professors’ office. A lot of the time it is an outside situation with another part of their life, and the stress of meeting over maybe a bad grade, causes the flood dam to break. So it is nice when someone takes the time to show concern 🙂

  5. This is a very nice topic indeed. I believe almost everyone reading this will be able to relate this to their own lives. Crying is often considered as your weak point, trying to emphasize, you are immature, impractical, do not have enough strength to hold up things within yourselves. But, this post of yours has given a new dimension to tears. Being emotional and sensitive is not bad after all. I loved your ending note – “simply, that they are human.”

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  7. There’s nothing wrong with crying. It’s how we, as sensible humans, should express our emotions. When all is lost and when all seems out of grasp, crying is honestly the most realistic option. I’m sure most human beings have been in a similar situation that you’ve described in the blog. And in the end, you are absolutely correct in that we are all human and therefore attain human qualities.

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  9. I was reminded of this post just 2 days ago, when for just the second time, I cried in science. The first time this happened was when I described to a colleague how a bout with leukemia caused me to switch disciplines, and return to ecology after building up a pretty lucrative career in biochemistry.

    2 days ago I published a manuscript many years in the making, and involving two years of critical writing & editing. Gosh, I felt so darned good when it was finally, at long last, published. So I had a couple of glasses of wine and decided to go for a walk through Denver, just enjoying the moment. And then it hit me- a flood of emotion, and the tears streamed down my face for a good 20 minutes. I didn’t see that coming, given all of my emotions were very uplifting prior to this.

    But the crying was uplifting too. The paper involved so much more than just the science. It was the culmination of 35 years in science. The pursuit of an idea that began so very long ago. A realization of a dream, for me anyway. And it also involved some profoundly deep connections within my family- two very tragic deaths that altered the course of my existence. My mother’s last words to me were, “I can die happy knowing one day you will succeed.” So this wasn’t just my dream, but her’s too.

    I never was much for crying. I count on one hand the number of times it happened in my adult life. This was one of those times I shall not forget.

  10. I got choked up while explaining that I turned down my dream postdoc because it would mean leaving my partner of several years. My current advisors said “this is a tissue free office, no crying”. In my experience, there is no crying allowed in science. for better or worse this is just how it is.

    • Ugh, I’m sorry. It is totally normal to get choked up in that situation, and I’m sorry your advisors think it’s not.

  11. I AM SO GLAD THIS IS NOT JUST ME. I thought it was! I thought I was the only person who cried in front of other people in stressful science situations.

    I read most of this blog post with my hand over my eyes… even though I’m on my own in the room. I could not be more embarrassed about it!

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  16. I cried all the way through my senior comprehensive oral exam in physics, which was the test I had to pass to graduate as an undergraduate physics major. Very embarrassing. I passed, though!

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  19. Dear Meghan really glad I found your post. Over my phD years I have learned to embrace crying. Bef PhD I used to be a cryless rock and I thought it was academic life that was turning me into a crying baby. Coincidentally, my crying bouts started with PhD and at the same time of starting hormone treatment for a thyroid condition. As a behavioral ecologist I found very amusing to monitor my behavior pre and post hormone manipulation and it’s true…now I have learned to embrace it and understand that crying happens for many reasons. If anything I have become more human than I used to be and now I am able to understand why some people might me more sensitive than others.

  20. I have always been and always will be a huge cry baby. When I was a child, I got in trouble at school a lot for my crying. Even as a child, I had come to the conclusion that crying is a “natural form of emotion” and should not be stigmatized. As an adult, I still believe this. Thank you for sharing your views on this matter.

    As to how best to deal with a crying person…
    Obviously, there is no single best answer to this question. Every situation and every person will need a different response. I just want to say the not-so-obvious: I have on some occasions found a desire to continue my task at hand, despite my inability to stop the tears and despite my emotions still being in awry. Did you feel the same desire during your own tearful defense? I would say, for a person in that state, don’t try to stop them.

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  22. This was a really nice piece, and informative (I didn’t know that about testosterone inhibiting one’s ability to show stress or sorrow or joy, even, through crying). One idea about tissues: sometimes immediately offering tissues is taken to mean, “stop crying,” dry your tears (and don’t make anymore). In peacemaking circles/restorative practices where people often connect with their emotions and sometimes cry, I have seen tissues offered immediately and the person immediately stop crying. Not exactly what we want.

  23. I’ve just come across this post and wanted to thank you for having the courage to write about this. The fact that so many of your peers were shocked that you cried in your defense was, sadly, not surprising to me at all. During my PhD, I cried on and off through my whole qualifying exam (3 hrs), during at least two annual review committee meetings, and during numerous one-on-one meetings with committee members (including every single meeting with one particular professor). I knew how my committee felt about it – they were not shy in their reactions in the moment, to my face – but I couldn’t believe how many people, particularly other female grad students, would openly disparage even the thought of crying during a meeting or oral exam. Their offhand comments only made me feel worse, of course, and increased my anxiety that I might cry the next time around (making it more likely that I would!). So, yes, the atmosphere and culture around crying can be pretty toxic.
    I finally decided after a true breakdown at home one day, in which I could not STOP crying, that maybe therapy was a good idea. I went into it looking for ways to stop crying in stressful situations, hoping to fix what I saw as my problem of crying all the time. It was very difficult to hear what my therapist tried to tell me from day one: crying is not bad, in and of itself. Crying in a stressful situation is a normal and healthy response and coping mechanism. It was only after I could accept this idea that we could really start to make progress on the real problems, which were to do with my extremely high expectations for myself, harsh self-criticism and lacking self-praise, etc. As it turned out, working through some of those issues helped tone down the extreme anxiety I was feeling that triggered many of those crying jags. I still cry when I’m overwhelmed by stress or anxiety, but the bar for what feels overwhelming has moved. Ultimately, after years of being terrified that I would cry during my defense, I didn’t – but only because I had developed a healthier mindset around my research and my life, not because I had found some trick to stop myself from crying.
    You asked about what to do when a student or colleague starts to cry in front of you… Maybe two years later you have this figured out, but for what it’s worth, my own personal preference was always for my crying to be ignored. My advisor took this strategy, and there were times when I would start to cry during a meeting with him, would get myself a tissue (always in sight/reach but rarely actually offered, which I appreciated), and within a minute or two it would pass. If he had asked “is everything okay? do we need to stop?” (either in kindness or in discomfort) I would have cried more in the moment, and felt more horrible and embarrassed about it afterward. The saving grace for me in moving past these instances was that I could reassure myself that we had still had a productive meeting. Besides, when the meeting itself (or the topic being discussed) is the source of the extreme stress, rescheduling might just mean two meetings that result in tears.

    • Thanks for sharing! A lot of what you wrote resonated with me. This stood out as something that is probably true for so many academics:
      “It was only after I could accept this idea that we could really start to make progress on the real problems, which were to do with my extremely high expectations for myself, harsh self-criticism and lacking self-praise, etc.”
      It’s so easy to have that negative self-talk and, for me, to frame it as self-deprecating humor. It helped me when others called me out on this sort of thing, so now I’ve started to make an effort to (gently!) note when others are doing this, too. Perfectionism and high standards are so, so, so common in academia. Obviously they help with some things, but they can backfire!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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