I recently got some good work news. (Hooray!) When I heard, one of the first things I did was text a group of friends who are also academics. They have become an essential source of support for me. I wanted to tell them the good news, yes, but I also wanted to thank them. I had almost given up on this thing over the summer—I wasn’t sure it was worth the time I was investing in it, and thought it didn’t stand much of a chance. They told me it was worth it and gave me the encouragement to go forward with it. So, without them, this good thing may well not have happened.
And that’s just one example of a time when I benefitted from my invisible support network. Both in Atlanta and here in Michigan, I’ve benefitted immensely from this behind-the-scenes support. These networks help with specific situations: Is it worth applying for this thing? What do I do about this tricky work situation? I think this behavior by person X seems not okay—am I being overly sensitive? What do you think of the wording on this really important email—is it too strong? Did I screw up when I did Y? I can’t decide between A & B—can you help me think them through? There’s also the general venting and commiserating and celebrating and checking in on each other. These support networks aren’t visible to outsiders, but they feel essential to my ability to do what I do.
It’s possible that the title of this post is an overstatement—maybe I could make it without my behind-the-scenes support networks?—but I’m really, really glad I don’t have to. I don’t want people who will agree with everything I say, but I do want people who I know will be supportive, even if they’re challenging me.
There is general agreement that too many graduate students experience poor mental health and that more needs to be done to address this problem. A recent well-controlled study found graduate students were at 2.4x greater risk of common mental health disorders. That number won’t surprise anyone in academia—it doesn’t take much time in academia to realize that poor mental health is unfortunately common.
There is still much work to be done to better understand the problem and the factors that contribute to it. But there is also a need to make changes that might help improve graduate student mental health. To list some of the specific things I’ve been thinking about:
I care deeply about mental health in academia (and have blogged about it in the past, including here and here and here). Given that, I was really interested when a recent paper by Evans et al. came out on graduate student mental health. However, when I read it, two things stood out to me: it didn’t mention IRB approval, and the most striking conclusion – that graduate students experience anxiety and depression at 6x the rate of the general population – is not supported by the study. The key messages of this blog post are:
- the authors did have IRB approval to do this work, but Nature Biotechnology did not know that when they published the study. The editor of Nature Biotechnology claims that, since they published this in their Career & Recruitment section, it is not a research article and therefore didn’t require peer review or questions about IRB. This is problematic, as the study is clearly written and presented as presenting new findings, and journals have a responsibility to ensure ethical oversight of work they publish.
- While the Evans et al. paper claims “Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” that claim is not supported by their study. Their survey was not a representative sample of the graduate student body (it was a voluntary survey, distributed via social media and email), but they compare it to a representative survey of the general population to get the 6x statistic.
Again, I want to be clear: the authors did have IRB approval for the work, but I only know that because I wrote the authors directly (after being dissatisfied with the responsiveness at Nature Biotechnology), and Nature Biotechnology did not know they had IRB approval when they published the study. In addition, this study does not provide evidence that grad students are six times as likely as the general population to experience depression and anxiety.
Graduate student mental health is really important, so we need to get as accurate a picture as we can of the current situation regarding graduate student mental health. As discussed below, a study (by Levecque et al.) with a more carefully controlled comparison group found a 2.4 increase in risk in graduate students compared to the highly educated general population. This is definitely something that is still a problem and that still needs to be addressed, but it’s not a 6 times greater risk.
To expand on these points more:
As I mentioned in my post last week, just before I headed to the airport, Terry McGlynn posted a list of topics that he wishes people would blog about. Given that I was already planning on doing some #airportblogging, this was really tempting! A couple of his ideas especially stood out to me. The first was about how graduate students can get experience that will prepare them for non-academic positions; I wrote about that last week. The second was this:
-Thoughts about parenting and doing science and academia. (I have written about being a parent and a spouse on the rare occasion, but at a very young age, my son asked for privacy about these matters, and I’ve respected this.) I realize I should be talking about being a parent-in-science more often, because this is a huge part of our lives, and keeping this sequestered just amplifies gender inequities.
I’ve written regularly about the juggling act of parenting and doing science and academia, so it wasn’t the first part that really caught my attention. It was the parenthetical bit. Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how quite a few people I know are juggling so many big things but, for the most part, only close friends or colleagues know about what they’re dealing with. A partial list of the issues includes personal health conditions; aging parents (or death of a parent); partners who have a chronic illness or major injury; non-trivial things with children; infertility; financial struggles; harassment and/or bullying; and major work upheaval.
I’ve been thinking a lot about imposter syndrome lately – both because of feeling impostery myself, and because of seeing others who are feeling impostery. I find it helpful to realize how common it is for people to feel like imposters – sometimes I think that pretty much everyone is using the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy. But it’s also disheartening when I realize that people who I think are fantastic scientists, teachers, and/or communicators also feel like frauds.
There are three particular flavors of imposter syndrome that I’ve particularly been thinking about. I wanted to write a post on them but surprisingly (to me, at least) I could only picture them in cartoon form. I suspect part of the reason for that is the influence of this really great cartoon on filtering out the positive and focusing on the negative. So, here are three poorly drawn cartoons on the topic. I feel a little silly sharing them (yes, of course I’m feeling impostery about a post on imposter syndrome!), but here goes:
One year ago, I was sitting at my computer, working on a post in which I talked* about having an anxiety disorder. My hope was that, by being open about having an anxiety disorder, I could help reduce some of the stigma associated with mental health problems, be a more vocal advocate for mental health in academia, and could help other academics with mental health issues know that they are not alone and that help is available and worth seeking. I think the post succeeded in those goals.
Below, I talk more about how people responded, give my thoughts – as well as some crowdsourced from twitter – on how to be a good colleague or advisor to someone with anxiety, talk about ongoing bias against mental health issues in academia and how that might affect early career folks, and summarize some of the key messages that I think are most important related to mental health, anxiety, and academia.
A few years ago, I asked a senior colleague for feedback on something I’d written. He agreed, and a couple of days later, sent an email saying “Is there a good time to discuss this?” I immediately thought it must mean he’d really hated what I’d written. I replied, suggesting a few times in the next couple of days. In his reply, he choose the latest of those times, saying he needed more time to mull it over. That confirmed my worst fears – it was so bad he needed extra time to figure out how to tell me how bad it was! After spending some time getting no other work done because I was so distracted, I decided to write to say that, based on his emails, I was worried that there was a major problem with what I’d written. He replied immediately saying not to worry, that it read very well, and that he just had a few ideas that he thought would be easier to discuss in person.
I was thinking of this situation again recently when I was emailing a student in my lab. She’d emailed about a proposal she’s working on, laying out two different options for a fellowship proposal she’s working on. My thinking, when reading the ideas, was that both of them could work, but that there might also be other options, and that it would probably be best to discuss all the options in person. Looking at my schedule and comparing with hers, I could see that we wouldn’t be able to meet until the end of the week. So, I initially wrote a reply that said, “Can we meet Friday at 11 to chat about this?” In the brief pause before hitting send, I realized that, if I were in her shoes, I would spend the rest of the week trying to interpret what that email had meant, most likely assuming it meant something bad. I then realized that could be easily addressed by instead saying something like, “Both of these ideas look good to me, but there might be other options worth considering, too. Are you free to meet Friday at 11 to discuss the options more?”
After writing about being a scientist who deals with anxiety, one question I’ve been asked repeatedly is what faculty can do to make their labs friendlier to students with mental health issues. I’m generally unsure of how to respond to this – so much depends on each particular situation. But avoiding unnecessary vagueness in emails is one pretty straightforward, simple thing that people can do to make academia friendlier to everyone, but perhaps especially to those with underlying anxiety issues.
A couple of nights ago, I checked the weather forecast for the next day, in part to see how cold it would be for my morning run. I was surprised to see that the forecast was for 3-6 inches of snow overnight. (I hadn’t realized a storm was coming!) I had no interest in trying to slog through a run in 3-6 inches of wet, unshoveled snow in the dark, so decided I would work when I first got up in the morning (in that wonderfully quiet time when I’m the only one in the house who is awake) and go to the gym at the end of my work day. And that’s what I did. I got up, made myself some tea, sat down to check twitter, and then started working, which included replying to some emails that had been hanging around in my inbox.
That was when I remembered a conversation I’d recently had about whether it’s okay to send work emails outside of “typical” work hours. This is a topic that comes up on twitter sometimes, too, as well as on facebook. The concern is that, if you’re sending emails early in the day or in the evening or on weekends: 1) you have an unhealthy work/life balance and/or 2) you are sending a message to others that they should be working at those times, too. I fully, completely support having interests outside of work, and think that working long hours is unhealthy and unproductive. But I don’t think the way to achieve healthy work habits is to be proscriptive about when people work, or to shame others for working outside the hours that we deem acceptable.
Last year, when I wrote a post with advice on strategies (and reasons) for working more efficiently, the first strategy on my list was:
- Recognize what is “good enough”. As the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good. And recognize that “good enough” will vary between different tasks. It’s okay if the email you are sending to your lab about lab meeting isn’t perfectly composed.
In this post, I want to go into that idea more, since I think it’s really important (and since it’s one I need to continually remind myself of!)
Note from Meg: This guest post (which starts below the break) is a follow up to my post on life as an anxious scientist, where I talked about having an anxiety disorder and some of my strategies for managing it. The post below was written by a graduate student who wishes to remain anonymous. It summarizes that student’s experience with an anxiety disorder, and includes information that I think will be useful to students and advisors. My plan is to have a follow up post in the future with more thoughts on the topic.