Grad school

Getting in my posts today! Zuska has a great post up today about recent studies on grad school and depression. I’ll admit that when I read the first few sentences in my feed, my reaction was, “I’ll click through and read this because I identify with that, but I mean, DUH, more funding wasted on studies about things we already know!”

But I have to say, having read the post, that those statistics are staggering, and worth having gathered. The researchers found that more than half of grad students feel so depressed they have a hard time functioning. More than half. That’s on the one hand not surprising, having survived grad school myself, but on the other hand it’s awful – and not acceptable. Zuska suggests some excellent options and resources that depressed students can consider to help with this process, but I am wondering if there is anything constructive we can do about this problem. As she points out, taking a leave of absence is usually not feasible in science fields, especially if you are working under the time-constraints of 3-year grants – you can’t just leave off where you are and pick it up later to finish. In some fields there is probably also the risk of scooping. Both of those things mean that if you take much time off, your advisor will probably have to finish and publish the study, and if you come back you have to start over with new research. Once you get to a certain point, starting over sounds even worse than sticking it out, so almost everyone seems to either stick with it through either occasional/mild or severe and debilitating depression, or quit and change career paths. Lots of people who do succeed and graduate are so turned off to the academic culture that they leave academia with their degree and never look back – and while for some, I think that’s a good choice because they might like another work environment better, I think there are plenty of others who would have liked academia just fine if grad school hadn’t shat all over their souls. Or something.

So, what IS it about grad school that does this? And is it something fixable? Is it the “academic culture” we are always talking about? I don’t think it’s just that, because most career academics seem relatively mentally healthy, at least compared to grad students (neglecting the year before the final tenure review). I do think it might be related to how that culture treats underlings.

Here I have made a list of the obvious differences between the graduate student and the faculty member experience in academia, to help solve this quandary:

  1. Pay. Most graduate students live hand-to-mouth at least much of the time, which is tenable at first but after a while, less so. People who don’t earn enough to have a little extra to save for emergencies, or to go out to dinner now and then, or to buy some video games, have a higher incidence of depression than the rest of the population. In general, people who earn enough to do those things without being fabulously wealthy are the happiest, if I remember that study correctly. Constantly worrying about money, or having to deal with episodic crises, are both really, really unhealthy and exhausting and depressing for many of us. Particularly since it usually prevents students from joining a gym, or eating food that makes them feel better, or all kinds of things that can tangentially help with depression before it gets to the point of needing outside help.
  2. Benefits. I almost put this in with pay, because it’s related, but it often ends up being a separate animal – particularly because we are talking about mental health here. Many graduate students now have basic health benefits, but not all, and often the situation is less than ideal (limited to one clinic, limited to a certain number of visits, high copays or deductibles). Most have no dental insurance, which can put a serious drain in point 1 if something happens like, oh, an emergency root canal in your 4th year (no, of course I don’t speak from experience, why do you ask?). If you have an illness, the time and money involved with getting proper care with inadequate coverage is an additional drain.
  3. I think both faculty and students work ridiculously long hours and are under a lot of pressure, especially near deadlines, but the pressure is… different. I don’t know very many faculty who pull all-nighters anymore, and maybe that’s age, but since most grad students are at least getting close to 30 by the time they graduate, it can’t only be age. Some of that is the advisor-student relationship (see below), and I think some of it is also the special status of a student and how they are treated by departments and institutions.
  4. That treatment, like some aspects of even the best advisor-student relationships, is essentially and at its root infantilizing. There’s no room for upward movement in an apprentice-mentor relationship, until you achieve the end goal and suddenly become an adult. I think being what amounts to an apprentice has its advantages, because of the intense one-on-one mentoring and guidance, but when it lasts 5-7 years or even longer it usually starts to feel like there is no end in sight. And keeps feeling that way for a long time. It feels like you will never come into your own, never have full autonomy about even basic life decisions, and, to make matters worse, never achieve a basic status that lets you go on and do other things. I think a big part of why grad school is depressing for the majority of people is that it lasts so long. And to be fair, this varies drastically depending on the student, the program, and the advisor. But there is still always some of this there.

Some of these things can’t really be remedied. I’m not in favor of a revolution to overthrow the whole academic system, and I think there are a lot of merits to it. I don’t think most grad schools can pay their students more, though the benefits desperately DO need to be improved. But the rest of those “culture” problems are probably innate to it being an apprenticeship system.

Maybe there need to be more “outs” – more checks to ensure that students have options and choices. Feeling like you have some autonomy, as an adult, is pretty critical. I think some of that depression might be related to this feeling of being trapped, with much less free will than you expected. You have to satisfy the expected course requirements; you have to meet the expectations of the idiosyncratic and specialized members of your committee to pass your exams; you have to jump through a series of hoops to prove you are capable and can think critically on your feet (and thus do well in the academic community, because that is how it works out there); and you have to have a successful* study that results in a glowing thesis of brilliance and beauty. Usually on a subject dictated to some varying degree by the grant(s) under which you are funded.

Students need choices and some room to move, while still being held accountable. They need to be able to graduate even if studies do not go perfectly, because that’s how science works and a degree should not be withheld for years until the results meet predictions. At the same time, very short time limits to funding can be equally damaging to theses. The system needs to both reign in that rogue, loud, convincing committee member who wants more more more before you can graduate, and allow for some flexibility.

So I guess my suggestions are vague today.

* This can be a problem when your study goes drastically wrong, experiments repeatedly fail, or the results are too shocking to be taken at face value without further study. I think advisors and committees forget that wrapping up a study is not equivalent to proving you are capable of being a good scientist – if nothing else, because nothing is ever wrapped-up.


Humans and hazards

Galeras (Jan. 18, 2009)

Galeras (Jan. 18, 2009)

Erik Klemetti has a great post up today about the age-old problem of balancing hazards mitigation with people’s real-life needs and attachments.

This is a problem I’ve thought about a lot, though I did not end up going into a career in hazards work as originally planned. I, like Erik, have not had to choose between keeping my property and livelihood on the one hand and ensuring my survival on the other.

On its face, objectively, the choice should be a no-brainer, especially with some scientific understanding of both probability and the impacts natural hazards can have. If there is a significant chance of death if I stay, and if my property is almost certainly going to be wiped out anyway, I want to think I would choose to survive and leave my house behind without looking back. But I know reality is a lot messier than that. What if I had to abandon my pets to do that? What if I had built that house, or my parents or grandparents had built it? What if my entire livelihood was tied up in that property and those possessions, and I would be left broke and with no prospects if I left? What if I already had nothing left except the one piece of land I had slavishly worked for a decade just to scrape by? To make it even more complicated, what if I even had spiritual or religious convictions tied to that place, and felt I could not leave without losing part of myself or my roots or my place in the universe? Because that happens, too.

And what if, on top of it, I had left once before, and it was a false alarm, and I had returned only to find my house ransacked, heirlooms taken, things precious to me broken or stolen? Because anyone in hazards forecasting knows that forecasting is not a sure thing. Hell, people complain about weather forecasting almost every day, and that’s looking at a system we can largely observe and document with massive amounts of data collection. Those forecasts are developed using extremely sophisticated models on supercomputers. Volcano monitoring is hindered by a basic lack of access to the system. It’s almost all remote sensing of something we cannot see and can usually only poorly image (though our techniques improve all the time), in individual volcanic systems that are drastically different from one another so there are no hard and fast rules; behavior that is normal and day-to-day at one volcano can indicate an eruption is coming in 60 seconds or less at another. Obvious example: there has been a notable increase and change in the types of activity seen at Mt. Redoubt in the past couple months, but the news media is losing interest because the volcano seems stuck in a holding pattern of elevated seismic and fumarolic activity without actually erupting (yet). But it can still erupt any day now.

Anyone who works in disaster management knows that despite the huge uncertainties in forecasting, the price of being wrong is incredibly high. If you call for evacuations because of immediate risk, and that magma gets halfway up the conduit and then changes its mind and goes back to its happy magma chamber, those evacuated people will be angry. Usually there is looting and property loss in the wake of any evacuation (ahem, governments, please take note of that some more). People evacuated during a false alarm will be far, far less likely to take any future warnings seriously. On the other hand, if you don’t call it when you see it, and the thing erupts, those are dead people on your hands. The odds of being wrong one way or the other are pretty damn high.

This isn’t even considering the complications that come up when local government (and occasionally military) has its own agenda that is not necessarily the same as the scientists’ (which is usually to save people, get everyone out of harm’s way… and then maybe backtrack a little bit to watch the spectacular show when the thing really goes. They don’t call them volcano cowboys for nothing). Look at Pinatubo, the acclaimed “success story” of volcanic forecasting. Up until the end, the U.S. military resisted removing personnel from the military base, despite the scientists’ warnings, and meanwhile the local government was reluctant to evacuate people because of that risk that it might not be necessary. So the scientists, the government, and the military were operating at three different hazard alert levels, simultaneously. In the end evacuations were successful, and the eruption was enormous. But the lesson I take from Pinatubo is that hazards mitigation is messy, and the human element is unpredictable and complicated.

Chaiten with lightning

Chaiten with lightning

So what to do about Chaiten? I think, ultimately, the government is right. I really sympathize with the people from Chaiten in that they want to go back, and their voices deserve to be heard more than they have been, but in the end I want them to survive. I think I lean towards being conservative when it comes to saving human lives in the face of disasters, even as I feel a lot of compassion and sympathy for the losses they face by leaving their homes. In fact, I struggle with the reluctance to leave, maybe because I have a real appreciation for the danger. I mean, I have a hard time understanding why people are and should be moving back to the parts of New Orleans that are significantly below sea level.

I suppose this comes very much from a place of privilege, because my family and career roots are not and never have been located somewhere threatened by immediate natural disaster. So I welcome other viewpoints on this subject. I think it’s a very tough question that deserves discussion. Have you ever been evacuated for a natural disaster risk? Have you been in communities that experienced hazards, or false alarms? Would you have a hard time leaving your home in an evacuation?

On the internet

This one is for laughs: One of the search terms that people have recently used to find my blog was, “why so many fatties on the internet?” Indeed. WHY are there so many fatties? Well, I hope you found the answer to your question here! Ha!

Racism and monkeys

jay smooth has a great response to the story this week about the stupid and racist New York Post cartoon comparing the Obama administration to the shooting (by white cops) of a chimpanzee. As usual, I think he hits this right on the money. 1) The cartoon is undeniably racist, and intent doesn’t matter, 2) this isn’t exactly a surprise coming from the Post, and 3) it would be stupid even if it weren’t racist.

ETA: Okay, because I am ridiculous, I just HAVE to edit this to add that I in fact have a massive blog-crush on jay smooth. Like whoa. It might even have leaked a little into real-crush territory, as much as that is possible for someone with whom I have never actually spoken. I mean, good god, man, you are awesome, and brilliant, and more than a little attractive, and your cat is so cute. damn. Okay, that is all.


Quick hit to post a heads-up about the Galeras eruption that just occurred (while the news media are all staring at Redoubt, waiting). Galeras was a Decade Volcano (i.e. a volcano scientists chose to focus on last decade because of its potential for catastrophic eruptions directly threatening large numbers of people), and it impacts a lot of people who live near and on its slopes. (It’s also notorious in the geoscience community for having killed volcanologists and tourists in a tragic accident, which then spurred controversial and somewhat sensationalized books about and by volcanologists.) Galeras has been actively erupting on and off for years, and this seems to have been a pretty big one.

Holiday wishes

Apparently I am the worst blogger ever, because I never post, even when I have lots to say. Work is kicking my ass this term, I’m afraid! But in a good way. I just took a ~2-hour V-Day nap, so hopefully I’m a little more refreshed now.

Instead of posting something of substance, I am here to wish everyone a happy Darwin’s birthday, Lincoln’s birthday, Valentine’s Day, and Friday the 13th (some of those are belated!). There is something for [almost] everyone this week! :)


Okay, this week’s recap made me laugh so loudly that I’m surprised my coworkers down the hall didn’t walk over to see what was up.