Grad school and mental health

There is news going around that an ASU grad student shot himself in a professor’s office, and the campus was on lockdown in response. We don’t know any details of the story. It’s likely that there was something other than the standard stresses of grad school in play here. But I’m reminded of the studies from last spring that found that more than half of graduate students are clinically depressed, and I have to wonder what role that plays in extreme cases like this one.

Internet burn-out

Okay, you guys, who knows what is going to happen with this blog in the long run, but in the short run I have total internet burn-out. I’m barely even reading my feed, and never clicking through to read complete posts on even my favorite blogs. It’s been a solid month of this now with no end in sight.

Do the rest of you find that getting back into the fall term has this kind of effect on you? I mean, for one thing, I’m super busy with work, and usually feel like i’m barely staying afloat with my classes. My proposal certainly hasn’t gotten itself started, and my manuscripts haven’t been touched since the summer. I’m also struggling to feel out my place here, and I don’t mean at my job itself — I mean here, in this town and in my life. Being single and alone in your 30s is weirdly socially isolating, and I don’t usually talk about it around these parts, but trying to use the dating scene to meet new friends and possibly change that general social situation is challenging and exhausting. Which is why I only sometimes attempt it. But I have been exploring it on and off, and dealing with all of the emotional repercussions (positive and negative) of meeting new people and seeing how things work out in new potential romantic relationships and new friendships makes me even less interested in looking at the internet.

And yup, that’s about all of the internet I have energy for this morning. But I think you’ll see me back here in a more substantive fashion sooner or later. In the meantime I promise to keep at least skimming and half-reading your posts, and working on my life in academia and otherwise. Hang in there, kiddos.

Grad school and abortion

There have been a couple posts and comment discussions over at Dr. Isis’s place about a question that was posed to her:

I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?

Isis does not want to get into the ethics of the question, but has instead expressed sadness that the question was even raised. Her second post clarifies in more detail that since she believes there is no “good” time to have children, if you want to have a child, you should have a child.

But while I agree with Isis that no one can answer that question for anyone else, and there probably isn’t a good time for children, I am not sure if folks would put out the same argument if the question was, “We want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should we use birth control for now?” I mean, Isis very well might feel the same way, I can’t say. But I feel like people’s eyebrows shoot up when it’s suggested that someone might consider something as drastic as an abortion.

And I mean, please. It only seems drastic because the rhetoric has painted it that way. My answer to this woman is that no one can answer that question for you, and if you want to have a child you should have a child, and if you want to wait because it’s not the right time in your life, then you should wait. Plain and simple. There’s nothing especially more shocking or dramatic about it because it would involve a termination instead of birth control. You choose if and when to have children, and that’s all there is to it. You might regret the decision whether you choose to have a child or not have a child right now, which is the risk with, you know, making a decision, so just do your best to make the right choice for yourself and your family. To repeat: many women regret having children.

After Isis’ post, drdrA wrote in response:

WOW, just WOW. To me the decision whether or not to bear a child and start a family should be based on whether or not one wants to be a parent. Period. If the answer to that question is yes, then you just figure out how to work around everything else. Is it going to be tough? Yes. Is it going to be stressful? Yes. Can it be done- OH FOR SURE!

Sure, it can be done, but this is not a question of whether or not to have a child, period. This a question of whether or not to have a child now, which is completely different.

I really don’t know what is up with all of the commenters who feel that it’s just so sad that a woman might consider putting off childbearing until a better time in her career. Ideally everyone would have access to reasonably long parental leave and good health insurance coverage and health care — and even then, many people will still decide not to have children during a particularly busy part of their career. That’s not all that sad. Some of those commenters seem to be coming from a position of having had children and been happy with that decision. But what made you happy won’t necessarily make someone else happy; you are projecting.

New Accretionary Wedge: Inspiration

I will be hosting the next Accretionary Wedge carnival right here at the Magmalicious Blog! I’m very excited.


A rather inspiring field trip, though not the one that sucked me in.

I once had a conversation with our provost about how almost no one goes to college planning to study geology. (The exceptions always seem to be children or other close relations of geoscientists.) For the rest of us, a general lack of exposure before college seems to keep it off most of our radars as a career option, and then somehow, sooner or later, we fall into a great class or a fun research project or an exciting field trip, and we get sucked in. That means taking up geology is very often a switch from another planned career track. I think that’s a pretty interesting aspect of geoscience — the stories that got us here are so varied, and people come to it with such passion.

So July’s topic is about your inspiration to enter geoscience. Was it a fantastic mentor? Watching your geologist parents growing up? A great teacher, or an exciting intro field trip? How did it happen? Deadline of July 10, and leave your permalink in comments when your post is up!

The sexism of not being able to fake it

Today I’ve been noticing that there are faculty members, in all departments, who drop the ball a lot by letting things slide, and there are other faculty who pick up the slack and keep those balls in the air. I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that that’s unfair. There’s no good excuse for it: just as many of the responsible people are disorganized and have busy personal/family lives as the irresponsible ones. The disorganized and overextended people certainly tend to forget things more, but they’re sincerely trying to keep all those balls in the air. Some people have just learned what they can get away with, and they do. I’m not talking about people who try but screw things up a lot; I mean the people who just let everything slide because they don’t care that much. That kid who never pulled their weight in group school projects. THAT person.

Everyone knows who those people are, too. Sometimes I suppose that tendency might pull someone up short when it comes to tenure, but often not, because “service” doesn’t amount to much in a tenure review. And there’s no real gender pattern I’ve observed when it comes to whether you’re a ball-dropper or ball-picker-upper in life in general. I’m sure everyone knows some very responsible men and some very irresponsible women, and I’d never argue otherwise.

But. There is a distinct gender pattern I’ve observed when it comes to faculty. I see very few women just letting everything slide so they can do the bare minimum, and already I’ve encountered several men like that. I don’t have statistics on this (anyone? Do those exist? I’d be interested to see them if they do), so we’re dealing with the unfortunately plural of anecdote, but for the moment let’s assume I’m right, and there are fewer women slackers than men slackers per capita in an academic environment. Just for the sake of trying to explain my own observations.

Why would that be the case? Possibilities:

1) Socialization. This presumes women in general are less likely than men to be slackers. I really have no idea if there are any statistics that might show this to be true. There certainly are different social pressures on boys and girls while they’re growing up, and to some extent women are still trained to pick up the slack, to do the housecleaning, to be the secretary. There’s still a lot of that being taught in subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways. But like I said, I’m not arguing that women like this don’t exist, because of course they do. I’m not sure how big a role this plays.

2) Filtering. The slacker women don’t make the cut, but some slacker men slip by (presumably, the REALLY slacking men still don’t). This could happen during undergrad, grad school, or postdocs (maybe even tenure, but hard to say).

I lean towards #2. I certainly feel like I can get away with a lot less bad behavior and lousy work ethics than men. I’m not terribly inclined towards either of those things, so maybe my perspective is biased by my own disinclinations. But still, I want to say that women can’t get away with as much. We have to meet a higher bar to justify our place.

That’s it in a nushell. We have to meet a higher bar. And when you’re working with men who are dropping the ball and have gotten away with it, over and over, to the point that everyone knows they do it and they’re still here, you as the woman have to pick up the slack. Because if slacker dude was working with another man, and that man refused to do more than his fair share, no one would blame him. He did his part, and his coworker fucked up. But if I fail to pick up the other ball, I can’t escape looking irresponsible.

It’s like the recent Office episode where Pam refused to photocopy anything in the new office, because she didn’t want to be automatically assigned all of the secretarial duties when she wasn’t a secretary. Good on Pam for that. I just wish it were that easy when you’re in a workplace with more than 3 people.

Fitness requirements

Geoscience is a field that has implied fitness expectations. This is easy to handle if you are able-bodied and already love exercising. But it at times feels really pressuring if, like me, you like the outdoors and like moving your body but are not terribly fond of fitness routines and regimens. I don’t get much of a rush from exercising, though I gather for a lot of people that is a significant motivator. My motivations are basically to reduce my aches and pains, and to have an easy time doing things I like or need to do (like occasionally going into the field and carrying a backpack full of rocks and water, or spontaneous camping trips, or very difficult hikes on trips that I am leading). And I do usually feel good after working out, but not that good, and I don’t usually enjoy the exercise that much while it’s happening.*

The pressure to be able to jump out of your chair and go run up a mountain is pretty widespread in this field. Some of it is simple peer pressure – people who go into geoscience tend to love running up mountains, and they chose this field because it gives them lots of opportunities to do so. But if all your friends are filling their time with team mountain-running, and you would prefer to walk around the block for an hour on a sunny afternoon, pretty soon you don’t have many friends.

The required geology field trips for most geology classes are generally not accessible to students (or faculty) with physical limitations or disabilities. Usually some stops are accessible so they are still encouraged to attend, accomodations are made wherever possible, and in the case of a student and a trip where it isn’t possible, the faculty I know would waive a requirement like that for a disabled student. To some extent this is probably not a very fixable situation — scaling a hill and hunting for outcrops when there are no trails is sometimes a necessary part of field work. You have to get to areas that are difficult to access to study those difficult-to-find rocks. When a geoscientist becomes unable to do such field work later in their careers, as occasionally happens, they tend to turn their attentions to lab work from then on. It’s limiting for some people, though, and I wonder sometimes about how else we might be able to deal with that.

I also wonder about the self-selective bias. While subdisciplines with a significant lab component can be open to people with a range of physical abilities from the get-go, there are those geology fields that do not have much of a lab component. Mapping an outcrop in the field is something that can only be done in the field. So how much are those subfields self-selecting only able-bodied people? How much are those fields being necessarily limited by that bias, by missing out on input from brilliant minds that just can’t get their bodies to the sites in question?

Volcanology, IME, is a discipline that is particularly prone to macho displays of prowess. Field work is conducted in very high risk areas, which leads to, well, risk-taking behavior, and there is sometimes a great deal of physical competitiveness between scientists. (I’ve observed this to be slightly less true among female volcanologists, but until relatively recently there weren’t many of those — and I suspect this gender disparity was even more stark than that of many other science disciplines because of the particularly physically demanding field work and the especially macho culture. Women scientists just don’t tend to score as highly in pissing contests, after all.) I’ll be frank: between being very petite (meaning even a strong, fit me still can’t carry as much or move as fast as most), and not particularly loving exercise or buying too strongly into the competitive geology fitness culture, I don’t even attempt the pissing contests. And between not really finding that appealing or interesting AND not being able to carry as much as most people or hike as quickly, I don’t tend to be asked along in the field very much — even when I’m relatively fit.

And I hate that.


*I DO exercise. I’m relatively fit. But not as much as so many people I know, and it clearly feels like I am Not Fitting In by only exercising a few times a week. And by including things like long walks and dance classes as exercise, instead of limiting myself to running, competitive sports, and ass-kickingly-tough yoga.


This month’s Scientiae topic is “moving forward”: how our lives, work, and science are moving forward.

In my case, this topic is most easily addressed in list form:

  • Designing some new classes and new lessons for old classes for next year
  • Writing a grant proposal to fund a brand new project
  • Working with a new student
  • Trying out new activities to get out of the house in the evenings, be more active, and meet some new people, including dance classes and tennis lessons

Well, that’s a lot, right there. It’s been a huge year in terms of transitions — finishing school and starting up at my faculty job — so it’s hard to narrow down this topic. There’s really very little that I’m holding over from a year ago. Research topics, I suppose, are still related to my grad school specialty. …Yeah, that’s about it.