American Society of Hematology

Coming Back to the Bench

Andrew Volk, PhD
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL

Published on: March 06, 2018

As those in the sciences know, the warm and fuzzy excitement of discovery and accomplishment comes after an incredible amount of time and effort. I often find myself weighing the effort against the cost (or thinking about the National Institutes of Health pay lines) and wondering if all this scientific training is going to be worth it in the end. What keeps me coming back to the bench, and how am I going to finish my training without sacrificing my sanity?

Most of the time, the directions we pursue in our research do not pan out. Even things we do regularly can fail at the worst times. Do you need that data quickly for your fellowship application or to send your manuscript out for revisions next week? Well my friend, this is the week that all your cells die, the mice get weird, and that western blot runs crooked.

It can be emotionally challenging to keep coming back to the bench, especially in a field without easily measurable units of progress, but the good news is that you are not alone. A 2014 wellness survey from the Graduate Assembly at University of California Berkeley (UCB) found that 43 to 46 percent of their biosciences graduate students reported signs of depression.1

Unfortunately, some of the top stressors identified in this study (career prospects for tenure-track faculty and financial security) are essentially out of our control as trainees. Yet, there are many we can control, and I have personally found that I am happier when I have these in order, whether it is personal (self-care) or social care.

In the self-care category, maintaining good overall physical health and trying to sleep eight hours a night are correlated with students feeling less depressed and anxious. According to the UCB study, only 20 percent of their students were sleeping eight hours, with most trainees getting an average of 6.6 hours per night. I know that I can get grim when I haven’t slept, and I imagine others are the same way. Getting into shape and maintaining physical health also help with sleep quality.

Almost half of the factors that contributed to trainee depression in the UCB study were related to social isolation. The study found that lack of academic engagement, inadequate social support, feeling undervalued in one’s department, and poor mentorship were all major stressors for trainees. For many students, graduate school might be their first time living outside of a dorm or a small apartment with several roommates. The isolation we feel in our normal laboratory work can be compounded when our friends no longer live right next door. Maintaining social support can mean the difference between a great or a dismal graduate experience. I don’t know what I would have done without my weekly game of pick-up soccer with the microbiology/immunology department.

Academic departments are beginning to come around to the fact that trainee mental health is critical for institutional success. Events that bring students and faculty together in an informal setting are becoming more common; such activities help trainees feel valued by the department and more engaged with peers. Most graduate programs now have mental health resources for students such as counseling services, medical leave of absence resources, and support groups.

Science is hard, and it is okay to feel sad when things aren’t going as we would like. Take care of yourself, stay socially connected, and we’ll get through it together.

References

  1. GA releases graduate student happiness & well-being report. The Graduate Assembly. 2017. Last accessed March 6, 2018
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