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As a grad student struggling with mental health, I learned to ask for help – Science Magazine

Posted: January 1, 2021 at 4:50 am


By Angela Q. ZhangDec. 31, 2020 , 2:00 PM

Are you OK? my principal investigator (PI) asked me. I had just broken down crying in his office during one of our meetings. It doesnt seem like youre OK. He was right. But I wasnt ready to be vulnerable with him, so I evaded the question. Later, I wondered why. When I mentor undergrads, I make a point of connecting with them on a personal level and reaching out to them when they seem to need help. For the past year, I had been yearning for someone to do the same for me. So why hadnt I accepted the gesture when it finally came?

Things had started to go downhill for me during the third year of my Ph.D. My science wasnt going as planned, and I was in the midst of a long-standing conflict with a colleague. I was dragging myself into the lab at 1 p.m., my face hidden beneath my hood, headphones on to drown out the chatter around me. I stopped speaking up in meetings. The quality and quantity of my work dropped. With my downcast eyes, slow gait, and slumped posture, I tried to signal that I needed helpbut nobody reached out. To my labmates, I may have just seemed stressed or tired. As for my PI, he seemed to not want to pry into my personal life. I felt alone and helpless, hesitant to share my struggles because I wasnt sure that anyone cared.

For a while, my undergrads kept me functioning. Their curiosity spurred me to plan experiments and read papers. My duty to them forced me out of bed and into the lab, where I set aside my own distress and put on the disguise of an encouraging mentor. I enthusiastically asked about their classes and weekend plans, their extracurricular activities and postgraduation ambitions. Mentoring offered a consolation: If I couldnt make my mark in science, at least I could have an impact on my mentees career trajectories and support them through their own challenges.

When one of my undergrads began to act lethargic and distracted, for example, I reached out to ask whether there was anything I could do. Though usually reticent, she opened up. She thanked me for checking in and offering a sympathetic ear, and we adjusted her lab workload to accommodate her needs. Why was it that I could be there for my mentees, yet no one could be there for me?

Working Life is a personal essay series about career issues, challenges, and successes.

Soon enough, I lost the high I got from mentoring. My patience gave way to irritation. When my undergrads made simple mistakes, I had a harder time being understanding. I knew that I couldnt wait any longer to seek help. I finally contacted the therapist I had connected with at the beginning of grad school and started medication for my now-diagnosed anxiety and depression.

Then came that meeting with my adviser. Because our relationship had always been strictly professional, I wasnt sure he really wanted to know about my troubles any more than my other colleagues seemed to. I also worried that he would think less of me if I told him I was having a hard time.

Yet concealing my struggles from my closest colleagues hampered my ability to be my true self in the labthe place where I spent most of my waking hours. Eventually, I worked up the courage to tell close friends and supportive labmates. Many listened and empathized, and I realized that just because they hadnt reached out didnt mean they didnt care.

Concealing my stuggles hampered my ability to be my true self in the lab.

In the end, I told my PI too. It was incredibly awkward at first, but with time, we became more comfortable having frank, candid conversations. We made arrangements to minimize the conflict I had with my colleague and devised a plan to balance my scientific interests with my graduation timeline. Im still working on my mental health, but I finally feel like Im headed in the right direction.

The experience has taught me that when I need help and support, sometimes I need to ask for it. And when its offered, even from an unlikely source, I should embrace it.

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As a grad student struggling with mental health, I learned to ask for help - Science Magazine

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