I’m in Science (Careers).

I was interviewed by Carrie Arnold (@edbites) for this Science Careers (@ScienceCareers) article ‘The Stressed Out Postdoc’.

It’s a compressed version of my experiences with depression (and there are several other people quoted that have some fantastic insights; even greater than mine in the piece, in my opinion). I’m a plant biologist, not a botanist (not that there’s anything wrong with that– I would actually like to branch out and do something in another plant species), but other than that, it is representative of my experiences that I am still coming back from to this day.

I hope the article helps someone out there who might be struggling. I say on here a lot that my story is about how not to do a postdoc (and hopefully my blog is a way to help me and others do it better); and if the stress of your academic experience is negatively affecting your life, then definitely seek help. Or as the article puts it: don’t forget to dance if that’s what you love.

Surveys (yes, I know I’m being lazy by not linking to a survey; but they are all over) have shown that the mental health of grad students and postdocs, hell, probably amongst academics period is not in a great state. Most of us probably are functioning rather well, considering the pressures. That said, this is still a problem and we’re not doing our best work because of it (I know there’s a lot more to doing good science than just a healthy brain with a productive mindset towards work– necessary, but not sufficient).

The reaction I’ve had to my interview has all been positive; which is good, for sure. My fear with talking about depression is that it’s just whining and no one else actually relates. I’ve talked to enough people that I’m confident (p<.001) that this is real, that academia requires a lot of us and that in a lot of ways is a breeding ground for mental health problems.

Science is powerful. It’s incredible. It requires an engaged mind (at least while you’re actually doing science; it’s OK to not be doing it 24/7/365; brains need space to process ideas, down time and just time away to come back to things with a fresh perspective). And a stressed out, depressed, anxious mind is not engaged– it’s distracted. Scientists spend a lot of time overcoming our human cognitive biases; in a way, depression can be categorized as just that (it’s more, but it certainly is a distorted and limited perspective on the world that can be hard to break out of).

Being a scientist is quite difficult. No, we don’t work in a coal mine (maybe a little; always wear PPE & do practice lab safety protocols!) and I am very grateful that I get to use high tech equipment/techniques to explore the world, to help educate people about the things I learn, and to get to interact with really brilliant people.

I’ve been told it’s bold to just say that I suffered from depression out loud, under my own name (in fact, if you talk to me in person about this, I do have a really hard time with it still; I make a lot less eye contact). Nearly everything good that’s happened to me the last few years has been because I started talking about this out loud. The silence, the isolation was killer, nearly did, kill me. So I tried something different. I went against my depressive instinct and started talking about it.

I think I’ve learned to talk about it better over time. And of course, I’ve had many positive voices to help me along the way (but not false positivity– the well grounded kind).

Thank you for reading. I hope by being open and talking about my struggles, it will help someone else with theirs. I don’t get why it’s so hard to realize that all humans suffer and struggle (Shout out to The Buddha for popularizing this notion thousands of years ago). Productively dealing with struggles is challenging. In fact, it’s probably why the economy exists. And science.

I just hope I haven’t gotten my brain into a better mode too late to do me much good, career wise. Besides getting help/talking to someone, the best thing I think I can say is be self-aware and the sooner you can get through struggling with depression, anxiety, impostorism or perfectionism, the better.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

2 thoughts on “I’m in Science (Careers).”

  1. Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.
    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time
    both reading and leaving comments. But so
    what, it was still worthwhile!

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