Monday, October 02, 2006

Psychology of Young Scientist Depression

Hello all. First, a few (short?) responses to comments that got scattered among various other posts:

To the people who sent compliments: thank you, as always! And to the first time commenters, welcome!

To the person who couldn't understand the long work week: Really depends on the field you're in, whether you're the sort of person who enjoys helping others or avoids it, does their fair share to keep the lab running (vs. doesn't! You know who you are, you fuckers!) vs. works in a lab where there are staff to maintain everything for you. How experienced you were before grad school, whether you switch fields, how well set up your lab is or if you have to run around a lot within the lab or to other labs to get to equipment you need, if you have to schedule to use shared equipment that is always busy, how much of a go-getter you are, how patient you are. If you switched projects or labs in the middle of grad school or postdoc or if you have a habit of dropping projects just as they're about to work, or of not dropping projects that will never work. If you have secret side projects that you only work on when you've finished everything else you're supposed to be doing. If you're the sort of person who would rather stay late just to get the answer before going home, will that save you a whole day, if coming in on the weekend saves you a week every month or so- is it worth it?

And so on. And don't forget, as we get more lab experience, we spend a lot less time at the bench and a lot more time in meetings, seminars, journal clubs, and just general networking which might seem like standing around chatting but usually involves useful gossip like who got what faculty position where and which faculty members are married but we wouldn't have known that, since they have different last names, so you might not want to invite them both out to dinner with the visiting speaker. And so on.

re: happy, not happy, see below.

This weekend I was too depressed to do any really serious thinking work, so I was reading up on this old, famous set of experiments done on dogs. And it kind of makes me laugh to think about these poor doggies, so in a way I guess it helped more than I thought.

We work like dogs, so it seems an apt analogy.

I didn't read about this on the web, but I'm going to use a quote from this site where they've already done a useful paraphrasing of the experiments:

Seligman did some interesting experiments back in the seventies on what he called "learned helplessness." He worked with two sets of dogs. One he put in a cage that they could not get out of. The other he put in a cage that they could jump out of. And then he shocked both of these sets of dogs. The ones that could escape their cages did so, and got away from the shocks. The ones that could do nothing to escape the shock became passive; after a while, they just lay down and took it.

Then, when he took the dogs who could not escape the shock in the first experiment and put them in a cage where they could get away from the shock, they still did nothing. And when he tried to teach them to get out of the cage, he had to spend a lot of time showing them they could escape. To be accurate, there were always some dogs who did hardly anything once they found themselves trapped, and there were some dogs who had been trapped but quickly learned later to escape. But the results I am talking about were averages.

Seligman was fascinated with these results, because he thought the dogs had learned to be helpless, and a sense of helplessness is a key component of depression. So he asked if he could "immunize" dogs from this learned helplessness. He took a group of dogs and let them hear a tone before the shock went off. And he gave these dogs the opportunity to jump out of the cage when they heard the tone. The fascinating result was: these dogs never became passive. When they were put in a cage from which they could not escape, they never stopped trying, and they escaped immediately when they could. Why? They had acquired a sense of efficacy with regard to the shocks.

Seligman thought this was an interesting model to apply to human beings because of the common feeling in depression that there is nothing that can be done that will make a difference. So, he asked: Could humans likewise be immunized against feelings of helplessness and hopelessness? To test this, Seligman put human beings in situations similar to that of the dogs: The subjects would get shocked, but some did not have control over it and some did. Fascinatingly, he found that some people always tried to get control and some did not. Seligman posited that the difference lay in the way the people explained the cause of their failure: whether they blamed it on themselves or on circumstances.

So my theory is that lately, I've been feeling really helpless, and that this is not something wrong with me, it's something I've been taught by the scientific powers that be.

Unlike in grad school, where the goal was obvious (GET PHD AND LEAVE), as a postdoc there is no end in sight (DO THE IMPOSSIBLE: GET FACULTY POSITION???) and lately, I've had no feeling of control.

It's learned helplessness, which isn't really the same as actual helplessness, and I don't think it's really the same as bonified depression, either.

I used to be the sort of dog (bitch, anyone? it's so obvious) who would just keep banging against the wall until it broke (see: great scene in Kill Bill 2). But lately I've been feeling like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill 2, when her knuckles hurt so much she can barely feed herself after weeks of training by punching her hand into a wall.

Actually lately I've felt more like the part in the first movie, when she first wakes up from her coma, realizes they've been raping her in her sleep, crawls out to the Pussy Wagon on her elbows and has to re-learn how to wiggle her toes so she can drive away.

Wiggle your big toe.

So I'm wondering, how do I get back that feeling of control?

That website I linked you to puts it like this:

Thus, the first key is: You can carefully focus on the facts about your situation and yourself. Is this the way things have to be or is it just the way they happen to be? Is this the way of the world or just the way things are in my immediate surroundings?

The second key is: You can pay attention to your possibilities. Is this something you can change or not? You can take an entrepreneurial attitude towards your life.

We spend a lot of time here talking about whether this is the way things have to be.

Of course not. We're mostly bitter idealists here, or we wouldn't bother talking about how much better it COULD BE.

If only they would let us try it our way.

So clearly I think it's not me, it's the system. I'm pretty confident about that.

What I've been wondering about is whether I can put up with the system long enough to get to a position where I can change it. And lately I'm not so sure about that.

So is it better elsewhere in academia? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Obviously not everybody has the kind of horrific experiences I've been through... certainly not so many in so short a time. I know, I've asked around.

So what can I change?

I think the "Go to Industry" crowd assumes that working 9-5 and having lots of free time makes everyone happy.

I think I would be okay that way for a while, but I don't want to be the narrator from Fight Club, the guy who says after his IKEA furniture goes up in flames, "But I had that couch problem solved!"

I've never been someone who aspired to white picket fence yuppiedom, because that's what I grew up with, and here's the secret: my parents were miserable. You have to work a long time in a boring job to pay for a nice house, nice furniture, and a family with kids. My mom wasn't happy staying home, and my dad wasn't happy coming home to his second job of mowing the lawn, grilling meat, and fixing whatever was wrong with the house that day. What did I learn? Nice furniture doesn't make me happy. Nice things are just that: nice. And they're things.

To quote Tyler Durden, who was quoting someone else, "The things you own own you."

No, I definitely prefer the lifestyle of being too preoccupied with changing the world to notice the little things.

Right now the little things (stupid shit at work) are drowning out what really matters (uh, doing actual science).

Although every scientific doghouse comes with a one-way escape hatch, some lead to other doghouses and some lead to nothing.

On some level, it just helps a lot to know that it's perfectly rational for me to be depressed: Right now, by all objective measures, I'm helpless to help myself alone. It's not because there's anything inherently wrong with me.

Next time: is there any hope for this doghouse?

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At 8:12 PM, Anonymous k. said...

I like this blog. Good writing on important things is worth the wait. I look forward to this new perspective as I return, like a dog, to my bench..

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response about the work week. It reinforces in my mind that many of you who are working your asses off are doing so more because of your own internal pressure, than anything external. I maintain my rebellious view that is possible to be successful in science without working like a dog, and that doesn't preclude helping people, or doing one's fair share of the work. Too many scientists suffer from martyr syndrome. If you love science and want to work your ass off for little pay and even less chance of advancement, that's fine. But this system that you'd like to change, never will as long as people like you and I are willing to come to Harvard and other institutions and get paid less than the janitors because we want the training and experience. I don't see that happening anytime soon.

At 6:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like you should get a staff scientist or research faculty position in an established lab - possibly at a medical school. It's better than a postdoc. It's not as good as a faculty position. But depending on the setup you might be able to negotiate a whole lot of freedom. And if you learn the rules of the institution, you can make sure you'll be able to apply for grants. It's all about bringing in money. Whether you want to accept it or not, if you want to be in the top tier you have to pay to play.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger yes said...

The assumption that industry = 9to5 is pretty flawed.

You will work just as hard in industry, if you want to. You will just get paid better. You also have support if you want a family. You can take holidays off, as we want you to keep working for the long haul (not just this year) BUT you are expected to work hard.

I think you have a lot of misconceptions about industry!

"No, I definitely prefer the lifestyle of being too preoccupied with changing the world to notice the little things. "

To be rather blunt about it - our scientists change the world more than you do. Drugs fix people. At tools companies - your work will be used by millions of people.

I have no answer for what you should do, but I do think you are not operating with accurate knowledge of your options and are stuck looking only at the the thing you know. One of my friends just read your site, reached the same conclusion, came to my site (and then figured out I was the one writing it).

You won't be able to see options if you don't have facts.

At 9:06 PM, Anonymous Angela said...

You sound like you have too much spunk to be totally helpless. You are still looking for the way to escape. As for the depressed feelings, keep an eye them they can be deceptive. Keep looking, there is a place for you.

At 5:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, how about a vacation? a month in another country? or find a short time position in Australia?
I personaly feel sometimes I'm in a loop of sadness that can be broken by taking some time away.

At 12:12 PM, Anonymous Liza said...

I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I discovered it from the Derek's "in the pipeline" blogroll, and wish I had come here sooner, because some of your older posts really speak to me. I think that we have a lot in common!

I am just starting a permanent research position in France, although I am American and received my PhD in the States. I came over to France on an NSF postdoc (funny how they only seem to fund people to LEAVE the country!) for two years. I applied for a job here during my second year and failed. I decided to stay and work on my CV, unpaid, and hit the jackpot this year, thank god. But isn't it crazy that this is one of the few fields (besides the fine arts, I suppose) where it is NOT insane to do "volunteer" professional work? I imagine that it is because academic labs are run on a weird symbiotic relationship, where the researcher is doing the work for her own CV, not for the glory of the PI. Nobody who is not in academics seems to understand this concept.

Anyway, science in France is a trip. One thing to commend it is that they offer many more permanent positions for bona fide researchers than in the US. In fact the concept of a "postdoc" is a new one here, and indeed, the "perpetual postdoc" phenomenon in the States is GRIM. Although I work under the director of my lab, I am expected to come up with my own group of students and postdocs. And I don't have to teach! But finding the funding for students is almost institution certainly cannot be blamed for generating too many PhDs, which is good from a social standpoint, but makes it difficult to do research.

Anyway, I just wanted to introduce myself and invite myself to become one of your regular commentators. I did a bit of the faculty- position-search thing in the US, and it is demoralizing as hell. Have you ever considered postdoc-ing at a National Lab? I understand that it is an excellent entrée to a permanent position.

At 11:34 PM, Blogger Steven said...

You have a nice blog.Author and licensed counselor, David P. Diana, just released a fascinating eBook called “Change Therapy”. Once you dive into this collection of articles you’ll never look at the mental health profession the same way again.

At 12:12 AM, Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog very much! Your insight is very relatable for the nonprofessional. I've always been interested in psychology, so this post is perfect!


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