Dear PI: it's your fault I'm depressed
Drugmonkey has an interesting post up about depressed trainees and what it's like to be the PI in this situation.
The comments devolved, as they usually do on scienceblogs, into some kind of childish argument, so I stopped reading them. But several people made interesting points before that happened.
This discussion seems very timely to me, since my therapist told me she thinks I have major depressive disorder, and last night the Southpark episode on alcoholism aired as a re-run.
Now I know what you're thinking, MsPhD is an alcoholic??? Well, no, I actually don't drink much and don't like to be drunk (too much of a control-freak, I guess). But I love the way the Southpark guys wrote about the 12-step program, as in making fun of the irrationality of "You are powerless" and "alcoholism is a disease" and how, even if it's partly true, that can be a completely dis-empowering attitude.
My point being that depression can fall into some of the same traps, i.e. that because it's a disease, you should put all your eggs into your psychiatrist's bag of pharmaceutical tricks, surrender to their higher power, and hope that like a magician's hat, you'll stick your hand in and pull out happiness.
Having said that, it's interesting to think that depression is what gets us trapped into negative thought patterns, not the other way around.
Or that it's a feedback loop that continues to get worse for biochemical reasons, even if you're only there because you fell into a psychological trap.
The idea that long-term depression can actually change your brain so that it doesn't function as well as it used to, that's just scary, especially to a scientist where creativity and problem-solving are key. That's the one reason I am considering trying anti-depressants. I never thought of depression as a neuro-degenerative disease.
I have definitely felt that, in these really dark days (and despite how it may appear on this blog, not all my days are bad ones), the worst part is feeling like I can't think.
Can't focus on making decisions about what to do next. Can't remember anything. Might be constantly repeating myself (I think I've blogged about this before...?).
I really HATE the feeling when someone is asking me something, and I know I did the experiment (or tried to), or read something relevant somewhere, but the details are just out of reach. And scientists being as they are, they won't take my word for it unless I can provide sufficient detail that I sound like I have enough expertise (or you know, a PhD).
Then, when I can't make decisions, I fall into these patterns of asking other people for advice (see under: blog comments).
This includes talking to my PI, who knows nothing about my project and more often than not, steers me into doing experiments that waste time, money, energy, and are totally uninformative and ultimately, unpublishable.
So the hardest part of my job, even when I am fully functional, is not choosing my own direction so much as (1) talking my PI out of stupid pointless or expensive time-wasters; (2) persuading my PI that I know what I'm doing and (3) that it's worth the investment. Because given the lack of mentoring, pretty much the only reason I'm still in this lab is to get my experiments paid for.
Having said that, arguing persuasively does not come naturally to me (case in point: blog comments). But it's especially fucking hard, I'm learning, when you're depressed.
So I end up feeling like I'm depressed because my PI is dragging me down.
So here's my analogy: it's like having an angry zombie chained to your leg. I'm trying to move forward with this huge weight to carry, while simultaneously making sure it doesn't bite off my head. I'm pretty sure I won't be able to cure this zombie and turn it back into a person, but until I can cut the chain, I'm stuck with it getting in my way.
It's possible, as my therapist pointed out, that I actually did get some good career advice from someone somewhere along the way, but in my depressed state I was unable to recognize it and instead fell into the same old patterns that my fucked-up family made me think were going to lead to success.
And maybe it's just the depression talking when I feel like I've been arguing as hard as I can for years. Reading books about how to argue more effectively. Taking classes on negotiating. And yet, I'm pretty sure that my PI is like most PIs (and parents): just not hearing me.
I was talking to a former alum from our lab the other day, and got some advice that absolutely will not work for me. NO, I will not wear cutesy clothes and try to charm my way into getting what I want from the PI. NO, I do not know how to "manipulate back" my manipulative PI. NO, standing my ground has NOT worked and has only led to enormous backlash, resentment, and my PI flat-out avoiding me and refusing to read my manuscripts. NO, I can't talk to my PI about my depression, because acknowledging any kind of emotional anything is deemed as a weakness, not a strength.
What has worked is also depressing: playing into my PI's comfort with the female stereotype by letting myself be steered right into the pitfalls.
In other words, I am "mentoring up" in the sense of trying to help my PI learn the hard way.
I am playing dumb. I am playing passive. And it is working better than anything else has, except that it's taking fucking forever.
And the truth is, because I'm already depressed, I don't have the energy or creativity to come up with a better plan right now.
So what I really resent is when other PIs assume that my situation is entirely my own fault for not having tried, you know, arguing. It's so frustrating, I just have to laugh.
And I really resent that if my PI chooses to say that I am lazy and "difficult", everyone will most likely believe it. The only way I could have effectively countered that argument would be a High Enough Impact Paper to show that while my PI might be unappreciative, I am at least highly accomplished.
Except for the part where everyone seems oblivious to the fact that the first hurdle in getting your work shown to the world is: your own PI.
So yeah, I'm depressed about all of that. And despite what many of you write about how I should get out ASAP, leaving the lab empty-handed will definitely not cure my depression anytime soon.
So what could my PI do? (for Drugmonkey, and those of you who might be wondering):
1. Recognize that the problem is at least partly you.
Yes, your trainees are younger. Yes, we have things to learn from your experience and yes, you take care of us in ways we probably won't fully appreciate unless we eventually have our own labs.
However, we do have unique insight. We do a lot of things you probably don't know how to do. We don't feel appreciated most of the time, and we don't feel encouraged.
Maybe you could encourage us, maybe you could take our word for it one time in ten.
Maybe you could ask for outside help when you're in over your head. Indeed, you could at least admit it when you're in over your head, instead of trying so hard to pretend like you know it all already. We don't, but you don't either, and we know it.
2. Pretend like we're in this together.
My PI does this sometimes, and I do find it oddly comforting, even knowing that it doesn't actually help in any real-world sense. At the end of the day, I'm the one who has to make my projects work.
But psychologically, it does help to think that it doesn't all fall on my shoulders, or that at least someone is standing beside me making sure I won't drop the ball.
3. Show, don't tell.
Lead by example. Don't be a fucking hypocrite. Don't tell us to do things you criticize in other people's papers when you see it presented in journal club. Don't just assume we respect you because of some hierarchical bullshit tradition.
We want to genuinely respect you for your integrity. We want you to be a role model.
Be a good one.
One thing that stood out to me on my graduate school interviews years ago was how little any of the PIs asked me. I thought it was an interview, so they would ask questions and want me to do some talking.
No, what they wanted to do was talk at me. And I am pretty good at listening, so of course I got offers everywhere that I "interviewed". Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I "visited". I was never interviewed any of these places (maybe if they had realized who I am and how I think, I wouldn't have gotten in!).
So yes, out of necessity PIs are great at talking about their work. But when it comes to mentoring, listening is the number one tool you need.
I don't need you to listen to me talk about my emotional state. I need you to listen to me about my work. I need you to LISTEN TO ME ABOUT MY WORK. I need you to LISTEN TO ME ABOUT MY WORK.
Well anyway. I said it.