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Op-Ed: The Struggle is Real

Posted by on Monday, March 26, 2018 in Life in the MSTP, Science Advocacy.

Every year, like clockwork, a new batch of MD/PhD students begins one of the most significant challenges in their life. No, not the beginning of medical school or residency, but the smack-dab-middle of graduate school. The G2 and G3 years of MD/PhD training are perhaps the most emotionally challenging of all the MD/PhD years. Take this commonly encountered case: As a G1, your graduate work is just beginning. You have seemingly infinite time to collect data for your dissertation, you’re supremely motivated, and you have your sights set on a high-impact publication. Then, G2 year begins, you’ve passed your qualifying exam, and its time to really get cracking. The data trickles in and you feel somewhat productive, but you’re secretly not sure how it all fits into a larger project. As time goes on, you slowly realize that all the data you’ve been collecting can’t be used for a manuscript, for one reason or another, and, to top it off, you’re now in G3 year. You’re more than halfway through graduate school and you have “no data.” Then the questions come: What will others think? How embarrassing will it be to present this limited work? Will colleagues think I’m lazy or just stupid?  Maybe I am lazy and stupid? Will meaningful data ever come?

If this sounds familiar, it’s because so many students experience similar emotional challenges each year. In addition to being intellectually challenging, graduate school is predictable in its ability to wreak emotional stress. This stress can drive a student to feel incompetent, unworthy, and alone. Emotional stress is insidious: it does not announce its presence. It simply happens, and then there you are in emotional and existential pain, whether you recognize the cause or not.

The way in which students move past these emotional challenges may set the tone for their scientific career. Some feel overwhelmed and write off science altogether. Some internalize the hardship, and develop depression or loss of self-worth. Yet others will come through the stress resiliently, excited to master the challenge the next time it rears its head.

Instead of simply watching our best and brightest go through, at this point, ritualistic and expected emotional turmoil, let’s be proactive about combating the problem. First, all students should seek out emotional care, whether they recognize they are undergoing emotional stress or not, early in their graduate training. Psychological counseling, graduate student support groups, personal meditation and reflection, all may aid in recognizing stress and developing resilience. Second, maintaining emotional health and solving emotional challenges should be a core, in-the-curriculum lesson of graduate training, as it is a skill as essential to science as manuscript writing. The Vanderbilt MSTP has already begun addressing this issue by creating the Wellness Committee, and the Vanderbilt graduate school has focused efforts on promoting work-life balance. However, more intensive emotional education is needed if we are to create more resilient graduate students.

To those that suggest that a focus on emotional health will result in a “watering down” of the rigors of graduate school, think again. These are not calls to make graduate school any easier or less rigorous. Numerous studies have demonstrated the positive impact that emotional well-being has on productivity and creativity1,2, and it is time that the very institutions that perform the studies embrace them. Addressing emotional struggles before they become pathologic may ultimately improve the productivity of graduate students.

So to all the MD/PhD (or non-MD/PhD) graduate students and soon-to-be graduate students out there: Don’t think it won’t happen to you, and don’t think you’re the only one it happens to. Significant emotional challenges happen to everyone in graduate school, in some form and at some time, and you will eventually get through them. Defining these challenges and resiliently overcoming them may be the most important graduate school problem you solve.

  1. Oswald, A.J., Proto, E. & Sgroi, D. Happiness and productivity. Journal of Labor Economics 33, 789-822 (2015).
  2. Taris, T.W. & Schreurs, P.J. Well-being and organizational performance: An organizational-level test of the happy-productive worker hypothesis. Work & Stress 23, 120-136 (2009).

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Vanderbilt University.