Mentoring, suicide and Harvard

Paula J. Schlax pschlax at
Sat Dec 12 02:14:32 EST 1998

I read the NYT article- I think it captures a very accurate portrait of
research and graduate school (even in a not so high powered lab.) I
didn't percieve myself or my peers as striving for the Nobel prize, or
in reality it even being a consideration, but then again my mentor
hadn't won one....

I think that one of the strongest things I can tell my students who are
going to graduate school is to find a group of people who you can talk
with- a support group of sorts.  It's very difficult to have that group
be people who are not in grad school or who have never gone- my parents
thought Graduate school was just more classes with a little teaching
thrown in... My support group was made up of people within the lab- and
I am so incredibly grateful to them.

Although support people are important, it is also important to pick
those people carefully- you don't want to compete with your supporters.
Additionally, there was an article in the Boston Globe a few weeks ago
about one grad student (or ex grad student) poisoning a coworker at
Brown University with I-125. (Apparently a romantic relationship was
part of the picture).  I passed out both articles to my students at the
same time- and there were a lot of surprised students. They asked me if
grad school was that bad and worth going to....

Hard questions- I don't know what to tell them.

few jobs exist for PhDs in biology (or Chemistry - my field)- there are
tons of people in grad school for 4 or 5 years with no results towards a
thesis. I don't think the average student gets the 3 or 4 publications
that people expect- at least not in all fields.  The number of postdocs
(and the indentured period) continues to rise.
On the other hand it is an incredible journey (through both horrible and
fantastic times). The intensity of concentration and the discipline
required to follow through on a project are valuable skills to learn,
and the feeling of self-worth at the end of the journey may make it
worthwile.  I tell them that I am glad I did it, but I wasn't sure I was
going to make it, and I was fortunate that my project worked so well.
(It is complete BS to say that luck plays no part of one's grad
experience- sometimes speaking to a PI first is the only luck one
needs.....) I also tell them that if I had to redo my career, I would
have stopped at more places to evaluate whether I should finish or

What do you do in a lab of 20 people if you are one of the worst five-
or unluckiest or get along with the PI poorly (Or just feel that way)?
You think you won't have a great letter- you won't have papers and you
will have to hope that you can make it up in a good postdoc- which, w/o
letters you may have trouble getting because it's tough to get a
fellowship......Maybe you bail and try again later or maybe you just

Congress is talking about increasing NIH funding- how will this affect
grad studies, post-doc gluts etc... I suspect the numbers of funded
projects won't increase drastically- the money will go to the same labs
(maybe for new research branches off old ideas- and more grad students
and postdocs will be wanted to work on these projects.... ) There won't
be money for more people with less expensive ideas at small schools
(where you thought you might go).

At some point in a graduate career all of these realities hit and
generally the student is too far along to decide to leave with a masters
degree (if that is even an option). Typically research is not going well
and the person has been perusing the web about their future....
(Alternative careers are a popular topic at this point). Quite honestly,
I am surprised there aren't more suicides, poisonings or violent acts. I
know of a case where a student tried to fudge data just to get out- I
think the temptation is real and it happens-(the student did get out,
got caught but wasn't penalized in any way....except losing authorship
of the paper). How do I explain this to my students and say- hey go for
it- knowing that most students go through these feelings to some degree?
I am trying to warn them. I suppose the easiest thing is to keep giving
them the NYT article and any others I find- tell them to keep in touch
and pray that they avoid those common frustrations and feelings of

The NYT article affected me a lot.  I hope everyone reads it.


"There's nothing the matter with his mind. He just
does things in his own way and in his own time."
 From A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle

Dr. Paula J. Schlax
Department of Chemistry
Bates College
Lewiston ME 04240

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