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Thread: Mental health and the PhD student, etc

  1. #1
    An Urch Guru Pundit Swami Sage
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    Mental health and the PhD student, etc

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    I wanted to call to everyone's attention a discussion going on in the PhD physics/cosmology/astronomy world about... mental health(?) Basically, some faculty member apparently wrote a letter to the graduate students about how graduate students should work 80+ hour weeks and accept being treated poorly by faculty (as well as how they should try to be more like graduate students at a better school and other weird drivel and some not so weird good advice). The blog-o-reply's (ie here and here) have basically been about how bad of an letter this is. Another post that I liked discusses the importance of mental health in graduate students, here.

    On the other hand, there is some good advice, too, I guess.

    Anyway, I want to second the importance of putting mental health first. If you or a graduate student you know is having mental health problems, this is something that can be dealt with but needs to be taken seriously. I have little ideas how to help. Some (most?) schools have mental health centers, but these are often overworked and understaffed and more experienced with helping undergrads. I know there are a number of books about how to get a PhD, but these mostly deal with the nuts and bolts of motivation and goal setting. Does anyone have any good ideas or resources for dealing with stress and feelings of inadequacy? Also does anyone have any good ideas or resources for dealing with stress due to being an underrepresented minority in the department (ie being a women, being an ethnic or cultural minority, having trouble with English, etc)?
    You might be interested in this analysis of past TM applicants results, which sorts acceptance and rejection results by school based on postings on TM. Also, I have made a ranking of programs by number of flyouts of schools' job market candidates, which is still in development.

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    Should I be worried that that letter seems in no way controversial to me?
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  3. #3
    Pokemon Trainer yankeefan's Avatar
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    Bleh...I have heard much meaner "motivational" talks from my shift supervisor at a retail store I used to work at.

    Its still a good read though, thanks for sharing!

  4. #4
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    A linked article provides much more interesting bits. The situation graduate students and job market candidates face is a product of capture: government monopolizes and crowds-out the market for primary research and misallocates supply and demand (boosting supply in terms of degrees and restricting demand by underfunding employment). This bit sums up nicely: "Essentially, this system provides a continuing supply of exceptionally skilled labor at artificially low prices, permitting the federal government to finance research at low cost. Based on federal statutes, regulations and appropriations, the system can be fundamentally altered only by congressional action."

    ​The article is well worth reading in full.

    http://www.psmag.com/science/the-real-science-gap-16191/?


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    In the aggregate, I've definitely noticed a generational gap between grad students (Gen Y) and faculty (Baby Boomers and Gen X) with respect to work-life balance.

    I think that there is some truth in the letter, that academia is VERY competitive and that in many disciplines you need to be a star in a very well-regarded program to even get an academic job. Economics is a little different than many other disciplines, in that there is a robust non-academic job market and you can still do well with just a strong JMP, good pedigree, and strong LORs. But it is the case that if you want to secure tenure at an R1, you're going to need to be insanely productive.

    That said, I vigorously disagree that working 80 hours a week is necessary or sufficient for being productive. In my mind, the production function for academic literature (at least empirical research) is essentially Leontieff in nature: i.e., y=min(x1, x2, ..., xn). Time/effort is one factor of production, but you also need a balance with respect to good ideas, usable data, technical skill, writing skills, etc. Given the form of the production function, you cannot offset a deficit in one factor with a surplus of another; that is, you cannot compensate for a mediocre idea or inadequate data by investing more time. People who attempt to offset other inadequacies with a superhuman investment of time fail far more often than they succeed.

    My observation is that most graduate students struggle with coming up with a novel, empirical question that can addressed with widely available data. That's not an indictment--a lot of very smart people have been wrestling with the big questions with existing data sets for a long time that have long since claimed the low-hanging fruit. But that's where I think that the adviser who wrote the letter has a valid point: current grad students need to be actively engaging with the latest research. Simply doing required readings for a field course is not sufficient for developing expertise in a particular subfield; and a literature review should be more than just paying homage to major contributors. And I think that there is something to be said that if you truly enjoy your subfield, you will enjoy consuming academic literature that isn't assigned and that you are intrinsically motivated to seek out.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tm_member View Post
    Should I be worried that that letter seems in no way controversial to me?
    PhD=Permanently Head Damaged.

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by untitled View Post
    ... how graduate students should work 80+ hour weeks and accept being treated poorly by faculty
    as it was stated by Karl Marx - I am sorry for citing this man's quote here, but it's very natural for me as for one being raised in the spirit of Marxism and Communism of the last age to broach the like quote - 'Necessity/scarcity sharpens mind'.

    Had the PhDs were petted or admired as young Gods of econ science, they would have been expected of achieving much less independently as researchers then. Any one who aspires to scholarship should be prepared to be a slave of his/her master until one's self-actualization time, i.e. becoming/feeling/acting/behaving (as) a master by oneself. Nothing surprising is discovered re the treatment described in the above links. I don't understand why OP is so much exited about that.

  8. #8
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    In my experience, the single most effective therapy for stress related to scholarship is to share it with peers in my situation. Counselors et. al. can help, particularly if one faces a sort of personal crisis. But there is no substitute for the support of people who understand your stresses and who care.



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