Recently Nature published a survey of mental health of PhD students (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03459-7) along with an editorial (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03489-1). It shows that an alarming proportion of PhD students (36% in one study and 86% in another) suffer from anxiety, depression or other undesirable mental states; a proportion substantially higher than the general population. This is despite the finding that most perceive research as a fascinating field.
This is a surprise as well as no surprise. It is a surprise because the science I know goes exactly the other way. Science brought beauty to my life. I owe the best moments and memories of my life to science. But more than that as a science teacher I have seen so many problems and agonies of young minds being resolved by the pursuit of science. I have dozens of stories but I will relate just a couple of them.
A girl got married quite early (something not a surprise in the Indian society and this was two decades ago) but soon suffered a family disaster and was completely broke. I suspect I have an eye for talented but derailed students. Even in a class of 60, I could easily note that something was wrong with her. Later I asked her what was wrong. She told her unimaginable story. I don’t feel the need to relate that story here, but just that any girl would have collapsed under such a situation. I spent a lot of time talking to her. The only thing I could do was to engage her in science to keep her mind occupied. It worked surprisingly fast. With some stroke of luck, her exploration returned something exciting. She picked up a curious looking colony from a plate and isolated the organism. There was no specific aim, it looked different so it was just a curiosity pursuit. We found an interesting enzyme in that organism that had a completely novel potential industrial application. She filed a patent while still in her second year of B. Sc., presented a conference paper, got a national level award. We tried to take the process to commercialization which did not materialize. But in the course of these events she got her confidence back, had a new motivation, a new meaning for existence. Something pursued only out of curiosity, with no pre-decided objective, paid an unexpected dividend. In due course she graduated, had a good job, got married again and settled well. I don’t count the failure to find a buyer for the patent. Our failure to scale up the process is not a failure for me. This is a success story. One person going from a totally broke, depressed state to a confident and self-reliant new life is the success of research. A PhD was not the outcome of this research, a new life was.
Another boy was in a typical old Hindi movie situation in which he was involved with a girl, and her father refused to allow her to meet with him. At one stage he was seriously considering suicide. I spent a lot of time with him. Again the only tool I had was science. He was creative, had his own ideas. He graduated, while still in a bad state of mind, but soon developed a techno-concept of his own into a business proposal. His business plans and the initial success was so impressive that the girl’s father got impressed, changed his mind. Ultimately he married the girl he loved. The change was brought about by his creative ideas in science and technology.
I have witnessed much more bizarre types of problems that youngsters go through. Every time the only tool that I could use to help them was science. Every time what they worked on was different, ways of working were different. The projects “failed” quite often. Experiments did not work, ideas did not materialize. Once in while they did, undergraduate students ended up publishing papers or filing patents. But in almost every case the pursuit of science succeeded in making someone’s life. In dozens of cases I could bring someone out of anxiety, depression, confusion, conflicts, strained relations, stress and what not. I am fully convinced that science has a healing touch. The healing effect is unimaginable, miraculous, almost spiritual.
The students who went through such phases are dispersed globally now but many are still in touch and communicate once in a while. They are as convinced as I am that science made the miracle happen. I have many interesting feedbacks. One girl, who had suffered child abuse at an early age and therefore had closed herself to any kind of relationship with anyone, ultimately ended up being in love with someone, marrying and being a mother. She told me once, “While I worked with you and with the team, at some stage I realized men can be good as well.” Another girl, who had lost her mother quite early messaged me one day after returning from the lab, “I feel like having met my mom again!!” Feedbacks like this are the biggest rewards of my life. Nobel prize doesn’t stand anywhere in comparison with them.
All I did was to get them interested in a question, make them own a question, open for them the beauty of logic, experimental design, pursuit of something unknown, the feeling of having achieved something, the spirit of facing failures, at times facing voids. There was more than that. I was always interested in evolution of behaviour, so I kept on talking about human behaviour. Why people are what they are, what is the meaning of a relation, why conflicts arise, why we feel what we feel and the like. Talking about these things with a logical framework was completely new to them. There is a science of emotions and if you understand that you can manage your emotions better. I believe it gave them a new insight, a different way of looking at themselves, a mature analysis of the problems they were facing.
On this background, it should be a real surprise that research students have so much of stress, anxiety, depression. But it’s no surprise for me because I have seen the other side too. Science is a relief, excitement and enjoyment all the time. But is doing a PhD equal to doing science? Science is an exploration, adventure, a journey of the unknown, uncertainty about what is at the other end, uncertainty about how long it will take to solve a problem. Completely contradictory to that is the expectation of completing a thesis in five years, having a complete research plan right at the beginning. In some universities even the title of the thesis is to be given at the time of registration itself. What can be more ridiculous than this? How can you know what you are going to get at the end, even before you begin the investigation? How can you design your research plan for a long period of 5-6 years? In reality, I can design my next experiment only after getting the results of the first. I should have the freedom to completely change my objectives and start investing something else if I serendipitously discover what look more interesting. Starting with prefixed objectives and not having the freedom to change them is wrong. But universities and institutions expect you to spell out you research plans and even register a title of the thesis in advance. In case you want to change, a committee has to approve it!! All this is in complete contradiction with the spirit of research. What you get out from such a system is lots of data, not necessarily new insights. The PhD system does not prepare you for bigger surprises. PhD programme is a paper mill, not an abode of research.
PhD is bound to be stressful because of the unscientific and ritualistic concept of PhD itself. The rituals that one has to follow to make a career in science are the cause of all problems. After having spent my full life in science, I have still not understood why a PhD is necessary to do a science career. The burden of the stereotyped expectations of “finishing” research in five years, publishing two or three papers in “high impact” journals, generating enough stuff for writing a thesis causes the anxiety. Working hard on one’s own ideas is enjoyable. Compulsion to work hard on someone else’s ideas is torturous. The most illogical and often stupid peer reviews that you get after years of painstaking work are depressing. Rejection recommendation by someone who doesn’t even bother to read your manuscript completely is disheartening. Research by itself is not stressful, the social and institutional rituals are.
The answer to the question why I do research should be because I have a question, because there is something funny there which I haven’t understood, because I can see the agonies of someone and feel like trying whether I can find a long term solution. Doing research for getting a PhD is like prostitution, which we institutionalize to replace love.
In literature short stories, poems and even haiku is valid and valued. Writers of these things are no way inferior to writers of novels. But in science only a thesis makes the gateway to a science career. There are short story writers in science as well and that kind of science is very much needed, but they never get a PhD or are not considered for a science position anywhere. If you have a new and interesting theorem that can be stated in three pages, they say it can’t make a “thesis”. I have seen people saying you don’t have sufficient volume of work for a thesis. Is science being sold in gallons? How does the volume of work matter over the novelty of ideas and soundness of logic? I see no basis for the expectation of writing only in the form of a thesis to get a PhD, I don’t see a reason why a PhD should be a necessary qualification for a science career. The only justification is that it is a ritual. It is baptism of the religion of institutionalized science.
People who do science as a religious ritual perhaps deserve all the stress, anxiety and depression.