Depressed Trainees and the PI

Jun 30 2009 Published by under Careerism, Mentoring

A little while ago Isis the Scientist posted a reader question about whether an academic trainee should broach mental illness issues with his or her PI. As Isis said, it is one heck of a question. To be honest, Isis alluded to the topic in an email prior to writing her post and I basically had no good suggestions.
Today, PalMD has posted a letter from another academic trainee who suffers from depression. I encourage you PIs in my audience to go over there and comment.
Some of the reasons I view this as an incredibly difficult situation are after the jump


It is not in the interest of any PI to have anything less than fully operational, brilliant, obsessed and dedicated trainees in the lab. Well, that's one way to look at it anyway. This would be the overt face of science and, according to PalMD's letter writer, the face of his or her training department. Tough love. If you can't hack it now, you aren't cut out for this career. Life's hard, do something else if you can't take the heat. There's some truth to this and, to some degree, legitimacy. After all, we make choices all the time about an individual's fitness for training in our labs and departments. Grad admission, training rotations, agreement on postdoctoral training...sure some of this is about "fit" and "interest". But much of the decision making is some sort of gaming over the potential success of the trainee. His or her ability.
Of course, we are probably pretty crappy at making more than the crudest discriminations, but still. Totally legitimate to, for example, exclude someone was not having the appropriate aptitude for the job. Right? Except...
Depression, drug addiction and other mental illnesses are just that, illnesses. Accident trauma, acquired illnesses, cancers...all decrease the productivity of the trainee. Do we discriminate against those that are injured or ill? Not so much. So what is our problem with the mental disorders whether they be developmental or (in some senses) acquired? Parity, stigma and ignorance. Being all well-edumacated folks we know* this is illness and biology and not a choice or lack of will.
Just because you know this intellectually doesn't mean you are going to be a good PI, however. It goes back to the reasons that people have such problem with the mental disorders in the first place. The human behavioral continuum is very smooth. Everyone gets a little depressed and a-motivated now and again. There is probably (I think and most people believe) such a thing as a lazy-ass or otherwise unmotivated employee for which the blame legitimately accrues to the individual. So where do we draw the line?
It is too damn risky to tell the PI. Tru.....ish. My take is that if depression is causing you to be nonfunctional you basically have a limited set of options
1) You muddle through fighting off your depression and being as productive as possible. The PI finds you to be no better or worse than average and things go reasonably well... I suppose it could happen. In fact I suspect it does happen quite a bit.
2) You suck and the PI thinks you are a wastrel trainee and things go badly for you.
3) You tell the PI, he/she is a mental disorder bigot and things go badly for you.
4) You tell the PI and s/he steps up, is as understanding as possible and things go....better?
These sorts of questions always make me think about my role as not just a mentor but as an employer/supervisor. Technicians are likely to have issues as well. I'd like to think that I am receptive and understanding. In the limited number of related situations that have come up, I think I've done okay and been reasonably supportive. But the thing is, you don't really know if you are giving off the vibe of "Don't come to me with your silly problems, get back to the bench!". Maybe the person who broached it with you is just really brave?
All you can do, my fellow PIs, is to try. To be aware. To think at least second if maybe that trainee who you are trying to motivate has clinically diagnosable issues. Probably better to be thought of as PI Hippy-dippy Touchy-feely than as Dr. Asshat.
In my estimation anyway.
__
*HAHAHAHAHAHAAAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ..oh, wait. that's not funny, that's sad. True though. PIs who are in the biological sciences have no excuse for not understanding mental illness. none.

62 responses so far

  • Ria says:

    Unfortunately, most of the graduate students of my acquaintance who became depressed during graduate school were in such a state directly due to the attitude/treatment of someone in their lab with whom they either spent a lot of time, or who had a direct influence on their career/education (read: PI him/herself). A toxic environment is more likely to drive people into the ground rather than support their learning and development. The wise students left the toxic environment, joined a new lab, and were most often successful after the move. Almost all of them wound up leaving science for business (management side), administration, or law.
    It's best if a depressed trainee/student takes the initiative to seek counseling and/or a change of venue.

  • Kevin H says:

    I have a bit of a problem with some of your logic. However, I think this type of thinking is very prevalent in common discourse and the law. This is largely due to the fact that the issues are certainly complex.
    The basic problem is the distinction between a disease and a state. All of our actions, beliefs and abilities are substantiated in our physical mind and body. In that sense, there is no difference between a 'sick' person and a 'normal' person.
    You allude to this breifly by questioning where to draw the line, but fail to follow the uncomfortable logic. If we are to allow ourselves to compensate for certain physical states which we call a disease, how can we not compensate for any physical sate?
    We have kind of an ad hoc system where if can quantify the differences between two groups, we now have a label for it. If we can label it, we say we shouldn't discriminate based upon it. However, this is fundamentally flawed if we assume (as nearly all biologists do) that all differences between individuals have a physical cause that could be quantified given sufficient information. Focusing on what we can quantify and what we can't I think is silly.
    Instead I would purpose that we focus instead on the ability to compensate for the physical differences. If a reasonable change in working behavior or available tools will allow the person to perform up to the standards of the position, then those accommodations should be made, however, the standards themselves should not be changed for the individual.
    This means that as our understanding of the brain increases, we will be able to remove more and more roadblocks for people which prevent them from achieving highly, and therefore appropriately, we should be willing to accept people with more and more 'diagnoses'.
    In the specific case of depression and mental illness, I bet we would be somewhere close to agreement on a case-by-case basis. For example, in the case put forth to Isis, there was a reasonable fix to the problem, and assuming the writer's treatment continues to go well, that his/her future work will be up to snuff, which is what the advisor should be focusing on.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    These sorts of questions always make me think about my role as not just a mentor but as an employer/supervisor.

    Try "role as a father" for some real conflict. Love them, see all their wonderful abilities, the passions they bring to their subjects. Be their advocate for 15-20 years. Mentor them, guide them, listen to them, be in their corner for all the shit that comes their way.
    At the end of the day, though, those damn papers either get written or it's really hard to justify the lab space, it's hard to explain why they're on the payroll instead of someone (more?) productive, etc. And you have to prepare them for that side of the world, too.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Kevin H, you raise a fairly interesting point but as someone who is passing familiar, albeit in no way an expert, in the way clinical diagnosis is formalized under things like DSM-IV, I am comfortable with arbitrary distinctions. Also with individualized clinical care. So, for example, if I don't have any particular dogs in the hunt (i.e., it is not a family member basically) I am comfortable accepting whatever clinical diagnosis is made. An expert in depression says A is clinical and B is not- I have no problem, nor should I unless I am a clinician.
    As the boss, this makes things both easier and harder. Someone comes to me and claims to be depressed, I'm going to encourage them to interface with appropriate clinical care. I suppose I don't know what I would do if such a person refused care and continued to operate at a clearly dysfunctional level. At some point you have to turn it over to HR practices, I suppose.

  • Samia says:

    I'm feeling Kevin H on this one.
    Depression can take on many forms. Some people keep chugging along without showing any outward signs of depression, and that's certainly unhealthy but difficult to notice from the PI's standpoint. Other folks will start trailing off at work, which can seem weird especially if a person is "usually" a perfectionist. Perfectionist + Depressed can sometimes = why try? In these cases it can mean a lot for a PI to understand what's going on. You might be able to remove some of that performance inertia just be alleviating the guilt/shame aspect of it.
    I would add that some students will come from cultures that don't really accept mental illnesses as valid health problems, and the shame of it can add a whole nother level to things. For these folks, it can mean that much more for a superior to show their acceptance of the situation WITHOUT doing a special treatment jig. So yes, there are things a PI can do to help someone help themselves-- perhaps suggesting care (my school has a good, affordable psych clinic), keeping the door open on slow afternoons, and not insulting the student by giving them some kind of free pass. Some people are really good at keeping confidential stuff private, and so can have little talks in the office that don't ever seep into Lab/Class Stuff. It depends on your style, I guess, and the culture/manner of the student you're dealing with.
    I agree there's a baseline performance/ability/curiosity that just has to be there for a person to succeed in the sciences. However, I find it strange that so many people still consider mental illness a manifestation of some kind of moral failing. It's a dangerous attitude, one that strikes me as rather medieval. It also contributes to a lot of the shame issues surrounding depression. A person suffering from depression frequently becomes isolated from family and friends to begin with. Certainly, the least a PI can do is try not to contribute to that. Showing interest in a student's wellbeing is wise in terms of karma and student productivity, I think.
    I would also add that there are many medications prescribed for depression, some of which are truly terrible (I had a friend turn into a straight-up zombie for a week, another got some weird bleeding scalp issue...just weird shit). I'm not sure it would be smart to assume anything just because someone doesn't like the little pills they've been prescribed. It can take time to find what works for you, and it takes time to build up to a real therapeutic dose (of medication or counseling).
    Of course, Ria makes a great point, too.

  • Kevin H says:

    Well, my solution certain has some arbitrary distinctions as well, but what I find less desireable about the current line in the sand of clinical definitions is that it is arbitrary piled on arbitary.
    For an extreme example, what about anencephaly. That is a well documented clinical diagnosis, but obviously no one would argue for the inclusion of an anencephallic along with functioning PhDs for a faculty position.
    So in reality, most people are using multiple different rubrics. One which is similar to what I am proposing where they asses, with reasonable (and arbitrary) allowances, what a person's ability is, and then a second one which relies on a arbitrary definition of clinical vs non-clinical. All of the treatment side of clinical diagnoses is wrapped up into that first criteria, so the only area of non overlap would be those mental states which we understanding something about, but cannot treat. This creates a huge gray zone that must be dealt with even further arbitrary decisions. How far do we drop the bar to deal with this untreatable condition? Do we vary how far we drop the bar based on the severity of the condition? or since undestanding in the underriding principle, do we vary how far we drop the bar with how well the condition is understood?
    All of these things easily get muddled together, and especially when someone with power (as you put it) has a dog in the hunt, are ripe for abuse. In addition, the extra variable of clinical diagnosis makes it much harder to compare non-clinical considerations (for example, affirmative action).
    Therefore in the aim of fairness and simplicity, I'd say that it is much more sensible to simply rely on the single, if still somewhat arbitrary, principle of performance after reasonable intervention. That way you can hold the same criteria for all job related decisions, be they medical, mental, interpersonal, or socio-economic.
    Not that really expect to change anyone's mind, but I thought I'd put in my 2 cents =)

  • eela says:

    I'm not sure it would be smart to assume anything just because someone doesn't like the little pills they've been prescribed. It can take time to find what works for you, and it takes time to build up to a real therapeutic dose (of medication or counseling).

    word. When I was seriously depressed as a teenager it took two years and eight different antidepressants in varying combinations before I saw a significant improvement. And even then, that particular magic bullet only lasted for four years before it stopped working and I broke down again (likely from the stress of graduate school), and then it was another six months of trying drugs until it worked. I live in fear of the day the effect of the current combo will wear out and I'll be SOL.

  • JaneB says:

    I am a PI, and I have depression. I was not formally diagnosed until I was in my early 30s, but have had depressive episodes since my teens. I was a (1) with a little bit of (2) in grad school. But survived, published, and am now a faculty member at a respectable university with a research group of my own.
    I want to make four points in response:
    1) The alchemical combination of personality and interests which makes up 'aptitude' for labwork is very important, more so than many kinds of skills and strengths and weaknesses... when depressed, once I can get myself to work work is an escape and a release. It is one of the last things to go, and I have come to see that as not some flaw needing psychiatric help but as part of my personality - work is 'safer' and more reliably rewarding than many social interactions, its less unpredictable, when I have limited resources putting them there makes a lot of sense. Someone with a different mix of personality, of responsibilities, of work place and stage, will react differently. It is not possible to judge uniformly whether depressive illness makes someone less 'fit for the job' in science.
    2) The stigma of mental illness is perhaps particularly great in a job where 'braininess' and mental skills are held in the highest regard. Mental illness attacks something very, very central to our sense of ourselves as academics, scientists, students... and that's scary. On the other hand, because we are smart, educated people we have an extra responsibility to fight that stigma and not be blinded by it. This is partly why I blog at all - I have a mental illness, and I have a faculty job, and I do research - being visible doing those things through my not very busy is at least a start, an action on my part.
    3) We need to stop regarding poor personal skills on the part of the PI, or a hostile or stressful lab environment, as in any way acceptable. The big challenge is to get the system to change so that there are negative consequences on the uncaring PI, and help and advice (and a reason to take them up!) for the clueless PI.
    4) Talking to your PI, your boss, is always a personal and risky-feeling choice. I would strongly recommend that it is done not in desperation but in calm, and that if at all possible you go in with practical suggestions of useful accomodations. For a grad student, for example, it might be that a customary start time of 8am is really difficult (many depressives are worst in the morning) - turning a blind eye to later starts as long as minimum work targets are met or rescheduling lab group meetings to lunch time are small changes that can make a lot of difference. It also changes a 'scary emotional vagueness' talk into a concrete practical 'safer' discussion, which is less emotionally charged for the people involved. If necessary, talk first to HR or the grad student office to find out what is considered reasonable. As a PI, I know that one of my reactions when a student has a problem (whether it's medical, personal, caring responsibilities...) is to feel upset and unsure of what to do. I don't like feeling unsure, I'm a PI! So if the student has some suggestions, then I can actually use that as the basis for doing something - whether that's making sure that I don't schedule afternoon meetings on the days when they have to pick up little Johnny from school or making sure that a suitable chair is present next to the bit of equipment where most people stand, so that they can take the weight off their damaged knee, or setting minimal, low-pressure targets for a few weeks whilst they get used to a new anti-depressant or work through a bad patch. Being able to take action puts me back into control, which is where I like to be as a PI

  • As a PI, I am the type who want to know if my trainees are having issues that are affecting them at work or at home. I've talked about having accute events come up in people's lives, but I think the same ideas apply for more long-term issues. I realize that it is risky for the individual trainee to make their "problems" known, but for me it is the only way I can help them. If I think they are just not getting their work done without any knowledge of their circumstances I can't just sit back while they flounder away lab resources. However, if I know there is an issue that can be mitigated with a different schedule or certain allowances, why wouldn't I want to know about that and help in any way I could?

  • leigh says:

    you hit the issue in the end, DM.
    my boss has ZERO issues telling us when we're faltering on something- and definitely none in hammering hard on areas where we trainees need to improve. this is a good thing, for sure. we do not escape this place without having strength in all the areas that the boss deems we should have strength. (and with a very long history of training PhDs, the boss knows.)
    however, the boss also assumes, in the absence of being told otherwise, that there is nothing around to impede our progress as trainees. and applies the abovementioned hammering as needed to trigger our development.
    this approach doesn't work so great when a trainee is full-blown manic. or holed up in their tiny apartment hiding from the world. in fact, it goes a bit like this: trainee fails to respond. boss gets frustrated. trainee feels isolated. commence vicious cycle.
    i have in one case let an issue go too far before bringing it to the boss's attention. and in one case just laid it out there when i noticed it was becoming a problem. it was far less stressful just putting it out there BEFORE there were misunderstandings and frustration on both sides. (particularly with how the boss expresses frustration!) but my boss is also pretty good about advocating for trainees in the lab group.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    It is not possible to judge uniformly whether depressive illness makes someone less 'fit for the job' in science.
    Considering some of the brilliant ones that were far from neurotypical - Tesla ('nuff said), Noguchi, in retrospect was ragingly bipolar, and Koch was ploddingly rigidly depressed and hyperfocused in an Asperger's sort of way - it might advance science if you could harness it.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "Considering some of the brilliant ones that were far from neurotypical - Tesla ('nuff said), Noguchi, in retrospect was ragingly bipolar, and Koch was ploddingly rigidly depressed and hyperfocused in an Asperger's sort of way - it might advance science if you could harness it."
    Ah, yes! In the times of Tesla, Noguchi and many other great scientists, a genius brain was usually enough to do and advance science. The PI of today is a better writer of grant proposals first and a scientist second. Most of the successful scientists of today are thus measured by their ability to garner research funds and enrich their universities rather than by their contributions to the advancement of knowledge.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Sol, kindly find somewhere else to exercise your obsessions today.
    I left a comment at WCU in which failure came up, and I thought it was important to mention it in a PI-directed discussion as well. People who are depressed can be incredibly sensitive to failure. It can reinforce all of the negative, irrational things they're believing about themselves.
    You can't read for any length of time in the lab blogosphere without being aware of how often frustrating failures--of equipment, techniques, etc.--happen in the lab. If you're a PI with responsibility for a depressed researcher, one thing you can do to help is be sensitive to those failures. You may be frustrated by the loss of time, effort and funds. Your depressed researcher is all of those things, but they're also seeing that failure as personal.
    It doesn't take a lot of work to make sure you don't direct your frustration at the researcher. It takes a little more effort to make sure your researcher knows you don't blame them for the failure, but it may make a huge difference in how they view the event.

  • Sol, kindly find somewhere else to exercise your obsessions today.

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAH! Good luck with that!
    For some reason, Shitlin thrives on pestering the shit out of people who have made it manifestly clear that he does nothing but disgust them. He is that weird smelly ugly fucker in high school who shows up at every party and intentionally rubs his smelly weird ugly fuckerness in everyone's faces even though he knows that they despise and pity him.
    It is an interesting exercise for the more psychologically minded to speculate what sort of twisted emotional dynamic drives people like that.

  • becca says:

    Stephanie- exactly, but... well in the real world, "research is intrinsically fraught with failure + depressed people are sensitive to failure" scans to some as "depressed people shouldn't do research (for their own good!)". So I think it's important for *any* trainees, but especially ones prone to depression, to hear stories of how often things go badly/how difficult it can be.
    I didn't know until after I had given up on electrophysiology that the lab's SuperPostDoc, widely rated as awesome at the technique, who had been doing it for years and producing pretty publishable data, still had days where he sat at the rig for 10 hours and did not meet a single cell with a good current reading.
    I have found these to be useful messages from PIs: "you know, I've made that mistake too"; "sometimes these things take time"; "is there anything that would make this task easier for you?" (oh god, that one is so precious)
    I have found these to be UNuseful messages from PIs: "ligation/cloning/digests/transfections/sequencing always works"; "this is supposed to be the quick part!"; "why can't you do this?"
    That said, being depressed makes you key in to the most negative possible interpretations of feedback. Combined with a good analytic mindset (exactly what you need to design elegant controls and precisely interpret data), I think a lot of depressed scientists really tear themselves up pretty badly. That can make even caring advisors feel like there's no right thing to say.

  • Isabel says:

    "Considering some of the brilliant ones that were far from neurotypical...it might advance science if you could harness it."
    Hmm....I wonder, when does a person/condition become "diagnosable?" And what happens to those who are not diagnosable? What about people who are simply extremely sensitive, eccentric, or mildly introverted? What about people who are uncomfortable (and less successful) with someone looking over their shoulder, or with having to adhere to a seemingly arbitrary schedule. Some of us "normals" are not at our best at 8am either, and can really suffer from having a constantly disrupted sleep pattern.
    Talk about being judged as morally deficient - try not being a morning person, or complaining about difficulty functioning mentally (reading, writing) in a noisy, busy environment, or being mildly claustrophobic in some situations. Such "complaints" will quickly cause you to be labeled as lazy or as a prima donna, even despite all evidence to the contrary, and despite the fact that the fixes are usually simple and relatively painless.
    It's a shame because such individuals may really be needlessly suffering, and may have a lot to contribute, and be especially creative and insightful, conscientious and caring (empathetic). But unfortunately, it seems that in all walks of life, not just science, we increasingly select against the introspective types. It can be difficult for them to get the same opportunities to shine as others because for example, they may not have as impressive CV's, not being joiners, or may not be good schmoozers, or whatever. But they might at the same time have perfectly serviceable social skills and make excellent employees (being creative and conscientious) and employers (being empathetic) and being "different" and deep, insightful thinkers can bring a unique perspective that could be utilized. Or at least more respected:)
    I guess what I am talking about is neurodiversity as applied to "normals"...

  • perceval says:

    From a project planning POV, it's always a good idea to know if people who work with/for you have an illness that affects their work. I have personally been part of a team that was thrown off course really badly by an RA who failed to disclose her illness, even though the PI was a real sweetheart. Data collection and entry severely delayed, other RA (me) left, many papers never written up b/c I am now gainfully employed elsewhere and have zero time to write that stuff up. If she had disclosed her condition early enough, we would have been able to support her / encourage her to take sick leave / redistribute her work.
    It's also important to assess the extent to which work is affected. For example, my own depression leads me to reduce weekend working. It also makes me far less keen to go on stressful day trips, as the concomitant sleep deprivation will set me off. Other people may become workaholics, yet other people will become apathetic.
    @Isabel, to my mind, the very best academic environments give you enough freedom to be extremely flexible - work from home, work in the mornings / evenings, work when other people are around, work a lot outside office hours.

  • Ren fruoken says:

    I have to agree with kevin here, even though I have a mental disability.
    For the most part people don't give a deuce why someone is less able than someone else; when job hunting time comes you can't hand in your CV and say " I was depressed here for a year so just multiply all the accomplishments for that year by 1.2 ok ?"
    Why is it okay to make exceptions for some people's not-their-fault non-achievement, but not others?
    But making accommodations to overcome a problem is sensible for everyone.
    And judging someone based on a diagnosis they have is also a bad, counterproductive idea. Which is also against the law, by the way, at least where I live, to anyone who thinks lightly of moral imperatives.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "Sol, kindly find somewhere else to exercise your obsessions today."
    Stephanie Z, I was responding to Tsu Dho Nimh's comment and will appreciate if you'll keep your policing job on your own blog. The main reason for my request is not that I give a rat's ass about what you think, but every time someone like you complains about my response, almost instantaneously this foulmouth, CPP, appears and makes me the topic of the thread, rather than the original post.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh says:

    @13 - Stephanie: WTF R U TKNG ABT?
    S. Rivlin made a very valid point - Noguchi, were he born today, would never make it in academia because he couldn't write grant proposals. He worked for a privately funded foundation. His writing style is distinctive, heartbreakingly poetic at times even in his scientific reports, but it's not the sort of writing that gets money from the government.
    Tesla, with the proper medications on board, might have been considered "normal". But I doubt he's have been as creative.
    @14 - PhysioProf, STFU OK? I'm getting fed up with your showing up in a discussion to spout insults and profanity to disrupt the proceedings. I'm not sure what you are compensating for, but it must be outside the normal limits of size or performance.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    For some reason, Shitlin thrives on pestering the shit out of people who have made it manifestly clear that he does nothing but disgust them. He is that weird smelly ugly fucker in high school who shows up at every party and intentionally rubs his smelly weird ugly fuckerness in everyone's faces even though he knows that they despise and pity him.

    Thank you, CPP -- that's a brilliant example of the kind of intolerant, destructive, bigoted "guidance" that depressed (etc.) juniors are afraid of.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Becca, I agree. I wrote what I did the way I did with the assumption that a number of the people reading this are PIs (or intending to become PIs) with a desire to learn all they can in order to help. I'd couch it in a lot more caveats for a more general audience.
    Tsu Dho Nimh, I'm talking about a topic that's rather near and dear to me. That makes me much less complacent about distractions than I am otherwise, particularly when they're the same distractions I see everywhere else. If different threads weren't suited for different discussions, no blog would ever need more than one post. Thus, I made a very limited request in a forum where I have no enforcement authority. I've been more polite about that sort of thing before, but this particular audience of one reacts the same way even to jokes, so I didn't bother this time. Is that enough background for you?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    Stephanie Z, your puny explanation for why you tried to police my comments, when both Tsu Dho Nimh and I were commented directly on the topic raised by DM, only indicates your obsession with me; something you seem to share with both CPP and Isis. If you suffer from depression or afflicted by another mental disorder, I hope you seek help and I wish you the best, but please do not attempt to block my ability to respond to someone else's opinion just because you're sensitive about this particular topic. Maybe this sensitivity is part of your affliction, but I am not your PI.

  • becca says:

    ~sarcasm~
    Yeah Stephanie! God, you're just like that damn whiny fascist bitch with cerebral palsy who thinks she has the right to get all uppity and tell people other than her PI she'd prefer them not to use the world cripple! Like her weakness is OUR problem. Not that we don't wish her the best, but we have a right to speak exactly how we want! It's not like we're using profanity or anything (the horrors!).
    /sarcasm
    S. Rivlin- just because CPP lurks around here doesn't mean we all have to become insensitive jerks. C'mon, you can do better than that. Also, you're reading comprehension is better than that- you know the topic DM was raising was not about grant writing skills vs. scientific skills (not that it's not a great topic, but there are plenty of other threads for that). You got smacked down as offtopic because you were.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    becca and Stephanie Z,
    Despite his rather obsessive comment, there is a highly topical point in s.rivlin @#12. We might back off and ask if an industry which was previously more tolerant of the eccentric genius type has evolved in a way which prevents (potential) genius contributors with certain behavioral or mental characteristics from succeeding today. Maybe we have and maybe we haven't but lost in S.Rivlin's comment is the question of whether there might be tradeoffs which make it worth it. I would submit that one of the tradeoffs associated with the current competitive climate of science is the democratization of the opportunity to compete in the first place. That's a plus.
    However if the competitive nature means that the depressed person who would otherwise contribute greatly to a field is excluded...not so good.
    I think it is always worth exploring how certain features of the business might work systematically for or against the participation of those that can make a good contribution.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    becca, I like your sarcasm, but allow me to disagre with your point about being off topic. That is exactly the topic. Tsu Dho Nimh was absolutely correct that great scientists of the past were great because the system actually allowed them to flourish either despite or thank to their mental afflictions. While agreeing with Tsu Dho Nimh, I strongly believe that today's system weeding out the brightest potential scientists (some if not most, who are different mentally from the majority, average scientists of today) because they cannot abide by the "normal" average and mediocre standards that the majority of us can. The scientific workplace of today is not built to accomodate the geniuses, like those of yesteryear, it discards them long before they can become independent scientists, at least in part because today's science is about writing skills. And no matter how hard PIs try to attend, understand and shield the mentally different students and postdocs, the system makes sure that they are doomed. My advice to Stephnie was serious, not sarcastic. If she is one of those mentally different scientists, her chances of succeeding in the world where scientists the like of CPP are the majority are slim to none. Hence, I strongly believe that my comments absolutely belong here.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Isn't this an instance of the general question of "what are the professional/moral responsibilities of a supervisor/mentor?"
    Bear in mind that I'm in industry, not academia, so I may have more latitude than a PI. Still, my job description is to make my group productive. Bad actors aside, there isn't much in common between "productive" and "Procrustes."
    What that means in practice is that it's my job to identify the strengths, weaknesses, and potentials of my team members. Build on the first, compensate for the second, and nurture the third. All of that requires listening -- and it's hard to listen if you're always cracking the whip.
    If that means I have a Tesla-wannabe, I need to avoid sending hir to dinner with J. P. Morgan and maybe get some social-skills training in while allowing some "Google time" for independent projects as long as the main deliverables are being met. If careful assessment determines that those deliverables aren't going to happen, then we need to find a better fit because this one ain't working.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, I was still working on my response to becca when you placed your comment (#25). I believe that there is a great disagreement betwen you and me as to the purpose of science. You see it, I think, as a vocation that should accomodate as many as possible professionals to manufacture the product of science. This approach, which has been extended to the population at large, where we promote college education for everyone, whether or not everyone is capable or acquiring it or really needing it, may help more people into the profession of science, but not necessarily help in advancing our knowledge in the way that, let say, a selection of only the best and brightest might do. You want to expand science the way a car manufacturer would like to expand, but what is good for the manufacturer of cars is not really working for science. Ideas, especially bright ideas, are not necessarily multiplying as you increase the number of brains that can potentially produce them, particularlly when most of those brains are mediocre. At the car manufacturer place there are just a few top engineers who produce the ideas, the rest are technicians, at one level of competancy or another that follow orders, putting the engineers' ideas into the car being built. I believe that bringing into science the big crowd does not really help our scientific knowledge advance further and faster than if we were selecting from this crowd the brightest to do the science. I think it would advance our knowledge further and faster and more importantly at a fraction of the cost of today's mediocre science for all comers.

  • neurolvoer says:

    Just for fun, I'll leave a completely off-topic note for DM. The BBC, yesterday, did a report on the effect of Portugal's new drug laws. It was thought-provoking. I've always made the assumption that changing our drug laws would increase drug use (though open to the argument that the increase might be worth the benefit of decreasing effects of criminalization).
    Portugal didn't legalize drugs -- they seemed to have de-criminalized them in some way. But, their overall result was that they haven't seen an increase in drug use.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    You see it, I think, as a vocation that should accomodate as many as possible professionals to manufacture the product of science....may help more people into the profession of science, but not necessarily help in advancing our knowledge in the way that, let say, a selection of only the best and brightest might do... Ideas, especially bright ideas, are not necessarily multiplying as you increase the number of brains that can potentially produce them, particularlly when most of those brains are mediocre.
    I think you mistake my position because you are so fixated on yours. My position on the democratization of science has nothing to do with wanting as many as people as possible to be employed doing science (although I would certainly prioritize even that over many other job categories). It is that we, demonstrably, do a crappy job at identifying the best and the brightest geniuses who will make an outstanding contribution to knowledge. Until after the fact, of course. Consequently it is my belief that the opening of opportunity to as broad a swath of brains as possible is the best way to make sure that we capture the potentially-brilliant contributors.
    Your way would appear, supported by your constant references to the past, to rely on some unstated limited set of decision makers setting out a priori to determine who can and cannot even so much as participate. You seem to think that some process, conducted of course by flawed and biased judges, i.e., people, is going to be able to identify genius. Sorry but history just doesn't seem to support this notion. Whether it be for picking individuals who will clearly make the best contributions or whether it be picking scientific advances that will clearly lead to unbelievably important things in twenty or forty years.

  • neurolover says:

    And, back on topic, I think the tournament model, with open entry does have both the effects you describe. It allows wide access and entry (and, does not, necessarily, mean that quality decreases, as long as the tournament is rapid and decisive). But, it also makes it impossible to protect individuals who are seriously impaired in their ability to compete in the tournament (on a short or long term basis) but have something of significant value to impart. It also makes the process of entering the field highly risky (and more so, actually, if the tournament is slower to resolve, because it involves a longer investment). This in turn excludes personally-risk averse tournament players (which will include those who are less confident, or have more responsibilities, or less of a support network).
    I've always been willing to sacrifice some of the democracy for other protections, but, perhaps, that just moves the tournament to earlier and earlier ages, while people vie for spots that will close soon.
    I do think, though, that the tournament plays out too slowly as it is currently configured. The most immediate first step I would take is to have all NIH/NSF graduate student support through training grants & personal grants, and not through research projects. That would close down the incentive for using grad students as low-paid labor, and produce tournament winners earlier on.
    (and, this is related to the topic, because disconnecting "trainee" pay from PI research productivity is a good thing, producing better incentives for training, I think. Then, the training grants/personal grants can handle the disabilities issues. I think the tournament makes the merging of trainee/employee problematic, and that it's a remnant of the system when the tournament was weaker.

  • CC says:

    We might back off and ask if an industry which was previously more tolerant of the eccentric genius type has evolved in a way which prevents (potential) genius contributors with certain behavioral or mental characteristics from succeeding today. Maybe we have and maybe we haven't but lost in S.Rivlin's comment is the question of whether there might be tradeoffs which make it worth it.
    My stints in academic research certainly haven't left the impression that universities need to be *more* dismissive of mental health issues, in trainees or in PIs. Quite the opposite.
    Uncertain Principles, by the way, recently had some very cogent discussions on exactly your question. (No link, as his main page won't render for me today...I really want Firefox 2 back.) I'm inclined to agree with Chad's position that the relationship between scientific productivity and psychological dysfunction is a lot weaker than is stereotyped.

  • Stephanie Z says:

    Not enough background, then. I consider it off topic largely because I don't think there's much the patronage model can teach us about modern human resource management (ugly, cold term that that is), which I probably should have said.
    It strikes me as more productive to compare academic practices to corporate practices. In a lot of ways, academia is a decade or two behind private employment on these issues and a bunch of others. At least behind the companies that have really decided to tackle the issues. I think part of that is the relative size of the two sectors, and part of it is the fact that personnel decisions are made in a more distributed fashion in academia, which makes implementing changes much harder.

  • CC says:

    Uncertain links:
    One
    Two
    The problem with this is that the number of actual geniuses who wash out of academic science is very, very small. The number of people who think they are geniuses who wash out of academic science is much, much higher. In fact, I would say that the "actual genius" fraction of the washout population is essentially zero.

  • bsci says:

    Before there's a discussion of how modern science might be less welcoming to people with mental health problems, I'd like to hear any evidence that this is the case beyond citing two anecdotes of dead scientists. Any actual data to back this up? Rivlin can point to Tesla and Noguchi, but I'd guess based on the raw greater # of scientists today, there are MORE depressed and bipolar scientists today than ever in history. In just the thread here and on PalMD's related post, think there several professors discussing their depression.
    In a 2004 survey of grad students, 9.9% had seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months, and 52% considered using psychological or counseling services. (response rate was 34.5% of the entire grad student body at UC Berkeley)
    http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~gmhealth/reports/gradmentalhealth_report2004.html
    Does anyone think that none of these people will ever be able to write a grant or become a professors? In addition, I know people with mental health problems who got PhDs and have very productive roles in science policy or science support when they realized they didn't WANT to be professors.
    So, Rivlin, any actual data to support your conjectures?

  • Anonymous says:

    My husband has struggled with the question of whether to tell his bosses about his clinical depression every time he's landed a stable job (though he is not a researcher, for the record). It's almost easier when he has direct evidence that his boss is an asshole. In those cases, if he is hit by a bout of depression and has to take medical leave, he will give only the appropriate notice as required by law (legally, you do not have to report to your employer as to the nature of your illness).
    Other times, he's been friendly enough with his bosses that he has told them why sometimes he needs to take some time off (he's depressed and literally cannot get out of bed). In these cases... it really hasn't gone well. There's always the sense that they are thinking "oh God not this 'depression' excuse again."

  • Isabel says:

    Even if the people who wash out of academia are not geniuses they may tend to have certain personality types who have a unique perspective that may be lost, or perhaps an enhanced capacity for deep, insightful thinking, or creativity or something else we haven't identified yet...DM said "Consequently it is my belief that the opening of opportunity to as broad a swath of brains as possible is the best way to make sure that we capture the potentially-brilliant contributors." yes
    and also "I would submit that one of the tradeoffs associated with the current competitive climate of science is the democratization of the opportunity to compete in the first place. That's a plus. " but I would not want to trade one form of diversity for another. I would almost rather have greater diversity of perspectives, even if it's from only a portion of the population, but of course our goal should be to have both.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, bsci,
    First, I never have claimed to be an expert on mentally different-from-the-norm people.
    Second, and this is probably where my first comment diverge from the specific topic, not all depressed people are geniuses. Actually, there probably no relationship between depression and brightness.
    Third, DM, I'm not fixated on one position or another. What I have learnt during my career is that schooling, from K to grade-school to highschool to university, is for the majority of us, normal, average, mediocre human beings. The geniuses of the world are usually bored to death at any level of that schooling unless you allow them to advance at their own pace, which is much faster than that of average people. The problem, of course, is that the average, mediocre people are those who test and evaluate the geniuses right from the beginning. Although we got better at recognizing, testing and evaluating them, we still cannot get away from using the standards we apply to ourselves, the average and the mediocre people. The genuises we identify at an early age must be treated, schooled and encouraged to follow their specific genius towards wherever it will take them. Not all will, of course, choose science. But just as we allow genius youngsters to develop their own tendencies, in the arts, for example, where the youngster ability is supported by all people concerned (parents, teachers, community), we should do the same for the future scientists. Science classes in highschool and their science fairs are actually too late in fostering and developing the science genius. The real geniuses at that stage are not in the class. At that stage the only youngsters that are left are probably of somewhat higher IQ than the rest of their classmates, but they are no geniuses.
    You are absolutely correct pointing to the fact that in the old days there was no set system to select for scientific geniuses. The geniuses simply chose the academic institution since it was the place that allowed them to use their brains freely and that was usually enough to have a career then. Today, when such geniuses must compete with the average masses based on mediocre, average standards, they simply find themselves back at the boring grade- or highschool, where they were required to abide by what the masses do, standardized, boring, mediocre use of their brains.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The geniuses simply chose the academic institution since it was the place that allowed them to use their brains freely and that was usually enough to have a career then.
    the essential point here is some "chose". others, who happened to have skin a little darker than others or with XX chromosomes instead of XY or who chose parents who were not themselves either educated or wealthy or who chose to be born in the wrong geographical location were not allowed to choose by their very category, not their ability.

  • Isabel says:

    "Before there's a discussion of how modern science might be less welcoming to people with mental health problems, I'd like to hear any evidence that this is the case beyond citing two anecdotes of dead scientists.... think there several professors discussing their depression."
    bsci, we don't know how long those scientists have been around, and I have no data myself, but in an extremely competitive environment, as it is for grad students today with such poor prospects, I suspect certain personality types will be likelier to succeed for reasons that may not have a lot to do with science, such as an ability for self-promotion, being a go-getter super-achiever type etc. And more reserved, eccentric, dreamy types with less exciting CVs early on but who nevertheless may be idealists and creatives who might really shine later may be left behind. A generation ago they might have made it through anyway and easily found a faculty position. People who do not like to come in early, who don't socialize and volunteer a lot, or who show any sign of not being a team player at all times may start to fall behind in grad school, and I believe even earlier the way college admissions are now. I see this with many undergrads in the competitive program I TA in, they are very "productive" and competitive, and it seems they (and their families) know how to put an impressive admissions package together, apparently planning the elements of their CV since grade school, but many are not necessarily brilliant or even interesting students! Considering the competitiveness of the program and the huge talent pool, you would think they all would be.

  • becca says:

    DM- I think "evolved in a way which prevents (potential) genius contributors with certain behavioral or mental characteristics from succeeding" = "has become entirely too respectable!". But don't we all want to be eccentric geniuses, deep down?
    Still, I suspect holding up the eccentric geniuses as Famous Scientists is yet another aspect contributing to the bait-and-switch feeling among people entering this career area.
    "Ya mean I can't vigorously question all Professor Greybeards in extremely public venues without consequence?! The next thing I know you'll be telling me I have to wear clothes under my lab coat! HALP-I'M-BEIN-OPPRESSED!1" Damnit, I liked being weird.
    bsci- it's very important to be reminded that people with depression can succeed, and in particular that they can succeed in academic science. So I'm glad you bring that up, and I'd love to think that academic science is relatively tolerant on this front. However, that does not necessarily square with my personal experience (albeit it's possible I don't have a proper basis for comparison).
    Assuming you are right about the numbers (and without a baseline, incident rates aren't very informative), it's possible that we have more "depressed scientists" because we have more depression diagnosed. It's also possible that we have more because of the pressure involved- i.e. people who would have been productive happy scientists are now productive miserable scientists. This is the most worrisome possibility, to my mind (and would go along with the tournament model/ratrace/anticarebear aspects). And of course it's possible that we have more depressed scientists because various aspects of modern life allow them to work more effectively to overcome their depression (i.e. antidepressant-medication-responsive).
    S. Rivlin- Oh all right then- I'll concede it wasn't *entirely* off topic. But it was such a splendid opening for my sarcasm, and you really could stand to play nicer (except with CPP, of course. Though I wouldn't mind some snow from hell freezing over...).
    More importantly, I don't much buy into the argument "Oh Noes! We're loosing geniuses (who may be depressed) because we make people write grants!!". Even if I did, it doesn't address other aspects of egregiously wasted talent- like when someone with depression or other mental health issues is in the lab of an abusive/judgmental or overly rigid PI. Or even when 'normal' trainees in 'normal' PI's labs don't have a supervisor who is interested in their unique strengths and weaknesses (as DC alludes to).
    Although, if you wanted to argue that PI's would, on the whole, be enormously better at mentoring if they had more time and didn't have to focus on grant-writing so much, we could maybe agree on that ;-)
    "First, I never have claimed to be an expert on mentally different-from-the-norm people." Oh, you are too modest! I'd say you are uniquely positioned as an expert on exactly this matter.

  • Isabel says:

    In reference to the above comment, I realize I (and others) may be conflating "different" with "mentally ill" people but I think both can fall under the umbrella of the eccentric genius type, who may not have the advantage in today's competitive climate. After all not all "eccentric geniuses" are necessarily mentally ill. People labeled as 'weird' or 'nerdy' often do turn out to be diagnosable, and people who may not be diagnosable but are labeled as 'sensitive' 'shy' or 'lone wolves' are often still viewed as having some kind of problem that needs to be fixed to attain the ideal, correct personality and are therefore considered less desirable candidates, fairly or unfairly.

  • bsci says:

    Isabel & Rivlin,
    Despite all the talk about careers going in one direction, there are also exceptions. I know people who did poorly in K-12 when to a mediocre college and did great in grad school & beyond. I know grad students who dropped out of their programs partially due to mental health issues, had another career, & eventually found a different field & school where they did great & become faculty @ top places. There's a specific example I know of someone who was essentially in a supporting science position in a lab where he made a great connection between fields & now is a hugely respected & awarded person in that field.
    These are all possible because of the vast number of science jobs and ways to get into and out of academic careers. They might be exceptions to the rule, but those exceptions might still be more frequent than in older times with fewer scientists and more private sponsorships.
    As for Rivlin's genius argument, I find it rather thin. Most geniuses I've known did just fine passing the trivial evaluations created by us commoners. Sometimes they learn on their own and sometimes they find great mentors who nuture their genius. I was part of a county math program in high school and I watched some truly amazing people from junior high on get nutured to the best of their skill levels. And yes, some of those geniuses might have been ignored because of their skin color or sex during the golden age of genius scientists.

  • PhysioProf, STFU OK? I'm getting fed up with your showing up in a discussion to spout insults and profanity to disrupt the proceedings. I'm not sure what you are compensating for, but it must be outside the normal limits of size or performance.

    Fed up? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!! That's fucking hilarious!
    BTW, the idea that it is "geniuses", eccentric or otherwise, who are important for making the scientific enterprise progress as rapidly as possible and who are being selected against now in greater numbers than in the past is a load of fucking horseshit. It's white-d00d mediocre losers like Shitlin who rant and rave like this, nursing delusions that they are misunderstood geniuses.
    What has changed over the years is that white-d00d mediocre losers no longer operate in a privileged arena from which all non-white-d00ds are excluded.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    The geniuses simply chose the academic institution since it was the place that allowed them to use their brains freely and that was usually enough to have a career then.

    the essential point here is some "chose". others, who happened to have skin a little darker than others or with XX chromosomes instead of XY or who chose parents who were not themselves either educated or wealthy or who chose to be born in the wrong geographical location were not allowed to choose by their very category, not their ability.

    I daresay that there were quite a few oddballs in the 18th and 19th centuries whose quirks would, today, make for a very difficult career in science but who were able to accomplish great things. Then again, the ones who come to mind were coming from positions of privilege [1] which permitted them to bypass the worst aspects of the day's educational system.
    I don't know what Sol's golden age of education was like, but even for XY WASPs the educational system until quite recently was deliberately brutal, with a "beat it into them" approach for anyone who couldn't afford private tutors. Anyone prone to depression would be very ill-advised indeed to attend an English public school [2] of the 19th century, and universities continued that far-from-humane environment.
    Have a look at the suicide rates in students then if you think they're bad now.
    Getting back to the oddball geniuses of yesteryear, citing their successes (as always) tells us nothing about whether the system that they survived was less hostile than ours. We might as well cite Washington Carver as proof that there was no racial discrimination. Add the fact that the majority of them were greatly aided by wealth and social position and any favorable comparisons to today become ludicrous.
    Having a few million in a trust fund might not guarantee a depressive grad student's success, but it sure ain't gonna hurt.
    [1] I use the word in the strong sense, rather than the expanded one that includes being sighted, ambulatory, etc. The people I'm thinking of were children of the nobility or at the very least of inherited wealth that obviated any need to work for a living.
    [2] English, not American, definition.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    "First, I never have claimed to be an expert on mentally different-from-the-norm people." Oh, you are too modest! I'd say you are uniquely positioned as an expert on exactly this matter.

    Becca, wouldn't that require introspection?

  • becca says:

    "Becca, wouldn't that require introspection?"
    Or a good mirror.
    "Damnit, I liked being weird. "
    Or a mirror in a mirror. Ooo! Recursion!
    "the educational system until quite recently was deliberately brutal" You say that like it's changed. But then, you weren't a teenager during Columbine, were you?
    Isabel- yeah, difficult vs. mentally ill isn't always clearcut. But realistically, as long as we're talking about "reasonable accommodations" the distinction isn't really critical. People extending more tolerance toward each other and trying to bring out the best in each other isn't going to hurt science in any event.
    "What has changed over the years is that white-d00d mediocre losers no longer operate in a privileged arena from which all non-white-d00ds are excluded."
    An arena like the one where one gets to be a colossal pompous asshat to everyone all the time without any apparent repercussions?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    "It's white-d00d mediocre losers like Shitlin who rant and rave like this, nursing delusions that they are misunderstood geniuses."
    CPProfane, I'm no genius by any measure, though I'm sure you consider yourself to be one. In my long career in science, I had the pleasure and the honor to work with no less than four geniuses and the opportunity to balance my good luck with some not-so-good luck working with assholes like you. Actually the number of assholes I worked with was about ten times greater than the number of geniuses. That's why I consider myself lucky, since most ordinary scientists today are very lucky to work with a much smaller ratio of geniuses to assholes. Early in my career, the geniuses (2) I worked with were recognized as such by their peers, allowing them to flourish and to sustain their illustrious careers. Those I worked with (2) in the latter part of my career had a hell of a time keeping their lab space, students and postdocs afloat as the demand to fund oneself with extramural funding grew. Although their peers knew them and admired them for who they are and what they have done, these geniuses were treated like any other mediocre asshole scientist in the university. Soon enough, the richest asshole became the chair of the department and the geniuses lost everything except their office space. One of them simply quit and took an academic position at Oxford University, UK, while for the other I offered 1/3 of my lab space and small amount of research money to continue his own research (he was not a member of my department, but we collaborated over a span of 25 years.) Needless to say that, at first, this colleague did not even want to hear about my offer, but after several months and as his situation in his department became dire, he took it. I imagine that it was very difficult for him as he was both very shy and very proud man. I must admit that my offer to him was fisrt and formost, a selfish one, since my scientific career benefitted greatly from his presence, his knowledge, his fantastic ideas and his unorthodox way of thinking. The dozens of papers we published together are a solid testimony to that beautiful collaboration. I first met him when I assumed my first position as an assistent professor at our university. He was then an associate professor whose salary was about 50% higher than mine. At the day he retired (25 years after we met) my salary was 50% higher than his. He has no NIH grants to his record, but he solved with his brain many scientific mysteries before we even ran the first experiment. As an electrophysiologist, an electronic engineer and a physicist, he encompassed all the best traits a top scientist should have. But, in a system, which during his career had turned from one that was seeking him, enticing him to join it and rewarding him for his genius, to one that punished him, demoted him and desrted him because he could not write a grant proposal, in a system that obviously selects the mediocre and the average, there is no chance for a genius like the one of yesterday.

  • neurolover says:

    CPP: I think you're wrong if you imagine that the current system, the winner-take-all tournament, is particularly fair to those with XX chromosomes or with extra melanin. True, it's obviously more favorable than a system where there clear discrimination (sometimes even legally endorsed). But a system where the rules are set up by those with power, to breed more compatriots like themselves, though fairer, isn't particularly fair. It rewards particular behaviors, and eliminates others, and not all of the rewards and consequences are aligned with getting the best science, nor with creating a playing field where differently-abled (and I mean this to include more than just those with depression or other disabilities) can compete on equal terms.
    And, I think we'd have to argue, to say that our current system is good for SCIENCE, that science is better now than it was. Is it? It's hard for me to tell (though I'm not going to have fantasies about the halcyon days of Bell Labs, either.

  • Isabel says:

    "the idea that it is "geniuses", eccentric or otherwise, who are important for making the scientific enterprise progress as rapidly as possible and who are being selected against now in greater numbers than in the past is a load of fucking horseshit. It's white-d00d mediocre losers like Shitlin who rant and rave like this"
    CPP, I hope you are not addressing this in any way to me- I could be wrong but "being selected against now in greater numbers than in the past" seems to refer to my comment, but I don't think you are accurately reflecting what I stated. Please don't conflate my statements with others', and then attach their opinions to me - people on these threads keep doing that. In my case, I was not just talking about 'geniuses' as I made clear, and was only asserting that the current competitive climate etc might be selecting for success of certain personality types, and those that aren't favored may provide a different, possibly important perspective and have unique contributions to make. And yes, the point was originally on the responsibility to not discriminate.
    I don't believe genius favors any particular personality type, though I thought there was some correlation shown between genius and mental illness. And yes, it's a continuum there are plenty of very bright people who may actually be more "productive" than the geniuses, at least by some definitions of the word.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    "the educational system until quite recently was deliberately brutal" You say that like it's changed. But then, you weren't a teenager during Columbine, were you?

    No, I was the parent of ADHD teens during Columbine. Why do you ask?
    There is a difference between the kind of wink-and-nudge brutality that naturally arises in teens who are allowed to go Lord of the Flies feral and an educational system that officially uses brutality as one of its core instructional values. Continuing through University.

  • Anonymous says:

    We had a technician in our lab who was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. That certainly explained why she was often dysfunctional on the job. When her diagnosis came through and she told the PI, he fired her. I tried to convince him to keep her since she really was trying very hard. His response was that she is dysfunctional so she simply cannot be productive enough and therefore she is not a good use of lab resources and how he as the PI has the obligation to maximize use of resources and blahblahblah.
    How do people with diagnosed mental illnesses manage to hold down ANY jobs, if this is the attitude of employers in general?? What if their illnesses - even with medical treatment - are still preventing them from performing adequately on the job? If such is the case, there realyl isn't anything that the individual with the mental illness can do about it. Are their jobs protected under the Disabilities act?

  • Anon_too says:

    Stephanie Z

    I left a comment at WCU in which failure came up, and I thought it was important to mention it in a PI-directed discussion as well. People who are depressed can be incredibly sensitive to failure. It can reinforce all of the negative, irrational things they're believing about themselves.

    I left a comment at WCU which failed to turn up. As someone who is depressed, that failure reinforced all of the negative, irrational things I believe about myself.

  • Ren fruoken says:

    Anonymous,
    Where I live, in ontario, you could get in deep trouble for that. It is expressly against the human rights code. If the technician had kept documentation they could sue for big bucks (though unfortunately that could be impractical for someone in a climate of bigotry since they could damage their reputation in the eyes of other potential employers.)
    I read a case once about a manic depressive programmer working on mission critical systems who got fired after he told his employers. From the stress of getting fired he went full-blown depressive, got hospitalized, divorced and lost his house.
    He sued at the human rights tribunal and was awarded several million $ in damages, including damages for mental anguish and loss of productivity.
    That's one way individuals with mental illnesses can hold down jobs: the stick.
    ALL jobs are protected under the human rights code in this fashion here. It trumps almost every other piece of legislation in the books, as human rights should!
    However, that doesn't mean employers have to accept a loss of performance - if the employer knows they can show they fired the employee because they weren't performing, they can fire someone no problem.

  • ren says:

    So to clarify, firing someone because they have a mental illness it's a bit like firing someone because you find out they have children. Or refusing to hire someone because they have children.

  • Anonymous says:

    Anon #53,
    Yes, an employee fired based solely on having a mental disorder does have legal redress. I'm anon 37 whose husband has clinical depression.
    The trick is to prove that the reason for firing is because they were informed of the illness and not directly because of performance. This can be very difficult to prove unless you have "smoking gun" proof - such as an email or written letter saying something like, "Because of your revelation of having anxiety disorder, I feel you cannot be a productive member of this lab and you are fired."
    Sadly, "smart" employers can find ways to get you OUT that are technically legal. For example, if they are determined to fire you legally, they can start a line of documentation to prove that your performance is unacceptable. Like, documenting every time they find you checking your email on work time. Or making unusually harsh demands and then documenting when you don't reach them. Or just making your life at work hell by being an asshole until you quit. You might be able to then sue for harassment, but it would be an uphill battle, especially for someone with clinical depression or anxiety disorder (or both).

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    IANAL.
    That said, ADHD has been ruled to fall under the ADA, so it might be worth finding out if there's case law for depression. In which case the usual rules for reasonable accommodations, etc. apply.

  • Anonymous says:

    hi I'm Anon#53 here again.
    Anon#57 said "The trick is to prove that the reason for firing is because they were informed of the illness and not directly because of performance. This can be very difficult to prove"
    Yes this is exactly what the PI did to the technician in our lab. The truth is, her diagnosed anxiety disorder WAS preventing her from being as productive as he demanded. She would get these panic attacks and not be able to think clearly and then screw up samples or experiments. She never endangered anyone though, thank goodness. When she told him of her anxiety disorder and he fired her, he told me it was because of her screw-ups and not because of her mental illness. But the fact that he waited until she had told him of her diagnosis, it's like first he was cutting her some slack since she was new and assuming her screw-ups were part of the learning curve. Then when she told him of her diagnosis he then decided this meant that she would ALWAYS be screwing up like this and so he fired her preemptively rather than waiting to see if her medication would improve her job performance. But, there's no way to prove that this is the reason he fired her. it still went on record that she was simply not performing up to his standards, which is true
    She told him of her diagnosis because she felt bad about her screw-ups and was hoping that the diagnosis would help to explain that she wasn't being lazy or stubborn i.e. that it wasn't a moral failing on her part.
    I lost a massive amount of respect for my PI that day and have seen him in a different light ever since.

  • acı cehre says:

    People labeled as 'weird' or 'nerdy' often do turn out to be diagnosable, and people who may not be diagnosable but are labeled as 'sensitive' 'shy' or 'lone wolves' are often still viewed as having some kind of problem that needs to be fixed to attain the ideal, correct personality and are therefore considered less desirable candidates, fairly or unfairly.

  • IE says:

    depression, bipolar, all these illnesses are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the employer (e.g., PI) can get in major, major trouble for discriminating or retaliating against someone with such an illness. shame on them.

  • [...] many postdoc years. A less-than appointment. Seeming lack of independence. A mid career research drought. Low IF pubs. A scientific diversion. Too narrow a scientific focus. Too [...]

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