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Speaking Frankly: Emotional honesty

Frank Leibfarth is a graduate student trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter @Frank_Leibfarth.


I started writing this post almost three months ago, after reading a string of emotionally honest and unapologetic pieces from Athene Donald, Rita Tojeiro, Paul Bracher, and others. This outward display of emotion was refreshing to hear from scientists, especially the discussion about imposter syndrome, which brought back unwelcome memories from my early career. Via Paul’s post, this was also the first time I read about the tragedy surrounding Jason Altom’s suicide and the accompanying New York Times article.

I felt a powerful empathy for what Jason must have been going through in the time leading up to his suicide — the isolation, the warped reality, and the pain. I’ve felt varying degrees of those as a graduate student; I think everyone has. In my writing I was trying to convey that these are very real and common sentiments. I was calling for more emotional honesty and an acknowledgement of the physiological hardships that accompany being a young researcher. Primarily, I advocated for scientists to actually talk about their feelings instead of hiding them under a façade of professionalism.

Then my best friend Mason committed suicide.

He was 26: brilliant, inquisitive, serious, engaging, intense, and one of the most outwardly joyous people I had ever met, all the way to the end. He was in a doctorate program for physical therapy. Mason was obviously fighting demons that none of us can imagine, but he didn’t share his struggles with even his closest friends. He fought his demons alone, and he died with them.

I don’t assume to know what Mason was thinking or feeling. The more I wonder why, the less I understand. What I do know is that in my most vulnerable times in graduate school, isolation was the most difficult emotion to combat. It created a warped reality where no one could understand my feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, where everyone was more talented than me, and where I would surely fail no matter how much effort I put in. Of course, my perception of being isolated and alone was the problem. As I progressed and started to express those feelings, I quickly learned they were common among my peers. The problem was, and still is, that no one ever talks about these feelings. I had to search out answers; some people never start searching.

In science we don’t like to talk about feelings. In an apparent effort to remain impartial and intellectual, most scientific disciplines have systematically stripped themselves of emotion. This impartiality works well when communicating results, since we are (hopefully) divesting ourselves from the work and letting the data speak for itself. This emotional desert, however, is difficult and potentially dangerous for those of us searching for our scientific identity as graduate students.

Graduate school is a vulnerable time in the lives of young people. We must transition from learning out of a book to generating original knowledge. More significantly, we must find our way through a degree program for which there is no manual, no ‘right’ way to succeed, and no guarantee that we will be employed upon graduation. The isolation and subversive competitiveness accompanying the graduate-school experience made me feel insecure, afraid, unappreciated, anxious, unintelligent, and an impostor in my own discipline.

In retrospect, part of me is glad I cycled through all these emotions. Feeling inferior made me work harder, made me develop a sometimes unhealthy drive to attain relevance, and made me fully commit to the indentured graduate-student lifestyle. But I also wish someone would have told me that those feelings were normal. I wish some of the people that I looked up to told me about the times they felt insecure, or the times when they still do. I wish those senior to me would have acknowledged the emotional difficulty and told me it was common. The problem is, so few people talk about it. There is no comfortable time or place to discuss these feelings, and in the frenzy of busy days and impartial intellectualism the topic never gets raised. Acknowledging the abundance of emotional unrest that is inherent to the graduate student experience would go a long way toward cultivating well-adjusted scientists.

I survived. Most do. Mason didn’t. His death has only intensified my desire to do away with the emotionally repressive traditions of our discipline. We need to generate not only creative and brilliant scientists, but also well-adjusted and confident professionals. Our education system seems built to provide the former; we need to figure out how to make that commensurate with the latter. Graduate school is an unsentimental education. This means we, as a discipline, need to add the sentiment. If not for ourselves, then for Rita, or myself, or Mason, who will find comfort and confidence in knowing that we are not alone.


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    A Plummer said:

    Wow Frank. I appreciate your honesty in bringing awareness to this experience as a graduate student, especially in your field of study where thoughts and emotions can not be operationally defined. It seems that people who are troubled by this experience are removed even further into isolation because they too assume that this situation is unique to them. I have talked to so many clients who wonder if they are “crazy” or neurotic because of feelings like this. It would be so helpful for the world to embrace these processes, instead of hide them, to empower people to live through them and prosper. …. Just like so many who have gone before us have done, as you referenced in your post. I am curious, what kind of prevention or awareness programs would you suggest to implement in the graduate school setting? Thanks Frank.

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    Paul Bracher said:

    I think part of the problem might be how professors are selected. Basically, professors are chosen based on their performance as grad students and postdocs, despite the fact that these jobs are very different. There is little need to “manage” people on your path to assistant professorhood, but once there, all of a sudden you are not only a manager, but a manager at a point in your career that you are expected to be the most productive. There is little, if any, training for how to help students deal with emotional issues, and often the people who find themselves in academia are those who had to deal with such personal problems the least while in grad school themselves.

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    Valerie Young said:

    Thank you for your moving and spot on post. On Tuesday I was in NYC to speak about the impostor syndrome to 275 medical school faculty and post-docs at Columbia University.

    While there are a dozen perfectly good reasons one might feel like an intellectual fraud — being a first generation professional, working or studying in another country, being in a creative field, and of course being a student being among them — another huge contributor is organizational culture.

    I had people break into groups to list the ways that academic culture fuels self-doubt. Suffice it to say it was not a difficult assignment. What appeared on the list was less important than the collective relief that people were actually talking about the problem.

    Thank you again for your article. I would love to re-post as a guest article on my own blog at and as I speak at dozens of campuses each year, I will surely be point people to your post. I know these bright, capable students will take comfort in knowing they are not alone.

    Dr. Valerie Young
    Author, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It

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    Frank Leibfarth said:

    Dear Paul and A Plummer,

    Thank you for the comments, and I think that they are invariably linked. Is their a formal program I would implement…I like the ideas originally implemented by Harvard after Jason Altom’s death, but according to Paul they have all but disappeared. They included forming a thesis committee of at least three professors that meets annually with students, expanded access to mental health services, and a student-run “Quality of life” committee which has an actual voice.

    Saying that, I think the overall culture of a department and/or research group has a lot more to do with opening lines of communication. That comes down to what Paul said. We, as a discipline, can no longer accept a culture where students are treated as slaves to the bench. That culture is difficult to shift, however, when the people who excel within it are hired as academics to continue it.

    With the new media landscape, where students such as Paul, myself, and many other talented people can actually have a voice online and reach other people, I believe we can start to swing the pendulum. Being honest is step one, we need to be relentless and hope that the current generation of students pays attention and implements a more inclusive and supportive culture in academia.