Suicides in Chemistry

This past week we lost a 1st year chemistry graduate student to suicide at UC Berkeley. I attempted to do some googleing to see what kind of suicide rate chemistry students have, but there seems to be no recent numbers or studies on the matter. Which is understandable, because which institution or field would eagerly make this information available. I was personally unfamiliar with the student or his personal demons that lead him to choose his tragic path, but one always has to wonder how much influence his PI or group dynamics play a role in these decisions, whether it is fair to do so or not.

I usually advice entering graduate students that the 1st year is the hardest, but honestly I would say it only gets harder. As graduate years go by, you simply become accustomed to long hours and higher stress. My advice to any young undergraduates is to build a solid support network when you enter graduate school. You will need it…

Edit 1: Press of the suicide: Chemistry Student Found Dead In Apparent Suicide
Edit 2: Good articles on the old suicide in the Corey group

Mitch

11 Comments

  1. You probably have heard of this suicide, happened at the Harvard University at Coreys Workgroup.

    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D00E5DB1F30F93AA15752C1A96E958260

  2. There’s quite a suicide rate at my place, too. A few years ago, a graduate student jumped off the roof of the Chemistry building. Another case was an undergrad colleague of mine, whom I knew quite well…

  3. Thanks for the link to that story, I’ve read it before and I’ve added it to the post.

  4. This is the original article I saw on the Daily Californian
    http://www.dailycal.org/article/101357/chemistry_student_found_dead_in_apparent_suicide

    There was an air of confusion and despair in pchem (where most of us found out while passing the newspaper down the row), where most of the students are 3rd and 4th years. It’s really one of the things that’s always been on our minds about graduate school. It’s a tremendous commitment. A commitment that we don’t know if we’re strong enough for.

  5. Things seem to have changed since the 60s. Even though I didn’t go on in organic chemistry, I remember grad school as a pretty happy time. We used to say things like this to each other — are they actually paying us to have all this fun — etc. etc. The money was adequate, and a friend and I had enough for a cross country trip to California and back the summer after our first year (gas was 25 cents a gallon).

    Another friend worked for Corey, survived intact (although he never would speak much about the experience) and became a department chair at a very good school.

    I found medical school much more stressful (and harder)

  6. You got a summer off?

  7. Well, the deal back then was that cumulative exams were given monthly. Pass any 8 and then start your PhD research (but not before). I passed 8 of the first 9 and had begun research in late May or June. The rest had not and were reading (which you can do anywhere, not that we did any on the trip). No graduate courses were given in the summer. You could be a T. A. for the intense organic course to ousiders (all of organic chemistry in 8 horrible weeks) given during the summer, but that was about the only reason to hang around. There were a few visiting firemen to listen to, but that was about it.

  8. I totally agree with the kid from the Corey group. There should be a committee member or panel that oversees your research and the relationship that you carry with your PI. I’m in my 4th year but prior to my orals I had two nervous breakdowns and was almost hospitalized. Why? Because my boss feels that each of his graduate students should know EVERYTHING that goes on his life as a stressed faculty member, in his classrooms, and all while maintaining a 12-14 hr day in the lab doing research. Did I forget to mention that we once had group meeting every day for 2 weeks solid at 8am.

  9. Unfortunately, suicide is common. Out of an Ivy league class of around 700 graduating in the 60s, I personally know of 5 suicides. All were well out of professional training and were at the very least not unsuccessful. There were 2 MDs, a Rhodes Scholar and a philosophy professor in the group. The funeral of the 5th was attended by a former US president (I’m not sure just what the suicide did).

    At the state school nearby with 20,000 students there has been an undergraduate suicide in each of the past 2 years.

    As scientific types, we want explanations, but I’m not sure the stress of graduate school (or undergraduate school) really explains any of this.

    However, graduate school is the last feudal system left standing.

    Retread

  10. There was a suicide here in the chemistry department a few years ago. Mitch, you probably remember this because you were here to visiting me right after it happened. It was an extraordinarily strange time in the department. Usually we are all kind of fragmented into the empires of our individual groups, but this was an event that seemed to transcend all of that. I don’t think it is something that I have really come to terms with, even though so much time has passed. I wasn’t even particularly close to the person, but I had known them from around the department.

    I don’t know what this adds really. It is an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone because it really changes your outlook.

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