The Sceptical Chymist | 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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