This is when things get really tough. I’ve heard so many of my forebears talk about it and seen its effects first-hand in a few friends, but only now as I go through it do I realise how easy it is to become borderline depressed. This is a topic I have come to feel really strongly about, and that’s why I spoke about it at my opening address at the 22nd Biological Sciences Graduate Congress on 19 Dec 2017.
Depression amongst graduate students is an issue that we should be more aware of. It’s not something to be ashamed about and if you are experiencing it today, do reach out to your friends and family around you, or else, to the healthcare experts in your university.
Read the full text of my speech below:
I’m a fourth year PhD student, myself, and I started my PhD with so much passion and optimism; a desire to change the world, become the next Newton, Darwin or Einstein! But then experiments start failing and you don’t know why, and then you have no time for experiments anyway because of all the admin work you have to do, manuscripts keep getting rejected, work starts piling up and the daily grind of research, data analysis and writing really start to wear you down. And then you get to your second month; and over the years, I began to forget the reason I started: why am I doing this? I grew jaded and disillusioned, I felt like an imposter pretending to be a real scientist.
By the time I got to the start of my fourth year, I looked at how much I had done, how much I had to do, and how little time I had left; and I decided maybe it would be a good idea to organise this conference. But the start of the final year is when things tend to get worse. Those of you who know me, know that things don’t really get me down. But this hit me like a truck.
Many of us become sad or even depressed for an extended amount of time, and unfortunately this is not uncommon. I’d like to spend some time on this, because honestly, it’s not talked about or dealt with enough. More people need to be aware that this happens, it is normal, and that there is nothing to be ashamed about. If that is you today, if you are a graduate student feeling down or depressed, know that you are not alone. There are thousands of graduate students out there struggling with this. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Find help. Find someone you can trust, to talk to and to help you. You are not alone, you can do it!
And for what it’s worth, I’d like to share with you the 4 words of advice that got me through that tough time; the 4 words are: keep your chin up. Let me tell you a story that will help to sum up what I mean.
As a child, I had this uncle—my father’s youngest brother—who I called Cek Cek Bik. I was really fond of him and one of my earliest memories, I must have been 4 or 5, was of sitting on his knees, pretending to ride a horse. I’m Peranakan and so we speak a little Malay at home, and whenever I went over to his place, I always ran over to him and said, “Cek Cek Bik, Cek Cek Bik! Chiang Kuda!” (“ride horse”).
He would put me on his knees, and then start off as a walking horse (and he’d slowly bounce one knee at a time), and then a trotting horse (he got a bit faster), and then a galloping horse (he got really fast), and finally a crazy horse “kuda gila” (and he’d throw me up and down, left and right, forwards and backwards). We were always laughing hysterically after that! And then he’d start all over again. It was my favourite thing in the world, and today I do the same thing to my own son: Anzel!
Even when I grew up and started dating, and when you can’t tell your parents that you have a girlfriend, I could tell Cek Cek Bik. I remember with my 3rd girlfriend; no, wait a minute; I remember with one of my girlfriends, I’d always bring her over to swim in his swimming pool. And he was really cool about it, he’d never ask a question, but he always had this twinkle in his eye and he knew exactly what I was doing. He was a bachelor too you see: handsome, charming, ex-girlfriends from Changi to Tuas, but never married.
And then one day, I remember this as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was in the car with my parents, my mum was driving, my dad got a phone call and everything went silent.
Heart attack, in his sleep.
No pain the doctor said.
That hit me like a truck. If it wasn’t for my faith in God and those 4 words, I probably wouldn’t be here today. We had a funeral. All his old girlfriends came. And as I was carrying his casket with my brother and some other family members, I almost broke down. We put his casket down, and my father—the wisest man in the world—saw I was struggling, he came up to me and he said those 4 words: son, keep your chin up.
At that time, I had no idea what he meant! What do you mean keep my chin up? Is there something on my nose!? But you know it was in the middle of a funeral and you can’t ask questions and hold long conversations. And I forgot about it by the end of the funeral and never really understood what he meant. But going through life, I realise now the wisdom behind those four words: it goes so much deeper than what I knew at that point in time, and it probably goes much deeper than what I know now.
First. When you keep your chin up: You look outward to your opportunities instead of downward to your difficulties. You look outward to your opportunities instead of downward to your difficulties. Edward Hubble, whom the telescope is named after, once said “with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls that adventure Science.” Science is an adventure! Strip away the publishing, the grant writing, the endless hours of field work or lab work, the thousand-and-one administrative things we do; Science at its core is an Adventure, and we are all Adventurers!
We are explorers, pushing the frontiers of human Knowledge and charting unknown lands one little bit at a time. [SLIDE] If you think of all the knowledge of humankind as a circle, this is you, pushing one small portion of that Frontier between the known and the unknown; creating a bubble of knowledge, bravely going where no man has ever gone before!
Keep that in mind as you listen to the talks over the next few days: every one of us is creating our own little bubble, and there is so much out there to find out, so much opportunity for one such as yourself to Explore and to turn the Unknown into Known. And if each of us creates our little bubble, together we expand this circle of human Knowledge. Let that inspire you; let that remind you why we do what we do. For there is no more noble pursuit than the pursuit of Knowledge and Truth. Keep your chin up.
Second. When you keep your chin up: You look onward to your future instead of inward to your past. Yes, we learn from our past triumphs and, I’m sure you’ve heard this many times, we also learn from our past failures. You may have fallen, but don’t get stuck there, don’t live there. Get up! No matter how many times you fall, keep getting up! If you’ve hit rock bottom, know this: rock bottom can be a great foundation to build upon. Rock bottom can be a great foundation to build upon.
To those who are giving presentations: I urge you to share not only your successes, but also talk briefly about your failures. Speak simply and truthfully. For those who are listening: look deeper beyond the data, beyond the results, and see that there is a whole history of failed experiments and repeated frustration. Let that inspire you to get up, look forward, work hard, move onward one small step at a time! And remember, celebrate your every smallest success like you’ve received the Nobel Prize. Work hard, play hard! That’s what keeps us sane. Keep your chin up.
Third. When you keep your chin up: You look around you, to the people whose lives you can impact instead of tunnelling in to your own self-interest. There is a song I used to sing with my choir, and it goes: no man is an island, no man stands alone, each man’s joy is joy to me and each man’s grief is my own, we need one another so I will defend each man as my brother, each man as my friend.
Over these two days, let us take the time to make friends, to get to know one another. You never know, that person you talk to might be your next collaborator, or she might be the start of the network that brings you to your next employer. But let’s do it for something more than that.
As grad students, we have a bond of shared experiences: shared adventures, shared hardships, shared success. Joy shared is joy doubled; and sorrow shared is sorrow halved. Joy shared is joy doubled; and sorrow shared is sorrow halved. So keep your chin up and look around you now; go on, look around. I promise to make at least 3 new friends during these 2 days, and I hope that you all can do that too. Keep your chin up.