Loneliness of the long distance learner

January 17, 2003

The bizarre suicide of a Harvard chemist inspired a rethink of postgraduate support in the US. But where do UK universities stand on such issues? asks Chris Bunting.

He was as meticulous in death as he had been in life. Jason Altom, a star doctoral student in one of the most famous chemistry labs in the world, closed himself in his bedroom, drank a bitter, burning cup of cyanide taken from the laboratories in which he had spent much of the past five years and lay down on his bed. He carefully placed a note on himself that read as if it had been written by his department's health and safety officer: "Do Not Resuscitate. Danger: Potassium Cyanide."

Altom's death, on a hot sticky day at Harvard University in August 1998, was not remarkable because it was a suicide. Altom's research adviser, the Nobel laureate Elias J. Corey, had seen three of his postgraduate students kill themselves since 1987. It is remembered because of the extraordinary letter that accompanied the health and safety note. In the words of an editorial in the Harvard Crimson , the university newspaper that published the letter a month after Altom's death, it was the first time a suicide note had taken the form of a policy memo.

"This event could have been avoided," it began. "Professors here have too much power over the lives of their grad students." He proposed the creation of a three-member faculty committee to monitor every postgraduate's progress and "provide protection for graduate students from abusive research advisers. If I had such a committee now, I know things would be different."

Some believe the note was misleading, saying Altom was actually killed by his own struggle with the incredibly complex Haplophytine molecule. A sudden realisation that he was failing to synthesise the entire molecule and a fear of being seen as a failure by his idol Corey pushed him into suicide and explained the anger of the note, according to many in his lab, rather than a particularly "abusive" relationship.

But whatever motivated it, the note caused a media storm and has helped inspire a fundamental rethink of postgraduate programmes in many universities across the US. In Harvard's chemistry department, the three-member committee suggested by Altom has been adopted (a similar proposal had been ignored by the faculty three years before his death), as well as a raft of reforms to try to relieve the pressure on postgraduates. PhDs are now offered lectures in alternative careers outside academia, free access to a psychiatrist and improved social facilities to try to prevent students becoming isolated.

Unfortunately, little has been heard of Altom's death on this side of the Atlantic. Sophie Corlett, policy director at mental-health charity Mind, believes that, although some excellent work is under way in individual universities, little has been done on a national level in the UK to research or address the peculiar psychological strains of postgraduate work.

Mark Phippen, head of Cambridge University's counselling service, says postgraduates account for a disproportionately large share of his department's workload. "People expect them to be 'mature', to be 'grown up'. They are often not given the kind of provision that an undergraduate would receive. Inductions onto courses, especially masters courses when there is not much time, may not be enough," Phippen says. "Quite a lot of postgraduates find the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate level quite difficult. The nature of the work is fundamentally different and sometimes little direction is given. On top of that, people may be moving town or country. They can become quite disoriented."

Deeper into the postgraduate experience, Phippen says, it is important to recognise its variation. He draws a broad distinction between arts and science postgraduates. Arts PhDs can find themselves working alone, with little social contact beyond their supervisor and with little to structure their days other than through self-discipline.

Ayako Yoshino, 31, is writing an English PhD at Cambridge. She likens the experience to the loneliness of the long-distance runner. "It feels like a marathon, but you haven't been given a map or a watch. Everybody is told to run a different route, so they are all disappearing in different directions. I hear the occasional cheer as somebody finishes but I am just running. Somehow, I'm supposed to know where to go and when I am finished.

"When you start, you can explain to people at parties what you are doing, but in your second year you find yourself repeating what you said a year ago. You can't explain what interests you at the time because they need the introduction from the first year, and by the time you have finished that, the conversation has moved on. You are very much alone and sometimes it is difficult to convince yourself you have an audience. It is just you and your supervisor."

If the relationship with a supervisor is not working and a student has little social support, Phippen says, there can be a major risk of mental-health problems. "Even the most capable can start falling apart. Motivation goes out the window," he says.

Science postgraduates, on the other hand, tend to work in much more social environments. "They will often have extensive contact with other PhD students in their groups and that is great. They have a context, clear expectations, regular access to others in their field. That is when it works well - but there can be a downside: they can feel that there is immense peer pressure."

Edward Downing, a PhD in chemistry at Oxford University now working in industry, says he often envied arts students their autonomy. "As a chemist, you will not necessarily have defined what you are working on yourself. Your project will have been decided by the heads of the group and assigned to you. Then, you might find yourself sitting for weeks on end because a bit of your equipment is broken and somebody else has to replace it or fix it.

"You can have serious motivation dips and then you might not find the lab as nice an environment as it once was. You can be torn apart. There was a student in our lab who was coming in for half an hour a day, eating biscuits and doing a few emails, and people started to think that he was letting the lab down. He wasn't being criticised to his face, but he knew that he was unpopular. Eventually, he left."

There are no national statistics about the nature of mental-health problems among postgraduates, but the counselling service at Sheffield University has noticed significant differences between the initial problems presented to counsellors by PhDs, masters students and undergraduates. While problems with relationships remain a major and fairly consistent source of problems for all groups, Colin Lago, director of the service, says about 25 per cent of clients who were masters students, often on very high-pressure courses, showed symptoms of anxiety last year. Only 10 per cent of PhD students and 13 per cent of undergraduates fell into the same category. PhD students, on the other hand, suffered major problems with "academic issues", including relationships with their supervisors and work management issues. Fifteen per cent fell into this category, compared with 10 per cent of masters and undergraduate students.

With so many postgraduates apparently having mental-health problems directly related to the nature of their courses, it is to be hoped that British universities will not need their own Jason Altom to recognise the unique psychological strains of a postgraduate education. Corey, Altom's supervisor, said after his death: "I would have done everything conceivable to help Jason if I had had any inkling of his problem."

Unfortunately, it was too late when that inkling was given.

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