Thursday, January 28, 2021

Should I stay, or should I go? Mental health, retention, and crossroads (Part 1 of 2)

By Jo Fitzgibbons, PhD Student

I almost quit my PhD last week.

It’s probably the thousandth time I’ve considered leaving my PhD. I’ve been insecure in the decision to pursue doctoral studies since even before applying. Frankly, I will think about it a thousand more times before I finish - or don’t. And although most people don’t talk openly about this inner conflict until they actually pull the plug, I know from conversations with my peers that I am not the only one toiling about this decision, right now. 

How did I get to this point, I wonder? I have enjoyed many privileges in life that have allowed me to succeed academically, and have been incredibly fortunate to have supportive supervisors and professors over the years who pushed me to be the best scholar I can be. In many ways, an academic career seems like a natural fit - it’s something I’m good at and have been well-supported to do. But academic achievement isn’t a measure of wellbeing, and like many graduate students, I struggle with chronic mental health problems. 

I was already burnt out by the time I started my Master’s, and again, still, when I started my PhD. I’ve become physically ill from stress. Most of the time, I feel that I am driving on flat tires: I doubt that my research makes a difference, yet, the world chugs on around me, seemingly getting progressively more dismal, hateful, and barren with every moment that I spend working toward my degree. Personal family challenges have me constantly looking over my shoulder at the East Coast, wondering if I am in the right place, and if it is time to go home. Now, in 2021, we have been dealing with COVID-19 related lockdowns and social restrictions for nearly a full year. Grad school is already a solitary endeavor, but the pandemic has made it feel brutally lonely. 

Image source: Melinda Aley, “grad school memes with relatable themes” Facebook group

On the other hand, the limited experiences I have had in practice have felt gratifying. I’m a license-eligible urban planner, and I’ve done internships with governments and worked as a project manager in nonprofits. In these roles, my deliverables (and the uplifting fanfare over their completion) were only ever, at most, about six months out from the current date (instead of… how many years, again?). I could see the impact of my work on real people in real communities, even if the magnitude of it was smaller than the global sustainability issues I explore in my research. Being paid a professional wage for my labour also, obviously, sounds more appealing than watching 60% of my academic “income” get whittled away on the cost of housing and food alone (that's even after splitting the cost of living with another person, and with more generous funding than many students get). And every year that I spend on my PhD is a year that I am not building the essential applied experience needed to get professional accreditation in my field. 

In other words, I feel like there are lots of “push” factors nudging me to leave, and a few “pull” factors urging me to stay. It’s hard to self-help myself out of this rut because sometimes it feels like nobody understands, even though I know, statistically, that most grad students have gone through this. That’s because all the well-intentioned op-eds, self-help apps or online self-guided mental health tools address only one problem at a time, or only talk about factors from one part of my life (school). Sure, impostor syndrome is something that I and many grad students experience, but it is not the only thing keeping me up at night. My life is an ecosystem, full of moving parts and interconnected pieces. Salmon and I have that in common - there is no “smoking gun” causing us to decline, but rather, it is a matter of cumulative impacts from several stressors. 

My situation is not unique - many students struggle with this, and it has been written about on the CHANS Lab Blog before, in 2015. We have learned a few things about graduate mental health and its relationship to retention since then, and with Bell Let’s Talk Day upon us, it felt appropriate to re-ignite the conversation. Let’s Talk Day takes place on January 28th each year, and is the company’s charitable effort to reduce stigma and normalize conversations about mental health. (Note: I share a healthy cynicism with others about this campaign - see here and here - but ultimately still value the space it provides to speak openly about mental health.)

The journal “Nature” published results of an international multi-language survey in 2019 about mental health and life satisfaction of graduate students. While 38% of students indicated that they were “very satisfied” with their decision to pursue a PhD, the (rounded) remaining 63%, a majority of respondents, sat somewhere between “somewhat satisfied” and “very dissatisfied”. 

Furthermore, 36% of respondents indicated that they had “sought help for anxiety and depression caused by their PhD studies”. The study does not report on how many respondents dealt with these issues, but did not "seek help". The findings echo similar research conducted by the World Health Organization examining clinical signs of mental disorder among students. Concerningly, only 26% of the students that sought help “said they got real assistance at their institutions”. Worse still is that many students (18%) do not feel supported when they do seek help, and 10% indicated that no help was available for them at their institution.

The magnitude of these responses indicates that this is not an individual problem - it’s a pervasive, systemic one. A large majority (76%) of survey respondents indicated that they work more than 41 hours per week, and most attribute this to the culture of their university. Combine these excessive working hours with “publish or perish” pressure, rampant impostor syndrome, a lack of suitable mental health supports, an oversaturated job market where a doctoral degree may even reduce your earnings, and people constantly asking you when you’re going to join the “real world”... are we really surprised that so many PhD students do not see their program through to completion?

Image source:

Last week, it all came to a head for me. I sat staring at my puffy red face on Zoom, occasionally muting myself to blow my nose, and trying to explain through a tight throat and a broken voice to my supervisor, Kai, why I could not do this anymore. And Kai, bless him, spent our whole monthly meeting trying to understand, telling me he believed in me, offering help, and nudging me to see the forest for the trees. He was kind, and his arguments were reasonable: planning practice offers more instant gratification and feedback for my efforts, but as a scientist, I could achieve a wider sphere of influence, make more of a difference on the issues that really matter to me outside of the planning profession. It’s not that I don’t care about making a difference, I had to explain, but those are tall ambitions for someone with flat tires. There are days when I can hardly even drag myself out of bed, much less think about changing the world. 

This was not his first rodeo, obviously: he has talked students down from the ledge before. I had a chance to hear from one of those students during our departmental coffee social, and have known a few other people in my life who made the difficult decision to leave their PhD. The truth is that most of these people (the ones I know, anyway) have felt satisfied with their decision whether they stayed, or whether they left… after it’s over, of course, and it’s all hindsight, it is easier to be happy with what you’ve done. In the words of the late, great Douglas Adams in “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” (the title of which is a remarkably good description of how I’m feeling right now): “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” 

For today, at least, I have backed down from the proverbial ledge. It can feel taboo to talk about “dropping out”, but in stigmatizing this conversation, we’re leaving students stranded and confused, worsening stress, and squeezing them out. Your mental health should not be the price you pay for a PhD. So, let’s talk.

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll hear from some of those people about how they made it through (or didn’t) and what life has been like on the “other side”. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge the truth about systemic mental health problems in academia, and support each other openly, and navigate the weeds together instead of alone.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Great news for coho salmon! Perhaps....

An article in Science magazine describes the new discovery that a little-known chemical used as a tire-preservative may be killing large numbers of coho salmon near roadways (due to the runoff of tire dust). This is being hailed as a tremendous success for salmon, the final chapter in a long search for the 'smoking gun' of coho salmon declines in the Pacific Northwest.

But the allure of the 'smoking gun' idea illustrates a deeper problem of our collective desire for simple answers from reductionist science. At our peril, we continue to forget that all ecological problems have to be viewed as potentially having multiple causes operating at multiple spatial and temporal scales.

The LA Times article is framed in such a way as to suggest that we should expect this level of precision in identifying a single primary source of mortality, and that this is needed before substantial action is taken. Other salmon species—and many other species—are likely declining not primarily due to this one chemical, but rather to the interacting effects of several known stressors (including climate change, other pollutants, diseases, habitat loss including dams and stream simplification), all of which can be managed. And if we wait until we’ve got a smoking gun, we will fail to address the true problem, which is multi-causal.
For Fraser River sockeye salmon, the problem is clearly multi-causal,
likely spanning the whole salmon life cycle. Does that mean we should
give up? No. Image from Marmorek et al., 2011.

E.g., quoting Peter Moyle from the LA Times article: “The challenge when you talk about declines of really sensitive fish like coho salmon, is that there are so many things that are affecting them simultaneously, it’s hard to pinpoint one”. It is hard, but sometimes or perhaps often it’s impossible, because it’s not a single smoking gun that’s the problem.
Joe Dillon: “Now that they’ve gotten it nailed down to one compound — that’s amazing. It’s also really helpful that something could be done about it”. Something can be done about all the known major stressors.
Matt St. John: “When you find a causal link like this that is controllable, we need to take this type of information seriously.” Yes, but we also need to take seriously the science that suggests that for most species, their downward decline is a cumulative function of several stressors, each of which may have mostly sublethal effects alone.
Even coho salmon, good news requires that government and industry act on this science and on other stressors that are also undermining coho survival and reproduction. In the past, such action has been stymied or delayed by pointing to each of the other stressors as suggestion that costly action won't even necessarily fix the problem. Let's not let such obfuscation interfere again.

More broadly, we have to recognize the limitations of this obsession with tidy reductionist science, and acknowledge the necessity of complex-adaptive-system science for most problems of the Anthropocene.


Marmorek, D., D. Pickard, A. Hall, K. Bryan, L. Martell, C. Alexander, K. Wieckowski, L. Greig and C. Schwarz (2011). Fraser River sockeye salmon: data synthesis and cumulative impacts. Cohen Commission Tech. Rep. Vancouver, B.C., ESSA Technologies Ltd: 273. 

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

When Appreciation of Truth Hangs in the Balance, We All Have Work To Do—Regardless of Which Way it Falls

Let This Be a Wake-Up Call

By Kai Chan

The appreciation of truth, order, and government for the people (not just supporters) hangs in the balance as the US election remains too close to call. No matter what happens, we should all feel an urgency like never before, as we witness a once-great democratic nation crumbling.

What was potentially excusable once, four years ago, as a one-time lapse in judgement, is not excusable now. Back in November 2016, people speculated that maybe Trump wouldn’t be so brash, loose with the truth, and incendiary as President. Others argued that if it got really bad, voters would send him packing in four years.

He was every bit as bad as we could have imagined. And now it’s clear that nearly 50% of Americans prefer the lies and misleading half-truths spewed from a badly written Twitter stream to reputable and reliable journalism. The same almost-50% of Americans love a leader who ‘sounds like us’ (to paraphrase numerous supporters), even if he flagrantly abuses his power for personal and political gain. And they trust a President on climate change, although he is woefully lacking in scientific understanding and at odds with the vast majority of the scientific community, all while climate-enhanced disasters burn and flood their way through US neighbourhoods and homes.

The alternative-reality crisis exacerbates
the climate, ecological and inequality crises.
None would be so bad, if it weren't for the others.
Regardless of the election result, this is a nation that needs transformative change, now. But it’s one that’s dangerously close to sinking into a trap of social-media-fuelled echo chambers of lies and conspiracy theories, that sees enemies in anyone seeking true unity for the nation.

Four years ago, I wrote to my graduate and undergraduate students to help them process what a post-truth world means for those whose entire purpose is seeking truth. It’s deja vu now.

Except that it’s worse. Progressives threw everything they thought they had at achieving a different result. Even if they barely succeeded, they have also failed. The division is so great now, the distrust so deep, the truth so apparently elusive, that a marginal win is nowhere near good enough.

This is not about left vs. right. If a Republican politician with integrity were elected on an honest platform that was fiscally and socially conservative, I would have no beef. As the Lincoln Project demonstrates, the problem with Trump isn’t his Republican affiliation, but rather the threat he poses to cherished and crucial American institutions needed for a functioning democracy.

We need scientists more than ever—including social scientists, of course. They (we) seek the truth for a living. We don’t own the truth, but we have honed the best system available for pursuing it. We can certainly identify lies.

With a million species at risk of extinction, a global climate on the precipice of dangerous tipping points, and pervasive systematic racism and injustice, the truth is essential. And there’s no time to spare.

This crisis of alternative realities is so much worse than the US problems of science integrity of 2004, when a group of us at Stanford wrote in Nature that “If a government abuses science to justify its policies, scientists have a duty to speak out”.

And yet action cannot take the form of scientists simply spouting the truth. As if that will convince anyone new. No, effective science engagement—like effective policy—must recognize that people are not rational agents—that people process ‘facts’ together in ways that consolidate group membership around shared values, even if it’s wrong. Better to be wrong with your friends, than right and alone?

To succeed, we all need to address this reality crisis.

We need to puncture the thought-bubbles on social-media that breed ignorance, incivility, and polarization.

We need to address the systemic inequities that have led so many Americans (especially in the rust belt) to feel angry at being left behind.

And we need to reach out and talk about real issues, even—no, especially—with those who might disagree.

This is hard. And uncomfortable. But necessary.

Those who think this kind of polarization couldn’t happen in Canada or elsewhere are thinking wishfully. Yes, Canada have some distinct advantages over the US. But just last year, in the last Canadian federal election, we had western alienation and memes of #Wexit (a western-province exit from the nation).

As the intersecting global climate, biodiversity, and inequality crises come to a head, it’s hard not to imagine that a functional society depends on addressing this growing fissure now—in every nation.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Watch "The Social Dilemma"—and Talk about It

by Kai Chan, from a Facebook post from September

I just watched The Social Dilemma (on Netflix), and I strongly recommend it to EVERYONE. Anyone who has a social media account, is concerned about political polarization and fake news, and/or has kids, grandkids, or other children in their lives.

This is not a conspiracy theory. There's no allegation that this technology was invented for manipulation (beyond profit making, which is normal). And there's no suggestion that social media is all bad. It's got tremendous upsides, many noted in the film.

The movie offers something much more. It offers a chance to reflect on what's dangerous about social media, and why. Also, what's not so dangerous. It's informed by the perspectives of a dozen prominent social-media execs (Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.) who have come to worry about the virtual realities they have created.

The solution is not to delete all social media accounts. At this stage, we need these media to organize towards a solution. I think the answer is to take a series of very achievable steps to regain control over our time, our children, and a sane society where we can talk to and relate to our neighbours across political divides.
The Social Dilemma, on Netflix
(promotional poster)

MY PLEDGE: I will ...
1. First use a reputable fact-checking centrist news source (where we can all share the experience of a single reality—e.g., CBC, Globe and Mail), not social media for news (where we can get lost in echo chambers, oblivious to others' perspectives).
2. Turn off notifications—except for direct communication with close friends and family.
3. Fact-check, critically evaluate, and seek to understand the other perspective.
4. Keep my whole family off devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime (no devices in the bedroom).
5. Keep my children off social media until they are at least 16, when they have a solid sense of self-worth and an understanding of genuine friendship and superficial social media 'likes'.

Does this make sense for you? If not, what might you do?

I do this all out of respect for others—because I know that those who have different views are not stupid (although social-media thought bubbles don't help me understand how they aren't).

I do it out of concern for the value of my time—because I know that algorithms can feed me content that will keep me online longer than I would otherwise choose (to the benefit of massive social media platforms and consumerism generally).

And I do it out of love for my family—because I know that children are vulnerable to feelings of loneliness, otherness, FOMO (fear of missing out), superficiality, peer-pressure, harassment and bullying (because they are still forming their identities and their senses of self-worth).

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Monday, November 2, 2020

What Grief Taught Me about Conflicts of Interest

By Kai Chan

Two and a half weeks ago, I heard the devastating news that my former student Adrian Semmelink had died in his sleep over Thanksgiving weekend. Connected in unexpected ways, I had just renewed my conflict-of-interest declaration at UBC.
Adrian Semmelink, a great student, person, 
... and friend

Here's how it went. Renewing my declaration, I found to my chagrin that I had made a statement that I really couldn't stand by. In response to the question about close personal relationships at the workplace, including students, I had written that I seek to be friendly with all my students, but I didn't consider them to be close personal relationships according to their examples (partner, child, close personal friend).

Except that the bit about "according to their examples" was only implicit. Even then it didn't sit right. I can't help but feel close to my students, and like they're not just my mentees but also friends (defined as sharing a mutual bond of affection). I certainly feel affection for my students. I can hope they feel the same for me.

I remember struggling with this passage the previous year. I remember not knowing what to do. Did the friendships I had with my students constitute close personal ones?

What are the tests of this? Sometimes I share details about my life that go beyond work, including ones that I might otherwise keep guarded. That seems to indicate a closeness, of a personal nature.

I changed the text to indicate simply that I am friends with all my students, and I can't help but become close.

Turns out another test of 'close personal' is hearing that someone died. (What a lousy test.) That feeling of my heart dropping out of my chest, the rage against the universe, the overwhelming sadness about the truncation of life and its relationships, the lost moments of confusion—including right in the middle of class—when memories of Adrian came flooding to front of mind. "Friendship, but not close or personal"?

And how could we not become close? How could we go to the lengths that we go to as supervisors to make our students lives better, to advance their goals, and their visions for themselves and the world—how could we do that without becoming invested in them? That is, in an affectionate rather than instrumental way?

I remember having senior colleagues tell me on several occasions many years ago that our students are not our friends, and that it's crucial to keep a distance. The logic seemed indisputable at the time: we are occasionally put in positions of having to make students do things they don't want to do; occasionally we even have to fail them.

But the logic falls down. Neither of those tasks precludes friendships. At least not for me. I've pulled rank on students a couple of times, and told them that a task was not negotiable. And although I've never had to fail one of my grad students, I've certainly had to indicate that failure was on the horizon, conditional on big changes. (That student left my mentorship).

All of those experiences felt like crap—they all invoked a strong cognitive dissonance because friends don't act like that to friends. But we deal with cognitive dissonance all the time. In this case, it's straightforward although not simple: we have layered relationships. Sometimes I've got to put the friend hat down and wear the supervisor hat exclusively.

So I disagree with those senior colleagues. I will continue to be friends with my students. Acknowledging, of course, that it might be a whole lot harder for my students to let down their guard with me (knowing that I may have to pull rank on them) than for me to let down my guard with them.

So yes, I do have conflicts of interest involving my students—all of them. Grief has clarified what I should already have known: I'm emotionally invested. I can't imagine it being any other way.

I a. person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Remembering Adrian Semmelink

Kai's post on the "Remembering Adrian Semmelink" Facebook Group:

I've been fumbling around trying to function since hearing this tragic news, so apologies if this is barely coherent.

Dear Semmelink family and friends, my deepest condolences for your unimaginable loss. Although it's unimaginable, it's not for lack of sharing—my wife and daughters, CHANS Lab, Terre Satterfield and the rest of the IRES community are feeling it more than you can probably imagine. But we too cannot imagine the loss.

We can recall his limitless generosity, as Alida did. We can bathe ourselves in the memory of his chuckle and his hearty laugh. We can call to mind his sheepish grin, his kind eyes, his hybrid South African accent. But I think none of us can imagine how much darker a place the world is without Adrian Semmelink.

From the first time Adrian poked tentatively into my office to ask if he could join my lab, I knew he was perfect for us. And he was—in so many ways. His brilliance, his rigour, his passion for sustainability, his interdisciplinarity, as Alida and Alejandra noted above. But Adrian also brought depth, and love, and comfort.

In the emails that went around when we first heard, one thread was remarkable: Adrian made all our days and lives better. When Adrian came into my office many other times as my student (first an undergrad, then a Master's student), I immediately relaxed a little. And by the time he left, I was a lighter and better person. He bathed us all in the warm sunshine of his soul.

When Emily Anderson first let me know by email, I first saw "Urgent—Adrian Semmelink". My heart braced, as I wondered what had happened, and how I could help. With the notion of 'urgent', I thought he needed something, and I was instantly ready to do anything for him. I was *not* ready to mourn him.

We loved and cherished Adrian in my lab and at IRES. We miss him and we will miss him, deeply and sorely.

At IRES, we will be honouring Adrian with an endowed award in his memory, for the best thesis in sustainable agriculture. I've already heard from dozens of people that they wish to contribute. We'll need over $10,000 to make it happen, but I promise we'll hit that target. Let me know if you'd like to join us.

PS, Here's the official UBC text for contributions: To honour Adrian Semmelink and in recognition of his dedication to sustainable agriculture practices, family and friends will be establishing an award in his name. The award will support students pursuing their Master’s or PhD in UBC’s Resources, Environment and Sustainability (RES) program with preference given to those whose studies focus on sustainable agriculture. Our goal is to establish either an annual award or an endowed award. The minimum amount to establish an annual award is $10,000 to be distributed in increments over 5-10 years. We will be able to endow Adrian’s award in perpetuity if we reach $50,000. The final use of funds will be determined by IRES in consultation with Adrian’s family.

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CHANS Lab Views by Kai Chan's lab is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Ecosystem Services Research: Is it up to the challenge?

Re-blogged from RELATIONAL THINKING, The People and Nature Blog
Kai Chan and Terre Satterfield

In this post Kai Chan and Terre Satterfield discuss the evolution of ecosystem services research and what it next has in store. Read more in their new research in People and Nature ‘The maturation of ecosystem services: Social and policy research expands, but whither biophysically informed valuation?

Over the span of three decades, ecosystem services research has gone from a twinkle in an eye to a dominant way of viewing human-nature relationships and the many constituent ecological and social benefits and consequences that might follow. That twinkle is today a prominent international science-policy platform (IPBES) with increasing conduits for ecosystem services research into decision-making at all scales in many nations. But is there a broad base of appropriate research to support just and effective decision-making? And has the field really benefited from central ideas across the natural and social sciences? ... (read more here)

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