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I'm a Master's student right now. Due to previous incidents (What can I do if a student in my lab threatens to tell lies about me, and my advisor doesn't want to fire her?), I'm clinically depressed and currently on medical leave as a result. My adviser however, still wants me to do experiments for my thesis. I have 0% energy. I don't want to wake up, and I sleep 16-18 hours per day.

He still demands results, but all I want to do is sleep. I'm seeing doctors and psychologists, and all of them agree that I should take a break. I don't feel safe at the lab anymore.

In my country, people with mental illness are incredibly stigmatized. I don't know how to deal with this whole situation, and it's causing me undue stress.

My adviser wants me to work while I'm on medical leave. Actually, I did the majority of my experiments while in that situation, but I can't take it anymore. My physician knows this, and my therapist knows too. I never took my two medical leaves fully because my adviser still wanted me to work.

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    Is there some kind of worker's union at your university? That sounds like the kind of cases they love to help with... – T. Verron Dec 13 '16 at 11:44
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    I'm sorry you're going through this. That really sucks. But you're not alone. Post-secondary education is an extremely stressful time, and everyone I know (including me) has faced some form of depression in graduate school. Your environment sounds difficult. Is it possible to change advisors? – Pat Devlin Dec 13 '16 at 12:30
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    The most important thing right now is for you to get better. Even if focusing on that would mean delaying your education for a year. If needed be bold (but polite) to your supervisor about it, but honestly, there should be nothing more important for you right now (and ever) than yourself. Get well. Also, you are not alone. Depression in academia is too common. Best wishes. – Ander Biguri Dec 13 '16 at 15:31
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    I can just tell you that in any company in the UK, you are not allowed to work when you are on sick leave. What your advisor wants you to do is absolutely and totally inappropriate. – gnasher729 Dec 13 '16 at 18:32
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    Let's face it: OP does not seem to have any institutional support whatsoever. So the question is: how much time would be "wasted" if OP would drop this Master's project and start one somewhere else? This needs to be counterbalanced with the threat to health, the ensuing loss of time and the time still required to complete the Masters. I am not sure that, taking into account loss of time and health, and the toxic environment, as in the present case, the balance would be so much in favour of staying. – Captain Emacs Dec 13 '16 at 18:45

10 Answers 10

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There is only one suitable course of action I recommend, as an advisor and a physician. Stop with anything that has a potentially detrimentally effect on your health and focus on your treatment (thus if you believe so also your MSc commitments).

Indeed, your work is likely contributing to your depressive symptoms (irrespective of the differential diagnosis between burnout and depression; e.g. Bianchi et al, Soc Psych Psych Epidemiol 2015).

Much more importantly, if you do not treat yourself now in the best possible fashion you might fail the treatment and even face substantial complications early or later, even life-threatening ones (e.g. Mann, New Engl J Med 2005).

I would definitely inform your physician that your advisor's attitude is likely a contributory factor to your condition.

Finally, notify any oversight committee at your institution, as individual or organizational issues impacting on your depressive symptoms could and probably should be addressed thoroughly (e.g. Theorell et al, BMC Public Health 2015).

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    @ÉmileLebacq Even physicians make mistake, and if he is not an expert in the field, he may underestimate your condition. I would equate depression to heart failure. If your condition does not allow you for whatever reason to fulfill your commitments, then there is no medical or academic reason to force you. Anything else would be unethical and illegal, at least as far as I can tell. – Joe_74 Dec 13 '16 at 11:51
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    He can make my life a living hell. He could treat me to cut my funding. – Émile Lebacq Dec 13 '16 at 13:18
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    I'm obviously ignorant about legal and financial matters in your country, but why is your advisor still funding you if you're on medical leave? – Alexander Woo Dec 13 '16 at 13:59
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    Like @AlexanderWoo, I don't know the laws, but in the US, medical leave is protected by the government. Requiring work while under the care of a physician with approved medical leave is at best unethical and detrimental to an institute's reputation, and at worst grossly illegal and grounds for a lawsuit. Here, any threats your adviser would make about that would be an easy job loss for him and likely worse up to legal ramification. – Anoplexian Dec 13 '16 at 16:45
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    @Anoplexian - in the US, a grad student who had an extended medical leave wouldn't be paid! Laws requiring medical leave only require unpaid medical leave. Chances are that the student would be required to take a leave of absence from their graduate program. If they are lucky, they are covered by an insurance policy that provides for long term disability payments. – Alexander Woo Dec 13 '16 at 17:10
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You are on sick leave. Take it and take it seriously.

You didn't take the last two sick leaves seriously, did work, and still remained sick. It's just as if you had a broken foot and kept walking on it and asked why on top of the first fracture not healing, now you have a stress fracture on the other foot.

So:

  • Do not go to school for any reason except one last time to pick up personal items. Better yet, send a friend to pick them up for you.

  • Set your e-mail auto-responder to "Émile is currently on leave and will return on xx/xx/xx and is not answering e-mail. Questions regarding the xxx lab should be referred to xxx@yyy.ac.xx."

  • Your telephone answering machine or voice mail should have a similar message.

  • Do not check your e-mail or voice mail. You will tempt you to break your isolation for just "one last emergency" - but it will quickly become a habit. They can fight their own fires and find their own copy of that datasheet you tucked away.

Go to what we Americans joking refer to as an "undisclosed location" (it can be your apartment, but it can also be out of town/country) and treat your illness seriously. Again: don't pick up the phone or e-mail. Set up a separate e-mail address or skype just for your close friends and family. Work on healing.

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    +1 specially for the analogy. In fact I'd go even further and say that it's as if OP has a broken leg and keeps walking on it as he undergoes daily training as a professional soccer player or something. – Marc.2377 Dec 17 '16 at 5:23
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I am not an expert of any description, but I have seen situations like this before, especially in academia. If your situation is like the ones I've seen, the following advice is apposite. Of course, it may not be, so take it for what it is.

It sounds like you are suffering from a burnout, or something very similar. A burnout often happens when the patient feels trapped in his work environment. Something is convincing the patient that there is "no way out" but to keep working. In your case, you feel that if you don't work, you will lose your funding, lose your master's, and lose your career. It's all or nothing and there's no escape.

The first thing to realise is that there is always a way out. If you continue down this path it can kill you (that's not an exaggeration). It's certainly not going to get better. That's the choice: get your master's later with a different supervisor, or continue to destroy yourself until you end up in the hospital. It feels like there's no way out but there is.

The important thing, and most difficult thing now is to control how much you deal with your professor. He is a major factor in your illness, and you need to drastically reduce the amount of interaction with him. Tell in no uncertain terms that you are on sick leave, that you will not be checking your email more than once a week, and you will not meet him face to face for the foreseeable future.

He may not believe in mental illness (which really sucks for you and you have my sympathy), but that just means you need to assert yourself more. Of course, that's difficult and that's a big source of your problem, but it's the only way you'll get healthy again. Your therapy is going to require plenty of energy, and if you spend it all on the interactions with your boss, you won't have any left.

Use your sick leave to get better, not to worry about the future. There is a time to start thinking about reconstructing your professional life, and it's several months from now. You don't have the energy yet.

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    Reading the circumstances leading to the OP taking medical leave, it seems more than burnout. – RoboKaren Dec 16 '16 at 23:06
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Immediately break contact with your advisor.

Normally I would advise you how to defend yourself from the demands of your advisor, but you are already telling us that you are sleeping too much. It confirms what you are already knowing: You have no power to defend yourself.

  1. Draw the cable from your phone.
  2. Remove the battery of your mobile.
  3. Do not use e-mail. If necessary, forward the advisor’s mail to another address automatically.
  4. The best thing you could have would be stationary therapy. I do not know how bad the situation in your country is, but if you can't have stationary, ask a friend if you can stay a time apart from home. Or a hotel. Or your family. Anything where you cannot be reached. The doctor/friend/family is your shield; instruct them to document any contact attempt, but they will not tell him anything about you.

Continue therapy and recover yourself. If you are ready again, you could read the other answers how to handle your advisor.

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Your advisor is not the only advisor in the world. Your school is not the only school in the world either.

Also, people, and any other living being, must do two things: Excrete and die. Nothing more. There is nothing that binds you to yor lab and your advisor; only you.

Sometimes the best way is to burn all bridges to ashes and move on. Your comments on your advisor and your labmates suggest me that they are totally worth cutting off.

Ask the faculty office for 1 year pause because of health issues. If you are in EU, look for Erasmus applications and ask if you can defend diploma thesis there. You can also discontinue your studies and apply at different university. You exams may be accepted there, so you will study there for a year (new thesis, some exams the don't accept). Don't stick only to your homeland, you can build a fortune in different country...

If you have some spare funds, travel for a year or two; you can also try some jobs...

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    One can leave without having to "burn all bridges to ashes". That's rarely good advice. – Mark Rogers Dec 13 '16 at 15:53
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    @MarkRogers If the workplace is healthy, it is bad advice. But when one is subject to a bully; thick solid line behind is the way to have healthy relationships in future. Key words are Sometimes and Can, not Always and shall. – Crowley Dec 13 '16 at 16:00
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    @MarkRogers Well, if we follow the whole story of the OP, this was a nuclear incident. The bridges are radioactive. You can still cross them, but it is not a good idea. Really, this group sounds toxic and needs to be left as soon as possible. – Captain Emacs Dec 13 '16 at 18:41
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The previous answers suggest you complete your medical leave. This is of course right. But how to remove the burden of your advisor not understanding what a medical leave is?

Even though you don't have a union, there's probably a department director, a director of the program, any faculty member in your institution that stand above (in organization) than your advisor. You could refer to them and ask for advice and help.

Many institutions also have some kind of person you can refer to if you have problems: an ombudsman or a department dedicated to helping students. Seek advice from any of those.

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As someone who dealt with depression as a postdoc, I would add this. I did not get any significant work done for two years (the depression itself lasted only 6 months). If your depression is as severe as mine was, it is likely you will not be able to meet your adviser's expectations.

Therefore, focus on recovery. Recovery means not only correct therapy and medication, but also an appropriate environment. You cannot and should not continue working in the environment created by your adviser. Stress will only worsen your symptoms. So, I suggest to get someone you trust (like a family member, for instance) to deal with all the paperwork required for you to interrupt your studies until you recover.

If your doctor is any good, you will most likely recover. So, you should not worry for your long term academic career. This is a serious setback, but there are successful people in academia who have had nasty experiences mental disorders can lead to.

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Émile, I was depressed in graduate school, and I truly feel for you. It really is your life. Whatever you do, remember that.

I'm glad that you have a therapist and a physician. Talking things through with someone helps. Perhaps you could talk with your therapist about the consequences of different ways of handling the situation with your advisor.

I admire you for taking care of yourself. Your advisor may respond positively or negatively to what you do, but keep a focus on the big picture - health, happiness, career, family.

I practice yoga, and I've learned that I don't need to push my body past the threshold of pain. I like going further with my poses, so when I get to the threshold, I stop, and think, "Someday I will go further, but today I have gone far enough."

Take care.

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    This should be a comment and not an answer. – Chris Cirefice Dec 14 '16 at 18:35
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    Thanks for the feedback, Chris. Ordinarily, I would make it a comment, but in this, I actually consider it an answer. In my opinion, Émile would benefit most from me sharing my experience and giving a few reminders. Ultimately, talking things through with a support network more intimately aware of the situation is probably the best course, but I hope that our words support him. I will honor whatever the moderators want to do. – wdb Dec 14 '16 at 19:16
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Speak neurobiology to people who don't believe in the mind.

First off, recognize for your own sake that this is a neurobiological problem. That's kind of trivial, the mind appears to be some sort of neurobiological phenomenon, and this is some big systematic problem with your mind hence your neurobiology. Your advisor does not seem to recognize it as such and thinks it is "just a mental thing", it's just some small issue of tastes or preferences and you're being a prima donna by making a big stink about it.

But you can speak to such a person in their language. It is not hard to give an explanation that will give scientifically-minded people a feeling of the importance. Here's a try at one:

We all have this stress hormone called cortisol in our brains that, when we get a dose of it, it makes our stomach churn and the world seems more silent and your eyes get more open in a sudden panic. I happen to have had a lot of exposure to it, and my brain is now doing something like an allergic reaction, where when it sees something mildly stressful it gives me an unbelievably huge dose of it. My doctors say that I need to get away from situations that are causing me stress so that the levels can go down so that hopefully my body stops having this stupid reaction. Because the lab causes these minor stresses that seem like nothing to you but explode in my brain, I cannot come into the lab for the rest of my leave-of-absence. I can of course come in after that but this is a real problem that requires my rest and attention, just like how you don't walk on a broken leg.

I'm not even saying that this is your problem; I'm just saying that if you rephrase it in those sorts of objective terms rather than "I am really sad all the time and I have no energy," people who normally would say "suck it up and get back working!" will instead say "oh, that totally makes sense, I'll see you in a few months."

Tips on resolving conflict better.

Now, one thing that makes depression worse is that people don't really understand how to talk to each other about situations of conflict. I will summarize quickly a conflict-mediation course and say: you cannot change how your advisor talks to you, but you can change how you talk to your advisor. You can make certain choices which will make him feel subconsciously less threatened and more likely to open up, and once he is open to that relationship this will at least allow him to hear your needs and hopefully work together with you to find a solution that meets everyone's needs together. You may not be able to do this with people with certain "personality disorders" like psychopaths and shameless narcissists, but for the average person you can. The first two take a little more explanation, the last two pieces of advice are pretty straightforward:

  1. Take note of his value-judgments about the situation like "this is awful, how am I supposed to run my lab if you're off being lazy and sleeping all day", so you notice that he tried to express value-judgments like "awful" and "lazy". Most people quietly absorb that negativity and lash out back with other bad feelings: but you can also take a step back, "he is no world authority on awfulness or laziness, so I'm just going to observe that that's what he said but not think that it's really the truth, or even what he really feels." Observe it more neutrally and then it will "get to you" less.
  2. Repeat what you've heard and try to ask him about what's making him feel those ways, getting him to focus on real causes. Now this takes some work because if you ask someone "why do you feel I'm being lazy?" they'll say something like "because you're doing lazy things!" and get trapped in a circular reference. One key is to ask "what does he have at stake in things?" and more generally "what fundamental human needs that everyone has, does he have, which are being threatened by these events?". So it's better to ask something like "are you saying that you're worried about laziness because you want to keep seeing progress on this other student's work, and you're worried that it will get slower and lead to slower publications if I can't help out?" or something specific like that. And if the answer is "no," then hopefully they follow it up with "it's more like, I have to meet this or that deadline otherwise the grant people start asking what's been going on and I don't have anything to tell them" and you can maybe make progress to what's really bothering them. (To the extent that value-judgments bug us, they either impinge on our desire for a good reputation or else only our own value-judgments bug us. If someone else says "I hate you" you either respond "what's wrong with me?" or "what's wrong with him?!").
  3. You can try to give the other person's needs and wants a thorough hearing in this way before you try to raise your own, "here's what's at stake for me, how do we pursue a better course of action together?". Most couples will have an argument like "He never listens to me." "Of course I listen to you, I always listen to you." "See! You're doing it right now!" -- you can sidestep all of this stuff by instead focusing on that need-to-feel-heard.
  4. Before you say something, try to see whether your language implies that something they did was intrinsically, morally wrong; people usually get very adversarial when they get accused of wrongdoing, which kills the prospects of negotiating a better outcome for the both of you. Instead of offering your own value-judgments, try to offer neutral observations. Don't say "you obviously hate me" or even "you're yelling at me" but "I don't know if it's intentional or not but I've noticed your voice getting a bit louder." Because the follow-up to "you hate me" is "I hate you" and the follow-up to "you're yelling at me" is "stop yelling!" but the follow up to "a bit louder" is "I'd feel more comfortable at this volume" which opens a sort of common communication channel. Neutral observations give the other person the room to wriggle out of the blame that's in their own psyche, and normal people will respond to that room by giving you more room.

Talk to the right person

At both the European and American universities I've studied at, you shouldn't be talking directly to your professor about this issue. The right person to talk to is probably someone who coordinates students' successful graduations from the Master's program. This person usually has to look through every Master's student's transcripts and say, "do they have all the required courses" and then look at their internship write-up and say "did they do a plausible bit of work at that internship?" and then eventually they rubber-stamp the thing and send it on.

Even if they don't know directly how to resolve the issue, they probably know a better person to talk to about the issue. The issue from their perspective is, there is an obstacle preventing you from completing your Master's in a timely fashion. This could be lab assistants who do not work safely in the lab or who threaten to hurt you; but it could also be professors who try to get you to work when you need to focus your attention on getting well. They will give you information on how much can be transferred to a different lab with a different professor, if that's the issue. Or they will tell you, "hey, he can't actually do that and here is the ombudsman that you need to file a report with" or so.

1

Have your treating physician and therapist come up with a treatment plan? Does the treatment plan specify a target date by which you will be ready to go back part time?

I do understand that when a person is in the depths of a clinical depression, the person may experience a strong and extraordinary need to sleep. However, I am not sure that just crawling into a cave indefinitely is a true solution. Thus, I'm not sure that getting your advisor off your back is really going to solve anything.

People are very good at crawling into caves and ignoring various demands family, work, and society put on them, when things are very, very bad. I trust you will do that if things get that bad. I hope they don't. Broken bones, assuming they are set correctly, mend by themselves over time. Depression doesn't necessarily go away by itself by just sleeping it off.

I hope you can work out a workable part-time schedule that allows you to make some progress while you are in treatment.

However, if you really want a clean break, short of withdrawing for good from the program, I suggest you work with your university administration to arrange a formal leave of absence for a specified time period, such as one semester. This shouldn't be too hard to arrange, with appropriate documentation from your doctor. This would mean withdrawing from all your current classes, and not registering for classes for next semester.

If your institution publishes its policies online, see what they have to say about "leave of absence." Here's an example from a university in the U.S.: http://bulletin.printer.yale.edu/htmlfiles/grad/policies-and-regulations.html#leaves_of_absence

  • The OP already did arrange a medical leave of absence. The issue is that the advisor asks the OP to do experiments even while on leave. – ff524 Dec 14 '16 at 1:40
  • @ff524 - "Medical leave" and a formal "leave of absence" are not necessarily the same thing. The former could be for two weeks. The latter could be for a semester. – aparente001 Dec 14 '16 at 1:43
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    "Medical leave" is a short form of "medical leave of absence". – ff524 Dec 14 '16 at 1:46
  • @ff524 - I've seen doctor's notes requesting the patient be excused. That could be "medical leave". I'm suggesting something longer term and more formal. In a "leave of absence," the person would not even be enrolled during the specified period. It's different, at least in the U.S. – aparente001 Dec 14 '16 at 1:49

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