[This 23rd July entry is being reposted today under the ScienceBlogs "Education" channel as its original categorization there fell victim to gremlins in the upgraded Movable Type script.]
At the outset, let me say that I have immense respect and admiration for a special commenter.
In last week’s Friday Fermentable post, we took the 40th anniversary of the Apollo XI mission as an opportunity to draw attention to Buzz Aldrin’s newly-released autobiography, Magnificent Desolation. In it, Aldrin describes his lifelong battle with depression and alcoholism and how he has managed both challenges.
Recently, several of my colleagues within and outside the ScienceBlogs network have had extensive discussions of mental illness in the context of academic training and performance (here is an example of a 60+ comment post by DrugMonkey). However, I hadn’t really thought about our relative lack of discussion of substance abuse and chemical dependence in the context of scientific training and academia.
So, it is with gratitude that I reprint this comment and ask this learned gathering for advice on her behalf:
Thank you so much for this post.
I am a recovering drug addict and am in the process of applying to graduate programs. I have a stellar GPA, have assisted as an undergraduate TA, and have been engaged in research for over a year.
I also have felony and was homeless for 3 years.
I don’t hide my recovery from people once I know them, but I sometimes, especially at school, am privy to what people think of addicts when they don’t know one is sitting next to them. It scares me to think of how to discuss my past if asked at an admissions interview. Or whether it will keep me from someday working at a university.
I’ve seen a fair amount of posts on ScienceBlogs concerning mental health issues and academia, but this is the first I’ve seen concerning humanizing addiction and reminding us that addiction strikes a certain amount of the population regardless of status, family background or intelligence.
I really appreciate this post. Thank you.
No. Thank *you*.
This is how I responded and she was kind enough to send an e-mail allowing me to bring this comment up to the level of a full blogpost:
Thank you so much for your appreciation. It is I who should be thanking you for coming by to share your story and let us know that very high-functioning and intelligent people can still get dragged down by their biology and situations.
I’ve served on PhD and PharmD admissions committees and can tell you that if you have come back from from addiction and homelessness to make the decision to go to graduate school, I am in awe and give your tremendous credit. You have far more fortitude and resourcefulness than many of us; if you can come back from those challenges, I anticipate you will do far better with the demands of graduate school than those who did it the “easy” way.
Yes, the felony will stay with you for a time depending on the state you are in and some applications will require that you disclose it, certainly if you are to be employed as a TA or RA during graduate school. However, this does not disqualify you from acceptance for stipend employment as you have seen from serving as an undergraduate TA.
If you don’t mind, I would like to repost your comment as a full blogpost here and solicit input from our readers who are involved with the administration of graduate programs. I assume from your spelling that you are in the US and not one of the commonwealth countries.
I equally appreciate you coming by to share your experience and concerns. You are most certainly not alone and I applaud you for having fought this cunning and baffling illness. Comments like yours remind me why I blog. Thank *you*!
So I have a few questions for this learned gathering regarding issues that our commenter has brought up.
1. My feeling is that no one has to answer for a 3-year absence of employment in a job interview or academic admissions interview. In fact, the US has federal laws on interview questions in this regard. She could’ve been doing covert operations for the CIA during that time that could not be disclosed or been in an ashram in India for three years. Those of you who’ve sat on graduate school admissions committees, how would you recommend that she be prepared to answer this question?
2. Is my assessment of her felony correct (in the US)? The record should not deny her admission and may or may not affect employment / research assistant stipend, right?
3. Does anyone have personal experience with recovering substance abusers in their academic or industrial research environments to provide her with some encouragement in her journey? For example, it is well known that Richard Feynman was a recovering alcoholic but there have got to be other stories out there. Music and entertainment tends to accept, or even glamorize, those who come back from substance abuse (John Hiatt is one of my personal faves), but we don’t quite have that in the sciences.
Any stories, anonymous or otherwise, that might provide encouragement for our commenter would be greatly appreciated.
And again, you have my respect and admiration for your resilience and drive. I am certain you will be successful.
Correction: You already are.