Some Advice for Stressed-Out Graduate Students

Brenna sent this link and email last night:

The link’s name is deceptive, but I thought you might like to comment on the state of depression and other mental health problems in graduate school. Is it just a sign of the times, something that was always around and not acknowledged? Or is it an indication of the need to remodel graduate education and training?

Glossing over the misspelling in the linked page’s headline, we get to an article by Piper Fogg that first appeared in 2009 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It warms up with some cheery statistics:

Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the graduate students surveyed were not aware of mental-health services on the campus. And another Berkeley study recently found that graduate students were becoming increasingly disillusioned with careers in academe and did not view large research institutions as family-friendly workplaces.

Stress. Image courtesy BLW Photography.

Image courtesy BLW Photography.

The rest of the piece – which must’ve been a real pick-me-up to research and write – describes the experiences of several graduate students who’ve found themselves at wits’ end, and the strategies they’ve employed to cope. It’s an interesting line of discussion, even if the statistics underlying the argument are slightly suspect; the general public is the wrong control group to use. It would be more useful to know how depression and anxiety rates compare between graduate students in academic fields and, say, medical or law students. Any serious professional training is stressful, and stress can cause or exacerbate mental illness. Nonetheless, my intuitive guess is that at least the broad strokes of the story are correct: many aspects of grad school suck.

For me, the worst part was that moment, around the middle of my third year, when I suddenly realized what finishing my Ph.D. program would require. Sure, I knew the “requirements” already: completion of a thesis representing original scholarship yadda yadda yadda. But what hit me that morning was the magnitude of the job, and the terrifying fact that not only was there no guarantee I could do it, there wasn’t even a clear description of how to do it, nor could there ever be one. I’d felt insecure about my abilities as a scientist before, but now I saw that my insecurity wasn’t based on some imagined inadequacy. To graduate, I needed to discover something new about nature. It didn’t have to be a huge breakthrough, but it had to be new. And it’s nature – the raw, beautiful, terrifying, magnificent reality of the vast universe that humans have been trying to understand for millennia. The mists had lifted to reveal a sheer, rocky cliff to leeward. Who the hell was I to think I could discover anything new about that?

Anxiety and depression? Oh, yeah.

And that brings me to your questions, Brenna. My answers are “yes” and “moot,” respectively. For most students, graduate school means spending their young adulthood in strenuous study, with long hours and poverty-line (or negative) income, in the hope of eventually landing a job in academic research, a field that’s about as relaxing as Wall Street and as lucrative as Wal-Mart. It’s always been that way. So yes, the article is just acknowledging something that’s probably been true for awhile.

Does that mean we should we remodel graduate education and training? It doesn’t matter. We can’t. The entire modern research enterprise is built on the easy availability of cheap but highly-skilled and educated labor, namely graduate students and postdocs. Making graduate school easier and/or more rewarding financially would require rebuilding the world. Even then, we’d have to come back to that rocky cliff and acknowledge that ultimately, there’s no sugar-coating it. You’re doing a very, very difficult thing. It’s going to be stressful.

Still, nobody should have to tolerate abuse, and some of the stories Fogg relates are clearly over the line. Graduate school is inherently hard and can be lonely, but when you go to your advisor you should get help and encouragement, not bullying and discouragement. If you feel that you can’t discuss problems with your mentor, or that your department is placing unnecessary obstacles in your way, or that your colleagues are trying to undermine you, then you are in a toxic environment. Either find a way to mitigate it, or leave. Immediately. There are other schools out there that aren’t like that. A feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness may be common in graduate school, but it shouldn’t be a design feature of the program.

If the problem seems to be internal – your advisor is great, your colleagues are helpful, and your department is supportive but you still feel like you can’t go on – then beat a path to your university’s counseling office. Immediately. Let’s be clear: mental illnesses are as serious as physical ones, and they can kill you just as easily. They can also be managed or treated. Our society may attach an absurd and counterproductive stigma to mental illness (why is it okay to have heart disease but not social anxiety disorder?), but I assure you that the staff at the counseling center does not. It’s their job, after all.

Finally, remind yourself that you can do it. The breakers may sound loud on those rocks, but other people, no smarter than you, have navigated this route before. Even I got through it eventually.