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The Atlantic - Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People's Mental Health

i012575i012575 Registered User Posts: 444 Member

Ph.D. candidates suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at astonishingly high rates.

"The doctoral-degree experience often consists of intense labor expectations for little pay and a resulting lack of sleep and social life. In addition, there is the notorious hierarchy of academia, which often promotes power struggles and tribalism."

Replies to: The Atlantic - Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People's Mental Health

  • boneh3adboneh3ad Forum Champion Engineering Posts: 7,393 Forum Champion
    Accurate. I ended up at a therapist as a result of the qualifying exam process.
  • CheddarcheeseMNCheddarcheeseMN Registered User Posts: 2,894 Senior Member
    Yes, it can be a long struggle to get a PhD and the work can be so solitary. But people who study mental health and its effects on careers also recognize that those with mental health problems may seek out graduate studies and academic careers. The autonomy offered in PhD programs and in academic careers can be attractive to those with mental health problems who may be able to be more successful there than they would be in a more regimented work place.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,550 Super Moderator
    edited December 2
    I mean, it's possible that people with prior mental health challenges seek out PhD programs, although mental health problems are not a monolith and increased autonomy is not a desirable work trait by all people with mental illnesses. (If anything, the enormous autonomy and corresponding ambiguity just made my anxiety worse when I was in my doctoral program.)

    But there has been research on this for a while, and I don't think it's far-fetched to say that graduate school - especially PhD programs - is a contributing factor to mental health problems and a causal factor in at least some cases. The estimates are that around 40-60% of doctoral students have experienced depression and/or anxiety before finishing; even if graduate programs did attract people with mental illnesses disproportionately, that number is still too high for that to account for all of it. (It's estimated that about 15% of the adult population will experience depression; even at the low end estimate, the percentage of people in graduate school who experience it is nearly triple that.)
  • CorinthianCorinthian Registered User Posts: 1,730 Senior Member
    I'm interested in this discussion because my D is a senior in college majoring in Economics and very interested in grad school. Rather than applying now, she's first going to be an RA for a Federal Reserve Bank. Still everything I read about grad school sounds pretty discouraging. Especially this article because it focuses on econ grad students at elite universities, which is where she'd like to end up.
  • Twoin18Twoin18 Registered User Posts: 865 Member
    I wonder whether the isolation of doing a PhD is made worse if students are not in a serious relationship that gives them an alternative social outlet and source of support?

    30 years ago that was probably more common. Certainly my PhD was far more enjoyable than my undergraduate days. I was less shy, and had far more time on my hands for sports and social activities. I stayed in the same place so I already had an established social circle.

    But I can imagine that moving far away with no support and trying to build a social life from scratch while also working hard on a PhD could be a soul destroying experience.
  • bluebayoubluebayou Registered User Posts: 25,543 Senior Member
    edited December 2
    The estimates are that around 40-60% of doctoral students have experienced depression and/or anxiety before finishing; even if graduate programs did attract people with mental illnesses disproportionately,

    I wonder how different those numbers would be for professional schools: law, med, dent.....for example, I found blog sources that claim that rates of "depression" (however defined) is 27% in first year of law school.


    Corinthian: is your D considering a PhD or MA/MS? (big difference in culture)
  • CorinthianCorinthian Registered User Posts: 1,730 Senior Member
    edited December 2
    @bluebayou She is considering a PhD.
  • CorinthianCorinthian Registered User Posts: 1,730 Senior Member
    @bluebayou can you elaborate on the big difference in culture?
  • bluebayoubluebayou Registered User Posts: 25,543 Senior Member
    completing a doctoral program is just hugely different than a MA/MS.
  • geraniolgeraniol Registered User Posts: 124 Junior Member
    @Corinthian The difference is hard to describe in less than 5 pages. The PhD is a terminal, research-based degree. MA/MS doesn't purport to produce independent researchers like the PhD does (though now you need years of post-doc too...).

    Absolutely PhD programs can set off mental illness. There are a lot of situations and circumstances in grad school that draw out peoples' insecurities. That grad school is also peoples' first long-term full-time 'job' heightens the stress. Like how high schoolers feel out of place in college, grad students are gaining a lot more independence and responsibility vs their college days. The academic pool you're in also narrows - 40 of the best students in the world in X subject are now all classmates - they all were probably the top student in their major at college, but now 39 of them feel like they're failing grad school. It's also not just about academic hierarchies or long hours for low pay - the mission of a PhD degree is to turn a fresh college grad into an independently thinking expert in a narrow field. That takes a lot of hard work and perseverance.

    I'm a recent-ish STEM PhD graduate. 95% of my memories of grad school are really positive, but the PhD is long, tough and made me ask a lot of hard questions about myself for 5 years. Including like in the Atlantic article about 'is my research useful to anyone other than me?' That said, I don't ever regret going to grad school. I had a really close group of friends and could nerd out 24h/day. It was an intellectual wonderland.

    There's a lot of uncertainty in research - you can spend years working on a problem and realize with one quick calculation that the method you were developing for the last 4 months is completely useless. You can work for 5 years on a problem and a lab from a different university publishes a more clever solution to what you were working on, and so you end up with a body of unpublishable work - by no fault of your own. You can get 4 years into your PhD and realize you don't have the patience/hands/math aptitude/whatever for the exact area you've been working in (or even science in general), but it'll take another 3-4 years to finish your PhD if you switch labs/sub-fields. Sometimes, research just doesn't work - for any number of reasons. So does that mean your hypothesis is too hard to answer, or are you a bad scientist? Add on all the job search implications of research productivity/lack thereof during grad school.

    It's really easy to wrap up your self-worth into your success in research. And a lot of research 'success' is based on luck and timing. I had a wonderful advisor who encouraged really ambitious research but never forgot that the PhD is in the end an academic degree - to him, success was not just in getting the research done. Equally important was whether or not I was learning. That kind of advisor is unfortunately not as common as you might think, especially at the very top schools. Depending on your disposition, in order to avoid feelings of depression and anxiety, you'll need a strong support network to keep reminding you that your value as a person is not related to your research progress.
  • CCtoAlaskaCCtoAlaska Registered User Posts: 250 Junior Member
    I am writing an MA thesis right now after a 20 year hiatus in my graduate studies and the difference in my mood about it is just amazing. One big difference is I am more confident and wise about the whole thing. But the other big thing is how other people have tended to react to my work. I keep being told in professional contexts how "accomplished" I am with my studies and I was accepted to present at a prestigious academic conference over the summer. When I was in my 20s I *never* got that treatment. I find the whole thing really interesting and, yes, I had a successful career in between so maybe that is what people are reacting to. But my studying just gets a lot more respect than it did when I started (I'm finishing literally the same degree I started in the 90s so it's the exact same thing I was working on then).

    All my friends who did PhDs got out of the field eventually and are SO much more mentally healthy than they were, even the ones who were successfully publishing and teaching at universities.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 12,550 Super Moderator
    I always wondered if as I got temporally further from my PhD, would I feel better/more positively about it? I finished my PhD four years ago and I have to say no - or, at least, not yet, but no. I feel like I have a flashback every time I think about it, not in a good way.

    Everyone has a different experience: geraniol says 95% of their memories are positive, which is great. I'd say for me, the figure is probably around 40-50%. I made some really great lifelong friends in graduate school; in years 1 and 6, and most of years 2 and 5, I had some great classes, fantastic experiences (I was in Harlem in 2008 when Obama was elected President - I will remember that experience for the rest of my life), some good and great professors. I had two great advisors. Writing my dissertation was a really positive experience for me, too - both in the kind of work I got to do and in the way I did it. But I also had quite a few negative experiences, and years 3-4 were some of the worst years of my life.

    Now, I have some caveats - first of all, I had/have an anxiety disorder (which, let me tell you, does NOT help) and one of my two departments was...interesting. I don't regret it, not the least because I work a really fantastic job that essentially requires a PhD. But I'm not sure I would do it over again, even knowing the end result.

    I'm not sure whether the isolation is worse without a serious relationship, but I had a serious relationship - I'd been dating my boyfriend (now husband) for seven years before starting, and we got married at the beginning of my fifth in grad school. Having the support and the social outlet is nice, and he was a real forcing function for me to pay attention to my personal life...but I will also say that the doctoral program (especially in the early to mid stages) took a toll on our relationship that we had to do some work to repair in my last two years, when I had more autonomy over my time.

    Moving to a semi-new place (I grew up in New York, but as a child, and in the 10 years I'd been gone it changed a LOT) and making a new social life from scratch wasn't the hard part, in my experience. It was the workload, the solitary nature of that work, the constant questioning and challenging (both from others and from within), the soul-crushing amount of work, and the constant churn (you never feel like you're done).
  • CorinthianCorinthian Registered User Posts: 1,730 Senior Member
    Thanks @geraniol @CCtoAlaska and @juillet for the helpful commentary. As the parent of a prospective grad school applicant it's very interesting. My D is in a serious relationship and has taken a job (as an RA for one of the FRB's) for 2 years after graduation. Hopefully these factors help -- although the serious relationship of course creates its own complications especially in terms of geographical locations.
  • Jon234Jon234 Registered User Posts: 200 Junior Member
    I know a guy who worked two porters jobs full-time for 16 years, low pay, lack of sleep, not much social contact with people, underappreciated, still couldn't get ahead financially. I don't think these issues are unique to grad students.
  • CCtoAlaskaCCtoAlaska Registered User Posts: 250 Junior Member
    @juillet congratulations for grinding through. I think it will get better. I never finished two Master's in my 20s and the flashbacks to how hard it was trying to get through my thesis research with the one lasted a long time and then finally ended. I'm finishing one of them now - they let me reinstate after 18 years at the same place I was at - and thesis research is a joy. I could see myself studying on the side and researching a diss part-time in a low pressure environment in my 50s when my kids are adults. But doing a diss full time while trying to remain a functioning adult sounds like the worst kind of torture. I swore I was done with academia, though, and here I am back.
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