Grad school and mental health

There is news going around that an ASU grad student shot himself in a professor’s office, and the campus was on lockdown in response. We don’t know any details of the story. It’s likely that there was something other than the standard stresses of grad school in play here. But I’m reminded of the studies from last spring that found that more than half of graduate students are clinically depressed, and I have to wonder what role that plays in extreme cases like this one.

Grad school and abortion

There have been a couple posts and comment discussions over at Dr. Isis’s place about a question that was posed to her:

I found out I am pregnant, we want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should I have an abortion?

Isis does not want to get into the ethics of the question, but has instead expressed sadness that the question was even raised. Her second post clarifies in more detail that since she believes there is no “good” time to have children, if you want to have a child, you should have a child.

But while I agree with Isis that no one can answer that question for anyone else, and there probably isn’t a good time for children, I am not sure if folks would put out the same argument if the question was, “We want a child but I just accepted a PhD position. Should we use birth control for now?” I mean, Isis very well might feel the same way, I can’t say. But I feel like people’s eyebrows shoot up when it’s suggested that someone might consider something as drastic as an abortion.

And I mean, please. It only seems drastic because the rhetoric has painted it that way. My answer to this woman is that no one can answer that question for you, and if you want to have a child you should have a child, and if you want to wait because it’s not the right time in your life, then you should wait. Plain and simple. There’s nothing especially more shocking or dramatic about it because it would involve a termination instead of birth control. You choose if and when to have children, and that’s all there is to it. You might regret the decision whether you choose to have a child or not have a child right now, which is the risk with, you know, making a decision, so just do your best to make the right choice for yourself and your family. To repeat: many women regret having children.

After Isis’ post, drdrA wrote in response:

WOW, just WOW. To me the decision whether or not to bear a child and start a family should be based on whether or not one wants to be a parent. Period. If the answer to that question is yes, then you just figure out how to work around everything else. Is it going to be tough? Yes. Is it going to be stressful? Yes. Can it be done- OH FOR SURE!

Sure, it can be done, but this is not a question of whether or not to have a child, period. This a question of whether or not to have a child now, which is completely different.

I really don’t know what is up with all of the commenters who feel that it’s just so sad that a woman might consider putting off childbearing until a better time in her career. Ideally everyone would have access to reasonably long parental leave and good health insurance coverage and health care — and even then, many people will still decide not to have children during a particularly busy part of their career. That’s not all that sad. Some of those commenters seem to be coming from a position of having had children and been happy with that decision. But what made you happy won’t necessarily make someone else happy; you are projecting.

Grad school

Getting in my posts today! Zuska has a great post up today about recent studies on grad school and depression. I’ll admit that when I read the first few sentences in my feed, my reaction was, “I’ll click through and read this because I identify with that, but I mean, DUH, more funding wasted on studies about things we already know!”

But I have to say, having read the post, that those statistics are staggering, and worth having gathered. The researchers found that more than half of grad students feel so depressed they have a hard time functioning. More than half. That’s on the one hand not surprising, having survived grad school myself, but on the other hand it’s awful – and not acceptable. Zuska suggests some excellent options and resources that depressed students can consider to help with this process, but I am wondering if there is anything constructive we can do about this problem. As she points out, taking a leave of absence is usually not feasible in science fields, especially if you are working under the time-constraints of 3-year grants – you can’t just leave off where you are and pick it up later to finish. In some fields there is probably also the risk of scooping. Both of those things mean that if you take much time off, your advisor will probably have to finish and publish the study, and if you come back you have to start over with new research. Once you get to a certain point, starting over sounds even worse than sticking it out, so almost everyone seems to either stick with it through either occasional/mild or severe and debilitating depression, or quit and change career paths. Lots of people who do succeed and graduate are so turned off to the academic culture that they leave academia with their degree and never look back – and while for some, I think that’s a good choice because they might like another work environment better, I think there are plenty of others who would have liked academia just fine if grad school hadn’t shat all over their souls. Or something.

So, what IS it about grad school that does this? And is it something fixable? Is it the “academic culture” we are always talking about? I don’t think it’s just that, because most career academics seem relatively mentally healthy, at least compared to grad students (neglecting the year before the final tenure review). I do think it might be related to how that culture treats underlings.

Here I have made a list of the obvious differences between the graduate student and the faculty member experience in academia, to help solve this quandary:

  1. Pay. Most graduate students live hand-to-mouth at least much of the time, which is tenable at first but after a while, less so. People who don’t earn enough to have a little extra to save for emergencies, or to go out to dinner now and then, or to buy some video games, have a higher incidence of depression than the rest of the population. In general, people who earn enough to do those things without being fabulously wealthy are the happiest, if I remember that study correctly. Constantly worrying about money, or having to deal with episodic crises, are both really, really unhealthy and exhausting and depressing for many of us. Particularly since it usually prevents students from joining a gym, or eating food that makes them feel better, or all kinds of things that can tangentially help with depression before it gets to the point of needing outside help.
  2. Benefits. I almost put this in with pay, because it’s related, but it often ends up being a separate animal – particularly because we are talking about mental health here. Many graduate students now have basic health benefits, but not all, and often the situation is less than ideal (limited to one clinic, limited to a certain number of visits, high copays or deductibles). Most have no dental insurance, which can put a serious drain in point 1 if something happens like, oh, an emergency root canal in your 4th year (no, of course I don’t speak from experience, why do you ask?). If you have an illness, the time and money involved with getting proper care with inadequate coverage is an additional drain.
  3. I think both faculty and students work ridiculously long hours and are under a lot of pressure, especially near deadlines, but the pressure is… different. I don’t know very many faculty who pull all-nighters anymore, and maybe that’s age, but since most grad students are at least getting close to 30 by the time they graduate, it can’t only be age. Some of that is the advisor-student relationship (see below), and I think some of it is also the special status of a student and how they are treated by departments and institutions.
  4. That treatment, like some aspects of even the best advisor-student relationships, is essentially and at its root infantilizing. There’s no room for upward movement in an apprentice-mentor relationship, until you achieve the end goal and suddenly become an adult. I think being what amounts to an apprentice has its advantages, because of the intense one-on-one mentoring and guidance, but when it lasts 5-7 years or even longer it usually starts to feel like there is no end in sight. And keeps feeling that way for a long time. It feels like you will never come into your own, never have full autonomy about even basic life decisions, and, to make matters worse, never achieve a basic status that lets you go on and do other things. I think a big part of why grad school is depressing for the majority of people is that it lasts so long. And to be fair, this varies drastically depending on the student, the program, and the advisor. But there is still always some of this there.

Some of these things can’t really be remedied. I’m not in favor of a revolution to overthrow the whole academic system, and I think there are a lot of merits to it. I don’t think most grad schools can pay their students more, though the benefits desperately DO need to be improved. But the rest of those “culture” problems are probably innate to it being an apprenticeship system.

Maybe there need to be more “outs” – more checks to ensure that students have options and choices. Feeling like you have some autonomy, as an adult, is pretty critical. I think some of that depression might be related to this feeling of being trapped, with much less free will than you expected. You have to satisfy the expected course requirements; you have to meet the expectations of the idiosyncratic and specialized members of your committee to pass your exams; you have to jump through a series of hoops to prove you are capable and can think critically on your feet (and thus do well in the academic community, because that is how it works out there); and you have to have a successful* study that results in a glowing thesis of brilliance and beauty. Usually on a subject dictated to some varying degree by the grant(s) under which you are funded.

Students need choices and some room to move, while still being held accountable. They need to be able to graduate even if studies do not go perfectly, because that’s how science works and a degree should not be withheld for years until the results meet predictions. At the same time, very short time limits to funding can be equally damaging to theses. The system needs to both reign in that rogue, loud, convincing committee member who wants more more more before you can graduate, and allow for some flexibility.

So I guess my suggestions are vague today.

* This can be a problem when your study goes drastically wrong, experiments repeatedly fail, or the results are too shocking to be taken at face value without further study. I think advisors and committees forget that wrapping up a study is not equivalent to proving you are capable of being a good scientist – if nothing else, because nothing is ever wrapped-up.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.