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.


6 Responses

  1. Especially now, the job prospects with degree in hand absolutely suck. There’s an end to the tunnel, but it’s hardly lit.

    I even have undergrads who are having total breakdowns emailing me about makeup exams, dropping the course, drug side effects, etc. My own depression during my undergrad was situational -my best friend died, hit by drunk driver. It totally threw me for a loop for a year and I lost scholarships and really wondered what the hell I was doing. This might sound stupid, but my being able to dig myself out of my trench reinforced my ability to keep on keeping on. I don’t feel like I can advise my undergrads because I don’t understand what they are going through with their depressions – I refer them to counselors. And just thinking about grad school now, I don’t think at any point in the eternity of my grad schoolness, that I heard anyone talk about mental illness resources for students, although I know of many who dropped out for various reasons. I heard all about grant funding agencies, safety workshops, lab chemical hazards,how to get a fac job, how to give a talk – never anything about depression or coping strategies.

  2. Yeah, the current job hunt situation must be making it even worse. It certainly helps to have an end goal in grad school (I think the students who didn’t know why they were there tended to have a harder time sticking it out emotionally), but then if that goal becomes so uncertain it causes more tumult.

    Right, I had some situational depression as an undergrad (relationships ending, etc.), but the longer-term, slow spiral in grad school was different fro me, and had much more to do with school itself. I couldn’t seem to dig myself out of that one, not really.

    As I commented at Zuska’s blog, getting a job ABD was what I needed to snap out of it, even though I wasn’t quite done with school yet. A change of scene, some hope and concrete future plans, some recognition as a full-fledged adult, and a reasonable salary with real benefits were all it took! But my depression had probably reached just moderate levels, while for many people it becomes much more debilitating and recovery takes much longer.

    And agreed, information about resources is critical and overall has been lacking. So has actually having those resources fully available to you – and readily available enough to overcome the anxiety a lot of grad students are dealing with on top of depression.

  3. Oh, my . Now see, just that information that it happens to so many people would at least have been helpful to not feel so alone. Grad school was hell for me. I was clinically depressed and anxious for a few years, I was borderline suicidal for close to two years, I developed a binge eating disorder that gave me an extra 50 pounds (distance from the grocery store to school = one entire package of Milanos), by the end of it I would sit in my car every morning in the parking lot for almost 15 minutes talking myself into going in to work, the main refrain in my head being “It doesn’t matter if you can’t do this, you have to.” And that was with a spouse who had a real job, so money was tight but not ramen-every-day tight, and we had good medical coverage.
    But the best I could do with mental health was a few visits to another grad student in psych doing clinicals, because that’s what the school provided. It helped a little, but didn’t even touch it. I spent every waking minute I wasn’t working on my dissertation feeling guilty that I wasn’t working on it right that minute, felt infantilized that I couldn’t really make any of my own decisions, the works. I think it really does suit some people better than others, but god, how a support network would have been nice.
    I guess I don’t have any ideas right now, just commiserating.

  4. I think it really does suit some people better than others, but god, how a support network would have been nice.

    Sure, and maybe it’s okay if grad school is selecting for the characteristics that work best in the academic environment. But I don’t think this system always accomplishes that. Certainly when it comes to mental health, if grad school is that different from being career faculty, it doesn’t serve any particular purpose to have a system that is so emotionally distressing.

  5. Reading this post and the comments makes me feel tremendously lucky that I’m at a (private) institution that has been fairly flush, because even though my pay is still low, my benefits are outstanding compared to what a lot of grad students have. For instance, my insurance doesn’t limit the number of therapy visits I can do per year; I do have a $30 copay, so it’s not like I could afford unlimited visits, but I know some people whose shrinks have basically “diagnosed” them with more severe problems just so their current insurance would pay for the number of visits they needed…which of course may end up fucking their insurance prospects later. I don’t have dental or vision, but I do have reasonable mental health, and thank god because I need it!

    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.

    Here’s where humanities pressure is a little different. You still need the glow and the brilliance and the beauty, but you are supposed to come up with your own INDEPENDENT AND COMPLETELY NEW AND NOT AT ALL HUMDRUM idea, after suffering through two or three years of coursework where you are stuffed to the gills with other people’s theories. You are forced to swallow hundreds of years of scholarship as fast as you can, and then you’re turned loose in the library and told to one-up all that.

  6. […] from the exam burn-out only to have it come right back over the next three years, this time with that long-haul depression that apparently most grad students experience (this is repeating myself, but I note again: THIS IS BROKEN. SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THAT). Regular […]

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