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

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

Francois Lenoir / Reuters

“I was always gung ho about going to graduate school for some reason,” reflects Everet Rummel, a data analyst at the City University of New York. “That was naive.”

Rummel was indeed gung ho, embarking on a doctoral program in economics immediately after completing both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in just four years. He was only 22 years old. And Rummel was indeed naive, at least in his own telling of his plans. That plan—which for the average doctoral candidate takes roughly eight years—ended quickly, not because of Rummel’s characteristic efficiency but because he never completed it. “I dropped out,” he explains, attributing the decision to a lot of different factors, many of them not directly related to his studies, but each pointing back to the all-encompassing, unforgiving stress of his Ph.D. program.

One major stressor, he says, was the requirement that all first-year Ph.D. economics students take the same three courses. But other major stressors are likely to resonate with graduate students in all kinds of disciplines. 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.

To make matters worse, the payoff for all that stress may be wanting: A 2014 report found that nearly 40 percent of the doctoral students surveyed hadn’t secured a job at the time of graduation. What’s more, roughly 13 percent of Ph.D. recipients graduate with more than $70,000 in education-related debt, though in the humanities the percentage is about twice that. And for those who do secure an academic post, census data suggest that close to a third of part-time university faculty—many of whom are graduate students—live near or below the poverty line.

A new study by a team of Harvard-affiliated researchers highlights one of the consequences of these realities: Graduate students are disproportionately likely to struggle with mental-health issues. The researchers surveyed roughly 500 economics Ph.D. candidates at eight elite universities, and found that 18 percent of them experienced moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. That’s more than three times the national average, according to the study. Roughly one in 10 students in the Harvard survey also reported having suicidal thoughts on at least several days within the prior two weeks. (Other recent studies have had similar findings, including one published earlier this year that described graduate-student mental health as a “crisis.”)

The study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences. Roughly half of the respondents in the Harvard study with anxiety and/or depression had been diagnosed sometime after starting their graduate studies. And students toward the end of their programs were far more likely than those who were just embarking on their graduate journeys to report severe symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Graduate students cite the combination of financial and professional pressures as a significant challenge. Lucy Johnson, an assistant professor of digital literacies at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, says that the financial burdens of her Ph.D. studies made it difficult for her to “escape the graduate curriculum”—by, say, seeing a movie or going out for dinner. Students who already feel isolated by their rigorous academic work are bound to feel even more isolated by their financial troubles, she suggests. Like many of her peers, Johnson eventually took out loans to support herself.

And then there is the academic pressure itself. Graduate education relies on “this idea that we have to produce, produce, produce, or do a lot more labor than others, so we’re worn quite thin,” says Johnson, noting that such labor is often promoted under the guise of “professionalization.” “I think it’s something we’re just supposed to accept as being part of the process.”

Similarly, Rummel—who had long daydreamed of becoming a professor, drawn to the promise of tenure and the prospect of conferences where he could discuss niche topics ad nauseam with likeminded “nerds”—says that he and his peers were expected to treat their doctoral education as a “rite of passage.” “To get that life, you have to pay your dues—and then some,” says Rummel, who’s now 25. “It’s accepted that you’re supposed to hate your life for a long time.” His school made some effort to ameliorate students’ stress—hosting events on self-care, for example, and offering free massages during final-exam weeks. “But no one,” he adds, “has time for that.”

Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.

Regardless, relatively few study participants reported receiving regular mental-health treatment—including just one in four of the respondents who’d experienced suicidal thoughts. And perhaps most tellingly, the grad students in the study who scored worse than average on a mental-health assessment tended to think that their mental health was better than average. Among those who reported that they recently had suicidal thoughts, 26 percent assumed that their psychological well-being was better than the norm. This dissonance hints at the ubiquity of the problem—the widespread acceptance of poor mental health as a fact of life in graduate education.