Letters: ‘Graduate School Offers Ever-Increasing Pressures That Compound’

Readers react to The Atlantic’s coverage of a study that suggests that pursuing a Ph.D. may harm students’ mental health.

Mike Segar / Reuters

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

This week, Alia Wong wrote about a new study showing that Ph.D. candidates suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at astonishingly high rates.

I found your article to expose the naked truth of grad school: an intellectual perversion that relies on its own unsatisfactory teleological reasoning. Compounding the inherent difficulties of grad school is the vast departure from normal life. While most peers are exploring the world, getting married, and enjoying a beer at 5 o’clock, grad students are incessantly tethered to their work, whether real or imagined. Every graduate student understands that he or she must forfeit something, but time, energy, motivation, and freedom to explore and personally develop are only the beginning of what is sacrificed in the pursuit of something greater. While these conditions are prohibitive, many still make it through. Makes you contemplate who doesn’t make it, and where society might be with their brilliance, creativity, and passion in this world.

Michael K.
Honolulu, Hawaii

Your article about graduate school—like many similar articles—ignores a key problem: inequality between and within graduate programs.

First, inequality in experiences between graduate programs plays a key role in students’ mental health and well-being. My friends (at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke) and I are advantaged by attending well-regarded and well-funded institutions. Not only do we have advantages on the job market, we also have more financial and social resources during our graduate career relative to students at lower-tiered universities. I can only imagine that this inequality between graduate programs leads to different types and levels of stress. For example, although I find graduate school stressful, my concern is not about unemployment or underemployment upon completion, but rather if I can get an “ideal” postdoctoral fellowship and long-term job.

Second, there are high levels of inequality in experiences within graduate programs. I have benefited from supportive and readily available advisors and dissertation-committee members, but not every graduate student has a positive experience. In addition, departments have diverse social environments, some of which—due to isolation or social drama—are not conducive to students’ mental health.

Samuel Fishman
Ph.D. Candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, N.C.

As a Ph.D. student at the No. 2 doctoral program in my field, I can attest to how grueling, trying, and downright tear-inducing graduate school can be. However, I felt that this article utilized poor argumentation and bad science to prove its point. The author took the results from one study on one sample of students from one subject area from a group of elite universities, and then appeared to generalize the results to all graduate students. There are several reasons why we should not generalize these findings to graduate students overall, including that students in economics programs can be different from students in other fields in meaningful ways, and that most graduate students are not studying at elite universities.

Furthermore, the initial anecdote of a student who aspired to finish his Ph.D. quickly, but then dropped out due to severe stress, is a poor representation of how stress in graduate school can lead to mental-health issues. Finishing a Ph.D. in two years is virtually unheard of, and anyone who honestly believes that he will accomplish that is probably someone who is very hard on himself to begin with, and has unrealistic expectations of what graduate school is truly like.

Emma E. Navajas
Chapel Hill, N.C.

I agree with Alia Wong’s characterization that graduate school can have a terrible impact on the mental health of its students. A few years ago, I graduated from a graduate program in English, rhetoric, and technical communication, and during my time in the program I experienced the same mental stress she describes. The stress may have been greater than that of some of my peers because I also worked as a graduate assistant and taught while in school, but I know that a majority of the other graduate assistants were also taking antianxiety medication and/or going through counseling.

It is my experience that graduate school offers ever-increasing pressures that compound. The workload is immediately more significant and more difficult. Fair enough. But then pressures begin to unveil themselves. Failing a class could mean pushing my graduate date out by two years, costing me tens of thousands of dollars and lost earning potential. Not completing the thesis process on time at any part of the way could mean the same. Then there is the ante of working as a graduate assistant. Sure, I save money and gain experience, but there are increased stakes. There is an increased workload, too: Grading 25 research essays at the end of a quarter in which I have my own essays to complete and submit could take more than a hundred hours of work, in addition to participating in classes and teaching.

I now work as a technical writer for a large payment processor, which I enjoy, but when I reflect on my time in graduate school, there seems to be something missing. When I am asked if graduate school was worth it, I genuinely reply, “Yes, yes it was.” But part of me knows that beyond the significant financial costs, there was a poignant price to graduation: Similar to how one never feels quite the same after the breakup of their first serious relationship, part of my innocence is gone.

Dominick Giguere
Spokane, Wash.

Ninety percent of my peers and colleagues who have pursued and completed graduate school at the Master’s and Ph.D. levels began therapy because of the high-stress environment of graduate school. This article highlighted what I had observed on a micro level within my own networks. Other variables at play within this conversation are specific populations/groups (people of color; first-generation graduate students; and/or first-generation Americans). These groups I mentioned who are matriculating the graduate-school process can sometimes have a distinct added layer of stress. This stress may include navigating race- and culture-related issues in addition to the graduate-school process. I would be curious as to whether the author of this article found any information about the graduate-school impact specific to the groups I noted above.

Chelsie White
Silver Spring, Md.

Readers responded on Facebook:

Chelsea Proulx writes: Too many researchers and academics foster unsupportive environments simply because they believe that the misery they experienced in grad school was somehow fundamental to their success. However, I imagine that people’s best ideas and best projects are put forth when they are happiest or their passion is encouraged. The purpose of graduate school should not be to “weed out the weak,” it should be to foster creative environments where people feel supported to look into new research questions and test new hypotheses. Science is a team-oriented field, so I don’t understand why isolation and struggling alone is still considered a necessary part of graduate education by many tenured academics. Supportive mentoring is crucial to scientific advancement. Making grad students suicidal, lonely, and mentally unstable is not the only way for a person to develop resiliency and grit.

Mindy Wynn Tauberg writes: I’m a PhD student, thankfully nearly done now. Years ago when I tried talking to my advisor about how my mental health struggles were negatively impacting my work, her response was to reassure me that lots of grad students and even professors go through the same thing. I know she meant it to be comforting, but to me the message was that academics are expected to accept anxiety and depression as a normal part of their careers.

Karen Rose writes: It’s not just PhD students. Getting a master’s degree is often a rough experience, as well. 35 years later, I still shudder at many of the memories from that time in my life.

Lynn Wilson writes: I feel so badly reading all these sad experiences. I loved graduate school and doing my doctoral research. It was the kind of opportunity that comes once in a lifetime to pursue an area of intense interest that never comes again; to work with those who can open new perspectives for you; to read to one’s heart’s content. Yes, there are teaching and marking responsibilities, and working full time in my field before finishing my thesis was completed was a real challenge. Yes, there were some difficult personalities to deal with. That’s just life. But I wouldn’t trade that time of my life for the experience it was.

Lynda Boucugnani-Whitehead writes: My graduate school Ph.D. experience was the best time in my life. Sure it was intense and demanding but so invigorating, fostered deep friendships, and allowed me to feel such accomplishment. A lot I think depends on one’s personal motivation and sense of confidence. If you are doing it for yourself in a field you love it’s easier as compared to feeling you have to do it to please someone else or to meet supposed expectations. If you already have confidence in yourself that can carry you far and allow you to overcome hurdles.

Many readers responded on Twitter:

Samuel: Thanks for making the time to read and share your thoughts. I absolutely agree with you that these programmatic differences deserve acknowledgement; this aspect came up in many of the conversations I had for this story, as well as in forums and social-media posts I reviewed to familiarize myself with the landscape. I decided that this week’s story, with its tightly scoped focus on the findings of the Harvard study and its contributions to the body of evidence on graduate students’ mental health, wouldn’t be able to do justice to this part of the narrative. Clearly, the kinds of nuances you highlight merit additional reporting, so stay tuned. In the meantime, I encourage you to read another story The Atlantic published on this general topic: “Why Do So Many Graduate Students Quit?

To Emma: Thank you so much for reading. I certainly appreciate your overarching point. The graduate-student population is certainly diverse—in terms of everything from academic discipline to socioeconomic income. I endeavor in the piece to make clear that the results of the Harvard study shouldn’t be interpreted as nationally representative, and to instead emphasize that it is simply the latest empirical evidence of a problem that’s well documented in an existing body of research. Early on, for example, I cite another study published earlier this year, which drew from surveys of Ph.D. candidates across disciplines and described graduate students’ mental-health challenges as a “crisis.” Elsewhere, I weave in language meant to remind readers of the limitations of the Harvard study. (For example: “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.”) I intend to continue covering this topic, including through dedicated reporting on less-privileged populations of Ph.D. students; my conversation with Lucy Johnson, for example, led me to do additional research on the gender disparities in these programs.

I would, however, disagree with your second concern. One reason, in fact, comes down to what you argue in your first point: Given the complexity of the graduate-student population and of mental health—and absent comprehensive, reliable data and intimate familiarity with both Everet Rummel and how his experience situates itself within the larger landscape—asserting that he is not a valid example of a larger problem is unfair and its own form of “bad science.” And it doesn’t strike me as productive to shame an individual—especially someone who was brave enough to open up to a national reporter about his anxiety, depression, and regret—for his “unrealistic expectations.”