Applied Behavior Science for Health and Happiness
Mental Well-Being and the PhD Student
Mental Well-Being and the PhD Student

Mental Well-Being and the PhD Student

So it seems like the general public has finally noticed that grad school is bad for students’ mental health. We’ve known the punishing medical school curriculum burns students out, but it seems PhD programs aren’t doing much better. I’ve recently seen headlines like  “PhD students have double the risk of developing a psychiatric disorder than the rest of the ‘highly educated’ population” or “Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges.” Based on my experiences, these headlines, to understate things, are absolutely true. 

Graduate school was mentally and emotionally one of the toughest times of my life. I know many of my friends who have grad degrees feel similarly.

It’s a double-edged sword. The abilities to deal with impossible workloads, engage in debate with brilliant scholars, and craft a compelling argument for your ideas are part of the value of having a PhD, and they’re earned by going through incredibly tough experiences. But that said, academic struggle too often turns into acute mental health issues such as depression or anxiety. If 51% of graduate students experience significant symptoms of mental health distress in any given one-week period, something’s wrong.

Here are a few of the reasons why a PhD program is rough on your mental health, followed by some of the ways I think we can help fix the system.

Self-doubt

You are given constant reason to doubt your own intelligence and the quality of your ideas as a graduate student. First, you’re surrounded by super-smart professors and fellow students. The intellectual prowess in the room is enough to give most people at least mild imposter syndrome (severe in my case).  Add to that an atmosphere that focuses on critique as part of its pedagogical approach, and it’s easy to feel like you’re the least intelligent one in the room.

A quote about feeling like a failure from a PhD student at Berkeley. http://berkeleysciencereview.com/article/mind-grad-school/
Yep. From http://berkeleysciencereview.com/article/mind-grad-school/

But wait, there’s more! Very likely you’re also teaching undergrads as part of your financial aid package. Many of these students are wonderful, but there are always, always a few who poke at you all semester long in the hopes of a higher grade. They’ll argue about your classroom policies, your ability to accurately judge their work, and whether you adequately communicated the material. Even though you logically know these comments are more political than factual, they chip away at your self-confidence, too.

And the workload is hard. In retrospect, I appreciate that, because I think my degree has meaning in terms of what I can accomplish and the rigor of the training I completed. But at the time, it was very tough. I will never forget being a second-year grad student, sitting in my living room reading articles (I never had time to read anything except articles), and noticing that my hair was falling out in clumps. At the time I was taking a full course load, teaching two sections, and working on multiple research projects including the one that was about to become my master’s thesis. I’m not sure anyone could do all of that without their mental health taking a hit.

My personal issue is less with the punishing workload of the PhD program per se, and more with the nature of how people try to advance. In psychology, I saw a lot of focus on incremental advancements of the science. Researchers are constantly undercutting each other by pointing out how small decisions are actually critical mistakes, when that may not actually be true. And it infiltrates how the dialogue goes within the university; it felt less like trying to make each study the strongest it could be, and more like people poking at each detail to prove their own superiority. There’s not a lot of naked admiration in academe.

I’m not even touching how an incremental approach to research limits paradigm changes, except to note that it does.

Our pond is very small

For the many PhD students aiming for an academic position, there is real competition for a very limited number of jobs. This means you feel the pressure of possibly not making it to your dream career, for which you’re suffering daily. According to the Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report, the number one predictor of life satisfaction and depression for grad students is “career prospects.”

The tiny job market inherently makes being a grad student less collaborative than it could be. Like it or not, you will be competing with your colleagues for those few jobs, especially the colleagues on track to graduate at the same time as you and the ones studying similar topics. It helps to make friends in other departments or to have friends whose research areas are quite different from your own to lessen the sense of competition. It also helps if you and your friends are able to set aside that competition and support each other, hopefully making the entire group more viable job candidates.

I’ll also plug looking beyond academia for your career as the ultimate competition-killer, but I know becoming an academic is a dream for many people. Follow your dreams, but know there are more flavors of dream job than you might have realized.

Results over resilience

Professors aren’t given a lot of incentive to nurture their students, either. First of all, most PhD programs in science and social science have a limited duration, so professors aren’t necessarily concerned with making sure you’re resilient enough to stick around 5 or 10 more years. You’re probably going somewhere else. And yes, having an accomplished protege helps a professor’s reputation in the field, but lack of one isn’t a significant ding. Tenure decisions are based primarily on research, so what professors tend to focus on with their grad students is getting them hard at work in the lab.

Professors may care, but not feel empowered to help.
Professors may care, but not feel empowered to help.

I want to caveat that this doesn’t mean professors don’t care about their grad students’ well-being. Many of them do (although I know for certain not all of them). And in psychology, many of them are also equipped to recognize signs of burnout and mental health issues. Unfortunately they are not usually prepared with the resources to really help, and the untenured among them certainly (believe they) can’t take significant time away from their research to help a student or slow the pace of work without jeopardizing their progress. Much of the blame for this particular piece of the problem lies with the system, which has both faculty and students caught in its machinations.

All by myself

I took this photo in Niagara Falls, and my friend and I dubbed it “grad school.” (Reposted from an earlier post; perhaps even more relevant here.)

Grad school is very isolating at times. Your master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation are solo author documents by design; you’re supposed to show your individual contributions and create the showpiece of your academic portfolio for the job market. It hadn’t occurred to me at first, but graduate school can also isolate you from friends and family outside your program. You’re incredibly busy and intensely focused on a very specific set of academic questions that are probably meaningless to people outside your work circle. You see your other friends less and when you do, you have less to talk about because you’re so absorbed in your projects.

Add in the competition inherent in the grad school environment, and you’ve got loneliness. And loneliness is strongly correlated with negative mental health. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Why should I suffer and you not?

This last point is one I hesitate to make, because I’m guilty of it too. I’ve already perpetrated it in this post. People who’ve gotten their PhDs want to see value in their own suffering, so they’re less inclined to lighten the load for the students who come later.

Most faculty have graduate degrees of their own. They’ve gone through the graduate program, suffered, and come out the other side. And I have observed that this engenders an attitude of “that’s just how it is.” I had some professors who had sympathy for our situation, but didn’t perceive a need for it to change.

And then there’s the second part, the piece where I find myself guilty. Even in writing this, I’ve found myself hesitating to suggest we just make grad school easier. I’ve woven a story about how the struggle was ultimately to my benefit. I don’t think that story is entirely false, but it’s certainly springing from a place of self-interest. And yeah, if I’m being honest I feel jealous that other people may have an easier path through grad school than I did. That’s on me to get over it.

Can you do anything about it?

There isn’t an easy fix to the mental health pressures the current American academic system puts on its graduate students. Real change likely has to come from multiple levels:

  • The system itself. I’m not an expert on how universities operate, but both the tenure system and the focus on funding through research grants place some clear incentives on faculty that are not always aligned with protecting graduate student well-being (or, for that matter, faculty well-being). Universities also have an opportunity to offer support resources to help students, such as free or inexpensive counseling.
  • Professors and other academic professionals. To some extent they’re captive in the system, but they also have a line of communication to university administrations, to the organizations funding their work, and to others who shape the nature of academic organizations. Professors are also in a position to reassure and mentor graduate students, and they have gone through the pressures of a graduate program themselves. Being advocates for graduate student mental health may require them to shake off their own biases, as discussed above.
  • Students themselves. They have the least power in this dynamic, but they are not powerless.

Say you’re a student. What can you do? This article suggests focusing on your reasons for being there in the first place, whatever passions you’re trying to pursue. That’s not a terrible idea–thinking about your mission can help sustain motivation over tough spots. But it’s at best one piece of the solution.

As I alluded earlier, one thing that was critical to my own grad school experience was the support of my friends in the program. I feel very lucky to have found a good group of pals early in my experience, and would urge any new student to find their people if they can. Easier said than done, I know, but try to prioritize social interaction in those early days. Dno

"There is a culture of silence around how we feel as graduate students. I feel much better after talking with counselors, but it is a little ridiculous that I have to go to therapy simply to have someone ask me how my day was or how I'm feeling.” Quote from UC Berkeley StudentBeing aware of and using resources available to help with stress and mental health is also important. The University of California at Berkeley is working to make these programs more widely available to grad students while lessening the stigma associated with using them. At the same time, they’re matching new students with more senior ones for peer mentoring that they hope will help make the transition to grad school easier.

Related to that, hobbies can help a lot too. I definitely wasn’t doing much hobby-wise that semester my hair started falling out, but later I joined a softball team and slowly started reading for fun again. Those things helped me feel more like myself again.

That haunting feeling of failure during grad school is especially terrible, so anything you can do to remind yourself of your success and value is critical. Go ahead and relive old glories. Find things you can be successful at outside of school–run your first 5k, try a new recipe, throw a great party.

Being open with your friends, especially the ones who are fellow grad students, about your insecurities helps a lot. Once you hear someone you admire admit to the same self-doubt you have, it puts a crack in your conviction that you’re the worst.

The American Psychological Association now highlights alternate career paths for psychologists in its "How Did You Get That Job?" webinar and blog post series.
The American Psychological Association now highlights alternate career paths for psychologists in its “How Did You Get That Job?” webinar and blog post series.

My final suggestion is a bit of a pet project of mine, which is to look beyond the traditional job path for your PhD. In my psychology program, the only career opportunity we talked about was tenure track academics. Realistically, it’s just not happening for everybody. I was lucky to realize early on that it wasn’t what I wanted to do, and it helped me to get less panicked about my job prospects (although more institutional support for a non-academic job search would have helped even more). Voluntarily exiting from that particular rat race and preparing instead for an applied career can loosen at least some of the emotional burdens of graduate school, if that’s what you want to do.

I’d love to hear from people who’ve been there. What was hard in graduate school, and what made it easier? What advice do you have for new grad students?

***Of course, all of this is from my own perspective as a former PhD student in psychology attending a full-time program at an R1 university; your experiences may vary depending on department, school, program type, etc.