What If Graduate School Is Not For You?

Rates of depression and anxiety are really high among graduate students. Here is a piece I wrote for StudentCaring.com about why that might be. (published 5/24/19)

For high achieving college seniors, spring and early summer are application and interview seasons. The best and the brightest undergraduates are competing for coveted spots in graduate programs at top-ranked Universities all around the country. Next fall, they will be headed off to pursue their education. And apparently, for many, will have started down a path that increases their chance of mental illness.

As a professor, and former graduate student, I was struck by a recent study discussed in the Atlantic that described the surprising psychological risks of graduate school. In a survey of about 2,000 students pursuing their PhD, close to 40% reported symptoms indicating moderate to high levels of anxiety (compared to about 6% in the general population) in addition to other psychological problems.

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/11/anxiety-depression-mental-health-graduate-school/576769/

The work has been taken to mean that graduate students are at risk for mental health problems due to long work hours, the solitary nature of the work, the pressure to publish, and environments that do not prioritize work-life balance. The implication is that an overhaul of graduate training is needed to create environments that are less stressful.

Changes are needed in graduate education, but this may be only part of the problem. In addition, maybe graduate school is just not a good fit for some students?

The nature of graduate training is inherently demanding, especially at top programs. A common misconception is that graduate programs artificially create unreasonable hoops for students to jump through to be “part of the club.” Unfortunately, some programs do have a hazing approach to graduate training. However, even without that component, graduate programs are intensely challenging. Top doctoral programs are training the next generation of scholars and scientists to do the ground breaking work necessary for the advancement of society. Simply mastering the background material can take thousands of hours, easily resulting in 50-70 hour work weeks.

If the nature of high-quality graduate training is inherently demanding, the question shifts from how the programs can be made easier to who is a good fit for the programs. Recommendations typically are based on ability. If students ace mathematics and physics, they should apply to the engineering doctoral program at MIT. If they excel in the humanities, they should consider graduate school in English or history at Harvard. In my own field, top psychology students are encouraged to apply to doctoral programs at handful of top schools, including Yale and Stanford. If these students expressed an interest in becoming a technician, copyeditor, or social worker, they probably would have been encouraged to aim higher.

The problem is that students who attend top-ranked graduate programs at prestigious Universities primarily because they are their “best” options may be miserable. Just because a student has the abilityto perform well in a program does not mean that the program will bring the student personal or professional fulfillment. Nonetheless, as the recent college admission scandal reflects, there is considerable pressure on students to pursue their most prestigious options.

If the goal is to help students find fulfilling careers, then instead of their being pushed toward prestigious options, they should be encouraged to pay attention to what speaks to them, what sings to them. What classes and activities make them come alive? What topics stick with them and occupy their thoughts?

When the match is good, students can thrive in graduate programs despite their intensity. I was fortunate to be one of those students. Of course, some days were better than others. For the most part, though, I found graduate work to be engaging and energizing. I was fascinated by the material and thought that being able to collect data to answer my own research questions was exciting.

From this perspective, the importance of the fit cannot be overemphasized. If the fit is good, a demanding graduate program may be challenging, but should not take a toll on a student’s mental health. However, students who are there primarily because it’s their most prestigious option will not have a good experience. The hours are too long and the expectations too high for the lifestyle to be enjoyable unless it’s one’s calling.

The answer to the disturbingly high rates of mental health problems among graduate students, then, may not lie not only in changing the nature of graduate training but also in better matching students and opportunities. This will require moving away from the mindset that the most prestigious option is the best option. Remember, the saying is “if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life,” not “if you do something really prestigious, happiness will follow.”

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