Why PhD Students are Lonelier than Retirees

Graduate school drives the worlds best and brightest students to depression in waves — but why?

October 10th is world mental health day. In honor of this, I am sending a post I wrote on why graduate programs are so hard on the mental health of students. If you are ever struggling - please reach out. I have had my own struggles, and it is okay to acknowledge it and ask for help. Please take time today to be a better friend and support network member.

COVID has multiplied everything in this article.

We need to get a mechanistic understanding of why mental health problems occur and what to do about them. This is a story written with a close friend who is pursuing her Ph.D. at Penn State University in school psychology with a focus on mindfulness in the education system, Marisa DeCollibus. We’ve had so many conversations about how we wanted to improve the state of matters, so are trying to formulate our thoughts.

Why can’t individual graduate students have their own sense of self-worth?

Graduate school can feel like an uphill battle (source).

After a couple of years I directly challenge people who say these things, but I really feel like one quiet voice challenging the norms. I hear more horror stories of professors belittling students then I do students looking out for themselves- clearly something needs to change. Universities need more direct engagement from department to students that is not an evaluation in nature. How can a student be expected to turn to a mentor for help when that may change their graduation timeline and career substantially?

Is the type of student to blame?

One claim I have been given trying as a counterargument for the harsh reality of graduate school is that the type of people that go to get a doctoral degree inflict this on themselves. There have been multiple studies showing that the type-A, neurotic brain can cause some self-difficulty, but the rates in Ph.D. programs specifically are too high for this to be the primary reason. Think of it as a negative feature contributing to a disastrous product design. Fundamentally, shouldn’t our top institutions be accommodating to all types of people?

Bad News for the Highly Intelligent
There are advantages to being smart. People who do well on standardized tests of intelligence-IQ tests-tend to be more…www.scientificamerican.com

What actually is the life of a graduate student like from week to week in a year?

Grad school starts out with one neat project and classes normally, but it tends to diverge to many projects that overlap and huge pressure to deliver. When you have multiple projects you want to become publications, it seems hard to take time off. It seems hard to even leave one project for a while sometimes. Most of the time of a graduate student is spent preparing for, executing on, and stressing about these projects. Then, on a low budget, students are left to tend for their own wellbeing second. It varies a bit for professional schools such as law or medicine which are more studying based than research-based, but different negative biases are more prevalent there. This tells a similar story, provides more detail about what graduate school is like, and is well written:

The Emotional Toll of Graduate School
A recent Harvard study concluded that graduate students are over three times more likely than the average American to…blogs.scientificamerican.com

Bringing a Self Back into Career — Nathan Lambert

Starting graduate school is an incredibly exciting time, but it quickly turns into a ticking clock counting down until mental health challenges hit. Short story — mine hit pretty fast after losing the amazing community I leaned on as an undergraduate. In undergrad I was very actively engaged with professors I viewed as friends lived and trained with my teammates that I loved, and felt like I had everything figured out. It didn’t take me long to realize that graduate school feels like you need to re-do all this and figure out a career in the meantime.

It doesn’t seem like there are many people to turn to when the mental state turns sour, so I was left to figure it out on my own. I think this is one of the most daunting aspects of mental health challenges in graduate school — how unacknowledged most of it seems. The majority of things I hear from other students were around working more hours, making more publications, and what is next. There seemed to be little focus on, “am I enjoying my day to day life as a graduate student.” It seemed shockingly backward that a potentially 5 year period of our young life should be by default, unenjoyable.

I feel like I would always hear some of these once a semester is underway:

“I should be in lab,”

“my research is going poorly, and its my fault,”

“I’m a bad graduate student,”

“My advisor isn’t letting me graduate,”

I always end up asking myself,

Why can’t individual graduate students have their own sense of self worth?

After a couple of years I directly challenge people who say these things, but I really feel like one quiet voice challenging the norms. I hear more horror stories of professors belittling students then I do students looking out for themselves- clearly something needs to change. Universities need more direct engagement from department to students that is not an evaluation in nature. How can a student be expected to turn to a mentor for help when that may change their graduation timeline and career substantially?

Words of Encouragement — Marisa DeCollibus

As a doctoral student in School Psychology, a field grounded in mental health, it has been quite shocking stepping into the turmoil of graduate school. I’m coming from two years working full time in under-resourced high school, where daily I was asked to remain a calm and grounded force for both my co-workers and teens. If you have ever been a teenager, or know a few now, you can probably imagine the effort of patience that must come from the adult at the other end of the interaction. I was able to be a consistent presence in that school only because I was a consistent presence for myself, waking up most days to sit on my zafu and practice the meditation and mantra I’d learned throughout my life (ironically starting in my early teenage years).

Yet here, sitting down to small seminars filled with only my cohort most of the time, I find the turmoil and anxiety to be amplified times 10 of what I experienced at the high school I worked in. In my program, we are graduate students interested in special needs, school-wide positive behavior supports, social and emotional learning and more yet, in the landscape of graduate school, we find it hard to hold onto our own homeostasis. It’s ironic that to seek out my dream of studying mindfulness in schools, I’ve been at my least mindful. It seems to me that this internal and external havoc originates from the expectation that my humanness is supposed to take the second row to my product, output, and pace. I am lucky that in my first semester I’ve come to learn these expectations are mythical, created by the catastrophizing culture of graduate school. I’ve decided the only one capable of protecting my humanness from complete obliteration in such a culture is me. And so, when the hurricane of impossible workloads, imposter syndrome, and fear roll in I ask myself what worth does a Ph.D. have if I can’t earn it as the full person who I am?

Then, as all diligent graduate students do, I take action on this question in the followings ways:

  1. I remind myself that the type-A, neurotic self that might have been useful for getting into graduate school is detrimental to my chances of deeply learning in a field I love in graduate school.

  2. I try to recognize the game of school, written about in by Robert Fried, and dig into my internal over extrinsic motivation.

  3. I put self-care into perspective; making dinner is a necessity (not self-care), unnecessarily reorganizing my google calendar to avoid writing a paper is a distraction (not self care), taking 30 minutes to sit with a peer over coffee is necessary interpersonal relationship building (self-care), waking up a half hour early to sit on my Zafu even when I’m sleep is a personal way to start the day off on the right foot (self care). Learning to distinguish these differences is important when it comes to leaving behind unwarranted guilt and finding appropriate balance.

  4. At the end of the day, I remember the only person who can decide if I did my best or not is me.

  5. I commit myself to the fact that graduate school isn’t a box to check off on my way to a career, it’s my life. Every day matters and I’m going to do my best not to lose any of them to check boxes.

Graduate studies seem rose-tinted at entrance, but almost everyone reaches a gloomy outlook during their time. (Source, my recent Costa Rica trip)

Graduate school enrollment and negative mental health markers

Harvard Study of Economics PhDs

There was a Harvard study done on a swath of graduate students “Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments,” Barreira et. al, that had some jarring statistics on mental health. Rather than repeat a bunch of numerical takeaways that will be sad, unsurprising, but forgotten, I want to leave just one takeaway from the research.

“The average PhD student reports greater feelings of loneliness than does the average retired American.”

The paper from Harvard is here. I did not expect this when reading, but it does not surprise me. Low feeling of usefulness with massive swamping of stress leads frequently to depression. It is not the way that a proud nation, and developed world, should prepare its brightest minds for impact. The idea-that a student that should be growing into collaborative and exciting roles is more alone than retirees-(who often are rebounding from the lack of career and stimulation), should be the impetus that sweeping changes are needed.

A sea of concern

An aptly titled piece from the journal Nature “Being a Ph.D. student shouldn’t be bad for your health” in 2019 provided a further list of concerns in the mental health system. This documents the First International Conference on the Mental Health & Wellbeing of Postgraduate Researchers May 2019 in Brighton, UK, which I consider a huge win when researching this. But it is definitely par for the course that 1) this is needed and 2) this is the first time it occurred.

This conference was initiated because “Ph.D. students in Flanders, Belgium, found that they were more than twice as likely to suffer from mental health difficulties than the highly educated population in general, and that one-third of them either had or were at risk of developing, a psychiatric disorder.” This doesn’t sound so different than the U.S.

The authors continue to list that 75% of students have similar struggles in Tuscan Arizona, but I am interested in the distribution of this data. With two data points, the survey must not be sampling from the worst universities. Think of the Ph.D. programs that have almost 100% enrollment in clinical mental health problems, it seems highly possible it exists. The problem of incomplete data, and zero to no financial incentive to investigate graduate student health prevails.

The clear fact reiterated in the article, and at the conference, is that academia does not encourage work-life balance (long, hard hours of contract-like workers). “Senior scientists are expected to be both a robust support system and a stern, independent assessor of progress — a contradiction that discourages students from sharing potential mental-health issues for fear of damaging their professional progress.” Universities need to require supervisors to be trained, but it’s hard to implement with tenure incentives.

Being a Ph.D. student shouldn’t be bad for your health
The first international meeting on postgraduate mental health opens this week, but much more is needed to solve…www.nature.com

Is there anything individuals can do on their own to improve their state? As it seems like the system is rigged against us, in the next post we investigate what research proposes to improve the situation.

My family trip to Shaka Costa Rica definitely helped. Share your story in the comments or online!