Grad School Fosters Depression; How to Fight It

The Feb. 20th Chronicle Review has a set of articles about grad school life. The statistics on how grad school cultivates and enhances depression and mental illness are, well, depressing. But if you are or ever have been a graduate student, you knew that already.

Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place. At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of the graduate students surveyed were not aware of mental-health services on the campus. And another Berkeley study recently found that graduate students were becoming increasingly disillusioned with careers in academe and did not view large research institutions as family-friendly workplaces (The Chronicle, January 23).

Linda Driskell at Rice University conducts a workshop for grad students in engineering; at the beginning, she splits the group in two. Half are asked to draw cartoons of someone working on their dissertation, the other, someone getting their degree:

The images are startlingly the same, year after year. We share the drawings, stick figures mostly, and talk about how the day's workshop is going to help them avoid being the lonely, frustrated figures in the one set and become the joyous, proud figures in the second.

The thesis writers are always alone. In 10 years, a handful of cats has shown up, but always far from the writer, and once a giant steamroller, loaded with an anonymous committee, was shown bearing down on a tiny writer hunched in the corner with her computer. A symbol of the late hour is nearly always present: a moon showing in a high window, a clock on the wall reading well past midnight. And the signs of tension abound: piles of crumpled paper, general disorder around a computer, books stacked, open, on the floor. The faces, with their worried frowns, sad mouths, and sleep-deprived anguish, are the most poignant reminder of how our systems isolate and threaten the next generation of prospective intellectual leaders.

A companion piece gives some of the usual helpful advice: learn to recognized the signs of depression and ask for help; listen to your mom - eat right, sleep enough, exercise regularly; find a social-support network; work on time management (why are you reading this blog? oh wait, maybe that's your social-support network!); find allies; if your relationship with your advisor is bad, try to fix it, don't just put up with it. And, two online sources of help:

Find a dissertation coach or online support group if you are having trouble getting down to work. is one Web site where graduate students having trouble finishing their dissertations can find advice and support. The Chronicle has an online forum called "Grad-School Life" that includes a discussion focusing on dissertation and thesis support. See


Consider a break. A temporary leave to seek counseling or reassess priorities does not brand you as a failure, and taking time off to work outside academe could reveal new possibilities. Leaving academe altogether may be the best choice for some. Talk to advisers, mentors, and others about whether sticking it out is the right decision.

I sometimes wonder if taking a break in grad school would have been a good move for me. Perhaps I never would have gone back, though. Who knows, that might have been better! If you are going to take a break, have a well thought out plan for what you are going to do when you leave - don't just quit and hunker down in your depression. Even if you plan is just "I'm going to work at McDonald's and write the Great American Novel", okay, at least it's a plan. Work out how you are going to do it, how much time each day spent working on the GAN, etc.

The problem with taking a break in the sciences and engineering, of course, is that the world moves so fast that by the time you come back, you may just be starting all over again at square one. It's a lot easier, I think, to take a break in the humanities. But still - continuing in a path that is causing you nothing but misery, when you aren't at all sure you want to do it - it's worth thinking about whether a break is the right thing to do. At least letting yourself think about it as a real possibility will let you feel like continuing is a real choice, not a trap.

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Those statistics are pretty sad =(
I was definitely depressed during grad school. Didn't want to admit it, and didn't really notice it getting worse because it was so gradual. I noticed it when it was really bad, but my blog post about it was done in such a joking way that I'm not sure if people really got it. I did start feeling predictably better as soon as I was done, but even then it wasn't an instant recovery. I plan on eventually writing a blog post about it all, but it's still too fresh.

Don't get why people are drawing their cats at a distance, though. My clingy cat was constantly wrapped around the back of the laptop screen, with her head and tail curled around on either side. I still need to take the laptop in for maintenance, to have the cat hair cleaned out from the fan.

What bothers me most is how much the large graduate programs seem to not care about the mental health of their graduate students, or have any sympathy for what may be a bout of depression. I left a prominent graduate program for what i thought was genuine change of mind and unhappiness with the program, but which later turned out to be depression, Which i addressed and gotten taken care and after about 6 months i was feeling great and even more excited to return to science that i ever was before graduate school and applied and was accepted to the program (which in hindsight my depression was probably already starting to build before i got there). I tried to return to my program fully acknowledging what had happened, and what i had done about it and realizing that i may have needed some time off or adressed the problem sooner, but instead i got completely shut out by the program director, an MD-PhD with physician training whom i would think might be more symathetic than possibly those without medical training. But he wasn't. So i changed my career angle, and went to medical school instead, since all other efforts to get back into science have been met with me be labeled a grad school drop-out and therefore not enthusiastic about science despite the fact that i was in some respects sick for a few months (in hindsight it was building for years). If i had to leave graduate school because i had a more organic illness (ie cancer), there would probably be no problem, but have a temporary mental illness, and fix it, and come out even better than you were before, it could still be career suicide (even if you don't want to commit suicide anymore).

By anonymous (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

Going ABD was the only thing that rescued me from the grad school depression before I actually finished - change of scene, change of colleagues, change of responsibilities, paychecks - it was a breath of fresh air. For most of my graduate school career, the ability to quit was the only thing I felt I had control over, so I held onto that and fantasized about it pretty much constantly for over 5 years. NOT HEALTHY.

I was scared away from one of the grad schools I wanted to go to by one of the students, who told me that everyone in that program was on anti-depressants. Of course, I just went to another program full of depressed students without knowing it. In the departments where faculty and students don't feel at odds with each other -- in particular in those where the grads have a union where they can air grievances and have voices amplified -- I have noticed an astounding LACK of depression compared to those places with no campaign or one that has been unsuccessful. I think it's important to note that the "social network" piece is tied in to whether students feel not only validated and part of a shared experience, but also empowered. A group of people going through the same thing who all trust each other is eventually going to step up and do something about it.

Gee, Zuska, how encouraging! (end scarcasim) It's a good thing to know, as I'm trying to head to grad school. I guess I'll ask my shrink to hang on for a while.

Do you think that this is more true of schools in cold/wet/overcast climes (Seattle, Boston, Madison) versus warm/sunny places (So. Cal, Southwest)?

By JustaTech (not verified) on 23 Feb 2009 #permalink

Depression in grad students is certainly a huge problem - along with other associated health problems (a couple of friends in grad school had health problems that their doctors could not explain or treat very well... and that went away after they graduated).

In my case, I had issues with depression during both my M.S. and PhD. degrees... ranging from general sadness/hopelessness to spontaneous crying fits and not wanting to get out of bed. My significant other had similar problems as well... and there really isn't much of a support system, especially when you have little or no health insurance coverage.

And, for what it's worth, re: JustaTech's question - I did my M.S. in Arizona (sunny southwest) and my PhD. in Pittsburgh (wet/overcast climate). The climate had little effect, as far as I can tell - in fact, it might have been worse in sunny AZ (staying inside to write when the weather outside is beautiful).

The key is to recognize that there might be a problem and keep at it... force yourself to go outside and enjoy some physical activity (even just walking to school if that's all there's time for that week), get enough sleep, eat well, etc. It's also important to try to keep a good relationship with your advisor - a scheduled meeting time to provide you with a deadline to aim for helps to break down the work into manageable chunks... it's much more stressful to think about writing your whole dissertation, but less so to do an outline of chapter 2.

The hard part is not letting grad school change you... learning how to take time for yourself when you need it is an key skill (I never learned it, to be honest, so I can't help there....)

The coping skill will help you once you graduate, too - the stress doesn't really seem to go away... it just changes to a different set of deadlines and priorities.

Hey, I just put up a post on this on my blog, too. It got me thinking too much for just more commenting.

anonymous, my advisor was an incredibly caring and nice person, and yet he didn't take me seriously, either. I tried to explain that I was feeling depressed, or that I was feeling a lot of anxiety, but until I referred to the anxiety by calling it "panic attacks" (which it was), he didn't seem to understand it was a real problem, and then he seemed to think I could just take a short vacation and I'd be fine. I think to some extent the words "depression" and "anxiety" are used too casually, so he assumed I didn't mean it was CLINICAL or anything. I don't really throw those terms around, though.

At the end of my first year of grad school, my father died quite unexpectedly. I was grieving and very very very depressed after this. My thesis advisor's advice was "sometimes when you think you can't work anymore you just have to work harder" which was no help at all. He had absolutely no capacity for empathy, no understanding of what I was going through. Some people are jerks; some are just not trained in how to deal with this situation. In effect, thesis advisors are asked to be scientists, teachers, managers, and HR personnel, and all they ever really get training on is the science part.

JustaTech, I'm sorry if this post was discouraging to you but I think it is much better to go into grad school with your eyes wide open to the challenges and potential pitfalls than wearing rose colored glasses and assuming everything will be just delightful. You may wind up in a great, healthy lab with a very skilled PI and have a completely delightful grad experience - and you could still be affected by life events, as I was by my father's death. It's good to be aware that grad school is a time when you may be particularly vulnerable to depression, to be prepared and know how to recognize the signs and what to do if you find yourself slipping into it.

It's better to talk about these things and give each other support for acknowledging that they exist, and how to deal with them, than pretend they don't.

I wonder if there's any difference that depends on life experience prior to entering grad school. For example, if someone embarks on a doctoral program after working for awhile or raising a family, etc.

Sometimes I feel like if I can just get through the hellish process of admissions decisions, there is nothing that grad school can throw at me that I haven't been through already. After working in an unsatisfying career path for the last 6 years, I feel like getting paid (albeit meagerly) to learn about and do something I love will be a breath of fresh air.

But now I'm also scared after reading this post, because I've been known to be prone to depression.

I started grad school about 165lbs, ended about 215lbs. About a year after I left I got down to 150lbs and was running 5 miles/run. Yeah, I was climbing the walls in my science grad program. The utter definition of "draggy".

I think the "take a break" strategy listed above is a polite way of saying "quit". I've seen a number of friends--in the humanities--"take a break" from their PhDs and they never wrote the damn dissertation. Yes, there are the rare cases in which serious life stuff prevents working, but for most people, if you can't get through it while you are right there in the midst of it, letting it cool for awhile is only going to make re-starting it less likely. The good thing with my science PhD was I had no choice but to slog into the lab every day, and so I finally just finished. My humanities friends were given too much independence and simply never finished.

JLK said:

Sometimes I feel like if I can just get through the hellish process of admissions decisions, there is nothing that grad school can throw at me that I haven't been through already. After working in an unsatisfying career path for the last 6 years, I feel like getting paid (albeit meagerly) to learn about and do something I love will be a breath of fresh air.

JLK, if you think the admissions process is hellish, then you really don't know what grad school can throw at you! It of course depends on what program you enter into--it varies a LOT I'm sure--but your comment suggests you have a naive understanding of it. The first year or so, yes, you are learning and doing what you love. But after that, the molasses starts congealing, it starts getting tedious, the little frustrations start adding up, progress slows... OK, not always, but if you feel taking the GRE, banging out a statement of purpose and sending in a form and a few letters of rec. is "hellish"... Just be warned. Talk to real grad students *in your discipline*. I've known people who have had "hellish" times in jewish studies, philosophy, women's studies, biology, anthropology, so it is is an equal opportunity hellmaker.

JLK, sorry, re-reading it, you said "process of admissions *decisions*". Not really sure what that means--deciding on what school to attend? In any case, nothing prior to grad school but relating to grad school is at all "hellish", if that gives you some calibration.

My humanities friends were given too much independence and simply never finished.

I agree that most people who leave to take a break don't come back, and that seems to be the case in every field, though theoretically coming back should be easier in a non-science field where funding is not always so research-grant-based.

But THAT quote is very different. Taking a leave of absence for mental health is not the same as having too much independence. The range of how much independence a student has goes from none to too much in any discipline, and from what I've observed, that has nothing to do with how successful the student is. It can have a LOT to do with how happy they are, though.

volcanista (cool name), I guess what I meant is that, for many people, when you don't HAVE to write the dissertation by a deadline, you don't. And for my friends, the deadline kept being pushed back, at their requests, by their advisors or committees or schools. For me, it was clear it was work or leave with about a week's latitude, if that.

Interesting (if worrying!) post. I definitely went through a bit of depression early on in my graduate career - I finally realized that no matter how hard I tried, I would never be happy as one of those people who just works 24-7. Once I redeveloped my life outside of the lab (luckily I have a very understanding adviser), I was a lot happier. Even though it will probably take me longer to graduate.

Someone has already addressed JustaTech's question about location contributing to depression, but I wanted to add my thoughts. I'm a grad student at one of the cold places you mentioned, but I've spent a fair amount of time as a visiting student in a lab in California. I've actually observed the opposite of what you suggest, and I think that departmental culture has a huge amount to do with it. I'm mentoring a few undergrads who are going through the grad school decision process, and I've tried to emphasize to them how important happiness is in making a decision. For most people, the schools they apply to are all relatively equal in terms of academic merit. But the happier you are, the more likely you are to finish (and the fewer emotional scars you'll have). That was how I made my decision, and in retrospect it was the best thing I possibly could have done.

Whew - sorry for being so long-winded! :)

@JustaTech: first of all, based on the locations you list I suspect we might actually be in the same subfield :P At any rate, I think I can say that environment IS an important factor, but environment is more than just location. I spent two years of grad school in Tropical Paradise grad school; in general the students there WERE pretty happy and where they lived was a part of it, but for me Paradise was thousands of miles from all my close friends, partner, and the environments and activities I turned to to de-stress. Now I'm in Cold Northern Hell for grad school; I really miss being able to enjoy the outdoors year-round and haven't worn sandals in months, but my partner, friends, and family are here, so it's the winner. For now.

In short, I think it's important to consider ALL aspects of an environment, in particular the non-departmental environment - it's what you'll be escaping to when your dissertation/adviser/department drives you crazy. Does it readily offer you recreational activities, a culture that appeals to you, the company of like-minded people, and the companionship and support system you want? Having all of those things available to you is critical when fighting potential grad-induced depression. As Zuska says, when things get tough, sometimes what you really need is a break - this might be a several-month-long hiatus, but it can also be a short as a weekend off hanging around town...if town is a place you like to be.

That said, I am baffled at how blindly accepting people are of academia's tendency to shunt people from random location to random location with little to no choice in where they wind up living their lives. I hear "oh, well you KNOW that in academia you forfeit any choice in where you'll live some day. That's just the way it is." That attitude smacks of old (or not-so-old!) statements like "oh, well you KNOW that in academia women won't have time for a tenure-track job and a family. Nope, no use trying to change it, just the way it is!", and I think it's backward and narrow-minded. If I hadn't been REALLY lucky and able to move to a choice location during my degree program, I damn sure would still be depressed right now! I wish more attention was paid to this issue, since it affects all academics and, I suspect, women in particular (long-distance academic marriages, anyone? TELL me this doesn't contribute to depression in young academics!) Zuska? I'm a relatively new and enthusiastic reader - has this issue been covered before here by feminist/academic bloggers?

In retrospect, I think so much of the graduate school decision gets attached to the research and not to the community. If you wind up doing things that you're uber-qualified to do when you want through the door, then I would contend that you're not in graduate school. Graduate school is a place to learn new methodologies, new subdisciplines, new professional expectations, and so forth. I found it to be much more important to find an advisor I could work with, not just an advisor I could work for. The difference between prepositions cannot be understated. I have been in graduate school in two markedly different environments and have worked in an array of settings. Without a doubt, my current graduate school environment represents the best working environment I have ever had. One of the markers of this community is that a bulk of the faculty work with their graduate students (and I'm not just talking about being accommodating, I'm speaking of true mutual respect and collegiality). Graduate students can influence decisions over what grants to apply for, what should be in the proposal, and how it relates to their research. Moreover graduate students can and are encouraged to move outside of the department for resources and network heavily within the department for mentoring. It's a very different sort of graduate school environment.

I did my PhD in a humanities field in the UK, so that may well mean that my experiences are not identical to those of other commentators. However, I would agree with a number of points. Some are the obvious:

1) Doctoral research is hard

2) The researcher can be very much on their own a lot of the time since their research is supposed to be original and theirs, not their supervisor's. By definition, you're supposed to be breaking new ground and that can be a lonely place to be.

I can see how that can be stressful and can contribute to conditions like depression. My experience is that even those students not suffering from clinical depression had moments of wondering why they decided this was a good idea and feeling like they would never complete the thesis. If other issues such as a loss in the family, money worries or other concerns added to the pressure, it's even worse.

I did manage to complete on schedule, but I would put as much credit for that with the great department I was working in and how supportive everyone was as to my own hard work. That support was hugely important to me. I would encourage anyone who wanted to attend grad school to look at not just the programmes being offered but also the atmosphere in the department, the personality of the supervisor and so on. Some great academics are lousy supervisors, so the big name isn't everything.

By archaeozoo (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

Puck, you raise a good issue, and frankly the lack of choice about where to live was another one of the reasons I left academia when I was a postdoc. I simply did not want to move to any of the places where it looked like I'd have to go to get on the tenure track. (there were ten thousand other reasons, too, but that sure didn't help.) Working in industry was much more forgiving, in terms of having some choice over where one wants to live and having some reasonable hope of finding a job there.

I have to admit that I find it difficult to imagine how things could be different in academia, given the whole issue of tenure. And I am not in favor of abolishing tenure. I think the steady erosion of tenure we've seen over the past ten to twenty years as the number of adjunct faculty has increased, has not been a good thing for women. The net result is that women are disproportionately concentrated in the poorly paid, insecure adjunct ranks.

This, of course, is a topic for a whole other discussion...

What an interesting article. I was definitely depressed during grad school, but even more depressed when it turned out my funding ran out and I wouldn't be able to finish my degree.

Thanks to volcanista for pointing me to this great discussion. JustaTech, I lived in the Pacific Northwest for 5 years (and two of those were for grad school), and I loved the culture but had a hard time with the weather (and with allergies, actually!). Do you have a history of seasonal depression? If so, that might be something to consider in choosing where you go; I was very surprised by how much having 8 straight months of gray skies affected me, even though I had always had mild SAD symptoms before. (FYI, there is treatment for SAD symptoms, including light therapy and antidepressants.)

I'm currently a grad student in humanities in the Midwest, and I feel extraordinarily lucky in that my department has been very helpful when I have needed some flexibility this year due to a family health crisis. I'm in treatment for clinical anxiety and depression at the moment, and if my department had put more obstacles in my way I think I would have dropped out by now. I wonder, though, if the powers that be see my situation as more "justified" because it's related to a known family situation, rather than mental health issues brought on by grad school itself. I'm pretty sure grad school would wear me down anyway, but it's certainly gotten much more severe since my non-grad-school life has started sucking. But as Zuska suggests, I don't have the pressure of grant money running out or my project being scooped if I take some extra time.

An interviewer at a graduate school asked me about that kind of thing recently (he used the phrase "intestinal fortitude") and basically wanted to know if I could handle depression and cyclical failures in the lab. I gave him the whole "I'm prepared... have coping mechanisms... blah blah" but all I could think was "gee, then grad school will be just like my entire childhood!" (Nervous breakdown in 3rd grade followed by continuous undiagnosed and untreated depression/anxiety until the middle of high school... I feel like a *real* scientist already! :p)

Regarding the weather thing, I can't stress enough the awesomeness that is full-spectrum lighting (especially in the Pacific NW!). I got a full-spectrum lamp when I went to college and I can always very clearly feel the difference between a day when I've been around my lamp and when I haven't. I know another student whose entire lab has full-spectrum lighting, in fact (people from all the other labs come bask by the door occasionally, apparently) and that kind of setup might be something to aim for for any SAD people like me out there. ^^

mc, when you're dealing with a 2-body problem admissions decisions can be quite hellish. Trying to determine how you and your partner feel about long distance marriage and how long you can handle it, how to weigh the pros and cons of each program, and how to balance the benefits to the individuals versus the marriage is taxing on even a strong marriage.

I'm in my second year of my PhD program. I got my B.A. in Psychology with a Spanish minor and am trying to get my PhD in Microbiology. To say the least, it has been a nightmare. My university is in another town (like 6hr drive away) from my laboratory. I spent my 1st year at the university doing all of my courswork and I worked day and night to study. At the end of it, I took a 4 day exam and found out that I failed my graduate exam along with 50% (5 out of 10 of the students in my class). I was devastated. I have spent a year working on my thesis project and even published an article, but they still haven't decided what to do about the people who failed our graduate exam. I think that in basic science research you really have to accept the fact that 90% of the the time you are going to fail and fight for what little grant money is out there... that can be horribly depressing. This year, major equipment has failed, my father went through extensive back surgury over Christmas, and my graduate committee basically told me that I was a bad reflection (i.e. worthless) on their program even though I have a strong scholastic record and am one of the few 2nd year students with a publication. I'm trying to hang in there, but I HATE having to fight my way to the top especially when I think that the students I'm fighting against are backstabbers. I work at least 50-60 hours (days, nights, weekends, I sometimes sleep at work) a week and take classes. That leaves little time for sleep, friends, or a life in general. It is a cruel world out there. Getting into grad school was easy, but staying in and fighting might not be worth the effort...

I am in grad school and I am very depressed. I am a few years older than most of the others in the program and my first semester back full time (15 credit hours) was very overwhelming. I had a lackluster semester in the fall and struggled to bring my overall GPA up with the spring semester. I did accomplish that yet I was still systematically dismissed for a year and I just turned in my appeal letter. I am merely a tenth of a point away from a 3.0 and I thought that at least showing a vast improvement would be enough to prove by the end of this fall semester I will continue to bring my GPA up. I find looking into other programs as bombardment of information. I just don't know what the future holds and I am feeling very insecure about my intellect, self-worth, and even the hard work I put in, I feel I am just not good enough. I went back to school to improve my lot in life but it seems unless you are a trust fund baby you will always be regulated to menial office jobs that do not mean anything. I wanted sincerely to help people but in the atmosphere of pretension and elitism, the purpose of SLP is completely lost with what we are supposed to be learning and that is patience, earnestness, and compassion. Research is only a small factor, helping people should be a different set of standards and procedure. Quitting at this point or going into something more uplifting is tempting.

Patience. I have been surprised to discover that much of the past year or more of grad-school-based depression has been only partly based on debugging computer code. Coming to terms with who I am has been the bulk of the journey. Who you are is not dictated by your adviser, your degree, or your ability to jump through hoops. That journey has been facilitated by actively seeking to help others either in their personal lives or in their own interests. The more I see the 'top' of my field, the more I see what really matters: loved ones, friends, road trips, what have you... Make those things the priority and put grad school a close second. And then a healthy dose of patience and consistent (not overbearing) work. Doing what Mom advises is also critical.

The hardest part of the journey is that, for now, there are few safe places in the mind. There is no happy valley to retreat to. The happy valleys turn hellish and the hell can last for days and weeks and months and more. If you are lucky enough to have understanding and patient faculty, you should stick with it. If those are not available, keep in mind the reason you started in the first place. Your primary surprise might be realizing that you never 'hated' the research in the first place.

Patience will get you through the healing process. The brain does heal. You will find that your intellect has remained intact. Memory capacity and all. Now that I'm consistently out of the anxiety, depression, and tears, I wonder if the final year of my PhD will be enough to answer all the questions research will bring up...

i'm a 6th year grad student working for a famous scientist. none of my research projects have panned out and i'm on my last backup (which also looks like it's not going to pan out). My program only permits ph.d. students to be around for 6.5 years at most, so i'm looking at the end of the tunnel and not seeing any light. right now i'm looking for an airduct to the surface. for the past month i've exhibited all the classic symptoms of depression: lethargy, sleeplessness, bouts of crying, lack of motivation, apathy, sadness, frustration, and perhaps most importantly withdrawal.
I don't see myself finishing. me getting my degree is dependent on one person my boss. she's manipulated my thesis committee and has tried to make it seem like she's the only one i can count on to help me graduate. yet everytime i meet with her she undermines my self-confidence. her generally dismal outlook on things (despite being so successful in her profession) has led me to give up hope. what started out as being a great fit for me has turned into hell thanks to mismanagement, personal injuries (not self-inflicted), bad luck, and now depression.
the counselors at my university are worthless. after my initial visit during which i explained in detail my (perception of my) situation in over 1 hour, he just said to me "i have nothing to say. that really sucks."
in the social sciences or humanities, i could probably just switch my advisor, do some work, and write up. but in the "hard" sciences, i'm a near-end ph.d. student without a thesis working for someone who demands a level of excellence that, at this point of my career, i think i'm incapable of having. it's sad, but what really kills me is that i know that i can think scientifically better than others whose experiments are working and who are in much better position to get their degree. so i'm trying to stick it out. alas, i can't work more than 4 hours these days...which is insufficient for me to make progress. *sigh* thanks for writing about this. hopefully i don't cry at my lab bench today.

WW, please please try a different counselor. You may have just had extraordinarily bad luck with your first one. Try a different one till you find one you can work with.

Have you considered talking to your department head about what options you have if your situation with your current adviser is not going to work out?

Does your university have some sort of career center? Have you considered careers outside of academia? Can you think about talking to someone about how to identify what marketable skills you have, and what kinds of jobs you might look for outside of academia even if you don't finish your PhD? Explore your options, you are not really at a complete dead end even though it seems that way. I know people who have spent years in graduate school and left without degrees to go on to pursue really fulfilling jobs and careers outside academia, so it's worth thinking about.

Good luck to you. Post back here and let me know if you have been able to follow through with any of these ideas and if any of it has been helpful.

zuska, i saw him again today and it seemed better. i'm leaning towards taking a leave of absence. the head of graduate affairs is also my boss so i'd have to go all the way to the dept chair which would get messy. at the moment i don't see any way but to be honest with my boss about my depression and ask for help while leaving out some of the causes of my feelings of hopelessness. i don't feel like i'm ready for a "serious" job with significant pressures in the state i'm in. a friend recommended bartending to me but i don't think people like to hire inexperienced bartenders.

I'm a first year grad student in the humanities and I'm hating the situation. I feel like the problem is me and not the program. Prior to entering the program I was working in the public sector, constantly interacting with all kinds of people and I found the work very gratifying. My pay wasn't incredible but I never felt like I didn't want to be there. I felt like I was making a difference in people's lives before grad school. I haven't worked on a lot of research yet but just the idea of a conference gives me anxiety. I want to talk to my advisor and let he/she know that I'm not happy but I feel so irresponsible. I'm angry at myself for not realizing that the job I once had made me happy and that I probably should not have entered the program. I know it's quitting but if you've found something else that you like doing is it justified?

Dear all,
Incredible postings. I wish I had found these while I was experiencing graduate school. I will say that since I graduated last December my feelings of being lost and not-knowing-what-the-heck-i-was-doing for the past two years has increased. My whole value structure has shifted. Used to envision myself at conferences, contributing to new "critical" theory, and also working with the community. However, during graduate school, I was consistently told that it was best to start working beyond the ivory tower AFTER tenure. I rarely received constructive criticism for my work. And furthermore, I felt rather unsupported as a female/student of color student which added another element.

Saddest of all: It has taken me almost a year to be able to write creatively as I used to prior to graduate school.

I was readhing these wonderful posts because I am watching my partner (a PhD student) go through the process. I have flashboacks of myself overachieving and not knowing when to "break and have fun" and feeling impossible to do so.

And I am seriously wondering if it is possible to be a graduate student and balanced.

All of the solutions ("manage time", "destress" etc) are wonderful. As a meditation facilitator I am all for them! (I will be doing meditations with students for sure after this post!!!)

But these also act as if it is the student's responsibility alone. Graduate school as a system is unhealthy. Working with personal solutions is fine. Pushing for a more holistic approach to learning would require a real paradigm shift that says, "Hey you're not just a student machine. Your a person who requires time to grow in supportive ways." Maybe we can all collectively keep this vision.

Thanks for sharing all.

By soulflower (not verified) on 20 Nov 2009 #permalink

I'm a fifth-year PhD in English, and I'm considering taking a break. I'm never sure what to say about people who say that taking a break is just a euphemism for quitting. I took a break at my rigorous undergraduate school, and went back after a year - just like I knew I would. I feel the same way now - burned out, seriously depressed and hopeless, unable to find balance, unable to work... but still completely in love with my dissertation and happy with my adviser and department. I think there's a big difference between taking a break to figure out whether or not one wants to finish, and taking a break to get mentally healthy enough to do the work that one really likes.

By sarahcbagley (not verified) on 27 Nov 2009 #permalink

Hi all,

I'm delaying my graduate studies for a year, mainly so I can perhaps find the kind of supportive adviser I need. Any advice for probing the emotional environment of a graduate program before applying? Thanks.

Grad School is depressing. I am a grad student at MIT, and let me assure you, most people I know are either currently depressed, or have been depressed at some point. I am not the same person I was. My confidence is down, and I am more dysfunctional than I ever imagined myself to be.

The main problems here I think are isolation (lack of a support system), shaky work-life balance if any, and confusion about the future and about what matters in life and about oneself. The values in this place are just different from outside. Science and good research are what life is for, and are the measures of success and worthiness. Happiness is not mentioned. Family and relationships are not mentioned. Money and Economic welfare is not important..... Everyone is qualified and busy and trying. And everyone gets frustrated, and most people keep it to themselves, and "hide". They know the program is long, their funding is not forgranted, and the next step is hazy. You seem to be going nowhere, your passion is gone, but ur too invested to leave, and you somehow can't finish, and you're stuck in this situation, and you r alone (hiding your shame). Your family or people outside school find it hard to understand your situation. People inside school expect you to toughen up and love your research and give it your all and be brilliant.

My advice to anyone considering grad school or in grad school. Be proactive and be open (share with others, don't get isolated). Easier said than done, but I think my mistakes were isolation and just giving into the situation and just going with its downward flow. ANDDDD, there IS life outside grad school. And you don't have to do academia to be worthy. There are jobs that pay triple what u make in grad school for half of the frustration, it is not the end of life. It is not a declaration of failure to leave, it is a declaration that you are not down with this BS lifestyle and value system.

I left my doctoral program a year ago and have no regrets about the decision. In hindsight, I did make a number of bad decisions about doctoral study, though. I put myself into a tremendous amount of debt--I don't know if I'll ever be out from under it--because I wanted that degree so badly. I never should've mortgaged my future that way. The person I wanted to study with informed me that he was leaving at the end of my first year, and I stayed in the program anyway. BIG mistake, since he was the only one in the area in which I wanted to study. But, I naively thought I could make the situation work anyway. I should have been more realistic than that. By that point, depressed tendencies that I likely had since college (or maybe even high school) came to a head--I sat at my desk and cried (not for the first time!), I was so mentally and emotionally saturated and exhausted, and I knew I had to seek help. In my case, I had access to an open-minded and sensible doctor through the student health center who eased me onto anti-depressants, but only after I was screened by a psychologist (also through the health center). With their support, my mind quieted, my energy returned...and after sticking it out for one more semester, I decided that I could still be a good person and a contributing member of society without a doctorate. It's a shame in a way--I really loved the area I wanted to study, and, if a different path had been available, a career in academia could've been a great fit for me. But, I feel much, much gratitude that I saw my reality for what it was and opted for a healthy life outside of the ivory tower rather than insisting on the exhausting, painful mess I had.

It's sad to read your posts. It is a relief, however, to know that I am not alone. Clearly much of what we experiencein graduate school is a result of having to fight to hold on to goals, values and personhood in an academic culture which is largely antagonistic to these. And grieving for parts of ourselves we feel we have lost in the process. What helps me is to stand back and place the degree into the larger picture of what matters to me, to what I want to be in this life--for myself, my daughter, my family, communities,-- what I want to do. At this point in my life, it is an significant but small step... When I consider those people I most admire and appreciate, academic degrees--many don't have them--but for those that do, these simply provided them with opportunities to do creative, exciting work that made a difference in their lives and those of others.

I am also in grad school and also depressed, I am currently on break and am still extremely depressed. I think it is partly due to the fact that I was eating extremely badly (serious lack of vitamin B), by the time my first semester was over the blood was completely drained from my cheeks. I am in a masters program - I had serious problem seeing eye to eye with my main instructor, and was basically the black sheep of the class. The teacher expected us to dedicate our entire lives to his whimiscal assignments, most of which were so long they were impossible to complete. Most people ignored the request for miracles, did the work as well as possible, and handed it in - I had crying fits and fits of depression over not being able to finish my work. Finally, I realized that noone can live up to impossible standards.

Next semester, I'm going to have to go on anti-depressants, get more exercise, and somehow improve my GPA, all things which seem quai-impossible given my recent failure. I really am not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and am hoping that I will make it given spiritual guidance that I will seek OUTSIDE the school, because people inside the school seem to be absolutely batshit nuts.

I am indeed still well into the mess that is academia and I fucking hate it. I am a third year in a chem. grad program and I've probably hit the wall. I work on a machine that doesn't work for shit. I get told to do stuff I lack the mental ability to understand. I can barely do math and also I hardly remember any of the papers that I read to try and understand why the machine I work on is such a lump of shit. My advisor had no idea how stupid I really am.
In the end, I can only basically stand graduate school because it pays the bills and I don't have to go home to live with my parents.

I'm glad to know I'm not alone! I'm in my second year of Physical Therapy school and became incredibly depressed. There were several times people specifically forced me to get help, I was so depressed suicide was always on my mind. A lot of that came from things outside of the program like being away from my boyfriend, family and friends, being on my own for the first time and not fitting into any cliques. I've had to see a few different therapists, but I'm doing better now, still hard at times though. The faculty were moderately supportive, but I feel like they think I'm crazy and incompetent.

Interesting article (and comments). I am in my second year at a PhD program in the Northeast. I have lived with Bipolar Disorder (genetic) for most of my life. I feel lucky to be where I am today in my life. I feel as though it is not the work load that necessarily impacts me, but rather the loneliness and isolation from all things I remember about my life before Graduate School. Those aspects of myself seem so distant and only seem to become more so as I move forward through this program.

I feel that the support my program has given me is two sided. My first term I suffered much tragedy and had the so called 'voice of support'. This relief, as sincere as it may have been at the time, has dissipated as time has gone on. This verbal support was not necessarily met with action (at least in my eyes) as my end of the year evaluation purely reflected my first term performance and seemed to totally negate my positive changes during the second term (very positive might I add). It's almost as though that period of my life has stained my reputation/competence/potential permanently in the eyes of others. This stain seems like a device that drives me on a downward spiral. Since than, it is kind of like this very slow but uphill battle to win what shreds of respect I may have left from certain people (both student's and faculty) in this program.

I often feel out of place with other student's and cannot connect with anyone on a social level. This is strange to me as I have always been extroverted/friendly with those that I have known throughout my life. I am often not invited to social gatherings/functions with the exception of a few students. Sometimes I feel as though they invite me, when they do, for pity. I do not always feel comfortable inviting myself as I may be perceived as a burden. The fact that Graduate School has taken over my life has also led to a distance between myself and my friends that are not in Graduate School as it is, "all I talk about". Coincidentally, it also seems to be all I do. Almost seems like a no win situation.

I think the only reason I have survived to this day is primarily because of two individuals I can think of. For those struggling, I suggest reaching out to one or two individuals you can open up to. These two individuals may be the only reason I am still in Graduate School. Ultimately, I try to look at the have's rather than the have not's. I always try to remind myself that for today (even for this moment) I am alive.

I apologize for those who have read this long post that it does not apply to. I just figured it would be nice for some individual's reading this to know they are not alone. After reading some of your posts I feel the same way.

I was sort of an oddity in grad school - I wasn't depressed. My husband was, my friends all were, and actually, my advisors all were - getting out of graduate school didn't seem to relieve the depression for much of the faculty at the several institutions I worked or studied at. I wonder what the figures are for faculty depression?

Ultimately, I quit - I quit on the down side of my dissertation, no one could figure out why I didn't just write the damned thing. And I quit in large part because I finally looked up at the people around me, and the encompassing lifestyle I was about to enter into and realized that almost no one seemed happy. Certainly, the post-docs and the junior faculty weren't noticeably happier. They were struggling with life balance issues and lack of time and entering into their second decade of chronic exhaustion. Yes, it was intellectually stimulating, heady, fascinating - but misery was a really big component at almost every step along the process.

I'm just not convinced it is just grad school - I think the academic lifestyle - and the fact that it isn't just a job, but a whole way of life, has a heady dose of depression that inevitably goes with it. I wish I had an answer - obviously, everyone can't and shouldn't walk out like I did - but I think that if there's a solution, it will have to begin with making academia less of a lifestyle and more of a job.


Hmmm...for some reason this came up when I clicked on "latest posts" - I just noticed it is a year old.


Thank you all so much for your posts. This was definitely what I needed today!

Academia is such a ridiculous world of meaningless shit and mental masturbation...I am in my second semester of coursework for my master's degree and do not think it is possible to be any more hopeless! I feel like the last year has been an utter retrogression from the excitement and intrigue and sense of adventure at the end of my undergrad - to being 15 years old with explosive emotions. My self esteem is getting so low, and coupled with the great experience of being almost 25 (not being ANYWHERE close to where I had envisioned), I am worried about recovering to some state of normality after I'm done. Ugh.

The only thing that gets me through is nightly doses of Hearing about other people's misery seem to make me feel better temporarily.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 01 Mar 2010 #permalink

The comments above have been somewhat therapeutic, I know that does sound gruesome.

I've held a passion for anthropology since high school. After undergrad, I moved to SE Asia to, among several other reasons, live/work and hopefully become "inspired" for grad school research ideas.

I'm into a year in grad school, I'm completely miserable, missing my job/life I had in Asia, feeling like, as people have said above, what I'm learning is pure mental masturbation, and merely one perspective - not the all-encompassing subject I once thought anthropology to be. I thought anth academics had all the answers, although it's merely seeming like - as with other forms of knowledge, hierarchies, etc - it's something that exists merely to preserve itself and a certain class who "drink the kool-aid" and prosper.

I too have oddly found these comments somewhat therapeutic- it's good to know that I am not alone in feeling depressed in graduate school. I'm finishing up my first year of a science PhD program, and although I'm in a great program with a very nice and understanding advisor and living close to my family and friends, I've still been feeling pretty lethargic/hopeless/unmotivated lately.

I'm still debating whether or not I really want to stick it out for 4+ more years. I know some previous commentors said they eventually felt happier after graduating and moving this often the case? Did those of you who felt happy post-graduation stay in academia, or end up in alternative careers?

lpp, grad students and postdocs really don't have much of a choice about moving on. Once you're done, you're done. It's harder and harder to pick up and move, one more freakin time, each time for yet more "training" or for a tenure-track gig where you are on probation for years until tenure. My graduate studies and postdocing have been a mixed bag, there were awful "advisors", awful places, and fantastic advisors and great places. You don't really know if you'll be happy working with people at a new place until you're there. Moving from an awful place doesn't mean the next one will be better. I definitely went from sucky to sucky for my postdocs. Leaving people behind for each transition was the worst part of the academic "lifestyle" because I had to keep building new support systems and essentially starting over to learn new skills and build new networks. Isolation is one of the main reasons why women leave/get pushed out of science and academia, and it doesn't get any better for most. It's not at all that women can't hack the research. The university system was set up for men who have movable support systems (stay at home wives) and there were no postdoc stints. All the monkey business really does suck the life out of you, either sooner or later. Most people do not make it to the tenure track, so "alternative careers" really are the majority of graduates.

I'm finishing my third year of grad school in chemistry in Michigan. My depression has been building over the last few years and its as bad as it has ever been now. I live 3.5 hours away from my husband who I have not lived in the same town with the last four years. Progress on my project is marginal. I'm on two different antidepressants and am seeing a therapist, but it is getting so hard to work. I think that I want to die multiple times a day. I feel worthless all the time. I have talked to some of my lab-mates before about feeling depressed and some of them tell me to "find a hobby" or "be thankful you are not in Haiti." Thank god my advisor is good and understanding. I will stop my bitching now and get my ass out of my chair so I can isolate my products, clean up, go home, and force myself to run before I go to bed (which there is a very good chance that I will spend half the night not sleeping well).

I just finished my Masters and am now looking at doctoral programs for fall 2011. This past year has been so hard for me. Sometimes my depression was so bad it was hard to get out of bed. I started self medicating with alcohol...and I was not the only one. A regular conversation with my roommate (fellow grad) was about how much work we had and how lifed sucksed and hey, when you go to the store can you pick me up some booze? I agree with the other poster about the unhealthy lifestyle of grad students. Almost eveyone I know drinks a great deal, most of them smoke and a fair amount use illegal substances. 3 of my friends have tried to commit suicide in grad school.

I can say, with certainty, that I was depressed pretty much constantly for the past two years. As a grad student you are broke, busy as heck with your work and your assistantship responsibilities, have terrible health care coverage, are in a dog eat dog environment. Sometimes it just seems TOO much. I was walking in CVS the other day and I thought, you know, I'd love to just be a cashier. So I am taking a year off and I may just say no way to a PhD program. All I want right now is to be happy.