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

Alia Wong:

Ph.D. candidates suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at astonishingly high rates.

“I was always gung ho about going to graduate school for some reason,” reflects Everet Rummel, a data analyst at the City University of New York. “That was naive.”

Rummel was indeed gung ho, embarking on a doctoral program in economics immediately after completing both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in just four years. He was only 22 years old. And Rummel was indeed naive, at least in his own telling of his plans for a two-year doctoral degree. That plan—which for the average doctoral candidate takes roughly eight years—ended quickly, not because of Rummel’s characteristic efficiency but because he never completed it. “I dropped out,” he explains, attributing the decision to a lot of different factors, many of them not directly related to his studies, but each pointing back to the all-encompassing, unforgiving stress of his Ph.D. program.

One major stressor, he says, was the requirement that all first-year Ph.D. economics students take the same three courses. But other major stressors are likely to resonate with graduate students in all kinds of disciplines. The doctoral-degree experience often consists of intense labor expectations for little pay and a resulting lack of sleep and social life. In addition, there is the notorious hierarchy of academia, which often promotes power struggles and tribalism.