Understanding the Mental Health Crisis among Graduate Students

A PhD Candidate shares her experiences and advocates for improvement

To sum it up briefly, the mental health of graduate students is terrible. This population is three times more likely to experience severe depression. Much of colleges’ messaging about counseling and mental health services is geared towards undergraduates. While of course this is also an important issue, many grad students fall through the cracks as a result. As a PhD candidate in history at a top tier research institution, I aim to share my experiences and those of others when it comes to the intersection of graduate school and mental health. As a whole, academia has been noting the severity of this problem for years, and yet it continues on. First, I am fortunate than many other graduate students. I have secure funding and receive health care from my university. Many other grad students, especially master’s degree students, are in a much worse financial situation. I also do not have any children or other family members to support. Lastly, I am a U.S. citizen; international students not only face uncertainty over their immigration status, but also challenges when it comes to racism and prejudices. I am also a straight, white, cisgender woman; unlike other marginalized communities, I do not have to live with the fact that people may/do treat me differently based on my identity. All of the mental health issues graduate students face are made even more complex, challenging, and/or severe for these persons.

For those not in graduate school, this career choice might seem not especially difficult. After talking to people about its challenges, I realized that they often see it as just an extension of undergrad. They think that yes it might be hard, but it’s still just taking classes. Except for med school, which is associated with years of study and lots of sleepless nights, many programs, especially in the humanities, are seen as normal college. However, just because someone is getting an advanced degree in English or anthropology does not mean that it’s easy or simple.

At the end of the day, regardless of discipline, graduate students live under an exploitative system. They depend on the university for everything: education, degrees, mentorship, stipends, funding, visas, and healthcare. Many graduate students receive tuition remission. Since we do not pay tuition, we have very little bargaining power; most of us depend on universities for basic life necessities. We need these institutions far more than they need us. There are plenty of intelligent, motivated students to take our place if we were to leave. While we provide vital services to universities, such as teaching, grading, and research, they do not truly value us as employees. The graduate students at my university attempted to unionize; in response, the university claimed that we performed absolutely no labor. Despite our hours of teaching and research assistance to professors, we did no work. We and the university are miles away from being on the same page. It should come as no surprise that the university routinely dismisses our constant requests for better health care, childcare, and funding. When there is a large group of people entirely dependent on an exploitative institution, terrible mental health for this group is the result. How can we expect students to thrive in an environment that denies the existence of their labor?

Most graduate students I know work far more than forty hours a week. With courses, research, teaching, writing, and grant applications, the to-do lists of graduate students are never ending. This means that graduate students are working extremely long hours for very little pay. PhD students’ stipends range from 13,000 to 34,000; even on the high side, this amount of money can mean scraping by. Working incredibly hard for very little money is stressful in its own right, not to mention the financial duress most graduate students live under. I have a stipend above the average and I work two extra jobs to make ends meet. I constantly worry about what would happen if I got seriously hurt or my car broke down. The anxiety I have experienced over finances in graduate school has made me feel like for the past five years a shadow is constantly hanging over me. Any time I spend money on something, I wonder about just how essential it is. My first thought when my brother told me that he was getting married several states away from me was not joy for him or excitement for the trip, but dread over how I was going to be able to afford to attend.

Academia as a whole still does not open itself up to conversations over mental health. While researching in archives in Italy for my dissertation, I started to experience major depressive symptoms. I wanted to come home and stop researching, but felt that if I told my advisor this, it would be seen as a cop-out, or as quitting. On two subsequent research trips, I spent another six months researching in Italy. This experience was incredibly lonely and isolating; I had no support system and was trying to come to grips with recent personal trauma. Even with the help of therapy and medication, I have never been more miserable than I was during that period. And I had no option but to continue on; could I switch dissertation topics to something that wouldn’t require me to research abroad? No, I was in too deep. Did my advisors ever check in on me? No. Did I feel like it was socially acceptable to share my difficulties with them? Again- absolutely not. Most graduate students I know personally are in some kind of therapy and struggle with some aspect of their mental health. And yet, no one in a position of power in our department breathes a word about this. We have seminars and workshops on a variety of topics, from conferences to dissertations, but have never held one about mental health. While of course it is not professors’ job to fix students’ mental health, as a whole, academic culture has a long way to go to when it comes to de-stigmatizing mental health and having open conversations.

I have learned how to advocate for myself and my needs when it comes to faculty and administration. It can be exhausting, however, to couch mental health struggles in eight layers of subtext. For example, I was supposed to return to Italy for a fourth research trip, but eventually refused, citing the large amount of records I had already collected and the additional ones available online. I wish I could have been honest and just said: for my own well-being, I refuse to go back.

As I enter the job market, I have experienced a whole different kind of stress. PhD students, in the humanities, particularly, are sold a promise by universities and academia: suffer for many years in graduate school, get a PhD, and you’ll be rewarded with a great job as a professor. While this may have been true in the 1960s, now this is nothing but a scam. With universities increasingly eliminating tenure track jobs and replacing them with adjunct positions (jobs that have very little security, pay, and benefits), the number of new PhDs every year vastly exceeds the number of available tenure track jobs.

While the question of how to solve this problem is complex, the solution of what to do for current PhDs is also a failure. We are trained for one very specific career path- academic- and lack preparation for any other field. As academics themselves, it is understandable why faculty are not very well equipped to help grad students prepare for non-academic careers. As a whole, it is still seen as a failure to go into alternative- academic or alt-ac careers. This lack of help and abundance of stigma when it comes to alt-ac jobs has made my job search, and many others’ searches, very difficult. I have applied for over 200 jobs in museums, nonprofits, university administration, high school teaching, and publishing houses. I have not gotten a single interview. I cannot even manage to get an interview for an unpaid internship. I have asked faculty for help and received some kind words, but very little practical help.

This process has been incredibly onerous, lonely, and stressful. Everyday I receive three to five job rejection of emails. I recount all of this not to lament my problems, but just to show how challenging the end of the PhD process is. At the end of a very difficult five to seven years, PhD students face a shrinking and incredibly competitive academic job market. They receive very little training on how to transfer their skills to alt-ac careers or how to pursue this avenue. Job searching is always hard, no matter the field. However, to that normal difficulty, add a lack of industry/professional experience, an absence of help from mentors, and a degree that people outside of academia do not necessarily understand or value. It is no wonder why this process takes a toll on graduate students’ mental health.

PhD students do amazing work: they are passionate about their research and teaching students. They are devoting years of their lives to help add to the sum of human knowledge. Yet, despite all of the benefits they provide to universities, these institutions do not respect them as the valid contributors that they are. As a result of financial stress and overwork, these students face great difficulties in their mental health, not to mention the stigma in academia over the subject and the rapidly dwindling job prospects. A PhD is not a fun few years of getting to read lots of books: it can be depression; it can be anxiety; it can be overwhelming stress. I hope I have highlighted in a real way the severity of PhD students’ situations. They deserve to have the institutions that they serve meet their basic human needs. Now that academia has recognized that the state of mental health among graduate students is in dire straights, let them start to work towards change. Improve mental services and student health insurance. Encourage open conversations about mental health. Help students embrace a variety of career paths. Please, treat PhD students as people.

References

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/12/about-three-quarters-all-faculty-positions-are-tenure-track-according-new-aaup

https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2020/09/pandemic-erodes-grad-student-mental-health-academics-sound-alarm

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/03/06/new-study-says-graduate-students-mental-health-crisis

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/26/graduate-student-assistants-campuses-across-us-are-pushing-15-hour-what-they-call

Historian, writer, and enthusiastic home-cook

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