Graduate School and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?

The stress of graduate school may put some students at risk.

Posted Nov 26, 2015

Few people go to graduate school thinking it will be a walk in the park. But many find that it involves a lot more stress than they bargained for.

Earlier this year, the University of California, Berkeley, released a Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report. They found that 47 percent of doctoral students and 37 percent of master’s students surveyed met the clinical criteria for depression based on their responses to a widely-used depressive symptoms inventory. Arts and Humanities students were most vulnerable, with 64 percent meeting the criteria, while Business students reported the lowest levels.

Other studies have raised similar concerns. In a 2009 American Psychological Association survey, 87 percent of psychology graduate students reported symptoms of anxiety, 68 percent reported symptoms of depression, and 19 percent reported suicidal thoughts. These rates are well above national averages.

It’s certainly possible that students with existing mental health problems are more likely to attend graduate school. But whether experiences in graduate school are causing, exacerbating, or simply coinciding with these problems, it’s worth investigating the sources of students’ stress and finding ways to address it.

According to graduate students’ reports, here are some of the factors that can take a toll:

1. Uncertain career prospects. The Berkeley survey found that career prospects was the biggest predictor of student well-being. Charts like these, demonstrating a bleak job outlook for Ph.D. students after graduation, tend not to inspire hope and optimism. Nor does the experience of seeing more advanced, highly qualified fellow students struggle to find employment.

2. Isolation. Long hours spent on solitary work can be tough on anyone, but it can be especially difficult for students who feel disconnected and alone in a broader sense. As one student in the Berkeley survey put it, “I enjoy my work a lot. A lot of my stress comes from loneliness.” When students don’t feel a sense of belonging within the academic community—particularly with fellow students and faculty advisors—their mental health and academic work may suffer. Furthermore, many students struggle with imposter syndrome, the fear that their acceptance to graduate school was somehow a mistake and they don’t really deserve to be there.

3. Financial difficulties. Another source of stress for many graduate students is financial. In the Berkeley survey, around 43 percent of students disagreed with the statement "I'm confident about my financial situation," citing the high cost of living relative to stipends and other funding sources. A significant minority of students report needing to take out loans to make ends meet, which can make the pressure to find a job all the more severe.

4. Chronic failure. In academia, failure is common and inevitable—experiments fail, manuscripts are rejected, and grants are not funded—and these repeated disappointments can wear on even the most resilient students. Someone may spend years working on a study, only to find that the data is unpublishable or their findings have been “scooped” (similar findings published by someone else). Chronic failure can be tough to adjust to, especially for students who were used to getting good grades in college as long as they worked hard. In graduate school, the relationship between hard work and success tends to be more complicated. But we do know that the way people respond to failure is a major determinant of success.

5. Poor work-life balance. When you love your work, 60+ hours per week may not feel too bad, but some students are expected to put in far more than that, leaving little time for sleep, exercise, and taking care of physical health. In the Berkeley survey, students got an average of 6.6 hours of sleep per night, and around 43 percent disagreed with the statement "Over the past week, I’ve been able to get enough sleep at night to feel fully alert and well-rested during the day." Furthermore, almost half reported that they had been "sick or ill" that semester.

How can we address these problems?

For one, students should be informed about their career prospects before they make a decision to attend graduate school. Many students begin grad school believing that they are on a path to a tenure-track academic position at a research university, but the reality is that only a small fraction of Ph.D. students obtain these positions. This is not a reason to forego graduate study—there are plenty of other career paths available, within and outside of academia—but students should not enter the field blindly, only to become disillusioned later on.

Second, the importance of belonging shouldn’t be underestimated. Students who feel included in the academic community, supported by their advisors, and connected with their peers are typically less vulnerable to mental illness and less likely to drop out. The availability of mental health services is also essential, as is destigmatizing the use of these services. Graduate students need to feel comfortable seeking help if they are struggling, without fearing that this reveals weakness or suggests that they are not cut out for an academic career.

Finally, there seems to be an increasing awareness that work-life balance is not just a euphemism for laziness. Certainly there are some students who don’t take their work seriously, but many others go to the opposite extreme and push themselves to the brink. And sometimes a student who appears unmotivated is really just reacting to a feeling of being overwhelmed. Interventions aimed at encouraging these students to work harder may not get to the root of the problem.