Why Are Grad Students Depressed?

Why are graduate students so depressed? I was one of those depressed graduate students, and to me the answer is very clear. The depression is a reaction to a delayed life.

It’s very hard to lead a life of a child when you are nearing thirty. What it feels like when you are nearing forty and you are still in school, I don’t even want to imagine. Everybody else you know already has an adult life, a family, a job, a house. And you get grades and submit final essays*.

Every day I’d wake up and feel as if a huge iron lid were falling on my head. “I’m almost thirty, and I’m still preparing to live” was a thought that tortured me constantly. “When is life finally going to begin?”

Many people are not self-aware, so they don’t verbalize it to themselves. But “the syndrome of life delayed” gets to them. The suspicion that if they keep putting adulthood off they might lose all opportunities to be good at it is always there.

The additional problem is that many people go to grad school not because they passionately love academia but precisely because they don’t know how to be an adult and are trying to delay entrance into adulthood. I’ve seen people who come up with very exotic strategies to keep delaying until they are forty. The dissertation just won’t finish itself, so they “have” to stay in grad school for one more year.

This, however, can’t abolish the fact that there is a rhythm to a human life that, if broken, causes suffering. A child who’s prevented from learning to walk when he’s ready will be traumatized. A teenager who never gets to party and transgress grows up into a messed up adult. An elderly person who has to keep working like she did at 25 will be miserable.

There’s no solution to this problem, so this suffering will be an unavoidable rite of passage for grad students. As you all know, my grad school career culminated in a dissertation on women who self-infantilize because they dread the responsibilities of adulthood. I was instantly cured of my depression the moment I started to live an adult life. But for many people it’s not going to be as easy.

* Yes, there are folks – rare as they may be – who start families and adult responsibilities while in grad school. But they are not the ones who are depressed, so I’m not discussing them here.

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35 thoughts on “Why Are Grad Students Depressed?”

  1. This post really resonated with me, touching on several very personal and painful issues. I only wish to add another reason to “trying to delay entrance into adulthood.” I work, yet have not (yet?) reached the stage of truly achieving all my goals in the professional life, while studying is something I can excell in and love doing. Reading and attending lectures brings happiness, makes my life richer.

    Another crucial issue is that may be I am what Paul J. Griffiths called a dilettante or even less, yet I love discovering new things. In childhood I read a lot, now stopped almost completely unless it’s for university. When I read for fun, it’s realistic classical novels that are beautiful, but hardly reveal new things to me. Both issues “When is life finally going to begin?” and “Will my intellectual life end / some good part of me die with leaving academic environment?” are relevant. Both may be true and frightening some people away from (is that the phrase?) graduation.

    Also, academic environment lets one feel one achieved something by studying: starting from a mere grade and ending with publishing an article. Even a grade is some kind of assessment and reaffirmation that one truly achieved something, gained some knowledge and created some analysis of value, even if the value is not too high. When you are alone, outside academia, and being no real intellectual don’t publish, how do you know you are not wasting your time in banal, stupid and ignorant thoughts when you try to think? Moreover, even if you don’t, what is the value of thinking if one never moves to the next stage of creating? (You yourself once said that gathering experience and knowledge works till certain age and that afterwards one needs to start creating in order to live a good, not depressed life.)

    I do not know whether there is a solution.

    // A teenager who never gets to party and transgress grows up into a messed up adult.

    Not all teenagers want to transgress and some people are more introverted and don’t enjoy parties at any age.

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    1. “Not all teenagers want to transgress and some people are more introverted and don’t enjoy parties at any age.”

      • Wants don’t happen in a vacuum. And neither does introversion. You are describing symptoms as if they were the cause of anything.

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    2. “When you are alone, outside academia, and being no real intellectual don’t publish, how do you know you are not wasting your time in banal, stupid and ignorant thoughts when you try to think?”

      • By having a healthy self-esteem. 🙂 Take my sister. She didn’t like being an undergraduate student. Couldn’t wait to get out of college. Never considered going into academia. But she is a true intellectual of the kind that many academics would wish they could become. She reads more books per year than most of my colleagues. And I don’t mean trashy mysteries. I mean real books, idea-books. She is a public speaker, she is a mentor. She is invited to speak in the media on general intellectual issues of the day. She is starting a big public-space discussion of the value of the Humanities.

      And you know what? Of course, the pressure on her is enormous. She constantly hears “stop wasting your time on this crap, what kind of a mother leaves her kids to do something that doesn’t even pay, why do you do this if you don’t get paid for it, etc.” The guilt-tripping is out of this world. But as the article says, you are an intellectual because you don;t know how not to be.

      And there are many other examples. Look at Mike over at technology As Nature. The fellow never even went to college. But who’d be able to say he’s not an intellectual?

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    3. “Reading and attending lectures brings happiness, makes my life richer”

      • Hey, you don’t have to convince me. I agree. But it still was extremely hard to inhabit this delay of adulthood. I was suicidal, like for real. I once couldn’t leave the house for several days because all I could do was lie on the floor and cry. The additional problem is that I’m very good at adulthood. So it was not having access to something I knew I’d ace.

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  2. I wasn’t depressed in graduate school – it didn’t seem I was having to delay adulthood to be there. After I finished, though, I expected to get to be even more adult and discovered that as an assistant professor you didn’t get to be as adult. It’s professordom generally that doesn’t feel like adulthood to me, and I’ve always longed for a more grown-up work environment than academia is and for more autonomy than it allows.

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    1. I get what you’re saying. I practically hid myself throughout the tenure-track to avoid all this. Adulthood to me meant I can finally afford to go to a dentist, I can paint the walls the color I want, I don’t have to date anymore or go to parties.

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    2. I am a recently retired academic. I always loved the freedom to do what I wanted as a faculty member. I cannot imagine a work situation with more freedom, other than being a billionaire like Oprah, Elon Musk, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Freedom was something I expected but did not get. I expected (actually needed) to work with adults and to be part of a research culture at my HOME institution, not just when away from it. Many people are OK without these things and do OK working with infantile colleagues and without a library, etc., but I am not as strong as that.

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          1. Let’s not even start about the library. It’s a constant source of aggravation. Students try to find the books I mention in class at the library. And this is good, this is something I want to encourage. But nothing is ever there. Just to go , browse, pick up something exciting. But there’s nothing there. Makes me rabid.

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      1. Almost the first thing that happened me at my first job was that someone on the P&T committee told me it had been inappropriate and disloyal of me to go on Saturday to the library of the local R1. This did not seem at all like freedom to me.

        Also, the required parties started on the tenure track, we didn’t have them in graduate school.

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          1. That’s more like professordom. In graduate school I lived in a large metropolitan area and there was a lot to do, and also weather was good / nature was interesting so there were a lot of outdoor things to do as well. As a professor I’ve lived in some pretty Godforsaken towns with bad weather, and I definitely know what it is to get together with other displaced persons to decompress, laugh and also drink. In fact, that’s what I did last night!

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      2. ACTUALLY, I was discussing precisely this with a colleague from English yesterday. She said: “In our situation, freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” We’d like community, solidarity, collegiality, program, etc., but all we have is an empty building with a bad vibe in it and a lot of this neoliberal “freedom.”

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        1. By freedom I mean I choose when to work and how. Next semester, for instance, I have to be in the classroom twice a week for 50 mins. And that’s it. The rest of time is mine. I choose what time to teach and which days. I create my syllabi, my exams, everything. In research, the freedom is complete. If I choose to do no research and no service, there won’t be any administrative consequences. I’d get bored out of my mind but that’s it. I know of no other job that allows for this kind of freedom. It’s both good and bad because not everyone knows how to self-manage.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Right now, for instance, I decided I don’t like the format for the senior assignment that we are supposed to follow. So I’m redoing the whole thing. The syllabus is like 20 years old, it’s ridiculous. And I don’t even inform anybody. I let the chair know but as a conversational thing, and not to ask permission. All he had to say was, “make sure you put it in your yearly report and claim credit for it as a major pedagogical innovation.”

            This is what I call freedom.

            Once people tried to suggest I follow a standard syllabus for a language course. I scoffed and was left alone.

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          2. I have only had that kind of flexibility at R-1 institutions. One of the things that most surprised me at my first job, and also at this one for a long time (it is a bit different now) was the expectation that you be on campus in office / meeting M-F, 8-5.

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          3. I’ve also never had a job where there wouldn’t be heavy administrative consequences for doing no research and no service. At this place service is kind of optional (officially) – the most optional I have ever experienced, actually, since everything is so top-down and service is kind of pointless anyway, most of the time, but you’ve really got to do research.

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            1. It’s a weird situation. We have a sister school. Faculty there do 40% less teaching and get paid more. The rationale is that well, it’s because they do research. So now nobody can make us do research because the question immediately is, but why do we still have to teach more, then?

              We have the exact same number of students but they have twice the faculty. And get 65% of funding between the two of us.

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              1. I am jealous. Not envious, jealous. We are more and more controlled and hemmed in and our freedom restricted to when we do our un-compensated overtime/grading etc.

                Liked by 2 people

          4. Maybe it’s also the self-management that has people depressed. It seems to be what all the academic advice is about (where the answer to How does one formulate this type of letter? is a sharp Manage your time!). But college was also very self-managed and a very flexible schedule, so I don’t know why people who have that difficulty did not have difficulty then?

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            1. There were many people in my program who were taking 9, 10 years to do the PhD. That was one of the main reasons I quit the union. They were obsessed with turning it into a 10-year program. I tried explaining that there are people for whom staying in grad school for 10 years after the MA is untenable. I was told I wasn’t a true intellectual because a true intellectual takes the time to let the work mature.

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              1. It took me 7 years after the MA to do the PhD and that was because (a) there was so much required coursework – about 5 semesters worth, and then this extensive exam, so that was 4 years and (b) I took a year off to go on adventure in Brazil, so that was 5 — then 2 years of dissertation, and voilà. I started the PhD program at 23 and finished at 30, with a year off on adventure when I was 28. The year off was to decompress, our exams were very interesting but also very exhausting and people would get bogged down in the dissertation because they were just so tired.

                Perhaps they also just did not know how to manage a large project. It is hard for me to believe they could not manage a flexible schedule or themselves — not when they had done so for such a long time already. I also think it might be where the sick-of-being-a-student syndrome came in. A lot of people went and got fancy and highly lucrative jobs in business and another type — all men — became carpenters and got into artistic remodeling. These were the ones who seemed depressed; the ones who went and got Silicon Valley or other jobs in business were just wanting to get on with life, have kids buy houses, and not chase across the country to a mysterious assistant professorship God knew where.

                We were supposed to finish in 5 years (after the M.A.) but the only ones who did were classicists and medievalists, because the required courses (which were mostly in classics and medieval studies) served their specialties, and people who were working in their native language and had massive previous experience, like a B.A. and M.A. abroad with teaching experience and publications.

                It was said the program was too long but in those days costs were much lower and it was in a nice place, and people ended up mega-smart. What I’d have changed were the required courses, let everyone do them in their specialty, not have the program (it was Comp. Lit.) be Greek/Latin and European medieval for all with other specialties functioning as add-ons. I did notice, though, that it was hard to hire new assistant professors at that place because they tended not to have as much education as the graduate students they were going to teach, and that those of us who finished were over-prepared without knowing it. AND YET people now are yet more prepared, at least in terms of official presentations and publications and well articulated teaching statements. I don’t know if they are better educated but they are much more self-aware as educated.

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  3. Oh, ouch, yeah. This describes my current state pretty well, feeling perpetually delayed and out of step with whatever my peers, real or imagined, are doing. You don’t even need to be a graduate student to get there.

    What’s your opinion on postdocs? I’m not exactly fresh on the state of universities, but last I heard, the expected length of time spent ‘in study’ before finding a position has been increasing.

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    1. I would never do a postdoc in the Humanities and I do not recommend it to anybody. In the sciences it’s different, of course. In the Humanities, the only thing to accept between grad school and tenure-track is a Visiting Assistant Professor position. Anything else is a career-killer. Again, I’m only talking about the Humanities.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “Oh, ouch, yeah. This describes my current state pretty well, feeling perpetually delayed and out of step with whatever my peers, real or imagined, are doing.”

      • I’m very sorry. I know well enough how much this sucks. The good news, though: it is more than possible to catch up and get ahead. More than possible.

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  4. I wasn’t depressed in grad school and perhaps it’s because I returned at 30, after a few years of study abroad, temping/short-term jobs, and master’s coursework, and then four years of full-time work. Such a joy to return to the classroom at that point. Also my PhD was fully funded so I could get through in a reasonable amount of time. It didn’t feel like the life of a child.


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    1. Mine was extremely well funded, too. The best funding on the continent. It’s an issue of psychological health, more than anything, and yours was clearly much better than mine. Good for you!

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  5. I’m in the UK system and got offered full PhD funding without a masters’, so was not quite 25 when I submitted my thesis. I was really depressed a lot of the time, but it was clinical/chemical depression not the sort of situational depression you describe here – in my early 20s, and working in a research lab, I felt entirely too adult (we have far less compulsory coursework than the US system).

    Your reply to Z above implied to me that you thought intraversion and not wanting to transgress by going to parties were symptoms of some malady or maladjustment rather than part of the range of human norms. I would respectfully disagree – whilst I think it entirely natural that teenagers seek to transgress and if that is severely stunted by excessive control from surroundings (adults or circumstances) can lead to many problems in later years, I don’t see that that transgression has to take the form of what “partying” typically means (hanging out late with lots of people your own age in dimly lit spaces doing things adults might not like like loud music, dancing, mating rituals, drinking alcohol etc.). I think some people can actually healthily transgress by, oh, dying their hair green and playing dungeons and dragons during the day on the weekend with a small group of select friends, or reading and becoming expert on only the kind of popular fiction which your English/literature teacher/parents despise, or doing the “wrong” sport (I have seen a male parent driven to distraction by a loving, healthy, sensible teenage boy who insisted on excelling at tennis, which was seen as a girl’s game where I grew up, and Not A Team Sport, rather than the traditionally “masculine” football or rugby – the parent was an ex-serious-footballer), or seriously pursuing art skills instead of something more “career minded”. What am I missing there?

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  6. Thinking about this since you posted it, I think that almost all the graduate students I have known who were depressed were those who refused to face the fact that they did not have the innate intellectual capacity to do research level mathematics without increasing dramatically their level of effort. I have known people who earned Ph. D.’s in their fifties. None were depressed, I think.

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    1. In one’s fifties, one isn’t missing any opportunities because it’s not the age to build one’s life. It’s the age to enjoy what one has built.

      I’m sure we all understand here that the cause of my depression was anything but lack of intellectual capacity to do research. Of course, it’s also true that for many people, it is, indeed, a major challenge.

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      1. I am 61 and still trying to get that decent first job and start my life. I’m behind because of having to wade through all the debris of these awful, anti-intellectual, super-constraining academic jobs. I’d still like to have a set of kids of my own, ones that started out little. I’d like to do everything I renounced at 35 when I went to psychotherapy to finish up work freeing myself from Mom and found out my whole life was invalid, and then at 40 when I thought that now that I had destroyed my career I should get another, but was guilt tripped by colleagues into recommitting to wade around some more in all this debris of the past. I think it is too late to do the plan made at 40 but not to take up again at least part of what was renounced at 35. I have built nothing and dislike the debris that lies around me, so no, I will NOT sit around and pretend to enjoy.

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    2. I’ve been thinking about this post, too, and I also think that is an important reason why graduate students are depressed. I wasn’t because I was doing something I had chosen and was finding I could do and was interested in, but also (and importantly) because the TAship was my first professional-type job and it was fun working on classes with the other TAs. AND I had enough money and the money really was mine, so I was truly self-supporting at 21 and got my own dentist. Then after the MA I got my own apartment, and then around the time of the PhD exams, my first car. I also did my first research trips, conference presentations, etc., and didn’t feel I was putting anything off. LATER it did, the professionalization means conformity and self-limitation; I couldn’t do the dissertation I wanted, the first book I wanted, etc., because these projects were not deemed sensible by my supervisors and I was no longer free do as I saw fit, because I was now a professor. Not getting to grow professionally, and being stagnated financially, are the reasons for my depression, I feel tethered in a lot of different ways. I am also NOT and will never be a high school teacher — I am not the right personality at all — so I feel like a constant failure. How to insist on autonomy, as opposed to hide and flee, is my project.

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