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.