Graduate School and Mental Health

In some ways, I’ve had it better than most in graduate school. It wasn’t until well into my seventh year that I had this thought: I am too stupid to be here. Until then, I had always maintained that anyone with the desire could be a doctor.

Since I’ve had the thought, it’s been hard to shake. Before that moment I had never felt too stupid for anything. I loved school and always did well, and I was given a lot of credit for being smart by those around me. I knew some people in graduate school felt inadequate, and I felt sorry for them because I was sure their problem was a lack of confidence and not a lack of ability. I felt fortunate for my own sense of self-worth.

Grad-School Blues,” a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, cited a 2004 study that revealed 54% of graduate students suffered from depression severe enough to interfere with their ability to work. Compare that to 9.5% of Americans suffering from depression in a typical year.

Writing a dissertation can be seen as an empowering act: an individual relies mostly on him or herself to complete a long, intellectual piece of work. In practice, however, graduate students can feel very powerless, at the mercy of university politics, their supervisor, or their department’s expectations.

The article cites Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell, who explains that grad students don’t typically participate in many social activities such as clubs or intramural sports. Graduate students who are socially isolated may be less likely to know about resources available to them.

Besides counseling, getting a dissertation coach, participating in online discussions about graduate school, or joining a writing group can be helpful. Practicing yoga, meditation, or a religion can also help keep the dissertation in perspective.

One doctor who had left academia was quoted in the article: “There’s this perception that if you hold your breath and make it through, you’ll be fine,” she says. But if you don’t deal with such issues, she says, “you will not be an effective student, scholar, or researcher.”

When I read “Grad-School Blues,” I thought, this is the reason I’m writing my blog. I believe it’s a bad idea to simply try to fake smartness and confidence in your academic life. We should be willing to discuss therapy and strategies for working and living–if not with out superiors, at least with our colleagues. Our health depends on it.


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