On Grad School & Mental Health

  • Post category:Career

In the not-at-all-news for anyone in grad school category, here’s a fresh take: “Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health.” 

Intense work expectations? Check.

Lack of sleep and social life? Sure. But isn’t that the charm? 

Little pay? Yup. When I was making $10k a year as a graduate assistant (in 2003), my dad once said: “I know you aren’t making much money. When I was getting my Ph.D., I was only getting paid $9,000 a year!” Reality check, Dad: that was 1971. When strawberries were 29 cents a pound. (Yes, I looked it up).  

And when Ph.D. students weren’t saddled with the student loans of today.

Why wouldn’t grad students be plagued with anxiety and depression? 

Students toward the end of their programs were far more likely than those who were just embarking on their graduate journeys to report severe symptoms of anxiety or depression.” 

Alia Wong, “Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health”

Surprised? No. Grad students come out of their programs knowing the job market is grim and shows no signs of recovery.

Like, ever.

Walking Two Separate Paths Simultaneously

In seeking work, they are constantly asked to walk a fine line between proving the applicability of their very costly degrees to non-academic jobs … and minimizing their hard-won credential for employers who would flag a Ph.D. applicant as a ‘flight risk’ not worth investing in. 

Mental Health Care Ain’t Exactly Accessible – or Cheap!

And that’s not even touching upon the difficulties in accessing quality mental health care.

I went through major anxiety when I was in grad school, and that was a *lifetime* ago in the higher ed landscape. Before the recession. The women and men I coach are all battling this to one degree or another. While I can recommend tips and strategies, I just want you to know that 

  1. You are not alone.
  2. I have been there. 

What could help? (Disclaimer: Aside from seeking professional help, which you should absolutely do if you need it!) I don’t know. I can only tell you what helped me.

Leaving Academia

Leaving my grad program. Sure, it was incredibly stressful to think about finding a job and learn how to be a worker, but I had been through the stress and anxiety of grad school. So I figured this couldn’t be any worse. I made a choice to abandon my Ph.D. program having

  • passed my comps,
  • passed my language exams,
  • gotten my prospectus approved, and
  • written 3 chapters of my dissertation.

That decision disappointed my family. And I still wish I had chosen instead to just begin working after college to build my earnings potential and career. But that’s only because of the hindsight of time and putting in the years working full-time. I wouldn’t have known that when I was 23. 

Get Career Help

What else helped? Working with a career coach. (Yes! Even coaches need coaching!) It was life changing. For the first time, I started to see that I could exercise some control over my own destiny. Hands down, it remains the best career decision and investment I’ve ever made. 

Get to Work

And finally? Just going to work full-time. Stepping out of my “grad student” identity and into my “worker” self meant that I gave myself permission to meet for the first time what I now know is work-life balance. To stop judging myself when I did anything non-academic. Even doing the simplest things – watching a movie, going for a long walk for no reason, reading a book that had NOTHING to do with my dissertation – took an exercise in giving myself permission. And though I wasn’t making a ton, I was making LOADS more than I had in grad school, so that helped with allowing myself to buy a fancy $3 coffee instead of drinking the instant coffee sludge in my drawer.  That I, my personal self – and not just my academic self – was worth a $3 treat?! Wow.  

While none of those “cured” my anxiety, working on my work, on my career, is what has helped me a lot.

I was able to put my Ph.D. program in perspective as my new day-to-day job slowly subsumed my nonstop, compulsive ruminations on what the heck I could possibly do with my degree. I was able to start to see the larger work world, where one could make inroads towards shelf-stable and long-term careers. And I was able to see that there were others like me – recovering academics out in the work world, in all shapes, sizes & forms? Life-changing.