Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Mental Health

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Right now, I’m powered by self-loathing and coffee. My feelings of inadequacy are directly proportional to the amount of time I spend reading. If I got a penny for every time I felt stupid, I wouldn’t need funding. Grad school ““ where souls go to die. Grad school ““ abandon all hope ye who enter here. 

Graduate school can be a stressful place. It’s got a highly effective combination of high and vague expectations. There are hard and soft deadlines, competitive grants, intense periods of frantic work, unknown requirements, and the constant threat of forces beyond your control derailing the whole thing. It’s a wild, wild ride.

The feeling is nearly ubiquitous. In my program, everyone is worried that the work they’re doing is just not good enough. An anonymous graduate student from a different program explained their experiences by saying, “An informal poll of my classmates earlier this year indicated to me that everyone in my class was unhappy, frustrated, feeling like a failure, questioning their career choices, and wondering if there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  In many ways, the stress of the PhD is worse because it’s so isolating.” These feelings aren’t specific to a certain program or discipline – they’re everywhere.

And the thing is that everyone in graduate school acknowledges that it can be a difficult time, but there’s surprisingly little done to address the problem. YTG, a grad student at a big ol’ R1 university said it best when they said: “Grad students talk about it with each other, but it’s highly tinged with bravado and irony. “˜Oh yeah, well, you know, my dissertation’s making me completely insane, but I didn’t need that sanity or sleep or life anyway, right?’“ These comments, due to their “badge of honor” type bravado exacerbate the problem.

The conversation around mental health needs to change. While I appreciate being able to let off steam like that with my fellow graduate students, having a sincere conversation about what we’re experiencing and the obstacles we’re facing would make me feel less isolated and alone. Feeling extremely stressed out, miserable, or on the verge of total burn-out should not be seen as a normal part of graduate school – it should be seen as a problem.

And how does the administration respond?

Well, the administration’s responses range from nada to small acknowledgements of the mental health services on campus, such as blurbs in departmental mass mailings or 8×11 paper posters stapled to bulletin boards. As far as I can tell, it’s not the academia doesn’t want to be supportive, it just not a top priority. It (and here I continue to anthropomorphize academia as a whole) figures that you need to find the support or help you need on your own time.

Even if there’s information about how to get mental health services, actually going through the process can be difficult and convoluted. At my university, you have to show up in person and wait for a slot to open up to get an appointment with a therapist. You take an online questionnaire about your mental health, and then wait for an undetermined amount of time until you can be seen. Once you’re in, you can schedule the next meetings through the therapist, and that’s usually very easy to do, but getting that first meeting can be hard. Anonymous’s experiences were similarly twisted:

I had to call and request a therapist, and then they scheduled a phone interview for later that day, which lasted an hour. And then they scheduled me for an intake 1 or 2 days later, and the counselor who did the intake was supposed to assign me to someone on the team at random, but we clicked so well that she requested that she could keep meeting with me.

This process should not be so difficult, especially given how important mental health services are. And, OK, I am sure that academia cares about students as people to some extent, but it definitely cares about students as productive researchers and for many, getting some mental health service is absolutely crucial to being a productive researcher. I’m going to let YTG explain:

I don’t think I would have been able to write my last chapter without therapy. Not one page”¦ I was pretty much the definition of “adrift,” and there was some considerable despair as well. Starting CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] helped me break what I had to do into steps I could cope with, saw some purpose to, and could then execute. Also my self-confidence was completely shot, and therapy has helped me to get it back without quite as much utter dependency on the caprices of my faculty for validation.

Without mental health services, more people would quit graduate school, more people would take longer to finish their dissertations, more people would have a terrible, awful, unbearable time in graduate school. Mental health services can make such a positive impact on the graduate school experience, but they’re not discussed or emphasized enough.

The system must change. Anonymous shares an anecdote that expresses the problem with graduate (and in this case medical) school:

During my 2ndyear of medical school, we had a month-long course about the importance of or own health as future physicians, where we focused on nutrition, exercise, and stress management.  I remember one presentation where the professor pointed out that the rate of clinical depression among 2nd year medical students is twice that of the general public, and angrily raising my hand to ask whether that pointed out a problem with medical education.  The answer I received was unsatisfactory.

The way academia acknowledges and supports mental health services is unsatisfactory.

Thank you to all graduate students who gave their input on this piece.


14 replies on “Women in Academia: Mental Health”

Find solutions *now* because the pressure and intensity remain once the tenure track begins. Once I had a job more people than ever wanted to know about the status (not the topics) of my working papers, conference schedules and grant applications. People in and outside of my department asking “how is it going”, always meaning “do you think you’ll get tenure?”. Find whatever solutions work best for you now, because you will rely on those personal resources/tools/sources of internal strength many times in your career.

I feel so, so lucky, because as overwhelmed as I sometimes feel, I see my peers suffering a lot more than I do with stress and mental health. I do feel like I sacrifice a lot off the top of my academic potential because I choose to stop reading and sleep for 8 full hours, or push back grading and go on a run, and I often only read parts of assigned texts, and I usually don’t revise papers as much as I should, and I KNOW I could be doing “better” work generally. But at what cost? I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t be here somewhat enjoying this learning process, if I were in my office reading 16 hours a day and up writing another four. I just couldn’t do it. I don’t think perpetuating the myth that that’s what it takes is fair to students, at all. I’m blessed in my program that there are lots of women a few years ahead of me who have rational, calm perspectives on balance and sanity in our program, and when I feel like I’m a total failure for only reading the first and last chapters of a novel for class, there’s someone who will say, “it’s okay–just don’t write your term paper on that one; you’ll make it.”

But the pressure is there. There is ALWAYS more you should be reading, even when you’re caught up on what’s assigned, notes you should be taking, outside research you should be conducting, guest lectures you should be attending, lessons you should be enhancing, papers you should be grading, conferences you should be proposing papers to (parallelism just fell apart there), revisions you should be making to the paper you’re working on (embracing the fallen-apart-ness), journals you should be submitting articles to, and THEN, somehow, “balance” you’re supposed to be finding. Be realistic, academia. Be fucking realistic.

I have my whole career to read that novel, but it would only take a few weeks to destroy my health and motivation for a lot longer than that.

Thank you so much for posting about this, you expressed exactly what I’ve been feeling for the past year. I’m doing an MD/PhD, and I’m two years into the PhD research and completely miserable. My boss is kind of an egomaniac who only offers inconsistent reinforcement (“you’re awesome oh wait you’re the worst and you know nohing, you should sleep in lab at night HAHA just kidding but don’t have a life”) and I have nightmares about getting emails/phone calls from him, my collaboration is out of control, drama ridden, and at a complete stalemate…I am completely unconvinced (as are outside sources! har har) that this will generate a publication in its current state.

On my best days, I use the insanity as motivation to work even harder and prove that I’m not a failure, but lately, I am having fewer and fewer of those. I think, honestly, I would quit and just finish med school, if it wasn’t for the prohibitive cost of having to repay all the special mudphud funding. And I don’t really want to quit, I like science. I just don’t like THIS. And this misery is definitely viewed as a shared experience, a badge of honor, which makes it easy to complain about amongst peers, but difficult to be heard when you’re really struggling. I can’t see how this environment is at all conducive to productive research and learning.

I will say, though, I think my university has incredible mental health awareness compared to what I’ve heard about other schools. I have been going to a therapist in student counseling for 2 years now, and haven’t had to pay anything. They are pretty available, I’ve heard, in terms of emergencies, and there’s a fair amount of outreach (support groups, relaxation/meditation groups, etc.) though I haven’t taken advantage of those resources. I think I would definitely be in a worse if I didn’t have a reliable outside source to help me work through things. While I can’t always immediately act upon her advice, she does help me break down situations, affirms that I am responding in an OK way, and work out steps to get through the latest obstacle.

I’m glad to read all the comments as well, it helps to know we’re all not alone. Hugs to all you other grad students!

This is a great article. Unfortunately, the problem is, as many have alluded to, is those who would provide for more mental health support have successfully gone through graduate school. Given this, the initiation-type attitude cannot be overstated. We must tough it out as they did.

I had a somewhat different experience. Not that grad school was not stressful for me, but that I do not tend to take my stress on emotionally, mine manifested physically. I ended up very sick, (mis)diagnosed with a thyroid problem because the stress of dealing with my dissertation adviser became so extreme. I even had the luxury of writing most of my dissertation knowing I had a job the next fall. But, leading up to that point, the physical manifestation of my stress was awful, and I felt like I had to hide dealing with it. If I even suggested to my adviser that I was sick, I felt like it was used against me, as if I were not tough enough to handle grad school.

Long story short, grad school can be awful at times. Even just more awareness on the part of many faculty could go along way. I wouldn’t hold my breath for resources, but understanding would be a nice place to start.

I was a big conference last month and ended up having lunch on the last day with a really lovely woman who asked to share my table simply because the food court was really full. We started talking about being women of color in science, and then about the stress of grad school, and she had a similar story about the stress literally making her ill. She ultimately ended up leaving before completing her PhD, but staying in science and public health, and I thought she was really brave to move on when it was clearly the right thing for her to do.

So, so familiar. And that’s simultaneously comforting (because I’m not alone) and upsetting (because other people are suffering too) for me. I just finished grad school with my MA, and the past year has been quite possibly the most stressful, miserable one of my life. I’m extraordinarily happy with my partner, I love the friends I’ve made, and my relationship with my parents is really good too. But fighting to get approval to write my thesis, and then writing it and fighting my committee to get feedback about it, and then preparing to defend it, while also applying for craploads of jobs and being consistently rejected has really, really broken me down. Multiple times throughout the past two quarters especially I considered taking advantage of the counseling services offered on campus, which would be pretty affordable since I have student health insurance, and it always came back to 1. that’s intimidating and 2. I have so much to do that taking the time to make and go to an appointment would stress me out more. I knew that the rest of my cohort was similarly unhappy and struggling, so we had each other to lean on for support, but I feel like our department had no inkling about it and wouldn’t have known what to do even if they had known how severely depressed and unhappy some of us were/are.

My frustration with graduate school came to a head about six weeks ago and I finally worked up the courage to call the school’s counseling office. I was told that they were quite well-booked and that I might have to wait until after the end of the quarter to make an appointment.

This is not what you want to hear when you are losing your ability to function and are responsibly trying to figure out whether your psyche has been irreparably damaged.

Fortunately, the thoroughly lovely counselor I was speaking to was able to schedule me in as a “crisis” appointment (though my situation wasn’t urgent) and see me the next day. She helped me sort my feelings out and even scheduled a brief follow-up for two weeks later to make sure I was doing okay and to see if I felt I needed further help.
The good news is that I don’t need further help. I made this appointment to try to figure out whether I should quit my PhD, and as soon as I decided I wanted to leave grad school I felt a lot like myself again. But if I had gone into full-blown depression, the mental health clinic would not have had the capacity to help me for weeks.
Before I saw the counselor, they made me fill out a depression questionnaire. It stated quite clearly that I should only consider my feelings over the past two weeks. The questions asked if I had been feeling worthless, lost interest in my normal activities, wasn’t sleeping properly, criticized myself a lot, etc.. As I filled it out I was thinking, “Two weeks? These criteria are the definition of being a graduate student!”

There’s this boneheaded idea that the stress and sleeplessness we experience in grad school is somehow part of a great academic tradition. I think it comes down to needing to decide whether grad school is really about job opportunities or about the love of learning for learning’s sake. I can’t tell you how many times I stayed up late reading hundreds of pages for a deadline only to find out the next day that I didn’t actually need that information. It was just for “perspective” and “personal enrichment.” I truly would have taken home a reading list of “enriching” material and read it on my own time after the term ended. There’s no reason why professors should be assigning this level of busy work, but they’re under the impression that they’re supposed to.

I agree that the “stress and sleeplessness” is seen as a “great academic tradition.” It will definitely take a group of professors at a big school to say that grad schools need to give students better support. However, I think most professors rationalize that they went through it and obviously survived, current students should all have to as well!

True story: a good friend of mine, who had the same supervisor as I do (but in his case only for a master’s) was having a hard time. He went to have a chat with our supervisor about it, which he thought was entirely normal because a) this guy’s his supervisor, b) he’s actually a pretty fantastic, caring supervisor by the standards of our university/department and c) they’re actually old family friends, as my buddy’s dad and our supervisor were BFF in grad school.

After my friend spills out his miserable guts, our supervisor goes, ‘Oh dear. That sounds ghastly.’ There followed a long pause in which my friend waited hopefully for a piece of life-changing advice. After a moment, realising that my friend clearly needed some sage words of wisdom, my supervisor uttered the immortal line:

‘Oh. I’m not going to have to give you a “pep talk”, am I?’

O hai. Are you me? I read your first paragraph and nearly burst into tears. I’m in the last stretch right now, which you think would be the easiest part, but trying to get a full first draft out before my supervisor goes on holiday in three weeks is probably the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. My back hurts, my head aches, I’ve been getting ferocious stomachaches and my hair is actually turning white (I’m not exaggerating that last point).

My university talks a decent game when it comes to undergrad mental health. The uni offers a few free counselling sessions, but after 4-6 you’re on your own unless you’re willing to pay, and even the free sessions are not advertised at all (I only know about them because a friend directed me there when I had a very severe bout of depression a few years ago). But there’s almost nothing for graduates specifically beyond all the talk. All they do is tell you the usual stuff about getting sleep and exercise – as if we hadn’t already thought of that! My college has a peer support programme which is nice, but it’s a small college, and most of the peer supporters are my friends. I can’t have a proper conversation with them about, well, them.

As it happens, when they had their training session my friends in peer support were told that more than 70% of graduate students at this university have mental health problems during their time here. And yet, as you say, it’s talked about as if it’s just a fact of academic life. We joke about our slow transformation into pale, twisted, Gollum-like figures, clutching our preciousssss dissertations and muttering incoherently to ourselves. But it’s only funny because it’s not really funny. I don’t know anyone who has emerged from this process unscathed, not even my toughest, most grounded buddies. Surely that should indicate that there’s something wrong with the process as a whole, rather than that every single graduate student ever has somehow failed.

Aw, thank you so much for the hugs. They are very much appreciated and are also sent back directly to you!

The thing is, I’m only doing a British PhD. Three years and I’m out, if I ever bloody finish. I have NO idea how American academics get through PhDs that are twice as long (and for that matter, in your case, an American master’s degree – one year was quite enough for me). If I was wearing a hat, I would be tipping it in the general direction of you all!

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