USA fact of the day

More than a third of Ph.D. students have sought help for anxiety or depression caused by Ph.D. study, according to results of a global survey of 6,300 students from Nature.

Thirty-six percent is a very large share, considering that many students who suffer don’t reach out for help. Still, the figure parallels those found by other studies on the topic. A 2018 study of mostly Ph.D. students, for instance, found that 39 percent of respondents scored in the moderate-to-severe depression range. That’s compared to 6 percent of the general population measured with the same scale.

And this:

Twenty-one percent of respondents said they’d been bullied in their programs. Of those, 48 percent said their supervisor was the perpetrator.

Here is the full story from Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed.


SlateStarCodex just yesterday had a piece about intelligence and austism, specifically the genes - if not the manifestation - being related (or unrelated depending on your interpretation of the results) - and sometimes wonder if depression/anxiety are also sometimes linked. If not at the genetic level then maybe in behavior.

Something else. Yesterday I realized that maybe there are times when I comment here I come on a bit too strong, aggressive, and flippant. One of the other commenters mentioned this was becoming a problem and I agree. I apologize. I will attempt to contain my thoughts to the subject being discussed.

Nice. I appreciate a lot your comments but sometimes you (and others, and me) become a little too aggressive. Your contribution will be even better without that.

Oh don't worry. I've never noticed your comments.

I always thought that T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" sounds like it was written by a depressed grad student.

sounds like a statistic out of the meritocracy trap.

Sounds like the truth.

On the one hand, the large fraction of depressed graduate students is due in no small part to already depression-prone people going to graduate school. It attracts a certain type. On the other hand, the complaints in the article about (some) awful advisors ring true. I'm at a university, and it's sadly apparent that many graduate students hardly investigate the atmospheres of the research groups they might join or the personality of the advisor, though these will have a huge impact not only on their happiness, but on the quality of research they'll do. It's not clear what to do about this. I was at a depressing workshop on mentoring recently where the loudest voices pontificating on good mentoring were the most awful mentors in practice. They knew all the right words to say, though. This cut across ages and genders.

I don't know. a PhD is hard psychologically because when you do one, you become essentially the only judge of the quality of your work. (So you have to judge the quality of your work, but at the same time evaluate the quality of your judgment, an then the quality of the evaluation of your judgement, etc.) This is in stark contrast with the life of a student, where your work is always judged by your professors, and also with most of professional life, where one's work is judge by one's boss, or by the market, etc.

depression-prone people going to graduate school?

I started my PhD at 30 years old. I think I had a better idea of what I wanted in life. At the same time, I worked with other PhD students that did straight from elementary school to postgraduate (22-23 years old). There were several oddities among the young ones. Some students just stayed in school until PhD because their parents said so, usually the children of first generation immigrants. Other students stayed there because they were a bit afraid of the outside world, strict working hours, responsibilities and all that.

So, a good part of my ex-colleagues did not wanted to be there, they were in the PhD program to avoid something, hiding. It's not surprising people feel depressed. The PhD experience is idealized and until you're stuck in there you face the reality of the job. It's a comfortable reality, but reality anyway. It would be interesting to compare depression rates by age.

I wonder which other highly idealized careers produce a similar outcome on people. It seems the higher status attracts a lot of people that later finds their life miserable. Actors, sport pros, artists?

Lawyers. But they’re not trapped by sunk cost, they’re “trapped” by their salaries, which is worse, in a way

Oh no. Most lawyers I know are very much trapped by sunk costs. Very few lawyers make a high salary at a large firm. Most have significant student loan debt and ma,e less than 75k outside of NYC dc at al.

after the time and money investment it's very hard to exit the law.

" It seems the higher status attracts a lot of people that later finds their life miserable. "
Or they were miserable to begin with and thought the higher status would solve that. As the old saying goes, "No matter where you go, there you are."

This comment describes my experience as a young econ PhD student well. I was trying to hide from "corporate" jobs which I had seen treat my father poorly at the end of his career. I idealized the academic world as free of workplace politics, a place where only ideas mattered. The stark contrast between my ideal and the reality plunged me into a deep depression. Along the way, my advisor was little help and I spent most my time trying to guess her whims to please her rather than doing good work that I believed in. She also would put me down, telling me that the only reason I got into the program was because I was a minority. I later asked people in admissions and found out this wasn't true...

Oh and you can check off your box about being the child of a first generation immigrant as well. My parents saw higher education as a guaranteed safety net, and would always push for it. To them if I didn't finish the degree I faced a very real chance of being unemployed, but it turns out they were just uninformed and giving bad advice.

5 years in at the candidacy stage I dropped out of the PhD program, had a bit of a mental breakdown, and then went into the corporate world. It turns out my fears where bs and its a far better life for me than academia. I am treated with respect at my work place, I get to choose what city I live in, and I am compensated far better for my time than I would have been in academia. One thing that kills me is that my PhD program still lists me as a job "placement" on their website even though I asked them to take it down. My life in the private sector is no thanks to them. When I start looking into private sector jobs they pulled away from me and offered no help. Also I obtained no degree, so how can I be a PhD placement...

Sigh, I try to forget that part of my life. Thank God for my wife, who helped me see through it all and make the sane decision to leave.

Sad to read that, but you're now in a better path. The skills you learned are much more useful than any publication =)

Thanks! I agree.

Interesting story. If I may ask, in what field was your PhD program?

It was an economics PhD.

I have no idea what "attracts a certain type" means. Neither I nor my fellow graduate classmates were chronically depressed or depressed easily. Most would describe me as chronically optimistic. But then it has been quite some time since I was a grad student. Perhaps the field matters or perhaps many just need to toughen up and build some resilience.

The snowflake generation now goes to school. Whiners. No wonder they love socialism so much.

OK Boomer

Millennial here.

I expect there are two shoes dropping on these poor graduate students. The first is their realization that academia is not so different from the private sector, per Quique’s story above. The second shoe to drop is the realization that they’re coming up to the end of their predefined road, where the next steps are uncertain.

All I have to say is: Welcome! to what everybody else has been experiencing since they were about 16-21 years of age. Now let me find my violin...

Read the summary report. Oddly it doesn’t report by field of study. I’m guessing lab sciences are the worst - supervisors have an incentive to use students as lab workers. I know one grad science student who was pressured to do work on the side for his supervisor’s for profit company.

I was surprised that academics came off so lightly from the metoo epoch , I’d thought that the potential for abusing positions of power were as great or greater than in the entertainment industry and there are plenty of slimeball professors

Indeed, it's academia's lack of institutional infrastructure and worker protections. Particularly as compared to, as Tyler would note, Big Business.

Now do medical residents.

Depends heavily on the program.

Formal estimates from the University of Michigan Depression Center had internal medicine interns (which includes a lot of the specialties using prelim years) hitting major depression rates from 0% to 75%. Average using formal instruments for depressions was a rise from 3.9% to 25.7% using a prospective cohort study (last reported 2015). Less rigorous data pegs the number at around 33%, but I think that may have included surgery interns.

The divergence between programs, according to multivariate analysis, rested on work hours, poor feedback, and the ranking of the program. Shockingly, the more prestigious your institution, the worse your mental health, even after correcting for the unreasonable amount of time and mismatch between teaching and research skills.

In general, meritocracy consumes the well being of its participants to function. We provide high stakes feedback, we have no tolerance for mistakes (because truely marginal differences will define cutoffs), and because some people are willing devote unlimited time and effort, everyone must. It is no surprise to me that so many people get out of the hothouse with a massive sense of entitlement, no experience how the normal folks live, and believe they have superior solutions for all of life's difficulties. We have basically been subjecting our future leaders to a lot of the worst social dynamics in human history for decades of their lives.

There is large selection bias in medicine - medicine very much selects for certain personality traits that depression prone.

You will note that I said the depression rate increased from 3.9% to 25.7%; personality traits did not change during the interval. The 22.8% increase (over eight fold) is due to something concurrent with the training.

Regardless when you control for such personality traits, residency still produces a large increase in depression rates. These rates typically peak during the worst periods of residency and revert towards the mean as docs become closer to being attendings. That is not the pattern we see from self-selection due to personality traits.

Even if it were all down to personality traits, the training is part of what drives these selections effects. The testing schedule heavily rewards perfectionism. Training requires far more extroversion than practice (e.g. presenting to attendings on rounds). And of course the exam structure is heavily weighted against low conscientiousness people.

The training regime in medicine, and most elite academic structures, is pretty toxic and has been for quite some time. After all the original medical residency program in the US was designed by a cocaine addict.

When I was Ph.D. student I felt anxiety. I mentioned it to a doc at the student health center (I was there for some other reason). He said, "that's normal." If I knew then what I know now I would also have felt depressed and probably the doc would have said the same.

The real amount seems to coincide with the number of balding people coming out of Ph.D. studies (almost every 2nd by the age of 30). Hair loss is a pretty good indicator of anxiety and depression.

Are you sure about that? I've heard people say it before, but I've never heard a doctor/scientist endorse that view or seen empirical data on it. The scientific consensus as far as I can tell is that balding is caused by hormones, which is the reason women are less likely to go bald than men, and it has no direct link to anxiety or depression. (In fact, the most effective anti-balding drugs can actually cause an increase in anxiety and depression, because of their hormonal effects.)

You may have seen research I'm not aware of, though. I have some interest in medical science but I am quite far from an expert.

"Twenty-one percent of respondents said they’d been bullied in their programs. Of those, 48 percent said their supervisor was the perpetrator."

I'm guessing that the roughly 10 pct of students that report having been bullied by their supervisors share supervisors, i.e., about 10 pct of supervisors bully students rather than most supervisors bully 10 pct of their students. (Or, perhaps, 20 pct of supervisors bully half their students.) It seems like it should be relatively straightforward to identify the bullying supervisors by surveying graduate alumni, who are no longer under their former supervisors' power, assuming that perceptions of bullying don't change when alumni look back on their graduate student years. If perceptions do change, then...?

"About 26 percent who [sought mental health treatment] said it was helpful."

Do mental health treatments, or mental health practitioners, have to pass the same FDA tests for efficacy that drugs do? What would one expect the placebo helpful rate to be, i.e., the percentage of respondents finding mental health treatments to be helpful even when provided by a non-licensed practitioner unbeknownst to the patient?

If 21% claim they were bullied, how many claims are reasonable or legally correct? Is harsh peer review, or the preventative equivalent from your supervisor, likely to be considered bullying by candidates?

Personally, my period preparing a PhD has been the second happiest period of my adult life, second to a period of unemployment after my first degree. Getting a PhD isn't paradise, but it beats working for a living.

I suspect there are many different causes of depression among grad students just as there are many different causes of depression among the population generally. I can guess at two for grad students: one, the absence of control over their lives and, two, the absence of good prospects for employment. I was never a grad student but I was a law student, and these two factors were not an issue in my time. When Kavanaugh was being considered, I recall an issue arose at Yale over the dominance that two (married) professors had over coveted judicial clerkships. They were, in effect, the gatekeepers. The arrangement created lots of anxiety among the law students who greatly desired a clerkship, but knew they were at the mercy of the two professors. To a greater degree, grad students are at the mercy of faculty, in particular the advisor. [An aside, law professors don't typically give recommendations. Indeed, it never occurred to me to ask. Grades were the most important factor in recruitment, plus activities such as law review or other law related work during law school. Of course, the law school itself was a major factor.]

Most PhD thesis are not read or used for anything. I too would be pretty depressed if I was lured into spending years of my life on a pointless endeavor in the small chance of a sinecure.

The idea of a PhD is over, it is a criminal waste of talent. the small chance of a sinecure after ten or fifteen more years of backbreaking work.

This research


Free Drugs for Graduate Students!

This is fine, in the same way that artists must suffer if we want good art.

You gotta be nuts to go for a PHD.

A "USA fact of the day" (which one?) ostensibly derived from "a global survey of 6,300 students"?

What USA fact is being extrapolated from the global data? --or: which fact amidst whose study: is it the Nature study or the IHE study? (No, I've not read either account, I'm relying on TC's set-up here.)

Why the conflation? (Is the conflation itself the "USA fact of the day"?)

Why do both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed persist with anti-democratic or meritocratic formula like "higher education" and not concede to the apt description "post-secondary training"? (--although, granted, "higher education" does concede itself to the reality that American "egalitarianism" is stratified into almost as many layers as the planet Saturn has rings.

Depression is the animal response to show submission in status conflict. Think of chimps or wolves vying for status, the loser animal shows submission to avoid being killed or expelled from the pack.

> Twenty-one percent of respondents said they’d been bullied in their programs. Of those, 48 percent said their supervisor was the perpetrator.

A PhD student is actually a high status position compared to broader society. A lot of people have low status jobs like doing retail work or food service work, but I suspect they often aren't involved in day to day status rivalry and don't feel bullied as frequently.

If that's the case, then it's a terrible adaptation since depression by-and-large makes people much less productive than they otherwise would be. If showing submission to not get kicked out of a pack involves sustained large drops in productivity, it seems to me that would make you more likely to be kicked out, not less.

I did my PhD at M.I.T. in the early 90s. Both then and now I think very few people make it through the 5-7 year course of a PhD without going through at least one period of depression, often lasting years. It is a very lonely existence. Most supervisors (professors) are poor people managers. You're doing something difficult, and there is a lot of failure. It is not unusual to find that what you have been doing for the past year was a waste of time. The process can seem endless.

The Professor / Grad Student relationship is one of the few where the formal Master / Apprentice relationship from centuries ago still mostly applies. The professor has the ability to dictate the speed of the apprenticeship, and plays a large role in the future professional success of the apprentice. The lack of personal control over one's fate certainly contributes to the depression.

I completed my PhD after working for a few years first in finance and later in biotech, so my perspective is different from those who went K-PhD. Observing my peers, I saw two things that seemed to contribute most to their anxiety: constant failure and the fear that they had no value if they didn't complete their programs. Some of this could be remedied by either encouraging work experience between undergrad and grad, or creating direct to research programs and skipping or re-engineering undergrad science tracks entirely. A bio or chem undergrad is almost entirely a waste of time for those who want to become researchers. If you get your research degree at 21, there is still plenty of time to retool if the life of a researcher isn't quite your thing. As for failure, that's something to address earlier. Play is an excellent way to learn resilience to failure, and so many of my peers were on the academic path so early they never had the time. There is also a difficulty in education, where many student believe that not getting top marks is a sign they failed, while not realizing that always getting top marks is a sign their schools are failing them.

Power corrupts...even the relatively minor amount of power that a professor has over PhD candidates.

I think voice is an important way to address the abuses of mentors toward their students, but I want to give a strong endorsement for the power of exit. There was a great deal of unreasonable stuff I didn't put up with or was never even asked to put up with because we all knew I could leave the lab, and pretty immediately find something else fun, rewarding and remunerative to do of equal or higher status than PhD. This is true for most people smart enough to get into a STEM program, it's just astonishing how many don't realize it.

Would survey results be any different if they were pulling folks in the workforce or undergrads? Econ grad school was a cake walk compared to my job in finance. Me thinks snow flakes will be snow flakes—some folks just can’t take the heat of real world stress

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