Category: Education

Why are so many graduate students depressed?

PhD and master’s students worldwide report rates of depression and anxiety that are six times higher than those in the general public (T. M. Evans et al. Nature Biotech. 36, 282–284; 2018). The report, based on the responses of 2,279 students in 26 nations, found that more than 40% of respondents had anxiety scores in the moderate to severe range, and that nearly 40% showed signs of moderate to severe depression.

That is from this summary statement.  Here is the original piece.  So what might be going on here?

1. The ordeal of studying and possibly finishing is extreme, and extreme ordeals depress people.  This seems inconsistent with other evidence, however, namely rising (reported) rates of depression in prosperous, comfortable societies.

2. The task of studying and possibly finishing is correlated with a kind of extreme lassitude, and that in turn is correlated with depression.

3. Graduate students become depressed as they realize they have chosen poor life paths.

4. Graduate students become depressed as they realize, a’la Caplan, that it is mostly about signaling.

5. Graduate students are undergoing a transformation of their personalities, and being turned into intellectual elites, but this process is traumatic in several regards, thus leading to frequent depression.  The chance of depression is part of the price of admission to a select club.

6. Our graduate institutions serve women poorly (women in graduate school experience depression at higher rates — 41% vs 35% for the men).

7. It’s all just sample bias, as depressed graduate students have nothing better to do than respond to this survey.

What else?  And how much should we regard these results are symptoms of a deeper malaise?  Or is the problem confined mainly to academic life?

U.S.A. (Holocaust) fact of the day

But a survey released Thursday, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, found that many adults lack basic knowledge of what happened — and this lack of knowledge is more pronounced among millennials, whom the survey defined as people ages 18 to 34.

Thirty-one percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust; the actual number is around six million. Forty-one percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was. Only 39 percent of Americans know that Hitler was democratically elected.

Here is the full Maggie Astor NYT story.  The last error is a little tricky, since Hitler was elected into a coalition government, but he wasn’t really elected to be “Hitler as head honcho.”  His later ascent resulted from political machinations of a not entirely democratic nature.  Still, I doubt if that confusion is what is steering most Americans wrong.

My Conversation with Agnes Callard

She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, here is the transcript and audio.  We covered Plato and Socrates, what Plato is on about at all, the virtues of dialog and refutation, whether immortality would be boring, Elena Ferrante, parents vs. gangsters and Beethoven vs. Mozart, my two Straussian readings of her book, Jordan Peterson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the best defense of reading the classics, and the Agnes Callard production function (physics to classics to philosophy), all in suitably informationally dense fashion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I have a friend who’s interested in longevity research…and he tells me there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that I actually will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with. By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

I think you can get by in a 100-year life not being too much attuned to things of eternal significance because there’s so much fascinating stuff out there, and one can go from one thing to the next and not get bored. But if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.”

COWEN: Let me give you a hypothesis. You can react to it. That which is cultural, say, listening to music, I would get bored with, even though wonderful music maybe continually will be created. But those activities which are more primeval, more biological — parenting, sex, food, sleep, maybe taking a wonderful shower — that are quite brute, in a way, maybe I would substitute more into those as an immortal? Yes?

CALLARD: I don’t see why you wouldn’t get just as bored of bodily pleasures.

COWEN: You’re programmed for those to be so immediate and riveting, right? You evolve to be maybe an 80-year-old being, or perhaps even a 33-year-old being, so you are riveted on things like reproduction and getting enough sleep. And that stays riveting, even when you’re on this program to live 80,000 years.

CALLARD: I think that at least some of those activities stay riveting for us over the course of our lives because their meaning changes…


COWEN: Let’s turn now to your new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. There’s a sentence from the book. Let me read it, and maybe you can explain it. “Proleptic reasons allow you to be rational even when you know that your reasons aren’t exactly the right ones.” What’s a proleptic reason?

This was my favorite part, though perhaps few of you will get the joke:

COWEN: On aspiration, what do you think of Jordan Peterson?

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

Here you can buy her just-published book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.  You cannot follow her on Twitter.

What should I ask Juan Villarino?

I’ll be doing a Conversation with him in early May.  He is often known as “the world’s greatest hitchhiker,” here is a NYT profile of him.  Excerpt:

Villarino has cataloged every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totaling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

He is from Argentina, and worked for a while in a Belfast cheese factory.  He is described as from a “downwardly mobile middle-class family” and:

In Buenos Aires, three men tried to mug him, but when they realized who he was, the thieves gave him money.


They [Villarino and his wife] continue to live on about $7 a day each and travel as they always have, leading a life almost entirely on the highway, without a fixed address or jobs or bills.

Here is his blog and also a link to his self-published book.  Here is his blog in Spanish.  So what should I ask him?

Arbitrage, by economics departments

Foreign STEM graduates (the acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can get visa extensions for three years of practical training (ie, work). Those from other disciplines are allowed only a year.

Two more years working in America means more earnings. It also means a better chance of finding an employer willing to sponsor an application for an H-1B visa, the main starting-point for skilled foreign workers who hope to settle permanently. In 2012 the Department of Homeland Security expanded the list of STEM courses. Now any reasonably crunchy economics degree can count as STEM with a tweak to its federal classification code, from economics (45.0601) to econometrics and quantitative economics (45.0603).

Economics departments appear to be catching on. Yale and Columbia have both changed the code for their economics major in the past few months; five of the eight Ivy League Universities have now done so. Students at Pennsylvania and Cornell are agitating for a switch.

Here is more from The Economist.

Cross-cultural digital instruction

Comparative ethnographic analysis of three middle schools that vary by student class and race reveals that students’ similar digital skills are differently transformed by teachers into cultural capital for achievement. Teachers effectively discipline students’ digital play but in different ways. At a school serving working-class Latino youth, students are told their digital expressions are irrelevant to learning; at a school with mostly middle-class Asian American youth, students’ digital expressions are seen as threats to their ability to succeed academically; and at a private school with mainly wealthy white youth, students’ digital skills are positioned as essential to school success. Insofar as digital competency represents a kind of cultural capital, the minority and working-class students also have that capital. But theirs is not translated into teacher-supported opportunities for achievement.

Here is the AJS piece, by Matthew H. Rafalow.  For the pointer I thank Kevin Lewis.

1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard

It is wonderful throughout, here is one good part of many:

What, in your view, is a conversation?

I don’t usually have them. To me people who want to have a conversation are suspect, because that raises particular expectations they’re unable to satisfy. Simple people are very good to talk with. When talking is supposed to become conversation, that’s when things get gruesome! That fine expression “everything under the sun.” It all gets thrown in together and then one person stirs this way, the other stirs that, and an unbearable stinking turd comes out the bottom. No matter who it is. There are collected conversations, hundreds of them, books full. Entire publishing houses live off them. Like something coming out of an anus, and then it gets squashed in between book covers. This wasn’t a conversation either.

Do read the whole thing.

In Praise of Modern Principles

Writing about economics for a large audience at Marginal Revolution taught Tyler and me to get to the point quickly, use vivid examples, and avoid unnecessary math and other jargon. We brought all these lessons to our textbook, Modern Principles of Economics. We wanted to teach modern topics such as tying and bundling–pricing schemes familiar to students from cell phone plans, Cable TV and software sales yet not discussed in most principles textbooks–while recognizing that most students who take a principles course will never take another economics course. The most complicated math function in our book is the square root function.

Fortunately, judging by the reception of MP, we have succeeded in our goals. Modern Principles is used in a wide-range of universities and colleges throughout the United States, at places like the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA, and Minnesota and also Henry Ford College, Rock Valley College and the SUNY Colleges. Here are a few reactions from users of Modern Principles.

I can’t tell you how many people I have met who took economics in college, and who hated it. If only they had started with Cowen and Tabarrok. Modern Principles is one of the few books that will immerse students into the elegance and beauty of our science, and which will create a lifelong love of economics.

Lee E. Ohanian,
Professor of Economics, UCLA
and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution
Stanford University

Cowen and Tabarrok’s Modern Principles and the accompanying videos make for an unbeatable combination for both students and instructors. The intuition is clear and the examples—both contemporary and interesting—draw students into the material. This text is a fantastic tool for showing students how economics impacts their daily lives in choices great and small. My students come to class with questions, eager to discuss in more detail the concepts covered in the videos and text.

Abigail Hall,
Department of Economics,
University of Tampa

I have tried multiple textbooks over the last ten years. None of them engage my students as well as Modern Principles by Cowen and Tabarrok. The writing is fresh and lively. The videos are clear and entertaining. It is a book that attracts students who will never take another economics course and excites economics majors.

Randy T. Simmons,
Professor of Political Economy,
Utah State University

Here’s a cool video explaining some of the features of Modern Principles.

Gender pay gap observation

…according to a new analysis of 2,000 communities by a market research company, in 147 out of 150 of the biggest cities in the U.S., the median full-time salaries of young women are 8% higher than those of the guys in their peer group. In two cities, Atlanta and Memphis, those women are making about 20% more. This squares with earlier research from Queens College, New York, that had suggested that this was happening in major metropolises. But the new study suggests that the gap is bigger than previously thought, with young women in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego making 17%, 12% and 15% more than their male peers, respectively. And it also holds true even in reasonably small areas like the Raleigh-Durham region and Charlotte in North Carolina (both 14% more), and Jacksonville, Fla. (6%).

The figures come from James Chung of Reach Advisors, who has spent more than a year analyzing data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. He attributes the earnings reversal overwhelmingly to one factor: education. For every two guys who graduate from college or get a higher degree, three women do. This is almost the exact opposite of the graduation ratio that existed when the baby boomers entered college. Studies have consistently shown that a college degree pays off in much higher wages over a lifetime, and even in many cases for entry-level positions. “These women haven’t just caught up with the guys,” says Chung. “In many cities, they’re clocking them.”

Chung also claims that, as far as women’s pay is concerned, not all cities are created equal. Having pulled data on 2,000 communities and cross-referenced the demographic information with the wage-gap figures, he found that the cities where women earned more than men had at least one of three characteristics. Some, like New York City or Los Angeles, had primary local industries that were knowledge-based. Others were manufacturing towns whose industries had shrunk, especially smaller ones like Erie, Pa., or Terre Haute, Ind. Still others, like Miami or Monroe, La., had a majority minority population. (Hispanic and black women are twice as likely to graduate from college as their male peers.)

That is not the final word, but here is more from Time magazine.

Do earthquakes make men more risk tolerant?

We investigate whether individuals’ risk preferences change after experiencing a natural disaster, specifically, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Exploiting the panels of nationally representative surveys on risk preferences, we find that men who experienced greater intensity of the earthquake became more risk tolerant a year after the Earthquake. Interestingly, the effects on men’s risk preferences are persistent even five years after the Earthquake at almost the same magnitude as those shortly after the Earthquake. Furthermore, these men gamble more, which is consistent with the direction of changes in risk preferences. We find no such pattern for women.

That is from a newly published paper by Chie Hanaoka, Hitoshi Shigeoka, and Yasutora Watanabe.  What else will have this effect?

*Cognitive Gadgets*

The author is Cecilia Heyes, and the subtitle is The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, published by Harvard/Belknap.  It is not always a transparent read, but this is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences.

From the book’s home page:

…adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.

The key substantive points from this are malleability and speed of evolution, and overall in her theory there is a much lower reliance on cognitive instincts and thus a fundamentally different account of social evolution: “In contrast, the cognitive gadgets theory applies cultural evolutionary theory to the mechanisms of thought — the mental processes that generate and control behavior.”

And “…social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think.”

The chapter on imitation is the best appendage to Girard on memesis I know.  One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love.  To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities.  Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly.  This too we learn through cultural gadgets.

Mindreading is also a mental gadget, it must be learned, and it is surprisingly similar to print reading.  In an odd twist on Julian Jaynes, Heyes suggests that humans five or six thousand years ago may not have had this capacity very strongly.  And as with print reading, there is cross-cultural diversity in mindreading.  There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too.

What about language?  Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning.”  This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187).

Most generally, if someone is trying to explain X, maybe both genetic/instinct and cultural evolution accounts of X are wrong — try a cultural gadget approach!  And think of this book as perhaps the best attempt so far to explain the weirdness of humans, relative to other animals.

Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts.  Furthermore, social media may indeed matter a great deal, and in revisionist terms some parts of Marx are not as crazy as they may seem (my point this latter one, not hers).

I need more time (years?) to digest the contents of this book, and decide how much I agree.  It is somehow neither hard nor easy reading, but most MR readers should be able to make their way through it.  Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Buy it on Amazon here.  Here is a Heyes lecture on related ideas, also click through to part II.

China simulated death markets in everything

Beijing’s biggest funeral parlor held an open day last Thursday that featured a virtual reality simulation of death, reported The Beijing News — though it left some wondering why you would want to experience death prematurely.

Visitors could don VR glasses and earphones to experience having a seizure at work, a failed paramedic rescue, and entrance into the afterlife. Funeral parlor employee Dong Ziyi told The Beijing News that the immersive experience “enables people to better cherish the beauty of life.”

In addition to the death experience, visitors can use VR to explore funeral services with a five-minute session that goes through corpse delivery and storage, mortuary preparations, the memorial service, and cremation — a tour that would take an hour in real life.

Here is more by Liang Chenyu from Sixth Tone, one of my favorite media outlets.

My Conversation with Martina Navratilova

Here is the podcast and transcript, Martina was in top form and dare I say quick on her feet?  Here is part of the summary:

In their conversation, she and Tyler cover her illustrious tennis career, her experience defecting from Czechoslovakia and later becoming a dual citizen, the wage gap in tennis competition and commentary, gender stereotypes in sports, her work regimen and training schedule, technological progress in tennis, her need for speed, journaling and constant self-improvement, some of her most shocking realizations about American life, the best way to see East Africa, her struggle to get her children to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and more.

Here is one bit:

NAVRATILOVA: I just wanted to leave no stone unturned, really. The coach, obviously, was technique and tactics. The physical part was training, working very hard. I’ll give you my typical day in a minute. The eating was so that I could train hard and not get injured. So it all came together.

The typical day, then, when I really was humming was four hours of tennis, 10:00 to 2:00, two hours of drills and maybe two hours of sets. Then I would do some running drills on the court for 15, 20 minutes, sprints that if I did them now, I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.


NAVRATILOVA: You know, 15- to 30-second sprinting drills. Then we would eat lunch. Then I would go either play basketball full-court, two on two for an hour and a half or little man-big man. It’s two on one. I don’t know, those people that play basketball. You just run. You just run.

COWEN: Which one were you?

NAVRATILOVA: It switches. Whoever has the ball is the little man. No, whoever has the ball, it’s one against two. Then you play little man, the person plays defense, and then the big man plays center. It’s not two on one, it’s one against one and then one. Then whoever gets the ball goes the other way. It’s run, run, run.

Then I would lift weights and have dinner either before lifting weights or after. So it was a full day of training.

COWEN: What about 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.?

And this:

COWEN:Billie Jean King once suggested that you use writing in a journal every day to help you accomplish your goals. How does that work for you? What is it you do? Why do you think it works?

NAVRATILOVA: It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have. It becomes more real and more current because it narrows it down in that, “What do you need to do today?” and “Did you accomplish that goal?” You have a big goal. You break it into smaller goals, into smaller goals, until you get into, “OK, what do I do today to get to that goal?”

…Try to be honest with yourself. Be honest but also be nice to yourself. You see that with most champions. They’re perfectionists. You beat yourself up too much. I preach and I try to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

If you strive for excellence, perfection may happen. [laughs] It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.

I asked her this:

COWEN: What was it like to go skiing with Donald Trump?

My favorite part was this:

NAVRATILOVA: Tyler, you need to drink more water. You’re not hydrating at all.

Remember, above all else, sports is cognitive!  These are some of the smartest humans of our time, even if it is not always the kind of intelligence you respect most.