According to this new survey, depression and anxiety are far more common among graduate students than in the general population. This should surprise no one at all, but it’s good to have some quantitative data on the problem. There are limitations to the study – for one thing, it’s quite possible that (self-selected) respondents were among those more likely to have experienced these problems. The survey was done across 26 different countries (over 2200 respondents), 70% female/28% male/2% transgender, and the fields of study involved were 56% humanities and 38% physical sciences – no breakdown of the numbers by these categories is available.
Even with these reservations, I have no trouble believing the overall conclusions – based on my own experience and my observations since, I think that anxiety and depression are very close to inevitable in graduate study, and that students should be aware of what they’re getting into. What’s happening, in any field, is the rubber finally meeting the road: you’re not just sitting in classrooms; you’re doing what practitioners of your chosen line of work actually do, and you’re finding out what that’s really like and whether or not you’re any good at it. If that doesn’t bring on the occasional bout of anxiety and self-doubt, then something is off.
Moving from that to depression is not such a huge jump, either. All of us who have been through grad school have seen people who sort of freeze up at some point in their progress. Sometimes it happens near the beginning, such as when chemistry graduate students move out of classes and into the labs – some of them just can’t seem to get anything going. I remember people who were always just about to start something, just about to figure out what went wrong with the last thing (which was spread out into a bunch of inconclusive samples around their hoods), just about to really start making some progress. But they never did. Later in the process, another familiar figure is the person who’s been hanging around for years in the lab, running ever more experiments to avoid writing up, as is their near-relative, the person who’s actually out of the lab, writing up that dissertation/thesis, expected to set a defense date pretty soon. . .and who in the end, is never heard from again after a while, finding themselves unable to get the thing done. After a while, the official notices from the department come back stamped “Addressee unknown”.
Depression might well be a good description of what’s going on in many of these situations. Someone finds themselves in an untenable situation and sinks into a state that makes it more untenable every day. David Foster Wallace defined a harmful addiction as something that offered itself as the remedy for the problems that it itself was causing (as with alcohol), and the downward-spiral mode of life has some similarities, as a big factor in what put you into this spot makes you ever less likely to do anything about it. The canonical view of major depression from the inside is William Styron’s Darkness Visible, but you don’t have to be as far along as Styron was to be in real trouble.
I don’t think I got quite as far as depression myself, but there’s no doubt that I was under significant stress. Even the stock of stories that I have from grad school illustrates that. So many of them feature me losing my temper about something, and honestly, I rarely do that out here in the real world. I well recall unnerving bouts of fear and uncertainty, wondering if I was doing the right thing with my life, wondering if it was too late to do much about that even if I were, wondering if my research was any good or if I was any good at doing it, and what I was going to do about it if the answer to either or both of those were actually “No”. And so on. By the end of it, I was thoroughly sick of my project, wildly ready to get out the door and see what the post-doc life was going to be like (and very much wondering if it would turn out to be more of the same, in a different location).
I saw some outright breakdowns while I was in grad school – there’s no other way to describe them. In some cases a person’s hours and behavior would become erratic, their actions hard to understand or predict. Sometimes in these the ship would apparently right itself and sometimes it wouldn’t. I saw examples of just those situations mentioned above, with people unable to make a real start in research or unable to write up at the end of it. And there was one flat-out suicide attempt, very nearly successful and permanently damaging to the person involved.
At my own worst moments, I would be standing there in the lab feeling like a pitcher out on the mound who had just shaken off every pitch he knew how to throw. I was hauling material up the mountainside of a long linear synthesis, and I was frustrated to a degree beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I didn’t feel like working up the reactions in front of me, and I didn’t feel like setting up others. Waiting for me was my reward at the end of twenty-odd linear steps, the chance to risk all my hard work by trying (finally) some new chemistry that would probably not work and might well destroy my starting material in the process. Oh joy.
I think I’ve told this next story before, but can’t track down the post where I did. At any rate, a pivotal moment was when I was bashing along with the largest load of starting material I’d ever made. Up at around step 9 (I was still in liter-sized flask territory) I was ready to work up the whole batch after a late-night reaction. I added some ammonium chloride and extracted the black mixture. That didn’t worry me; it was always black. I evaporated it down to a bunch of black oil and loaded it on a big gravity column of coarse silica gel – from prior runs, I knew that would hold the black crud at the top and allow a big yellow band of product to elute. Except this time the whole column turned black. Must have overloaded the column with this big pile of material, I thought. I collected a bunch of black fractions and rota-vapped them down, only to find what I sort of thought was a lot less oil than I’d been expecting. Reserving worry, I set up another column on that stuff, and this time the whole column turned black again, and nothing at all came out the other end but slightly discolored solvent. I had, in fact, destroyed my entire huge batch, because at 2 AM I was too groggy to remember that I was supposed to work it up with saturated bicarb, not ammonium chloride. All gone.
I stood there, alone, in the middle of the night, looking at all the mess I’d created. Ruined, all that batch of material that was going to finally get my synthesis finished and get me out of this place. I shook my head, cursed loudly, and went home, and to my surprise I fell asleep fairly quickly. What else was there to do? I woke up the next morning and went through that terrible disorienting feeling when after a few seconds you suddenly remember that something bad happened the night before. And then I got up and went to the lab, and set up an even larger batch back at the beginning of the synthesis, step one. Looking back, that night and that morning were a key episode in my graduate career and my life in general, because that batch I started that next day really did get me out in the end. I had bent and come very close to breaking at times, but it turned out that the worst had happened and I was still in one piece.
Things definitely could have gone in other ways, though, and if they had there’s no telling where I would be now or what I would be doing. If that incident had happened to me a year before, I don’t know how I would have taken it. By the time I speak of, I had my eyes on the door and a PhD defense, having decided that the shortest way out of this awful situation was in that direction. I was devoting all my efforts to it, in an “OK, did today get me closer to defending, or not?” sort of way. Earlier, though, I was too far from the beginning and too far from the end to have that mindset, and a whopping failure would not have gone down well.
I think it’s important for graduate students to realize that everyone has these doubts and bad stretches. Everyone has these moments when they wonder what they’ve done to their lives, but having these thoughts is not a sign that the exact failure you’re fearing has arrived. That doesn’t mean that thinking about your purpose in grad school is a bad thing, but it probably is a bad thing to try to do it at periods of peak emotional stress. If you feel that it really is getting too much, definitely talk to someone. Universities have people around for just that purpose – more so than in my day, fortunately – and if you find yourself wondering if you should reach out like that, then odds are that you should. Do it. I wish some of the people I worked with had, or had been able to.
Any meaningful graduate degree is going to be a test of your abilities and your resilience. Recognize this, and avoid the two extremes. On one end are the macho types whose response is “Eat stress for breakfast! That’s what I did in my day! If you don’t have the fire in your belly you don’t belong here!”. And on the other end are the voices, some perhaps external and some internal, telling you that you’re a failure already, an imposter, and that you’re never going to measure up anyway. These are two different sets of lies, and everyone has to steer their course between them.