Why Are Graduate Students Miserable?

By Graham Peterson

Everybody knows graduate school is hard.  Graduate students complainbrag about how much work they have.  Shit Academics Say is a twitter feed with 122,000 followers; more than half the jokes are about procrastination, guilt, and overwork.  Now of course, things that aren’t hard aren’t worth doing, and if you’re not terrified, you’re not trying hard enough.  But the academic workload isn’t all honor and self deprecating jokes.

There is a gigantic problem with mental health in graduate school.  The statistics are startling.  One estimate says that a tenth of graduate students will contemplate suicide in a year, and 60% feel consistently hopeless. Another says that 30% of graduate students are depressed.  Then there’s imposter syndrome.  Everybody, if you ask around, has impostor syndrome.

At some threshold of incidence, a mental health problem or syndrome becomes a feature of a social institution, not an individualistic syndrome or problem.  Graduate school is one such hell hole.  Training for any job should in any world be hard.  But an institution correlated with routine hopelessness and a mudslide of confidence cannot reasonably point at psychology.

At that, senior professors will smile and reminisce about how they had it hard too, and how scholarship is honorable for its difficulty.  Anointed and deserving of the custody of veritas, they are.  And we shall be too, should we submit and devote ourselves to the same altar. But no. Becoming a research professor was in fact much easier in history than it is today.

Many professors spent most of graduate school reading around, having long conversations, planning a scholarly masterpiece.  Lots of them got jobs without having yet finished their dissertations.  When positions opened up, their advisors just called their friends and invited applications from the friend’s cabbage patch.  It’s hard to imagine 30% of people faced with such constraints being clinically depressed.

Since then the demand for academic positions has outstripped their supply, and the price of getting a position has shot up.  The same structural forces that have been driving tuitions up, have driven up the entry fees required to get into the research club.  Now in addition to the dissertation, students are expected to assemble top publications, to have written and taught courses, and to have written for research grants.

What are those structural forces?  Well universities keep donators donating and parents writing checks by keeping up their prestige, and prestige is a function of how many people universities turn away.  Thus, regardless that public demand for higher education and research have exploded, university supply hasn’t exploded.  That means no explosion of research jobs.

So the only things exploding in graduate school are confidence, social lives, families, and checking accounts.

Tenured professors have no incentive to improve matters, so matters have not improved.* If one tenth of students contemplate suicide and quit, the line to replace them is endless. So professors reproduce the version of graduate training that they grew up on, the academic vision quest .  They keep portraying scholarship like a marriage or religious devotion, and we keep feeling like a bad husband or acolyte when we don’t meet lunatic expectations.

Graduate training and the research professorate are broken.  Universities need to expand operations and find better ways to account for quality than prestige signaling.  And primary research probably needs to be divorced from teaching, so that it responds to demands for research, not for a limited number of jobs stamping adolescents with professional class credentials.

*To be fair, many have made a lot of effort to improve graduate training, both out of conscience and because it’s hard for them to place students.  But they cannot keep up with the structural tide.


The Mind Is Bayesian, Not Freudian

By Graham Peterson

Defensiveness, as I understand the term, is an emotion motivated by stored up traumas.  Traumas drive people to react disproportionately to external events, that are in a current context tangential or unrelated to those internal fears.  “You’re just being defensive,” as it goes.

Note (again), that’s an unfalsifiable accusation.  Any defense against the accusation goes toward proving it’s true. “No, I’m not.”  “See, I told you that you were being defensive.” Psychoanalytic claims are accusatory cannon fodder — and are not measurable, checkable, scientific claims.  Moreover, they’re a recipe for division and paranoia.

But enough Freud bashing.  Let’s think about an alternative theory of mind.

I’ve known some defensive people in my life.  I know a guy who basically always got his way because challenging him, even on the small stuff, was asking for a fight.  That guy was also beaten — mercilessly — by his parents, until a foster parent took him in around age ten.  So is it fair to accuse him of being defensive?  I don’t think so.  The phrasing has all kinds of prejudicial weight.  It means he carries some burden or baggage in his subconscious that he is unable to access or control.  It means he’s irrational.

But let’s think harder.  To this guy, who has experienced routine and disproportionate sanctions for his behaviors, constant criticism and attacks from people who love him — to him the correct inference to make, conditioned on a signal like “X is getting critical with me,” is that a humiliating beating is coming.

If we think of people making perfectly rational predictions about the likelihood of future events, based on a probability distribution they’ve constructed with memories and prior information, we have a Bayesian theory of mind.  Defensiveness is in this theory merely incorrect inferences one makes after switching contexts.  Mistakes in inference and behavior come from external changes in the social and physical environment.

The mind, in this view, is a machine built to interact with an environment and other people, not a machine built to manage its own internal logic, relative to some prehistorically given drives and urges.  There are three advantages to the social, Bayesian model of mind, as opposed to the individual, psychoanalytic theory of mind.  The first is scientific, the second is therapeutic, and the third is normative.

First, a Bayesian theory of mind is scientifically attractive.  It makes generalizable and mathematically tractable, probabilistic predictions about how people will react externally.  Both stimulus and response are externally observable, and are connected by an internally unobservable mechanism that makes ordered predictions.  Observing the order of responses, with respect to the order of stimuli, reveals the logic of the unobservable mechanism.

The Freudian theory of mind is on the other hand, literally, untestable story telling about a tragic struggle for control among characters inside people’s heads.  The Bayesian theory of mind is falsifiable; the psychoanalytic theory of mind is not.

Someone either learns a probability distribution based over events, and responds predictably from draws over that distribution, or they don’t.  The only way to observe the narrative struggle among the alleged characters in the Freudian story is to ask people to openly reflect.  But remember that the entire theory is predicated on the idea that they are lying to themselves and us.  “You’re in denial.”  “No, I’m not.”  “See.”  “You’re being defensive.”  “No, I’m not.”  “See.”  So there go our external observations and verifiability.

Second, a Bayesian theory of mind  recommends a dramatically different treatment regiment for folks who are having trouble.

If people are actually Bayesian, then we wouldn’t want to put people on couches and dredge up their subconscious, hoping for release.  We wouldn’t treat therapy like a tabloid expose of internalized drama.  We wouldn’t try to catch them in their own bullshit or tell them to catch themselves.  (I can’t imagine a more destructive thing to do to someone with low self esteem, who is afraid, than give her even more reason to degrade her faith in herself.)

We would talk about their histories and memories in order to establish the frequency with which patients (reasonably) expect to experience traumatizing (and joyful!) events.  We would then discuss with a patient whether or not those expectations, given the current environment the patient is in, are in fact reasonable.  If not, we would understand that he is making mistakes in estimating probabilities, not lacking some amorphous “strength” or “maturity” to “manage” his internal drives.

So we would encourage him to go out into the world and take more samples of current context, in order to update the information on his priors, not sit at home and pick himself apart, second guessing himself, hoping to reveal and unlock a big box of built up trauma.  This is in essence what I understand Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to be, and is probably why it works so well.

People recognize that their fears (priors) are irrational (incongruent with their current environment), and go out and get new experiences to retrain themselves (their priors) to react differently (make better predictions) about current stimuli.

Finally, the advantages are normative.  The Bayesian theory of mind paints a much nicer picture of people.  It assumes that people are essentially are rational and intelligent, not irrational animals trying to keep a lid on their erections and rage.  It takes for granted that people are usually in equilibrium with their environments, responding proportionally and intelligently to events.

In its role as a theory that people use to anticipate and interact with one another, the Bayesian theory generates empathy and understanding.  It encourages us to try and understand the distribution of priors that one another are working with, all slightly different, but for understandable reasons.  We stop seeing one another as nuclear reactors of internal power struggles, waiting to “take out” our “built up” issues.  And we start believing in each others, on balance, good intentions.

We stop being paranoid of one another’s subconscious demons and traumas, and most importantly — we stop being paranoid of our own subconscious demons and traumas.  We realize that we are built as inference machines, linked up to a social and physical environment.  We realize that one another and our minds are social, and that we reason together in groups, about one another, and solve problems with one another.

The Bayesian theory of mind is hopeful, charitable, and testable.  The psychoanalytic theory of mind is an untestable, derogatory cudgel.

Psychoanalysis Is An Awful Theory of Mind

By Graham Peterson

Psychoanalysis is an awful theory of mind, and we should be suspicious of claims that rely on it.  When we hear about someone, or some group, compensating for something, or about their complex, or envy, or more directly, about their narcissism and ego and phobias and so forth, we should think twice.

Note that psychoanalysis is often just a cudgel.  We use psychoanalytic theories to “pathologize” people and groups, and the pathology is often baseless.  Of course all theories can be used to bad effects, like say biology and eugenics, but psychoanalysis hasn’t had many countervailing good outcomes in the same way gene therapy has.

The first premise of most psychoanalytic theories is that there exists out there in the world some normal level of  X.  A normal number of possessions.  A normal amount of emotional security.  Someone who finds themselves with less than that (arbitrary and exogenously imposed) normal level of X experiences a lack, and sets out to compensate.  This person experiences envy and inferiority.

Maybe people do overcompensate, but compensate over what?  What sets the level of normal?  Is it something we all just know and agree on?  The psychoanalyst?  It looks like the theory is something people — usually the dominant group of people — use to assert what should be normal, than it is a device to discover what the level of normal is.

Now, there may be a way to establish the level of normal.  Maybe we can go out and take an average over some behavior.  A mode.  A median.  We could then establish how much a person or group deviates from that level.  Past some threshold, maybe they experience a lack and need to compensate.

But psychoanalysis works in the reverse.  It starts at abnormal, asserting that X is abnormal, and then defines normal in terms of abnormal.  In this view, normality chases the psychoanalyst around, trying to keep up with the list of things she has claimed are perverse.  Psychoanalysis is a fancy grammar for for stamping people and groups as moral deviants, and clearing others of it.

As much is pretty obvious if you go back and read original psychoanalysis.  The essay On Narcissism, by Sigmund Freud, starts with the blank assertion that masturbation is disgusting, that it is prototypical of all self love, that homosexuals suffer disproportionately from it, and that it is thus the basis of narcissism.  That sounds morally distasteful to modern people, but the problem is analytical.

The theory doesn’t tell us how to establish the normal level of self love that would allow us to measure deviations from it, and diagnose narcissism beyond some threshold.  In fact it says the opposite.  It says, “go out and find people whom you believe are behaving badly; attribute their behavior to self love.  From that you can derive the normal level of self love by comparing.”

It’s circular: one derives narcissism by asserting narcissism.

The same goes for phobias.  What is a phobia?  It is the assertion that a person or group is more afraid of something than they should be.  The theory cannot tell us how to determine the level of fear that is normal, allowing us to go out and measure deviations from that norm, because the norm itself is defined in terms of the phobia.  It’s again circular: one derives phobias by asserting phobias.

Psychoanalytic theory in this way has been used throughout its history to malign people.

First it was women, envying penises.  Then via Merton’s theory of anomie it was poor blacks, envying middle class consumption.  Lately it’s been homophobes and masculinity.  No matter how many times we decide that theorists have, once again, acted as society’s hit men and legitimated routine prejudice, the theory just won’t die.  Because it is extremely attractive.

People love to shame and ostracize one another.  It’s a tribal thing, and we’re still (often for the worse) tribal people.  Psychoanalytic theory gives us a very legitimate and Official Sounding basis over which to do so.  It allows us, in the first instance, to make ex cathedra assertions about the nasty nature of deviants and out groups, and in the second instance, relieves us of any responsibility to prove those claims with external evidence.

Psychoanalysis relies on assumptions about the subconscious mind, which is by definition unobservable, even to the person who possesses it.  So psychoanalysis allows us to make moral claims on people’s character, that are untestable with those people’s revealed behaviors, all the while sounding like you’re not making moral claims at all.  Moreover, it postulates that people are secretly afraid, insecure, power hungry, and envious.

It’s the apotheosis of pseudoscience, it’s an engine of paranoia and prejudice, and we should just stop it.