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.


2 thoughts on “Why Are Graduate Students Miserable?”

  1. I don’t think graduate school has much to do with mental illness or misery. Even the study you cite says “Although the undergraduates reported more psychological issues and specific psychiatric diagnoses than graduate students did, the levels among graduate students were still high.” So…graduate students are actually better off than undergrads, and I suspect that undergrads are better off than young people, as a whole, since mental illness rates decrease in wealth.


    1. Good points. I wanted to compare the rates to other institutions like the military, prisons, or other professions, but stopped short. The mechanism I claim is driving “entry fees” up for graduate students should affect undergraduates in the same way. So we won’t I think know if I’m totally off until we know how those rates in universities generally compare to general population rates.

      Let’s say the rates are the same among graduate students as in other institutions or general population. I think it would still be the case that those diagnoses are a largely a function of people’s institutional context. That said, I did initially lean my discussion on the idea that rates are so disproportionate in graduate school that they’re a unique institutional feature, and would need more evidence to show that.


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