There is, in my view, a really important post up at the Smoker on mental health issues in grad school and beyond. Although the post itself is about clinical, diagnosed mental illness (a reader wrote in asking if they should pursue a PhD after being diagnosed with serious mental illness during their MA), many of the comments focus on another issue: the manner in which the stresses of graduate school and the profession lead many otherwise mentally healthy people to experience serious difficulties with anxiety, sadness, etc. As one commenter writes,
Almost EVERYONE I knew in graduate school went through significant periods of anxiety and depression. This, by itself, does not make anyone abnormal or indicate an underlying mental illness. Graduate school is a trying time for many (and, I think, many of us who choose to go to graduate school in philosophy are especially sensitive to the pressures of external validation).
Now, I don't know how common this person's experience is, but it matches mine (and my wife's) fairly well. Graduate school is an intensely stressful time. Indeed, in my experience, it's not uncommon for people to feel (not altogether unreasonably) as though their entire career hangs in the balance with everything they do. There are so many things to worry about in grad school -- whether you are making a good impression on faculty, whether your work is any good, whether you will pass your comp exams, what you will do with your life if you don't, etc. (I could go on for a really, really long time). And, of course, things are even worse (far worse) when -- as is sometimes the case -- things don't go well (e.g. you're doing unimpressive work, you've gotten a bad grade, failed your comps, can't come up with a dissertation prospectus, etc.).
In my experience, these stresses can drive even the most otherwise mentally stable people into serious, prolonged periods of anxiety and despair. For, the fact is, the stakes in grad school are incredibly high -- and everyone knows it. Do well and you may be so lucky as to get a tenure-track job. Do badly and...who knows.
Finally, as Zombie writes, things don't tend to get easier after grad school (at least not right away). The pressure to publish, find a permanent job, teach full-time, tend to be even more stressful than the stresses of grad school:
My grad school experience, including writing a diss, was a cakewalk compared to the job market gauntlet, and having a TT job and working towards tenure. Seriouly, I feel 10 times the stress today, right this second, that I did in grad school.
I can attest to this. Grad school was tough. Professional life is tougher. The publishing and teaching expectations are far higher (not to mention the job market)...and you're on your own.
All of which begs many questions -- among them:
- What can grad students and other early-career people do adopt to deal effectively with these stresses (e.g. to stem anxiety, despair, etc.)?
- What can grad programs do to help their students?
I would like to open up these questions for discussion (as well as any other related ones readers might want to raise). But, before I do, I'd like to make a few suggestions.
Some thoughts on (1): what grad students and early-career professionals can do
Because I am not an expert on mental illness, I want to set aside questions about when to seek mental health treatment (this, it seems to me, is arguably a private issue that each individual should decide for themselves). A question I do feel prepared to address is what people can do outside of seeking treatment.
My first suggestion here is not to isolate oneself. In my experience, the most natural thing that grad students tend to do when they are plagued by worry, despair, etc., is retreat from the department. This is a natural reaction, I think, because people tend not to want other people to know how much they are struggling. But, in my experience, this is a recipe for disaster. When you are struggling, worrying, despairing, etc., the most difficult thing to do is to solve your problems yourself. I believe it is far more advisable to put yourself out there more: socialize more, seek out assistance from faculty and other students, set up reading/writing groups, etc. Retreating from the department does not tend to make problems go away. It causes them to fester.
My second suggestion -- and it might come as a surprise to some -- is not to "find an outlet." I've heard many people, in many places, say that if you are finding grad school tough, depressing, etc., you should find an outlet: a hobby, for instance, such as playing music, beermaking, etc. Now, I get it: this can sound like a good idea. Hobbies, etc., can be a "release" from anxiety, depression, etc. They're enjoyable! But...I've seen it happen again and again. Hobbies/outlets often function more as an escape from/denial of one's problems than a solution to them. And indeed, I've seen many, many people get so distracted by hobbies that, soon enough, they were doing the hobby more than they were doing philosophy -- and they were just digging a deeper hole for themselves. I should know. I was one of them. I took up music as a hobby in grad school, and for a couple of years I was so stressed out that I spent more time making music than doing what I should have been doing: working harder to get my dissertation off the ground, revise and publish papers, etc.
My third suggestion is one that I've made before, but I'll make again: try to have some fun and enjoy doing philosophy for it's own sake. I know, I know. Results matter. You need to impress the faculty, publish papers, etc. But, for all that, I will say from experience that these things are so much more difficult to do if they (results) are your overwhelming focus. Given the career stakes involved, it is natural to be extrinsically motivated (focusing on results). But, a great deal of psychological research shows that intrinsic motivation works far better, and this has been my experience. If you're having trouble, worrying, despairing, etc., the best thing to do is to stop focusing on extrinsics as much as you can and just throw yourself into your work, finding the love of philosophy that drove you to want to do this in the first place.
Some thoughts on (2): what departments can do
I tend to think that departments have far greater obligations to students than many other people appear to. The way I see it, most people go to graduate school with unrealistically optimistic expectations. Entering grad students are typically quite young, have a lot of maturing to do, and often think they are the next coming of Quine (or whomever). As tempting as it is to say it is "their responsibility to know what they're getting into", I would follow L.A. Paul's work on transformative experience to say that there's no way to truly know what you're getting into by pursuing a PhD until you get there.
So, what departments face is this: students who, blameless or not, end up in their program with a great deal of unrealistic optimism. Because of this -- and because of the consequences of failure -- it seems to me, grad programs owe their students a lot. They owe it to their students to put them into a position to succeed. And this, it seems to me, has to involve knowing the ways in which grad students can/do go astray, and having mechanisms in place to help. What kinds of mechanisms?
Here's one: each entering student should have an assigned faculty member they can approach, and trust, to confidentially address problems as they arise. I don't know how many philosophy programs have this kind of mechanism in place, but I know many STEM fields do, and I know it works well.
Here's another suggestion: programs should provide entering students with -- and address openly at the outset of the program -- a list of "pitfalls" grad students can fall into...and how to address them. This, I believe, could head off a great many problems. There are common pitfalls, and time and again, grad students fall prey to them in the same ways...when there are ways to both (1) avoid them, and (2) resolve them when they do arise. Students should be informed on both.
I guess these are all the suggestions I have for now. I'm curious to see what everyone thinks of them, and hope this post generates some discussion. I've seen too many grad students suffer, struggle, and fail. Whatever we can do to help, I'm all for!