I’ve been meaning to recommend to all the grad students in my department that they read My Laser Boyfriend’s Grad School Survival Guide: How to make the most of the worst four to seven years of your life.
The advice in that blog post is excellent, particularly the parts about making friends with other grad students, finding a lab mentor, being nice to the lab techs, budgeting your time, backing up your computer, fixing things that need fixing, and seeking professional counseling if you get depressed.
Depression is a problem for grad students. I think that about 10% of grad students seek counseling each year, but that is based on a fairly small sample of one computational STEM department—it might vary with the field, with the mentoring styles of the faculty, and with the quality of the social support among the grad students. According to a 2008 blog post from PsychCentral, at UC Berkeley
within one year:
• About 45 percent experienced “an emotional or stress-related problem that significantly affected their well being and/or academic performance.”
• 10 percent “seriously considered suicide.”
They also reported
The majority of grad students actually don’t get help.
While some students consider seeking services, they don’t pursue them. For instance, the Berkeley study found that although nearly 52 percent thought about seeking services, only 27 percent did.
Also, international students are less likely to seek mental health services because of lack of knowledge about services and the stigma associated with mental illness and seeking help.
Their citation for the Berkeley Graduate Student Mental Health Survey has a broken link, but I think I found the 2004 survey as Appendix E to an information packet for the UC Regents, and I’ve provided a link to that packet. The report does describe their survey method, which relied on responses to to an online survey, a sampling method that is likely to bias the results fairly strongly (but they got a 34.5% response rate, so the numbers can’t be more than a factor of 3 too large, even with the worst bias possible).
So it looks like my view of graduate student mental health may be particularly rosy. I don’t have access to confidential student medical records (nor should I), so it may be that there are more students seeking help in my department than I’m aware of. Or it may be that our department is less stressful than many, or that our students are more competent than many and so suffer less from imposter syndrome (we do get to be very selective), or that our informal support mechanisms (like an awesome staff grad adviser) work better than most. I think that my work as grad director for our department could be improved if I knew more about the mental health of the grad students in general, but I don’t know how much I can really do to improve conditions for them.
I’ve been putting off recommending My Laser Boyfriend’s blog post for one reason—the bad title. There is no way that grad school should be the worst years of your life. Yes, it is probably the most intense time of learning you will encounter, and you will finally meet and work with people smarter than you, possibly much smarter, but those are good things, not bad things.
Of course, I’m basing part of my opinion here on my own experience, where my 8 years of grad school were some of my best years—low stress, lots of cool things to do, and time to do them. Having had fellowships that allowed me not to worry about funding or having to please a particular adviser who held the purse strings may have made a big difference here. That’s one reason I encourage all grad students to apply for any fellowship that they might qualify for—it’s not just to stretch the funding budget but to give the grad students the freedom to explore topics that are not grant funded.
For those seeking an academic career, grad school should be a joy. After all, the work load is lighter than that of an assistant professor, the schedule more flexible, and the stakes lower. A student who finds grad school too stressful (under ordinary conditions, not counting demon advisers, family tragedies, or funding disasters) will probably find life as a professor miserable, and should seek a less-stressful work environment.
I’ve been told that the national labs and industrial research both provide less stressful environments, except for the fear of corporate mergers and massive layoffs in industrial jobs. My Dad worked at IITRI and at Argonne National Lab, and I do know that he was sometimes quite worried about the periodic layoffs, but he did not talk about it—so I don’t know how stressful those concerns really were. My own experience has all been in academia, other than one summer in Argonne National Lab and one summer in Bell Labs, both of which were student intern positions and not representative of full-time employment, so I don’t really know whether the national labs or industry are really less stressful than academia, or just different. A fair comparison would probably require surveying hundreds of people who have had several years in both sorts of jobs and can compare them directly—I’m not interested in doing that sort of work, but I’d be glad of a pointer to research someone else has done.
Popular wisdom claims that the stress of an academic job drops enormously after getting tenure, since job security is then quite high. I’ve not found that to be the case—it seems to me that the associate and full professors are just as stressed as the assistant professors, but more about how they will handle all the demands on their time and how they will fund their grad students and postdocs than by whether they will have a job in 5 years.