There is no higher intellectual pursuit than a PhD. It offers the promise of living a 'life of the mind': freedom of thought and inquiry; creative control over your work; middle-class comfort without middle-class drudgery; and above all, a meaningful life in the pursuit of knowledge.
This is the 'noble lie' of the Academy. None of this really exists in any meaningful way for most of the people pursuing it, but it is propagated—unwittingly or otherwise—in a manner that maintains what is effectively a pyramid scheme of hyperexploited labour designed to siphon money from children.
Everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear has known for some time that there is a human cost to this arrangement, but researchers have finally given empirical grounding to our ugly suspicions. According to a study in Research Policy from earlier this year, rates of psychological distress and symptoms of mental illness are twice as likely to occur among PhD students as the rest of the "highly educated general population." Specifically, one in two PhD students surveyed experienced symptoms of psychological distress, while one in three is at heightened risk for developing psychiatric illnesses, especially anxiety and/or depression. According to the study's abstract "Organizational policies were significantly associated with the prevalence of mental health problems."
The findings shouldn't be shocking for anyone who has spent any amount of time among PhD students. Horror stories abound. In reflecting on the full-immersion acid bath called graduate school, one friend of mine quipped that "mental illness is to grad students as black lung was to Victorian coal miners." Another who left our PhD program two years in told me that he "didn't realize how miserable school made him until [he] was out," and I thought about that sentence almost every day until I quit the program myself earlier this year.
As for myself, I developed a panic disorder in the final few months I was attending the University of Alberta, on top of a deep depressive episode that had set in about halfway through my time in the PhD program. I won't pretend that quitting the PhD solved all my problems—you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who reads and writes about current affairs in 2017 who isn't a little fucked up—but I no longer need any Ativan to get me through the day.
There are so many different factors at play in how and why getting a PhD warps so many people. Part, certainly, is the nature of the work itself. Intellectual labour is by nature solitary and often isolating; it's long, lonely hours spent in a library or a lab, followed by days and weeks and months and years of staring at a flashing cursor on a computer screen. On top of this are the demands of your supervisor and your dissertation committee, all of whom are themselves the warped products of this brutal system. Then there is the added stress of being a human being trying to keep their friendships, romances, and family bonds from fraying apart as you do all this work while hovering around the poverty line, financing this endeavour through endless teaching and grading work and/or extortionate student loans. Unless you are also one of the fortunate or shrewd few who decided to study something intellectually trendy, a good chunk of your working year will also be spent dutifully filing grant applications that will be just as dutifully rejected.
This is, presumably, to prepare you for life after completion.
You will be made to feel that every stumble along the way is your own and that every failure is a personal one. You will be made to feel ashamed any time you wonder whether or not it might be better to walk away, or seek a life outside the ivory tower, because you are betraying the Life of the Mind and thus also yourself. The institution and its guardians are always blameless. Through all this you will still have deadlines to meet, conferences to attend, snobbish cocktail circuits to run, papers to grade, publications to prepare, dinners to make, bills to pay, reports to file, life to watch slowly ebbing away.
You will deal with all of this and finish your dissertation for the privilege to spend years applying for jobs outside your expertise in cities you don't want to live in for less money than you need to pay down your debt at universities that will more often than not reject you anyway. In the meantime you will watch everyone you have ever known race ahead of you in life as you try to cobble together a living wage out of part-time sessional teaching contracts that eat up all the time you need to spend researching, writing, and publishing, keeping the Holy Grail of Tenure forever just out of your reach. But don't despair! Everyone who has managed to get their golden ticket (or who have otherwise succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome keeping this whole wretched enterprise afloat) will come out of the woodwork to remind you that you just need to pay your dues and everything will work out fine because the Academy is still a meritocracy. Pay no attention to the adjunct professors living out of their cars or the disintegration of your body or the way the corporate university looks more and more like a bureaucratic kleptocracy accountable to no one but its own grossly overpaid executives. Welcome to the machine. What did you dream? It's alright; we told you what to dream.
Ah yes. What good is a life of the mind, anyway, if you lose yours along the way? Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.