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Getting a Doctorate Is Such a Total Beatdown

A new study suggests just how dramatically dispiriting the process of studying for an advanced degree can be.

by Jesse Hicks
Mar 29 2017, 6:34pm

C. Devan/Getty Images

It's hard being a PhD student. It means years of toiling in near-isolation on often arcane topics, navigating the treacherous waters of academia, and hoping that, by the end of it all, you'll find a safe harbor among one of the shrinking numbers of tenure-track jobs. The process can be exhausting and demoralizing, in ways often misunderstood by outsiders—there's a reason academics keep asking, "Is grad school a cult?"

A new study suggests just how dramatically dispiriting the whole process can be. Half of PhD students experience psychological distress; nearly one-third are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, including depression. Those numbers are much greater than among the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, or students in higher education, implying that there's more to the story than just rigorous education harming long-time students.

In fact, there's a strong association between the mental health of PhD students and the organizational environment in which they live and work. The study authors offer a host of contributing factors that will be familiar to anyone who's been a doctoral student, knows some current ones, or has read PhD Comics

There are the demands of the work and the feeling of having little control over one's career; within academia, sustaining jobs are scarce, and people who try to leave the system often have deep-seated feelings of failure. Balancing a family (or even friends) with the all-consuming demands of a PhD program is difficult, with supervisors often expecting students to have no life outside of their work. Those same supervisors can make or break a career; having the right ones can open doors and lead to a fruitful mentorship, while having a supervisor turn against you can render you an outcast in the profession.

These problems aren't new. It's easy enough to find stories of what PhD study can do to people: The long-running Tumblr page "Academia is killing my friends" collects dozens of "anonymous stories of abuse, exploitation, and suffering in academia." Researchers have long examined the issue: A 2015 study of University of California at Berkeley students found 47 percent qualified as depressed—similar results to a study performed a decade earlier. It called out the familiar stress factors, including career prospects—again, for decades, the number of tenure track jobs has declined.

The new study reiterates the challenges facing PhD students and underscores the problems that have plagued academia for a long time. The question remains whether anything will change.

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