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Depression Among Graduate Students is Real

As those of us who have gone through such an experience are well aware, for a number of people graduate school can be a long, lonely experience at times. Hours upon hours of reading, writing, grading, researching, rereading, rewriting, further grading and more researching is largely the norm. At times, such a routine can be engaging and rewarding. At other moments, such a journey feels like an endless cycle of drudgery, and possible futility. A person can easily feel that he has run up against a brick wall, been driven down a dead end road, or are locked in a room without walls surrounded by a blinding level of whiteness.

The recent report released by graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley confirms that life for a notable segment of graduate students is one filled with stress and anxiety. In a sample of 790 graduate students polled, 47% of Ph.D. students fell into the depressed category as opposed to 37% of their masters students. Among doctoral students, depression was greatest among those in the humanities and social sciences at 64%. This percentage was notably higher than those students in biological and physical sciences, 43-46%; the social sciences, 34%; and business, 28%.

Researchers also found several factors that shed a light on how graduate students view their lives:

· Career prospects

· Academic engagement

· Social support

· Academic progress and preparation

· Feeling valued and included

· Adviser relationship

There were others.

These findings do not surprise me. Closer to home, I can attest to the fact that, when I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D, I went through a period of mild depression. Like many of the current students interviewed, at times, I became overwhelmed with the often frantic pace and demands of graduate school. Teaching courses, grading assignments, researching and writing my dissertation, fretting about job prospects, etc., all on a relatively paltry salary. In my case, such stress was compounded by the fact that, during the semester that all of these factors were in full force, my father was dying and eventually passed away in the fall of 1995. In essence, as we say in the history profession, when it came to enduring depression, I was a “primary source.” Eventually, I was able to come out of my temporary funk and propel myself forward. Unfortunately, not all students have the fortitude or the resources to be as resilient.

Decades later, as a full tenured professor, I have witnessed a number of graduate students undergo similar experiences as I did. In fact, I was discussing this issue at a conference with some fellow professors. Some colleagues joked that it was a “rite of passage” to endure some level of depression or anxiety while in graduate school. Cynically speaking, they were largely right on target.

The fact is that, in an academic job market that is chillingly depressing and in which tenure-track jobs are further eroding (particularly in the humanities), such a degree of gloom and doom is not surprising; indeed, it is almost totally understandable. Nonetheless, this does not mean that such a mindset should be embraced. Feelings and emotions aside, depression among graduate students has been an ongoing issue for quite some time. It is a serious problem that must go beyond awareness and be aggressively addressed and tackled with strong and effective measures.

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