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Can a graduate student stay psychologically healthy?

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Haven't posted a new topic in a long, long, time, and I don't know if this one will take off or not, but I thought it might be fun.

Now, yes, this topic is a bit cheeky. On its face the answer to this question seems to be, "Well duh, yes." But there are so, so many graduate students who are not, including many people I care deeply about because they are my "comrades" in all this, so to speak. It's easy to say, "well, those people are just weak/can't hack it," and in many cases that might be true. But I know that I wrestled with a lot of very hard, painful motivational issues and hey, yeah, flat out depression last semester, and I am definitely not the only one who has these problems by a long shot. Instead of blaming the graduate students having problems, I wonder if perhaps there is something ABOUT graduate school that just makes it particularly hazardous for a person to do unless they are very, very strong and stable (not that I don't believe everyone should aspire to be strong and stable, certainly I do).

So, discuss. Can a graduate student stay psychologically healthy? Is graduate school mentally "dangerous"? Obviously I am a grad student and I am primarily looking for input from people who either are graduate students or have been at some point (hey, if you are a tenured prof, I'd LOVE to hear from you!). However, if you believe you have something to contribute even if you have never been a grad student, that's fine too. No one is "disqualified" from weighing in as long as your input is rational and furthers the topic.

Kat

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Kat,

My answer to your question is that it depends. My master's program (well that's the first difference, a masters is much less than a doctorate) was not nearly as rigorous as I would have expected. Most of the students were there to check a box (apparently you cannot get promoted past a certain rank in the military without some postgraduate paper) and resented professors who wanted them to do actual technical work for a grade, or assigned tough homework. I remember one who complained that he was expected to actually program numerical algorithms. That's stuff you give to some civilian contractor to do. (I guess it wasn't a problem for me, but then I can code asleep.) These people did not belong in a postgraduate engineering program. Rather than lose these students to a diploma mill, the program put pressure on its more rigorous professors to lighten the workload.

[Mind you, I think the fundamental problem here is the military's requirement that a warfighter check a box regardless of its applicability to warfighting, not with these officers who had to fulfill a pointless requirement by being in a program they had no business being in.]

Many of the classes involved group projects, the assumption being the assignment was too big for one individual to handle, particularly since we were part-time students. That's where my brain damage (less severe than yours) came from. I ended up carrying a couple of people on my back, because there was no other way to complete the program (not everyone else was a slacker but there were always a couple). One instructor tried to account for this in final grades, by asking everyone to rank their group members by contribution. He stated that people always put their names first then the real worker second. He was quite surprised to note that everyone in my group ranked me first (above themselves).

The slight wrinkle was that the "capstone" class that was supposed to be in lieu of a masters thesis was itself composed of a giant project... a group project. The main campus of the university quite correctly insisted that students be required to do additional individual work before being handed a diploma. Thus was born the "individual investigation" It was supposed to be less than an master's thesis, but at least the individual's own work, not an unmeasured portion of some group project. I dubbed it the "mini-thesis." For my topic I got a suggestion from the most rigorous, and therefore most loathed (by people who aren't me, anyway) instructor in the program, and it was based on one of his lecture topics. After re-deriving the math (and discovering a mistake in the professor's derivation, which he happily corrected before the class, not that any of them gave a damn), writing the software, using a solid day of computer time on what back then was a fast PC (thank NoGod for coprocessors or it would have been a month) I presented something which, I was told, was almost thesis level work. Other people got by with presentations on things that they had never had any personal involvement with, and that was deemed sufficient. Well at least I came out of it knowing I had done more than anyone else I knew to earn that degree. That was a huge help in healing the brain damage I alluded to earlier.

Clearly your program is a lot more life consuming than mine. I happen to know from past interactions that you've done research with museum collections in other parts of the country and field work on the other side of the world; you've had to learn the rudiments of a language that's not easy for those of us who grew up speaking a descendant of Indo European [Russian and French look like dialects of English, compared to Chinese], et. cetera, so my tale above must strike you as _ridiculously_ light for a graduate program, even with the work I did exceeding their expectations. I guess that's the difference between science and engineering and between a doctorate and a masters and a rigorous program and one that is afraid of alienating its students by hitting them with too much work.

In the end only you can decide whether it's worth continuing. Let me close by saying I hope you persevere. I respect the hell out of you for what you've done already.

[Edit: I just Googled that "most rigorous instructor" and learned that he passed away nine years ago, at the way-too-early age of 44. He had apparently gone on to hold a much more prestigious professorship at another institution that appreciated him, and he got to teach motivated students who wanted to be in engineering classes. That at least was "cosmic justice" even if his untimely death was not.]

Edited by Steve D'Ippolito
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So, discuss. Can a graduate student stay psychologically healthy? Is graduate school mentally "dangerous"?

The long trek from grade school, through high school, then through undergrad college is what makes the last mile harder, especially when the years of courses cascade one after the other with no interruptions.

[Mind you, I think the fundamental problem here is the military's requirement that a warfighter check a box regardless of its applicability to warfighting, not with these officers who had to fulfill a pointless requirement by being in a program they had no business being in.]

One reason the military does this is to keep from becoming insular. Making people do the math is a re-acquaintance with reality. Since the military can be like a whole different reality unto itself at times this practice has much to recommend it.

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One reason the military does this is to keep from becoming insular. Making people do the math is a re-acquaintance with reality. Since the military can be like a whole different reality unto itself at times this practice has much to recommend it.

I agree that everyone needs to stay connected with reality. Putting them in an engineering class they are not prepared for is not the way to do it. Putting them in a class they _are_ prepared for would be better.

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I wonder if your observations could apply to most college students in general.

College being mostly about only intellectual advancement rather than practical development makes it much harder to see where your work will lead. That is true at any level of college study, you have to at some point choose what end you want it to all go. If you study industrial design, things are a bit more clear cut what to do, or at least, you *know* what practical skills you have. Studying anthropology would require intelligence of course, but are there any skills that come with that necessarily? None beyond writing, and what you pursue on your own time mostly on an already tough amount of work once at graduate level. On top of that, the more you spend time on one field, the more a student may feel obligated to continue. It would make sense why any student in college (aside from art or design related students), graduate or not, would get motivational problems and even depression at some point. The only way to prevent it I see is KNOW what you want out of college, and exactly how to apply what you get out of it. If I had gone for a philosophy degree (not that it was a serious consideration for me ever), though it may have found it pretty interesting and I would do well, I wouldn't have known what to do with myself at this point in college. I would suspect many students get themselves into a predicament and find out that maybe their pursuit was only about an interest rather than a career interest. You can blame public high school for making it take until college for students figure out career interests. At least if you learn a particular skill, it's a lot easier to get into a new field than if you study in college for 5+ years. If you learn how to work a camera well, for instance, you could apply that to any interest you have, while something like anthropology would stay focused on anthropology, and if you did want to make a movie, you'd have to take the time to learn that (do you even have time for that at graduate level?) or hire someone (do you have any money to do that even?) Point is, learning a technical skill is important to make real anything you do, and can be diversified much easier. Without that, it's probably VERY easy to feel "trapped" in your studies.

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I think graduate school does generally lead to an unhealthy psychological state. This is due to the current manifestation of how grad schools operate, though, rather than to anything inherently damaging about learning in a structured environment.

(I'm saying this as a former graduate student and current college instructor who became psychologically unhealthy during grad school.)

Reasons:

1. Research can be an unhealthy lifestyle

Due to the nature of research, particularly in scientific experiments that last all day and night, your eating and sleeping schedules are disrupted. Grad students may work 60+ hour weeks, stay up until 2:00 AM, and attempt to subsist on coffee and energy drinks. All of this is tremendous stress for the body, which makes coping with normal stressors much more difficult.

2. Most graduate mentors discourage external interests

Even though I am a very efficient and resourceful person, my first graduate mentor would not permit me to pursue external passions such as orchestra. (I was studying cell biology.) If I wanted the funding she had access to, I would have had to "sell my soul." Many grad students give up their other passions. After 2 years for Masters, 4 years for PhD, and 6-10 including post-doc, their sense of life dies.

3. Much of the research focuses on rehashing minutiae

There is little innovation (at least in science research). Research projects focus on one function of one protein product of one gene in one species of Siberian tree frog... or something. An integrative, systems approach is scoffed at by tenured professors, who are generally dinosaurs resentful of energy and innovative ideas. Furthermore, most projects just involve confirming the work of others who knowingly engaged in poorly designed experiments. Experiments are intentionally designed to have to be repeated with better controls or larger sample sizes-- this maintains the status quo and ensures continued funding via research grants. You become depressed because you know your work is meaningless or insignificant.

4. You or your mentor "begs" for funding via governmental grants

Research that does not meet government dogma, particularly in health or environmental fields, does not get funded. You may be knowingly working against what you know to be true. This is psychologically damaging.

5. The peer review process discourages innovation

See also #3. In order to get published your "peers" in the field must approve your work. If your work is worse than theirs, they don't want to publish it because they look down on you. If your work is better than theirs, they don't want to publish it because they resent you. It is not unusual for members of peer review committees to decline a paper, only to perform a mysteriously similar experiment themselves and get it published under their name. This system encourages suspicion, fear, resentment, etc.-- all psychologically unhealthy patterns.

6. There can be destructive competition

Among graduate students at the same school, there is often "competition" (in the bad sense of the word, not in the Hank and Dagny sense). Grad students sabotage other students' projects-- literally contaminating experiments that have taken months to perform. Under this system you become unable to trust people who are supposedly collaborating and loving the learning process.

This is just a quick list of my ideas. I firmly believe grad school is damaging. The best people either drop out or develop psychological dysfunctions that they will have to deal with years later. The worst people let themselves be "broken" by the system and become the kind of professors who perpetuate the aforementioned problems for future generations of students.

Edited by NewEdit617
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  • 2 weeks later...

NewEdit makes a lot of good points. I'm happy to say that many of them do not apply to my case, at least, although I know many other graduate students are not so fortunate.

Research can be an unhealthy lifestyle, but my research involves tromping about in the mountains like some kind of special forces mission, except tracking monkeys instead of men. It may be physically dangerous but it would actually be beneficial to fitness, or at least wouldn't harm it.

My mentor knows that I have been powerlifting and that I do other things such as sing and play bass. I think I may have also mentioned my fiction writing. She does not object to anything else I do as long as I meet all of my obligations.

My research, I like to believe, does not rehash minutiae. I am incredibly fortunate to be doing some more or less new work. This is because I am working with an organism that is still fairly data-deficient or has mostly been observed in captivity/semi-wild conditions.

And last but not least, my fellow graduate students are by and large supportive and awesome. They are not all my best friends in the world but we all get along and I'm happy to grab a drink with any of them. All of us under my advisor work on different organisms so we are really not competing with each other.

Unfortunately, two of NewEdit's points do ring true for me. Both my advisor and I depend on external grants for our research. My advisor doesn't stress about it too much as she is quite good at pulling down big grants from both governmental and private sources but I am less fortunate. Due to the nature of our research we don't really get high-dollar grants, just a few thousand dollars, but it still kinda sucks to chase after the money. I find grant applications to be incredibly stressful and definitely my least-favorite part of the research process. It's not all bad - doing grant apps can force you to refine your research design and make sure that you actually do have a solid plan. That part is beneficial. However, it's the stress of knowing that someone else's say-so yay or nay can make or break you, someone far away that you'll never see (although I did meet a gentleman I applied to recently and, guess what, he gave me money - but NSF or Fulbright isn't like that). The whole thing just seems so arbitrary. You can have a perfectly good research design and not get funding, or not get enough funding.

Peer review is also a mixed bag. Yes, it is a good way to make sure that sub-par research doesn't get published (although it's imperfect - plenty of papers I read still suck and it makes me wonder how the hell they ever saw print). So much career advancement depends on publication, and publication again like grants seems so arbitrary. That stuff about people possibly taking your research ideas after rejecting an article...that can really happen. I think it happened to my advisor, or at least, she believes it happened. She had a really off-the-wall idea which was rejected for publication, but surprise surprise, a little later on someone else published something VERY similar. It was a data analysis technique so it could have been pulled off quickly.

Getting grants and depending on peer-review for publication are stressful, but that alone I could deal with. I think for me the biggest point of stress is the total lack of compensation and the huge risk involved in staying poor and working my ass off during half my young life for the mere possibility of a future payoff. Graduate students do a tremendous amount of work basically for nothing, no reward in either money or really even satisfaction since the results are so delayed. You might start a project and PERHAPS see some results in print three years later. Your dissertation research may or may not pan out. Meanwhile there are bills at home, other people to take care of...I have friends who are already making six figures. We went to the same college - I could be doing that stuff too. I'd be horribly unsatisfied with my life and wouldn't have any fun being, say, an i-banker or corporate consultant, but I'd have something to show for my work. So often now I feel like I have a never-ending list of things to do for absolutely no reward. There is never anything to show for one's work. I guess I feel a little bit like Hank Rearden - punished for my virtues. I've lost my funding now. At least before I didn't have to pay tuition and had a small salary. I was satisfied with that, but now that I've lost that and I don't have another job lined up I get to pay for the privilege of working on all this stuff for no compensation.

There's something else, too. I work with the Chinese, and man you wanna talk about arbitrary! The guys I work with over there are great. I don't have a problem with them. But EVERYthing in that country is done by permission, not by right, unless you are very powerful. All it would take is one pissy bureaucrat to blacklist me and finish my research in that country forever. Now, I have no reason to think that would happen, but then again, things could change in the future. What if I found a fantastic research program only to have it arbitrarily shut down or, worse, stolen by the Chinese? Thank goodness I'm not in a high-dollar/high-profile field!

These are some of the issues I've had so far in grad school. That plush tenure-track job I've always dreamed of, educating bright young kids so they learn how to think and how to use their minds, seems so far away. I won't quit, though. I love what I do. But sometimes I just feel like a total rube, you know? The anxiety level this crap causes is staggering, and I'm watching all my friends go into debt from this crap.

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  • 2 weeks later...

What a great thread. I am a grad school "survivor" and can relate to a lot of the posts here. My focus area was Shakespeare, so you can imagine the amount of reading and researching was ungodly. The stress put real, physical tolls on my body. I'm typically a healthy person; I exercise every day, eat clean, etc., but during grad school I drank a TON. As a result, my immune system was weaker and I got sick a lot. It cost me my relationship with my gf at the time. Did I make mistakes? Yes. Do I regret doing it? Not at all. It was in my self-interest to do it, and I'm glad I did. Is it possible to remain psychologically healthy while doing it? I don't know if I'm in a position to answer that. :lol:

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  • 3 weeks later...

My research, I like to believe, does not rehash minutiae. I am incredibly fortunate to be doing some more or less new work. This is because I am working with an organism that is still fairly data-deficient or has mostly been observed in captivity/semi-wild conditions.

That sounds interesting. I would have pursued something in protozoology if I could hack graduate school in biology, but I knew that I couldn't. As an undergraduate, I got a a job on campus working in a cloning lab. It was interesting, but talking to the grad students and spending time there showed me that this lifestyle was not for me. I think that everyone should experience, on some level, the career that they are thinking about pursuing before jumping into it. On the other hand, after getting a bachelors in biology, masters courses in education were a joke. Either every discipline is different, or our nation just has terribly low standards for teachers.

Edited by Nigel
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The latter, methinks. I remember someone thinking that the "ME" on a short autobiography I had written stood for Masters of Education and I had to restrain myself from showing any audible reaction to the inadvertent insult.

Although I took an engineering masters after taking an engineering bachelors, and found the masters to be far easier (not quite a joke but much easier) than the bachelor's. It depends on the school and the faculty too.

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