Graduate School Taking a Toll On Your Mental Health? You’re Not Alone.

Author’s Note: I’m in graduate school in the US so most of my experiences come from a US-based perspective. 

Let’s face it: graduate school isn’t easy. From qualifying exams to teaching labs to graduate quantum mechanics courses, just trying to balance all of that, let alone trying to find time to do things you enjoy like read or run, can seem impossible sometimes. All of this can take a serious toll on your mental health.

Mental Health is a Big Problem in Grad School, Period.

With the pressure to get research done and classes taught, graduate students are under an extreme amount of pressure and that can take a serious toll on their well-being. According to an article from Inside Higher Ed, graduate students are more than 6x more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general public. This can be attributed to things like social isolation and the incredibly demanding environment of some programs. One online survey of over 2,000 graduate students (mostly PhD candidates) from 234 institutions across 26 countries, 40% of whom were in the biological sciences and physical sciences and engineering, found that 41% showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39% showed moderate to severe depression (see figure below for more statistics). The overall culture of graduate school can promote the “no rest” attitude where if you’re not working, you’re not doing it right. Whether it’s your advisor or your own motivation pushing you, sometimes it feels like there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the work that you need to get done and that can lead to overwhelm and ultimately burn-out.

Graphs showing a) that anxiety is present in 41% and depression in 39%; b) that anxiety is highest in transgender students (55%) with female at 43% and male at 34%, and that depression is also highest in transgender students (57%) with female at 41% and male at 35%; c) anxiety and depression are shown to be greater in unhealthy work/life balances; d) anxiety and depression are worse in students who don't have good mentorship relations

The prevalence of anxiety and depression within the population of the 2,279 graduate students studied. a) overall prevalence, b) prevalence by gender, c) the effect of perceived work-life balance, d) effect of relationship with mentor. Credit: Inside Higher Ed

If You Feel Like an Imposter Sometimes, You’re Not the Only One!

One thing many people in graduate school, and in academia in general, struggle with is the imposter phenomenon (also called imposter syndrome). The imposter phenomenon is the feeling that you don’t deserve to be in your current position and that you’ll be exposed as an “imposter,” causing you to doubt your own accomplishments (if you’re not sure whether or not you experience this phenomenon, take this quiz) . Many people simply blame their accomplishments on good luck or being at the right place at the right time.

According to Psychology Today, men and women experience it in equal numbers and it’s prevalent at all levels, affecting everyone from female first-year graduate students to male general managers running billion-dollar companies. No matter how much you’ve accomplished, how many papers you’ve written or conferences you’ve been to, or classes you’ve aced, you can still feel like what you do isn’t the result of your persistence and talent, but because you “got lucky” with receiving an award or your experimental data “happened to” line up exactly with your model. This feeling can limit our courage to explore new opportunities for fear that we aren’t good enough to reach goals or aren’t smart enough to study a certain topic.

Left: big circle "what I think others know" with smaller circle "what I know" inside denoting imposter phenomenon; Middle: circle "what I know" with overlapping circles on the outside "what others know" denoting reality; Right: dog in a flower costume in the middle of a field of flowers representing the imposter phenomenon

Sometimes the imposter phenomenon can leave you feeling like you don’t know as much as others or that you don’t belong, but those ideas are false! Images adapted from those by David Whittaker and Frankie Mastrangelo.

You’re Not Alone in the Struggle!

Though mental health is gaining more momentum in terms of being more recognized and talked about, there’s still a stigma around it. Mental health is something that’s so important, and so many people struggle with it, but few are comfortable enough to talk about it in a social setting. This may be caused by the fact that people think that those with mental health trouble might be dangerous or hard to talk to or work with, which comes from their portrayal in overdramatized movies and television shows and inaccurate news stories. No matter what their age, level of knowledge of mental health, or whether or not they know someone with a mental health problem, people still hold negative beliefs about mental health. Mental health problems can be just like physical illnesses: they happen because something goes wrong in the body. All of our preconceived notions on mental health can contribute to a lack of conversation about it, so people tend to think they’re the only ones who deal with things like anxiety and depression but in reality, they’re not.

With the incredibly high percentage of graduate students who deal with those issues, chances are that your classmates and labmates have experienced the struggle. Only by being open can you help people realize that they are not alone in the struggle, and by talking about it and learning about what others go through, you can gain bigger support systems.

Building a Better Future

The biggest ways to help eliminate this stigma are to educate ourselves on mental health and to be open about our own struggles. In the UK, the Time to Change campaign provides blogs, videos, and television advertisements, and also holds events to raise awareness of the mental health stigma and the effect it has on those who struggle with mental health. See the links below for more resources on mental health!

With this growing crisis, many institutions are working toward gaining more resources to help students handle the stresses of graduate school. According to an article from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, many colleges and universities are sharing mental health information at orientation, providing short videos, traditional presentations, and even panel discussions. Others are providing free mental health screenings and some provide university-wide programs such as This Way Up which helps students understand the emotions they’re feeling and workshops such as WVU’s workshop that helps with stress management. Stanford University is taking a more preventative approach with Stanford’s Resilience Project which promotes student resilience during the year.

By being open about mental health and just starting the conversation, you can help eliminate the stigma one person at a time. Maintaining your mental health in graduate school can be a big challenge but by taking preventative measures, knowing where you can get help at your university, and taking care of yourself, you can make big strides toward making sure you get out of graduate school in one piece! Check out the tips below for how you can help keep your brain healthy during graduate school!

I’m a Professor, How Can I Help?

Here are some ways mentors and professors can help students keep themselves mentally healthy during graduate school:

  • Remind students to take breaks and also to eat healthy, exercise, and get enough sleep. Having a foundation of these basic needs will help ensure adequate performance. And please don’t expect them to work every single weekend and say things like, “You need to burn the midnight oil.” Students are people too and have lives outside of work and need to take care of their basic needs as well!
  • As a professor, make sure you know about the mental health services the university has to offer. Where are they? When are they open? Are there walk-in appointments? How long does it take to get an appointment? How many sessions do you get each semester? Having these things on hand will help if a student comes to you in need!
  • Always be open about talking to your students/advisees about mental health. Having an advisor that not only care about your research but also your well-being is incredibly important to maintaining your mental health in graduate school and improving your overall experience.
  • If a student comes to you and says they’re very stressed and need a little bit of time off, please be supportive. Try to remember how stressful grad life was and how great it felt when someone was understanding of all that you were going through.

Tips for Graduate Students

If you’re a graduate student struggling to maintain your sanity in the crazy environment, are just starting out and want to make sure the experience is positive, and/or just want to make sure you stay mentally healthy during graduate school, check out these tips:

Time Management/Avoiding Burnout

  • Take mental health days. Or weeks! Schedule them in advance after stressful or busy times: conferences, deadlines, and exams. 
  • Take breaks before you need them! If you know you’re going to be working for a long stretch, doing something as simple as watching a funny animal video or scrolling through Twitter every once in a while can help keep your brain from overheating!
  • Celebrate more! Anything short of just your PhD can already feel like failure and academia is notorious for moving the goalposts. Take time to acknowledge your progress, milestones, and successes like getting a good grade on a test, finishing your last semester of classes, passing a qualifying exam, or even just getting through a tough week.
  • Say no to things, even if you have already said yes. It’s so easy and tempting to say yes to too many things but it’s just not possible to do everything and help everyone. It isn’t selfish to put yourself first if you’re overwhelmed. Doing this means your existing projects/work can get done to a higher quality and you’ll have more time to give to them!
  • Jealously guard time for you, your friends, family, self-care, and hobbies. Anything that means your self-worth and your definition of self is independent of your identity as a graduate student.
  • Don’t subscribe a need to always be in the office. If you do your research on your laptop, feel free to work in bed in your PJs when going to the office feels like too much!
  • Have friends and interests outside of academia so you don’t get lost down the study hole. It’s important to come up for air now and again and take time for yourself, even something as simple as cleaning your space can really lift your mood.
  • Don’t work 24/7. Period. No matter how much you love your work, a human being cannot be productive 24 hours a day 7 days a week, it just won’t happen. Taking breaks and vacations will help you immensely and when you get back to work, you’ll be refreshed and more motivated! Also, it’s okay if you go a day working without getting anything done, that happens! Everyone has days like that where they spend all day debugging one code or not checking anything off on your to-do list, it happens to everyone! Acknowledging it and not feeling guilty will help a lot. Sometimes you check off 10 things on your list, some days you spend 8 hours debugging one code and don’t make any progress. It happens, forgive yourself!
  • Divide up your to-do list into small bite-size tasks that are very specific. Instead of “work on paper,” try making lists of specific things to do with the paper, such as “putting figures into section X” and “writing section Y.” This can ensure that you do feel productive and will keep you on track! (See here for how to write an effective to-do list!)

Life Outside of Work

  • Make/buy your favorite meal! It helps a lot with relaxing, good food goes a long way!
  • Exercise! Making sure to get in exercise at least a few times a week can really help your brain as well as your body. There are so many things you can do, from running around your neighborhood to doing yoga with videos on YouTube to going to fitness classes at the gym at university. It’s a great way to take time away from work and get good chemicals flowing in your brain while also getting fit!
  • PETS! If you can afford them and are allowed to have them where you live, pets are so so wonderful for your mental health. They force you to focus on something else’s needs for at least a few minutes a day and if you have a dog, having to go let him/her out at night can help you maintain a regular work schedule. Plus, who doesn’t want to cuddle with something fuzzy after a long hard day of debugging code?
  • Don’t forget that your PhD is your job and not your life, so don’t measure your self-worth by how much research you get done.
  • Go outside! A recent study showed that going to a city park lifts your mood as much as Christmas. Just being in nature can help boost your happiness and make you healthier and something as simple as walking through an arboretum near the university or a woodsy path can boost your well-being!

Using Mental Health Resources 

  • Therapy, therapy, therapy! Your body gets regular check-ups so why shouldn’t your brain? It can be incredibly helpful even if you’re not at your breaking point. See what the university has to offer. Many universities do group counseling sessions and/or have graduate support groups. There’s a big stigma around therapy but you’d be surprised at how many people use it and love it. Sometimes it’s just good to see someone and have a professional tell you that you’re doing a lot and your feelings are valid.
  • Reach out to your supervisor as soon as possible if a problem in your life has started to develop which may affect your work and/or studying. It is far easier to make accommodations for these problems ahead of time, rather than after a deadline is missed or an exam not taken.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Your advisors and mentors have most like been through exactly what you’re doing through and they’ll be more than happy to help you seen the resource you need.
  • There’s nothing wrong with going to a psychiatrist. Sometimes medicine a great way to help manage mental illness; it may not cure you totally but it can help manage symptoms!
  • Testing accommodations! If you have test anxiety and get really nervous and stressed during exams, go to the accessibility office at your university. Big exams like qualifiers can be really stressful and even more so with panic attacks and anxiety. Usually universities can help set you up with things like more time for an exam and your own room so you can truly do your best on the exam.

Supporting Each Other

  • Be very selective about your mentor. Choose a mentor, not a project. Your advisor has a huge part in your graduate career so find someone that you work well with and who is supportive of you.
  • Build a support network of people who understand what you’re going through. Building genuine connections where you openly talk about vulnerabilities and feel supported helps greatly.
  • Don’t compare yourself to anyone else! We all come from different backgrounds and have different skill sets, interests, strengths, weaknesses, and work ethics. Even though you may be in the same program, comparing two grad students is like comparing apples and oranges. Though it may be tempting and hard not to do, comparing yourself to others will only hurt you. Instead, be happy for your friends! It might take a change in mindset but congratulating a friend who just published a paper or got an award can really help their mental health in helping them avoid imposter syndrome and they’ll be more likely to support you when something good happens to you!
  • If you’re weak in a certain area, try to work with others that compliment that skill! For instance, if you’re weak in E&M, try working on homework with someone who has a good background. It’ll introduce a social component and you’ll also learn a lot.
  • Join academic Twitter. It’s super easy and helps you realize you’re not alone and that others share the same fears/worries. Also academic memes/jokes!
  • Start a grad student mental health group in your program! It’s a great way to support each other and share struggles while also trading techniques and coping mechanisms for certain situations.
  • Help out younger students! In academia there’s a huge “rite of passage” idea where if you went through something difficult, everyone should have to and that’s false! If you know really good ways to study for qualifying exams, share them! If there’s a certain professor you need to avoid, tell the students! If there’s a secret way to get free ice cream in the student center, tell people! Be the mentor you wish you had had.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to help your mental health in grad school, check out these resources:

  • Websites like this with mental health resources! Dr. Abbie Stevens is an Astronomy and Astrophysics NSF postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan who’s really passionate about mental health and her website has a ton of resources!
  • Lisa Jakub, a former child actress and now mental health advocate, has a blog that addresses various mental health subjects!
  • The Self Care with Drs. Sarah podcast addresses discusses mental health and can provide some great advice!
  • Kate Allen has a blog called The Latest Kate where she “writes and draws about painful things but makes it okay with bright colors and sparkles.” Her blog is great when you need a little pick-me-up (see below for an example!).

Cartoon octopus saying "HEY. You won't always feel like this. You're handling it. It's going to be okay."

The Latest Kate has lots of cartoons that have inspiring quotes and cute animals that can help you on difficult days!

About Haley Wahl

I'm a PhD candidate West Virginia University and my main research area is pulsars. I'm currently working with the NANOGrav collaboration (a collaboration which is part of a worldwide effort to detect gravitational waves with pulsars) on polarization calibration and pulsar timing. I'm also very passionate about science communication and often share my science through Twitter and my blog, The Pulsars and Profiteroles Project, which combines my love of scicomm with my love of baking! Outside of science, I enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles, baking, and watching movies.

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