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April 13, 2009

Steve Green: Graduate School Blues

In this post, Steve looks at one of the darker sides of graduate school.


This post addresses a potential and serious bad side-effect of being a graduate student but offers some pointers for applicants to help avoid or minimize it.

Graduate school can make you unhappy. If you already prone to feeling unhappy, then grad school can make you even more unhappy. That’s the main point of an article by Piper Fogg, “Grad School Blues,” in the February 20, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (available online to subscribers or buyers of a short-term pass.) The author notes that:

Graduate school is gaining a reputation as an incubator for anxiety and depression.

Honestly, having been to grad school I am surprised only at the statement’s implication that it had not already earned this reputation. Happily, the issue raised by this article does not apply to everyone, but I firmly believe that everyone should be aware of the potential impact of grad school on their emotional well-being.

Applying to graduate school? You are probably thinking about the financial costs (i.e. tuition, books, costs of living) and opportunity costs (i.e. the income you would be earning if you were not in graduate school). You should also consider the potential emotional costs. Obviously, these are impossible to quantify and calculate and will vary greatly according to your own emotional resources as well as to the type of students and faculty in any given grad program.

Everyone I knew in graduate school, beginning with myself, felt intimidated, frustrated, lonely, and, in some cases, simply depressed at one time or another.

Fogg notes:

Social isolation, financial burdens, lack of structure, and the pressure to produce groundbreaking work can wear heavily on graduate students, especially those already vulnerable to mental-health disorders.

Graduate students face threats to their self-confidence and basic happiness on multiple fronts including a heavy intellectual workload, having to subject written and verbal analytical skills to the scrutiny of peers and professors several times every week (one of my grad school friends spoke for many of us when she lamented that she felt like she was constantly having to prove she was “smart enough”), the solitary nature of the process (are you prepared to spend almost all of your waking hours outside of class reading and writing?) and probably living on the same shoestring budget that barely kept your head above water as an undergraduate (which is no fun, of course, but especially frustrating when your working professional friends are earning decent salaries and you constantly have to decline their offers to vacation together or even to meet for a nice dinner.) In addition:

"Grad students are in a remarkable position of powerlessness," says Thomas B. Jankowski, an adjunct assistant professor of political science and gerontology at Wayne State University who runs PhinisheD, an online support group to help graduate students finish their dissertations. Often a single thesis adviser seems to control a student's destiny, he notes…

And to make matters worse:

it can take years to finish a dissertation. And even if a student finishes, success on the job market is far from guaranteed; today's poor economy has only worsened job prospects.

In a nutshell, graduate school can challenge even the most confident of personalities.

What can you do now as an applicant? As noted above, determining the potential emotional costs of earning a grad degree is not nearly as clear-cut as figuring out the financial and opportunity costs, but you can minimize them by doing the following:

  1. Take the Socratic adage to heart: KNOW THYSELF! Be honest about how happy and self-confident you are in general and, in light of the conditions of grad school described above, assess whether or not you’ll risk deep unhappiness by going to grad school now. Furthermore, ask yourself over and over again if you really want to go to graduate school or are applying because it “seems” like the right thing to do or because you are avoiding something else. These kinds of reasons can put you on the fast track to unhappiness once grad school starts.

  2. KNOW THE GRAD STUDENTS: As you gather information about grad programs, contact student representatives of those programs and ask them frank questions about the quality of life in the department and the city or town. Try to find out how cooperative and congenial current students are with each other. Graduate-school work is solitary work, but that does not mean each student is an island unto himself. In the graduate program at the Dept. of Politics of the University of Virginia (UVa.) I was really pleased by how friendly and supportive students were with each other. We formed study groups to meet outside class and often socialized. In grad school I met some of current best friends, people I will be close to for the rest of my life.

  3. KNOW THE FACULTY: When you contact grad students you should also try to learn their opinion of faculty. Ask them about the availability of professors for grad students outside of class hours, and about whether and to what degree faculty support grad students in finding internships, funding, and publishing opportunities. Find out if they like most of their professors. On this point I was also highly satisfied with my own grad program. The professors in my department were extremely friendly, supportive and available, even as they were highly demanding and challenging. I have known people at other programs and in various fields who could not say the same thing and they envy the collegial atmosphere of my department.

  4. KNOW ACADEMIA: In addition to reading up on academic work in your field of interest, I encourage you to read publications such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and Insider Higher Ed, both of which provide excellent in-depth coverage of news related to higher education from the perspectives of students, professors and administrators. If you read these regularly you will gain a valuable perspective on the business- in both a literal and metaphorical sense of the word- of higher education and graduate school, which can only help you to assess your fit for any grad program in particular and for graduate school in general.

As always, good luck! Please don’t hesitate to make comments on this post if you have any questions, I am always happy to try to answer them.

To learn more about my graduate admissions consulting services, please click here.
- H. Steven ("Steve") Green, グリーン・ハロルド・スティーブン

大学院留学 カリフォルニア大学バークレー校
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