Friday, April 13, 2018

Why are graduate students depressed?

A big study made the news recently arguing that graduate students in academic fields suffer from depression at a rate six times the general population. I am not impressed by this study, which is based on surveys that people volunteer to take online, but it is only the latest in a long line of studies with the same general conclusion. Why?

Tyler Cowen suggests possible causes:
1. The ordeal of studying and possibly finishing is extreme, and extreme ordeals depress people. . . .

2. The task of studying and possibly finishing is correlated with a kind of extreme lassitude, and that in turn is correlated with depression.

3. Graduate students become depressed as they realize they have chosen poor life paths.

5. Graduate students are undergoing a transformation of their personalities, and being turned into intellectual elites, but this process is traumatic in several regards, thus leading to frequent depression. The chance of depression is part of the price of admission to a select club.
I find number 5 interesting.

But I think the main cause is in the kind of person who elects for graduate study. People who opt to spend several years of their lives in advanced study of arcane matters are not normal. Their abnormality makes them more interested in theoretical puzzles than most people, and also more prone to depression.

It may also be that a sense of being stuck and not getting on with life as one ought weighs on people; I loved graduate school at first but after three or four years I was ready for it to be over, and yet still it went on.

Other thoughts?


Shadow said...

Perhaps their chosen path consumes so much of their time and energy that their interests are too limited, neither robust nor sufficiently varied, to withstand letdowns in the one thing that takes up so much of their time.

I think elites would like to think it's #5.

But I wonder about studies that try to determine a single cause. Between genetics, epigenetics, and environment there is great variability in our species. I often wonder if this is why a diet that works for some people is a disaster for others.

David said...

I think your argument about the kind of people who choose graduate school is right on the money.

I would add that many grad students are in the process of discovering that it's not just about being smart, verbal, and interested. Those are all there. But grad school is also, for better or worse, about embarking on an extremely demanding professional career. You have to be serious, directed, and driven, and the prospect of sustaining those qualities for decades into the future has to appear very natural to you. That's just reality. But for many, it's also a fundamental and not very comfortable change in the nature and meaning of going to school.

Cowen's fifth point is obviously invidious and faux-populist. "Of course the process of becoming a Nazgul is difficult. You wanted it, now you got it, so deal with it, asshole."

David said...

I was writing mine while Shadow was posting. I'm adding this because it's interesting to discover that Shadow and I took #5 in exactly opposite ways, Shadow seeing it as reflective of elite self-regard, me seeing it as indicating a would-be outsider's hostility. Now I've looked up Tyler Cowen and discovered that he's an economics professor. Perhaps Shadow is closer to Cowen's intent than I am. Anyway, one has heard his other points from other commentators, many times--but that fifth one does stick out.