Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Gauging Graduates' Gloom

CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons

No one mistakes graduate school for a leisurely jaunt. Science graduate students must master a flood of information—the floodwaters rising with every passing year—as they simultaneously learn to be methodical and meticulous practitioners of their craft.

"If your worth as an individual depends on your achievements, then you're extremely vulnerable in graduate school because you're bound to not succeed some of the time." —Myriam Mongrain

Those who thrive and excel may go on to do great things. But for some graduate students, the stress takes a toll. Depression among graduate students is a serious problem—one that experts say is under-recognized. Depression doesn't just cause suffering: It can also harm performance.

Science Careers spoke with three mental health researchers who study depression among students and the risk factors that make them especially vulnerable. They offered strategies for lightening depression's pall.

A vulnerable population

How prevalent is depression among graduate students? Much more prevalent than in the general population, says Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor of health management and policy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In a 2008 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 6.4% of the general population in the United States reported having depressive symptoms within a 12-month span. (The percentage for younger adults is slightly higher.) By contrast, about 15% of the 4553 graduate students who responded to Eisenberg's 2011 survey reported experiencing depressive symptoms—as defined by the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—in the previous 2 weeks. The graduate student survey was part of a larger study of college students on 26 U.S. campuses; it will be published in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. In a smaller survey by Daniel Peluso, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Regina in Canada, 33% of the 292 Canadian psychology graduate students surveyed reported clinically significant symptoms of depression.

The prevalence among grad students, though, is very slightly lower than among undergraduate students: Eisenberg found that 17.3% of undergraduates met his criteria for depression. "Graduate students' life in some ways is more demanding, more stressful, and more isolating than undergraduate life, but at the same time, graduate students, I think, are a selected group of people who have already shown [that they] like, or at least ... do well in, a university setting," he says.

Depression is a complex disease and can present in varying degrees of clinical significance. The advice discussed in this article is not intended to be comprehensive. If you are feeling symptoms of depression, seek help from a mental health professional.

Still, the ability to forge ahead and meet challenges may not protect most people from depression, warns Myriam Mongrain, a psychologist at York University, Keele Campus, in Toronto, Canada. "I've seen graduate students continue to do well in graduate school despite the fact that they were depressed," she says. "They looked very down and unhappy but managed to keep it together. Having said that, … as you go from mild to moderate to severe depression, you become more and more incapacitated and your ability to concentrate becomes very, very diminished. This is when there could be serious problems with performance."

A special issue of Science this week features reviews and commentary on the status of depression research and potential paths to treatments.

When that happens, Mongrain says, some students take a break from their studies, which can be helpful. But others linger, struggling through course requirements, falling behind on dissertation research, and spending longer in their programs than their peers. Their lack of production becomes a new source of stress, feeding back into their depression. "It's a vicious cycle for sure," Mongrain says.

Personality predictors

The drive to achieve is common among graduate students, Mongrain says. So is the severe emotional letdown that occurs when they don't. In her research on graduate students who sought treatment for depression and anxiety disorders, she found that perfectionism is one of the most common predictors of depressive symptoms.

"If you think about who is applying for graduate school and who is going to find themselves in a graduate program, we find the individual is sometimes very self-critical," she says. "They always kick themselves in the butt. They always push themselves to achieve and to reach sometimes overly high standards."

Students who succeed as undergraduates can find themselves in over their heads in graduate school, where competition is tough and feedback is less tangible. "All the students in graduate school are bright; they're very talented," but because some students’ self-esteem depends on being better than their peers, the sudden competition can erode their confidence, Mongrain says. "If your worth as an individual depends on your achievements, then you're extremely vulnerable in graduate school because you're bound to not succeed some of the time."

Courtesy of Daniel Eisenberg
Daniel Eisenberg

The other common personality correlate Mongrain identified for depression was a lack of social support. Graduate students can get so caught up in their work, especially when they're driven by perfectionist tendencies, that they forget to be social, she says. They stop seeing friends and talking with families. Loneliness and isolation build and contribute to depression. Depressed people aren't very fun to be around, so the cycle of isolation continues, she says.

In a study he and his colleagues finished this year, Eisenberg found another strong predictor of depression in graduate students: financial woes. "People who report their current financial situation as difficult tend to be more likely to have depression symptoms and anxiety disorders," he says. That's less a problem in the sciences, where stipends are common. And indeed, more humanities graduate students reported depression—18%—than did science students, where depression prevalence varied between 11% and 13%, depending on the field.

Courtesy of Myriam Mongrain
Myriam Mongrain

The weak job market may aggravate the problem, Eisenberg says. There's not yet hard data to back that up, "but anecdotally, … that would make sense. A poor job market you would think would add to the stress of being a student."

Peluso agrees. There's a "depressive way of thinking that can happen when you feel like there's no way out or that the future is hopeless, or that you've done all this work for nothing."

Helping yourself

Your vulnerability to depression may depend on the big-picture choices you make, and why you make them. Mongrain says that students who "truly, truly enjoy what they're doing" fare better than those who are seeking a graduate degree because they think it's expected of them or because they want a particular job. The least depressed students are pursuing their degrees "for the sake of learning rather than proving that they are somebody," she says.

In the Canadian study, a good relationship with your adviser was protective against depression. "The students who are experiencing all that stress, all that burden and financial hardship, when they had a supervisor who was supportive, you saw much lower levels of depression compared to students with the same situation but whose advisers weren't supportive," Peluso says.

Courtesy of Daniel Peluso
Daniel Peluso

If you're already firmly settled into your program and can't easily change advisers, what can you do if you're feeling depressed? The obvious answer is also the most important one: Get professional help. "At least at larger universities, almost all of them have a campus mental health center … that [is] free or very low cost," Eisenberg says. But such centers will usually limit the number of times a student can come in for help, and more serious cases may be referred to costly professional centers, which health insurance may or may not cover.

Finally, Eisenberg recommends exercise and regular sleep, both of which are easy to neglect when students are very focused on their work. Mongrain recommends sacrificing a bit of study to make time for social interaction. The key to solving the problem, or at least reducing the effects, may be to realize that at least for relatively mild depression, the choices you make day to day can make a difference. "You can have an effect on your own neurotransmitters," Mongrain says.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers