Polity by Rob Salmond

17

Hidden Costs

I read a poignant article yesterday. It’s about doctoral degrees and mental illness: 

The days I spent pursuing my PhD in physics were some of my darkest. It wasn’t the intellectual challenges or the workload that brought me down; it was my deteriorating mental health. I felt unsupported, isolated and adrift in uncertainty. Anxiety attacks became a part of my daily life. I drank and cut myself. I sometimes thought I wanted to die.

I might not have felt so alone had I known how many people struggle with mental health issues in academia. A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article.

The broad point feels familiar to me, if not the details. Writing a PhD dissertation is very often a lonely, dispiriting endeavor. The loneliness is self-explanatory, I think. But the dispiriting nature of a PhD may be less clear.

Most PhD students get socialized, over several years in their training, into thinking the only acceptable career path post-degree is to do research and teach at a University, preferably a really fancy one like a Harvard or an Oxford.

But by this standard there’s about ten PhD students for each vaguely “acceptable” job, depending on the discipline. That means 90% of people graduating with the highest degree in the pyramid of degrees comes out feeling like a failure. Probably it’s even higher than that, as the people who end up with a semi fancy job were almost always considered and rejected for a really fancy job, leading them to rue what might have been.

I certainly saw that in my on time studying and working at American universities. Depression and imposter syndrome were rife under the surface.

I was generally spared the depression, except for the two months where my friends were getting invited to job interview by fancy schools but I wasn’t. It was OK in the end, but for two months I basically stared at an email inbox that never had an email I wanted to see.   Worse, it was full of congratulatory emails going to my friends who’d accomplished this or that. Intellectually, I ground to a halt.

It was yet another occasion where I / we fall foul of Desiderata’s advice:

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

For me, that episode was blessedly temporary, but I’ve seen depression wreak havoc on other young scholars, both those who look outwardly successful and those who outwardly appear to struggle. Watching that happen is tremendously sad, too.

There are, of course, lots of other endeavours that have the same dynamic – a lonely pursuit of a glittering prize that ultimately most fail to win.

Is that a recipe for depression for the athletes as well as the nerds? Or does the endorphin rush of physical exertion help keep the beast at bay?

I sure hope it's the latter.

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