Maybe it’s not me– it’s grad school

Just a low effort post. I would love a mutually supportive comment discussion about it (because I’m not on facebook). Twitter replies would be nice, too. 

I appreciated this post from Ben Kuhn, Grad school is worse for public health than STDs. In it he calculates that the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) caused by grad school (mostly through depression and anxiety) exceed those caused by STDs.

I wonder how much time I waste agonizing over how to fix my problems, trying to control my angst and confusion through willpower and daily habits and acceptance, when maybe a large chunk of my problems will disappear on their own after I defend. Being a grad student really is like being the frog in boiling water. I don’t know what’s normal anymore with work. I went straight from college to grad school, and 6.5 years later grad school has been my whole adult working life. The already long feedback loops get longer and the isolation steadily increases over the years as exernal structure disintegrates. And I’ve had major extra difficulties in grad school: having two advisers leave in the first two years, falling through the cracks with advising because of trying to salvage my early work with my now out-of-state first adviser while working with a new adviser at Harvard, 5th year basically lost to illness…

I have a bias against blaming external circumstances. I feel like it’s jinxing myself to say “just finish grad school– then it will all get better.” I feel like the problem has to be me. But it’s really not irrational to think that things will massively improve after I defend, since that is what most of the people who’ve been through it say, and considering how routinely negative being in grad school seems to be for the mental health of thousands of other grad students.

Since I have a month until I have to turn my dissertation in, and I will find this belief motivating whether it turns out to be true or not, I’m going to allow myself to believe that most of my current bad feelings are due to grad school. I’m still in the tunnel. I need to focus on getting out of the tunnel. Pretty much every other plan or self-reflection can and should wait until then. Fingers crossed that everything makes sense when I’m back in the light.

8 thoughts on “Maybe it’s not me– it’s grad school

  1. >I have a bias against blaming external circumstances.

    Same! I’ve gotten better about it over time. I used to spend 2+ years not blaming external circumstances. Now I blame them within months instead of years

    Think grad school is the cause. You might not feel better immediately after defense but over time, the negative thought patterns from grad school will fade away

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Go Holly! 🙂

    Side note: This stuff about grad school causing depression makes me wonder if it is actually the best way to do science? Like, could someone set up an alternate system where scientific progress happens much faster because people are happy and creative instead of depressed?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wonder that, too. Adjusting to working alone without tons of help may be necessary, and it may necessarily suck. There are a lot of things about the structure of academia that exacerbate the suckage, though, mostly to do with people’s titles and assigning priority and credit. It makes the game very glory-focused and lonely by default. But that may be better for innovation. Idk.

      What’s most important for me is just remembering that it’s hard. It just doesn’t *seem* like grad school should be hard, and yet it obviously is. It’s easy to be exasperated with yourself for having a hard time on top of everything else.


  3. I am only doing a master’s program but I can say that I’ve already had to work harder than I ever did in the “real” world and that I’ve had to really focus on self-care in order to not slip into some of my anxious patterns. I also have a major bias against blaming external circumstances but I think grad school merits an exception.

    I have heard a lot of negative accounts of PhD programs in particular. I wish there were a better way but it basically seems like the only game in town for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The hardest part about the PhD has been, for me, the parts that don’t seem like they should be hard. The unstructured time, having free rein to do things by yourself, getting to do research as your job— all of that stuff sounded great to me! The ways the isolation, lack of structure, and lack of regular feedback make me anxious and depressed just aren’t intuitive at all. And when I am in a bad way, I have contempt for myself because I can’t point to the hard things I’m up against.


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