If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?

7 thoughts on “If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

  1. As a recent graduate I completely agree! Finding a job is honestly so difficult and incredibly disheartening. Constantly questioning if the degree was really worth it


  2. In physics, at least, departments have been worrying about these problems since the mid-1960s when the post-Sputnik academic job boom came to an end. We have tried to convince our students (admittedly with limited success) that there are good futures other than being a tenured professor in a top-ten university.

    But on to your other points that seem to assume that all this is just a replication of hazing rituals.

    Suppose you have a department that admits 24 students per year. It is reasonable to assume that 18 of these will finish the PhD after being in the program for an average time of 5 years. The other 6 of the entering cohort do not finish for a variety of reasons, some of them you have described. And there are some of the 18 that finish who have been very stressed even to the level of lasting psychological damage.

    The 24 students were originally admitted on the basis of academic promise, i.e. as educated guesses by an admissions committee. These guesses are then periodically tested by course grades, prelims, qualifying exams, thesis proposals, … as you describe. Let’s assume that 6 of these students are not up to the standards that we’d like to see in our PhD graduates, and let’s acknowledge that decisions of this sort be made in an objective manner. It is important that those students make alternative choices as soon as possible, ideally within the first year or two in the program.

    Formal processes (e.g. prelim, thesis proposal ) are necessary at some steps along the way because individual faculty opinions are often weighted by irrelevant factors..
    Finally, a department needs to have a concept of “reasonable progress toward the degree” if it also offers continuing fellowship/assistantship support to its students. I’m not arguing for absolute mile-markers here, but I am saying that extensions beyond them need to be strongly reasoned on intellectual grounds.


    • I consider the burden of proof to be on defenders of the current system. The evidence that the existing grad school system causes enormous psychological damage is overwhelming. The rates of anxiety disorders, depression, alcoholism, and suicide among grad students are all off the charts.

      Where is your similarly compelling evidence that this system is necessary? Do you have any evidence, in fact, that these systems produce better researchers? Has anything else even ever been tried?

      You say that we need to weed out those who “are not up to the standards”; do you have any evidence that these people are actually fundamentally unfit to be good researchers, as opposed to being, say, a bit slower, or simply unwilling or unable to bear the psychological gauntlet? You seem to be using the very fact that so many grad students can’t bear the existing system as evidence that the system is necessary.


  3. I’m working on a reasoned response to your questions, but it will take some time to develop.
    Meanwhile, let me assure you that the stresses you describe have long been widely recognized. The efforts to relieve them are intensifying as we try to diversify the STEM disciplines.

    I hope to convince you that the present system is NOT a parallel to the hazing/bonding rituals so often found in fraternities and elite military units. Our goal is to educate and employ the most able of our young scientists. Our system should be designed and operated to attain that goal.

    Now, a question for you:
    Imagine yourself as chair of an economics department that has 24 students who have just completed one year of coursework. Each of them has a teaching assistantship for the next academic year, the obligation being two sections per semester. You have the money to award a fellowship to six of these students, this reducing their teaching obligation to one section per semester and also giving each of them $1000 for travel to the national conference.
    How would you decide who gets the fellowships? Or would you just not award them?


    • I think I would award them based on an application process that could involve some combination of grades and recommendation letters. This is something that grad students have done many times before, so it’s familiar and not as stressful. Also, if you don’t get the fellowship, you have a fallback: You can still TA two sections.

      What really causes the anxiety, I think, is the feeling that there is no fallback: If you fail your qualifying exams or your advancement exam, you’re done. It’s over. You have to drop out and do something else with your life. (I realize that in reality it’s not actually so stark: There are often ways to re-take these exams, and you could always go to grad school somewhere else. But that’s how it feels in the moment.)

      I had the worst migraine episodes I’ve had in the last five years during the three weeks leading up to my advancement exam. That’s how stressful it was for me, and deep down I knew that I was at the top of my class, my advancement paper had already been seen and approved by most of my committee, and I really had no reason to think that this would not go swimmingly (as in fact it did). Now I want you to imagine how that must feel for a more marginal student, perhaps an international student facing that tighter deadline, whose committee has been more ambivalent about their paper. This is why grad students have such high rates of anxiety disorders.


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