Apr 30 JDN 2460065
Why are so many academics anxious and depressed?
Depression and anxiety are much more prevalent among both students and faculty than they are in the general population. Unsurprisingly, women seem to have it a bit worse than men, and trans people have it worst of all.
Is this the result of systemic failings of the academic system? Before deciding that, one thing we should consider is that very smart people do seem to have a higher risk of depression.
There is a complex relationship between genes linked to depression and genes linked to intelligence, and some evidence that people of especially high IQ are more prone to depression; nearly 27% of Mensa members report mood disorders, compared to 10% of the general population.
(Incidentally, the stereotype of the weird, sickly nerd has a kernel of truth: the correlations between intelligence and autism, ADHD, allergies, and autoimmune disorders are absolutely real—and not at all well understood. It may be a general pattern of neural hyper-activation, not unlike what I posit in my stochastic overload model. The stereotypical nerd wears glasses, and, yes, indeed, myopia is also correlated with intelligence—and this seems to be mostly driven by genetics.)
Most of these figures are at least a few years old. If anything things are only worse now, as COVID triggered a surge in depression for just about everyone, academics included. It remains to be seen how much of this large increase will abate as things gradually return to normal, and how much will continue to have long-term effects—this may depend in part on how well we manage to genuinely restore a normal way of life and how well we can deal with long COVID.
If we assume that academics are a similar population to Mensa members (admittedly a strong assumption), then this could potentially explain why 26% of academic faculty are depressed—but not why nearly 40% of junior faculty are. At the very least, we junior faculty are about 50% more likely to be depressed than would be explained by our intelligence alone. And grad students have it even worse: Nearly 40% of graduate students report anxiety or depression, and nearly 50% of PhD students meet the criteria for depression. At the very least this sounds like a dual effect of being both high in intelligence and low in status—it’s those of us who have very little power or job security in academia who are the most depressed.
This suggests that, yes, there really is something wrong with academia. It may not be entirely the fault of the system—perhaps even a well-designed academic system would result in more depression than the general population because we are genetically predisposed. But it really does seem like there is a substantial environmental contribution that academic institutions bear some responsibility for.
I think the most obvious explanation is constant evaluation: From the time we are students at least up until we (maybe, hopefully, someday) get tenure, academics are constantly being evaluated on our performance. We know that this sort of evaluation contributes to anxiety and depression.
Don’t other jobs evaluate performance? Sure. But not constantly the way that academia does. This is especially obvious as a student, where everything you do is graded; but it largely continues once you are faculty as well.
For most jobs, you are concerned about doing well enough to keep your job or maybe get a raise. But academia has this continuous forward pressure: if you are a grad student or junior faculty, you can’t possibly keep your job; you must either move upward to the next stage or drop out. And academia has become so hyper-competitive that if you want to continue moving upward—and someday getting that tenure—you must publish in top-ranked journals, which have utterly opaque criteria and ever-declining acceptance rates. And since there are so few jobs available compared to the number of applicants, good enough is never good enough; you must be exceptional, or you will fail. Two thirds of PhD graduates seek a career in academia—but only 30% are actually in one three years later. (And honestly, three years is pretty short; there are plenty of cracks left to fall through between that and a genuinely stable tenured faculty position.)
Moreover, our skills are so hyper-specialized that it’s very hard to imagine finding work anywhere else. This grants academic institutions tremendous monopsony power over us, letting them get away with lower pay and worse working conditions. Even with an economics PhD—relatively transferable, all things considered—I find myself wondering who would actually want to hire me outside this ivory tower, and my feeble attempts at actually seeking out such employment have thus far met with no success.
I also find academia painfully isolating. I’m not an especially extraverted person; I tend to score somewhere near the middle range of extraversion (sometimes called an “ambivert”). But I still find myself craving more meaningful contact with my colleagues. We all seem to work in complete isolation from one another, even when sharing the same office (which is awkward for other reasons). There are very few consistent gatherings or good common spaces. And whenever faculty do try to arrange some sort of purely social event, it always seems to involve drinking at a pub and nobody is interested in providing any serious emotional or professional support.
Some of this may be particular to this university, or to the UK; or perhaps it has more to do with being at a certain stage of my career. In any case I didn’t feel nearly so isolated in graduate school; I had other students in my cohort and adjacent cohorts who were going through the same things. But I’ve been here two years now and so far have been unable to establish any similarly supportive relationships with colleagues.
There may be some opportunities I’m not taking advantage of: I’ve skipped a lot of research seminars, and I stopped going to those pub gatherings. But it wasn’t that I didn’t try them at all; it was that I tried them a few times and quickly found that they were not filling that need. At seminars, people only talked about the particular research project being presented. At the pub, people talked about almost nothing of serious significance—and certainly nothing requiring emotional vulnerability. The closest I think I got to this kind of support from colleagues was a series of lunch meetings designed to improve instruction in “tutorials” (what here in the UK we call discussion sections); there, at least, we could commiserate about feeling overworked and dealing with administrative bureaucracy.
There seem to be deep, structural problems with how academia is run. This whole process of universities outsourcing their hiring decisions to the capricious whims of high-ranked journals basically decides the entire course of our careers. And once you get to the point I have, now so disheartened with the process of publishing research that I can’t even engage with it, it’s not at all clear how it’s even possible to recover. I see no way forward, no one to turn to. No one seems to care how well I teach, if I’m not publishing research.
And I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way.