By L. Maren Wood
By now, the mental-health crisis in graduate programs has been well documented. Two separate surveys found that nearly 40 percent of graduate students have moderate to severe anxiety — a rate six times that of the general population. On social media and in countless "Quit Lit" essays, doctoral students have shared their personal mental-health struggles.
And graduate educators have started to pay attention. Recently the Council of Graduate Schools announced a multiyear study to learn more about mental health and wellness in doctoral training, and to find workable solutions.
This is important and critical work. But whatever outcomes emerge from those efforts will come too late for the thousands of Ph.D.s who have already graduated or are about to this spring. Because the crisis in anxiety and mental health now being documented does not end when doctoral students graduate — it continues as they search for a job, and may even intensify.
How do I know? I see and hear anecdotal evidence of it every day from the Ph.D.s whom my staff and I work with at Beyond the Professoriate, a public-benefit corporation I lead that offers career education and professional development for graduate students and Ph.D.s. Most of the people we work with have earned their doctorates in the past 10 years and no longer have access to on-campus resources.
We routinely see Ph.D.s whose anxiety about their career prospects has not diminished, but deepened. The job uncertainty they used to fear is now a full-blown reality. Their student loans are due, but they’ve already exhausted their personal and family financial resources. To maintain their access to libraries and labs, many work as adjuncts and postdocs with subsistence wages and minimal benefits. Losing an institutional affiliation often means the end of academic work that has been years in the making. Yet many Ph.D.s hang on to the hope that, with more publications or more time, they’ll land some kind of better, more permanent form of academic employment.
Yet until now, no one has tried to formally survey Ph.D.s about their postgraduate, career-related stress and anxiety. Yes, it’s important to understand the mental-health issues facing graduate students, but it’s also important to understand that the problems don’t end once someone has a doctorate in hand, and may worsen.
That’s our hypothesis, based on our work with Ph.D.s. And now we hope to test it by collecting enough data via a survey. Unlike in previous surveys, we’re including early-career Ph.D.s in the mix — postdocs, adjuncts, assistant professors, those who have left academe for other careers, and those who remain in various states of precarious employment — as well as current doctoral students.
Our survey on "professional development and Ph.D. mental health can be found here, and we welcome your participation.
The first half of our survey uses the Depression Scale of the Center for Epidemiologic Studies to capture respondents’ mental-health status. The center’s tool is frequently used in psychiatric epidemiology.
Because of the precarious nature of academic employment, the mental-health crisis affecting early-career Ph.D.s is hidden within the academic community. Who is responsible for providing professional development, mental-health services, and career support to adjuncts, postdocs, and underemployed Ph.D.s? Is it their current employer? The principal investigator of their lab? Alumni association? Professional association? Far too many Ph.D.s are entirely on their own.
When graduate programs survey alumni, it is done primarily in the form of placement studies. Programs and institutions are eager to find evidence that their doctoral recipients are employed. But those placement studies — largely conducted without speaking directly to alumni — don’t take into account the difficulty of the career transition: the mental, psychological, and financial challenges a Ph.D. faces before, during, and sometimes after the career transition.
Too often, career transition is presented as a straightforward process: Identify your transferable skills, write a résumé, find a job. Even if it were that simple, leaving academe involves a loss of identity and community for many Ph.D.s.
Academics are a tight-knit bunch who tend to deem scholarly work superior to the kinds of work done in other spaces, especially in the private sector. They see a certain virtue and integrity in teaching, researching, and writing, and tend to assume that such integrity can’t be found elsewhere. (I’ve heard many Ph.D.s say as much out loud, if pressed on why they stay in academe.) Many equate leaving the ivory tower with selling out, and fear disappointing and alienating friends and mentors.
For a Ph.D., your sense of self is tied up in your scholarly work: You’re a Scientist, a Historian, a Literary Scholar, an Anthropologist. Some disciplines don’t have direct pathways into industry or the nonprofit sector, so a career transition out of academe requires a rethinking, and reframing, of a decade or more of work. Even if your field does have clear pathways into industry, you may lack the necessary skills, training, and support to make the transition.
And the transition out of academe can be traumatic. Much like a loss of faith, losing their place in the academic world can cause people to doubt their past, present, and future. What was this all for — the years of study, the stress, the debt — if I ended up here? What will my future look like? How do I make sense of all of these things I know if I am not going to become a professor? It doesn’t help to discover that a doctorate carries little cachet in other labor sectors. People your own age who didn’t go to graduate school seem better off than you financially, more advanced in their professions, and you start to think, "I’m behind. I’ll never catch up. I made a huge mistake."
This may seem like a bleak picture, but the career-transition process is hard for Ph.D.s, and academe needs to acknowledge that. Ultimately, however, the transition is worth it.
The Ph.D.s we interviewed who have made it across the chasm lead happy and fulfilling lives. They are engaged in their work, valued by their peers, earn good salaries, and make career decisions based on their own personal values. They no longer feel trapped and undervalued, the way far too many postdocs and adjuncts do.
It’s the languishing that is hard, crushing, and depressing.
Our survey is an effort to measure that fallout. We invite current doctoral students and those who have earned Ph.D.s in the past seven years to fill out the survey, whether you are a postdoc, an adjunct, a visiting-assistant or tenure-track professor, and whether you are employed outside academe or are still looking for work.
Through the survey, we want to assess how widespread the mental-health crisis is among Ph.D.s and graduate students, and whether our hypothesis — that this depression and anxiety are connected to employment insecurity, lack of professional development for other careers, poverty, and debt — is correct. Previous surveys have suggested that "career uncertainty" plagues graduate students but didn’t really unpack what that meant, or how better access to professional development and clear pathways to employment could help with this part of the mental-health puzzle.
We will publish the results of the survey and make recommendations about how academic institutions, faculty members, and professional associations can better support doctoral students and alumni during and after the Ph.D.
For those of you facing this very predicament in your postgraduate career, I offer this advice: Once you get through to the other side and land a position in an organization where you are valued, where you are compensated for your time, where you have career advancement, and where you can move if you no longer enjoy your co-workers or supervisor, you’ll wonder why it took so long to make the transition. And then you’ll remember: Oh, right, it took a while because it was so damn hard.
L. Maren Wood is a Ph.D. in history and co-founder and CEO of Beyond the Professoriate , a public-benefit company that works with individuals and universities, offering career services for graduate students and Ph.D.s