A recent study found that graduate students are “six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general public” (https://www.nature.com/articles/nbt.4089). In other words, graduate students are disproportionally more depressed than the average person. A fact that, though it is disheartening, isn’t extremely difficult to believe. There are a number of reasons why graduate education can lead its students toward depression including, but not limited to, poor work life balance, stress, financial instability, isolation, and the abstract reality of a graduate education. I feel that these factors are extremely influential and are worthy of a blog post themselves, but one concept that is largely unacknowledged is the psychological impact of working in a goal oriented system.
Do not get me wrong, I think there are a lot of benefits from a goal oriented society that strives to work toward major achievements – whether they be personal, professional, societal or so forth. I feel that the issue arises with the implementation of what working in a goal oriented society has become, and how quickly we jump from the accomplishment of our most recent goal to the pursuit of our next, often without even recognizing the switch.
We are almost always working toward a goal on the horizon, focusing on the next project or assignment or checkpoint instead of acknowledging how far we have already come. I think this is especially problematic since we are usually conditioned to associate success, and in a greater sense our happiness, with the accomplishments that we never actually appreciate. Shawn Achor’s TED talk “the happy secret to better work”, see below, outlines the problems with connecting our successes with our happiness and how it can usually leave us unfilled.
Personally, I find the idea of the goal horizon to be ingrained in graduate education. Small successes usually lead to more questions, and in the world of research, more failures. I find that my peers (and myself) are often chasing some abstract goal that is usually just out of reach. Even when we feel that we might be close, a meeting or update can leave us feeling further away than ever. I am sure we have all had these moments, and it can be depressing. I remember talking to a post-doc acquaintance of mine who had recently spent the better part of a hundred hours, in the last two weeks, working in isolation on a novel, particularly challenging analysis. When they went to explain their progress to their advisors they were met with fairly significant criticism that failed to acknowledge the numerous successes that they had accomplished during that time. I remember them explaining how disheartening it was to have their progress go largely unrecognized and instead be replaced with more hurdles. By itself the psychological impact is likely minimal, something that will drift away in a day or two, but overtime these small (or large) interactions can add up and significantly impact one’s outlook.
Some would likely blame our mentors for these problems – saying they fail to adequate nurture their students – and I would agree to an extent. However, I think the first steps need to be taken by us, the students (or individuals more broadly), and work toward being more cognizant of our goals and be willing to appreciate ourselves for reaching them. By making a concerted effort to find positivity in the present and not attach it to a future horizon maybe we can not only get graduate students close to the average for mental health, but maybe improve the average as well.