Oct 09, 2014

    The future looks bleak for graduate students

    AT A time when academic jobs are increasingly likely to be part-time adjunct positions, it is, perhaps, no surprise that many graduate students are anxious and depressed. But some observers say that faculty and counselling services have not caught up with the problem.

    On the Pacific Standard website, Ted Scheinman described academia as "a culture where we require that everyone work (themselves) to the point of physical and emotional enervation because, hey, that is the nature of the racket".

    He wrote that instead of earning small fortunes at consultancies, students who pursue doctorates in the humanities "sign a six-year contract to live on or around the poverty line while our teaching, writing and research busies us for roughly 12 hours a day".

    He said greater understanding and support from faculty members would help students cope. He wrote of "gifted scholars who, having struggled with anxiety disorders since long before grad school, have thrived under proper graduate mentors and who are perhaps happier now than they have ever been".

    Carrie Arnold, whose examination of grad school mental health issues in Science that Mr Scheinman cited in his piece, wrote that grad students may struggle to find adequate professional help. She quoted the blogger See Arr Oh, who experienced panic attacks while in his PhD programme: "There was nothing available at the university to help me. There were lots of resources for undergrads but nothing really for graduate students."

    Ms Arnold wrote: "Graduate students have bigger responsibilities and weightier, longer-term commitments. They have to worry about funding their training and research, publishing papers and finishing dissertations."

    And they may have more family responsibilities than undergrads she wrote, adding that: "Graduate students are more likely to have spouses and children who share the impact of their successes and failures." Services tailored to undergraduates, she reported, may not be as useful for them.

    But grad students' struggles are not always problems of privilege. At Tenure, She Wrote, the blogger and graduate student Sarcozona explained: "Finishing a PhD and finding a job is often an incredible financial hardship for even a relatively well-off student now. Many students must beg or borrow tens of thousands of dollars from relatives or otherwise rely on family resources, and still end up in crushing student loan and credit card debt. Poor students can't rely on family - they often have family members relying on them."

    She added: "We don't even have the promise of a secure, well-paying job at the end of graduate school. A poor person may beat the odds and make it through graduate school only to face a lifetime of overwork and poverty-level wages as an adjunct or low pay, constant moves and lack of job security as a post-doc."

    While many call for better mental health services, some students say that just talking to others who know what they are going through can offer some relief.

    Amanda Traud, a PhD student at North Carolina State University, told Ms Arnold that her dissertation support group was her most helpful resource: "Every week we meet and just talk about what's been bothering us, and offer advice or empathy."

    And to hear Mr Scheinman tell it, empathy is what too many grad students are not getting.