Post Academic

Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You?

Posted in Surviving Grad School by postacademic on August 2, 2010
Tags: , , , , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionOr at least make you sick? I probably reference the fact that grad school made me puke too much. But it did. I never went to the doctor (or the ER, for that matter) more in my life. At the time, I thought it was all my fault, or at least the fault of dubious sushi.

Then again, maybe the fact I was a grad student was to blame. Jonah Lehrer, author of the terrific Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has an article on the devastating effects of stress in this month’s Wired. We all know stress can lead to heart meltdowns and the like, but Lehrer discusses the research of Michael Marmot, who studied the impact of stress on workers within the British civil service:

After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, Marmot was able to demonstrate that between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top. Even after accounting for genetic risks and behaviors like smoking and binge drinking, civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order still had nearly double the mortality rate of those at the top.

… In fact, we’re so sensitive to the effects of status that getting promoted from the lowest level in the British civil service reduced the probability of heart disease by up to 13 percentage points. Climbing the social ladder makes us live longer.

Even if you have good work conditions (which was a factor in the study), what really hurts is the lack of power. And who has less power than a graduate student?

More after the jump! Plate II from Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. From Chapter VII: LOW SPIRITS, ANXIETY, GRIEF, DEJECTION, DESPAIR. Image from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

For starters, professors look down on you. Students look down on you. People who don’t know you serve up vile cliches like, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Even cartoon characters look down on you.

Someone can say, “Suck it up and wait it out until you get a job.” Only now, grad students are less likely to get a job. Adjuncts are perceived as having slightly more control over grad students because they can choose (kind of) where they want to teach, but they don’t have any control over their classes or working conditions, and universities look down on them, too. These conditions lead to a state of permanent stress. Back in my grad school days, no wonder the thought of organizing seemed so invigorating. Only then did I feel like I was taking charge of my destiny.

And what about hamsters? You don’t have to look any further than “Office Space” to realize that hamster drones have plenty of stress problems. Hamsters, however, have more job mobility. The tenure process moves at a pace you can’t control, but hamsters do have more power over promotions. Despite layoffs, there’s more mobility, and if you don’t like a job, it’s easier to take your training elsewhere. In academia, it feels as if you’ve been trained for only one task.

Until there’s a vaccine for stress, which Lehrer offers a glimpse of in his article, what are grad students to do? Be realistic and know what to expect. Academia can make you sick, so you have to take care of yourself by taking charge of yourself. Draw lines between work and home. Be aggressive with advisors until they give you feedback. If you are stuck with a slacker advisor, switch until you find an advisor who returns your emails. Being proactive might be the only thing that keeps the doctor away, short of an apple and a year’s prescription of Xanax.

61 Responses to 'Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You?'

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  1. I never had a problem in grad school, but I certainly to know people who did. It would be interesting to see reserach on the correlation between success (academic and ability to deal with stress) in grad school and success in later life.

  2. adventuresomeentrepeneur said,

    Thisis a very good post. I thnk it outlines why I choose not to go grad school for the moment.

  3. Yup, I think it can kill you whether you’re a grad student or a professor. But (and this is going to be biased coming from someone who left) I think the academic culture of martyrdom is so strong that it’s nearly impossible to find professors who even understand a healthy work/life balance – i.e. saying no to some things, protecting your non-work time, etc. — let alone support your decision to have it as a grad student. At least that was my experience.

    • anniesabarte said,

      I agree, I’m back in grad school AGAIN and I feel like I’m going to expire on a daily basis. The Stress……

  4. Bernard Marx said,

    So this is what I have to look forward to. I am positively shivering with excitement.

  5. What sorts of things did you do to manage the stress? I am looking to get a PhD in environmental policy after I finish my Undergrad. Also, do you guys have any advice on working before applying to Grad schools? It seems good schools (Duke in my case) are looking more and more for job and work experience before even appliyng; and here I thought I was going to grad school b/c I couldn’t get a job : ). Perhaps a good article to think about. The pros and cons of working before appliyng to Grad school.
    Nice article, keep up the good work !

  6. b_y said,

    For what it’s worth, the grad student does get a modest amount of respect from those who are still considering becoming grad students

  7. greenapril said,

    I couldn’t agree more with the idea that being at the bottom of the totem pole is the worst thing for your health and happiness. I absolutely got sick on a regular basis while I was in grad school. It was continually frustrating to me that, as an adjunct and grad student, I was never quite taken seriously either by my friends outside of academia or my colleagues who were already professors. It’s always very hard going from being a large fish in the small pond of undergraduate study to a small fish in the even smaller pond of graduate school. And I fully agree with WorstProfEver: the culture of grad school is so competitive, and the job prospects are so bleak, that everyone is always trying to outdo everyone else. Your only choice is to keep working harder and longer to eventually edge out one of the other 800 qualified PhDs applying for the same ten jobs.

    Although I enjoyed the work I was doing, I eventually left graduate school because of the stress. (During grad school, my fiance once asked me whether I thought of myself as a happy person. I realized at that moment that I had to get out.) My life has been much more stable, happy, and interesting since then.

  8. Kate said,

    Grad school was the roughest time of my life. I’ve never heard it described better than you did here in his blog. Everyone looks down on you…though how people with no higher education can look down upon people with advanced degrees never fails to amaze me.

    I have a friend who studies the psychology of graduate school. She believes that a huge part of the problem comes from a lack of mentor-ship. It’s not through any direct fault of the mentor–just that they have their own tenure track to think of.

    Thank you for this! It’s wonderful to know I wasn’t alone in feeling this way!

    • bmj2k said,

      “though how people with no higher education can look down upon people with advanced degrees never fails to amaze me.”

      That sounds a bit elitist to me. Kate, there is more to life than an advanced degree. Though grad school may open doors, life experience gets you far more in the long run that grad school. As an educator, I have met may people with advanced degrees that I would not trust to walk my dog, and know many people who never went to college who are far more inventive and innovative than those who did.

      • Perhaps the point Kate’s trying to make is that grad students do deserve some respect–just like anyone else who subjects themselves to intense competition and intellectual challenge, or who makes sacrifices to pursue something they love or help make the world a better place.

        For example, I respect my country’s soldiers–not because I think they are some better class of human than me–but because of the incredible challenges and sacrifices they have endured. Because they are moved by something beyond themselves.

        Not that grad students are soldiers, but you get the point.

      • Kate said,

        I wasn’t trying to sound elitist but I do value education. I think people can have both higher education AND life experience

        That comment was a reaction to the sentence in the post that reads, “People who don’t know you serve up vile cliches like, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” I would add that there were a fair number of people telling me just how useless my degree was going to be, too. .

        After 3-4 years of fighting your way through grad school, it’s the last thing you want to hear. Particularly from someone who hasn’t been through it.

        Girl at the Show described it really well. It’s not a matter of being better, it’s a matter of acknowledging people who take on challenges whether physical or intellectual.

        I’m sorry if I offended. I didn’t mean to.

  9. Believe it or not, there IS a vaccine for stress. It’s called “The Work” and it was designed by Byron Katie. The Work consists of 4 questions designed to make one question their thoughts (and in a sense, their beliefs). Very VERY quickly, stress can fall away. Google her/it!

    With Love and Gratitude,

    The Intentional Sage

  10. A said,

    I finally graduated from grad school this past month. It is a very stressful time and many people, including both students and professors, have told me that to complete graduate school does not require strictly intelligence. It also involves physical and emotional endurance and strength. A lot of the smartest folks I know dropped out of graduate school. The best comparison would be sprinters vs. runners. Sprinters may be faster, but they do not have the endurance that runners have. Graduate school is definitely a marathon.

  11. CrystalSpins said,

    I’m actually getting ready to apply for some graduate school programs in the fall ( Once I’m in I will definitely take your advice about separating work and home and getting a good advisor.

    I appreciate your post, but I have to ask, what were you studying? I really hope grad school doesn’t make me puke! 😉

  12. Grad school definitely killed my curiosity and enthusiasm – but health wise? It wasn’t the school or stress that got me – it was the physical environment (cold and air pollution in the town I was in).

  13. Great article. As a grad student, I’ve never thrown up, but stress is a huge problem for us. Stress can be a real problem too, so I’ve found there’s no harm in de-compressing every now and again.

  14. […] can be grueling and disheartening.  (Fun fact:  the front page on WordPress today features this cheery thought from Post Academic.)  A single encouraging word, even in a critical context, can go a very long […]

  15. Arnold Pan said,

    Wow–what a great response to the post! Thanks for all the great comments and suggestions; it’ll takes us a while to process what you all have to offer here! Your responses definitely give us lots of things to consider for future posts, especially more pieces on how to cope with stress as grad students and post academics. We’ll all be needing it sooner than we think, considering the school year is just around the corner and a lot of folks will be starting grad school, starting new jobs, looking for new jobs…or doing the same thing for yet another year.

    Let us know what you’d like us to cover and we’ll see what we can do. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Ahna Rebekah Hendrix said,

    I have often said, and felt, that stress is an American trait. Everyone I know seems stressed out! It doesn’t matter what field or profession or level of schooling they may be in ~ we are all stressed!

    Being in journalism school, everyday I get online and see a barrage of articles talking about how our profession is dying and that anyone can do it now and blah blahhhh ~ at least teaching will never die. And while it’s true that I can use my degree for a myriad of difference professions ~ I will never glimpse the possibilities of “summer vacations.”

    It’s not so bad. At least you have an education. And at least you have opportunity. The rest may take time, but it’s certainly not hopeless.

    In the meantime, remember that horrible mental diseases can come from stress (it’s what I do to calm myself down) and do things that lessen it. Work with your hands (gives the brain a brake), exercise, write, read ~ whatever chills you out.

    The truth is that we only have this one chance ~ this one life ~ so we can’t afford and shouldn’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in what we don’t have.

    I don’t have much ~ if anything ~ but I am sure as hell not going to die one second before my time because I was stressed out about it. F*&% that!

  17. David Yamada said,

    Thank you for this post. The culture of academe can indeed be anxiety producing and even abusive.

    I am somewhat amused (OK, maybe that’s not the right word) that by far the most popular post on my blog about workplace bullying and creating healthy workplaces is the one about bullying and mobbing in academe:

    Unfortunately, these cultures can roll downhill, with grad students being pummeled as a result.

    David Yamada
    Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute
    Suffolk University Law School, Boston
    Minding the Workplace blog at

  18. CC said,

    And THIS explains why last year was soo stinkin’ terrible. I thought I was just mentally unstable. Undergrad has nothing on the disaster that grad school has been. I just started back today and I’ve had to prepare myself from the moment I left campus for coming back. Ugh. I’ve gained weight, been spiritually distraught, lost sleep, focus, and picked up bad things (language and habits). I’m not going to let this last year do that to me. At least this time, I know going in it’s going to be the pits. In theory, being prepared helps me to not want to kill people. Great post.

  19. japage83 said,

    *sigh* I, too, am currently subjecting myself to mental sabotage. But it’s worth it, right? It’s “all in the name of education.” I often wonder why learning has to be so stressful that it makes students physically and mentally ill. Seems counter-productive.

  20. […] being a grad student. Caroline Roberts, one of the authors of the Post Academic Blog, has written this short and amusing piece about the immense stress and subsequent health effects that result. Luckily, the post offers some […]

  21. missdisplaced said,

    As an laid-off adult grad student, I find the academic life a cake walk compared to my 20 years in the workforce. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I used to do both (work full time AND go to college at night) that makes doing just one thing seem easy.

  22. thecodger said,

    This settles it…I’m not sure if my grandson is considering re-enrolling in art school, but I’m going to tell him not to. Thank you for this information.

    The Codger

  23. jdschaefer said,

    Interesting and incisive thoughts. For those of us in the midst of graduate study, it’s nice to have ‘Postacademic’ to tap into the unique culture of academia. Sometimes, you just need to vent. Sometimes, you just need som motivation. Sometimes, you just need

    J. Schaefer

  24. fuzzypuddles said,

    I’m in college now, and I seem to be constantly getting sick. just this summer I’ve been sick twice and there’s still another month to go before school starts. Last year I had bronchitus twice. twice! In 4 months! stress is killing me slowly.

  25. Graduate school absolutely made me sick. I remember in the midst of it trying to walk along the beach with my husband and dog. I couldn’t even make it three blocks. I felt beaten to a pulp most of the time. For me, as an older student (some of my student peers treated me like their mother, and I was older than some of my professors) I knew the first thing to do was to get a life off campus and to dance a few times a week. It helped. I’m 10 year out now. Two years ago I started a blog and have benefited enormously. I love to write and do research as I did before the PhD ordeal. But you will never find me in school again!

  26. You are brave, very brave. Keep the faith.

  27. Excellent article- interested in the perspectives of two recent grads who skipped the whole grad school scene? (We sometimes get sick from stress too) Check out our blog!

  28. marianne said,

    This brings back nightmares. Most stress is not due to the work, but due to having to deal with people. Work does not bite or belittle you, cheat you, misrepresent you, or treat you as disposable. If they would set strict behavior and ethical standards for faculty, there would be no mistreatment of students.

  29. mauveboudoir said,

    Being a grad school student killed my social life. It was strictly work then grad school for the two years I spent writing and revising my thesis. I gained twenty pounds and was always so tired. Now that it’s all over and I have my degree, I’m working on my health and social relationships. But getting that MA degree was really important to me; I really wanted it so I would say, it was worth it.

    I’m postponing pursuing my PhD for the next twenty years, though. Grad school just cannot replace living.

    I like your piece, by the way. It makes one weigh one’s options, whether you really want to pursue something or not.

  30. […] Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You? Or at least make you sick? I probably reference the fact that grad school made me puke too much. But it did. I never […] […]

  31. Teresa said,

    I have a friend who got a track job (without having a terminal degree) in a tiny university in a backwater state. She got tenure 5 years in. Within weeks of being made full professor, she was made chair. Within a few weeks of that, she left town (over Christmas) without notice and moved to a large, humid continent far away. Apparently, she got sick from getting tenure.

    She’s still teaching at a subsistence level in that faraway country, which is war-torn and generally ravaged.. She can’t come back here because she’s burned all her bridges. Academia is no guarantee of security or sanity – we all know that. I would say “but”, but what would I say? There is only a bit more security in academia now than there is in any other professional endeavor. It’s just come more recently to academia; that is all.

    • Postmanisms said,

      Sounds like a strange school. Generally, it takes 5-6 years for tenure and promotion to assistant professor and then another 5-6 (generally) for promotion to full professor. On a normal track that means she would have been sick from getting tenure for some time.

      • Teresa said,

        Yes, even in a small school and even in the arts, she was on the fast track for academic burnout and subsquent illness. Academia is a strangely toxic path for many people.

  32. smurlene said,

    Been there, Done that. I have never been more sick in my entire life than the six months following my doctoral graduation. Grad school made me very ill.

  33. Boring.

    • Postmanisms said,

      Pointlessly mean, as in you Mavis.

  34. annket said,


  35. Wow…so this is what I’m in for…

    Thanks for the heads-up…


  36. Thomas said,

    I think that it’s a matter of maintaining a healthy perspective. I’m a grad student, and have been for a while. But I always keep in mind that I’m choosing to do this and that when I’m done I’ll have found the time put to better use for my personal development than working at a 9-5 (which I’ve also done). I don’t feel lowly at all, and I use my free time to travel, read, and otherwise enjoy myself in ways that I couldn’t if I was committed to a daily work routine. Having a supportive supervisor is essential though, as is some kind of some counterweight to academic isolation.

  37. zomelie said,

    I gained 20 lbs. my first semester of grad school, and now, I’m an adjunct who is in a constant state of panic.

  38. lookingforsomethingtofind said,

    Everyone in my family went to grad school, currently undergrad and barring the unforeseen it’s what I’m planning to do. I grew up in what I jokingly refer to as the northeaster overeducated liberal bubble. So I (sort of) know what I’m getting into, I’ve always been the more bookish than social sort, so hopefully it isn’t too bad for me. Informative read here, thanks for posting.

  39. Mae said,

    What about grad schools in other parts of the world? Are they as bad?

  40. Uh oh… I start grad school this month. Glad I can look forward to this

  41. another sick grad student said,

    I could not agree more with what has been said here – especially by those who claim that grad school makes them sick. I am doing my Ph.D. and can honestly say that I have never felt more miserable in my life. If you have to choose between ‘life’ and ‘grad school’, choose life! The stress of being in grad school is just not worth that qualification you get at the end of it. Not to mention the prospect of being unemployed post Ph.D. for who knows how long…………

  42. big mistake said,

    I am in my fourth year of the Ph.D. and I sit on my bed and cry at least once a week because I feel I cannot cope with the stress, depression and frustration of being in a ‘place/space’ where I really do not want to be. If it was not for the embarrassment factor, I would have given up this Ph.D. a long time ago. I guess what I need is for my partner to ask me the same question as greenapril’s fiance (above) and since I know my answer will be ‘no, i am not’ maybe then I will finally find the courage to give up grad school.

    • Don’t wait for your partner, dude/ma’am. I stayed in academia for 10 years or so, mostly to “show them.” But you know what? Everyone else is trying to “show them” too. Not a good way to live. And when I told everyone I was leaving to find a job that paid more money and had better hours, I did it with an enormous smile on my face. No one could argue with that.

      • big mistake said,

        Thank you! I seriously am contemplating leaving. The thing is, like (below) says, there are too many people whose opinions still matter – unfortunately. I just wish people had told me how difficult it can be, before I started the programme. I swear to god, if anyone asks me about doing a Ph.D., I will not mince my words – I think at least one person who speaks of the real difficulties and says more than ‘it can be tough but it is so worth it in the end’, would do wonders for that ‘I’m not sure if a Ph.D. is really for me’ person to make up her/his mind!

  43. Brent said,

    Perhaps I did not read it thoroughly, however I am not sure blaming your advisor for your difficulty coping with grad school is accurate.

    Sure, grad school is tough, but it isnt an end all. I think if it affects a person to the point of interfering with their health or well-being than perhaps the person should really think about the relative importance of a degree, and how it really never is that important.

    • big mistake said,

      No, it is not accurate to blame the supervisor. But you cannot deny there are some supervisors who just don’t have the time for their ‘supervisees’ and this only makes an already hard task, even harder! My supervisor does not even bother to respond to e-mails and it is always a matter of sending off at least four/five reminders before there is any feedback – which comes in the form of ‘keep going’, which is hardly helpful, would you not say?

      • Arnold Pan said,

        This reminds me–we’re definitely going to do a post on advisors, maybe one of our personality-types pieces. I was really lucky to have great advisors of all different sorts, but it’s a good topic to cover, whether you’re just starting grad school and don’t know what to expect or you’re in panic mode about finishing your quals/diss and you need help from your supervisor.

  44. I’m on a self-imposed hiatus from grad school – though it had more to do with running out of the finances required to continue. Now that I could potentially put the money towards my education again, I am not looking forward to it, and procrastinate more than I’d like to admit. I am not interested in my thesis any longer at all. I have less than two chapters left to write, but I cannot bring myself back into the world of academia. Grad school made me sick due to the stress and inability to feel financially comfortable. I don’t really want to go back to that…but yes, the embarassment of not finishing…the disappointment I’ve caused my family and thesis advisor is just another stress to add to the whole thing. Perhaps I should never have gone for the degree in the first place!

  45. […] Another bed-time story or horror story in the making? Can being a lowly grad school kill you? […]

  46. This article is motivating!!!!

  47. […] Read Later: Updated August 2, 2010 Filed under: Uncategorized — Laura @ 11:12 pm Here is an interesting article from another wordpress blogger on some of the dangers of graduate school. […]

  48. […] no asshole rule, Surviving Grad School, the workplace, workplace assholes The response to “Can Being a Lowly Grad Student Kill You?” was intense and informative. One of the comments led me to Bob Sutton’s book […]

  49. june said,

    I am in grad school right now, in the first year of a PhD program. I have constant anxiety/stress. I feel like the work never stops! I try to make time to go out 1 night a week, but even then I get behind. I am in school 8-6pm most days and when I get home there is reading, presentations, and papers to grade for the students I TA for. I wish someone had been realistic with me!

    This is SO much harder than a 9-5. However, I am learning and becoming a more aware person. And, in this economy, there are no “9-5’s” available anyway!

    So…looks like I’ll be here a while..but it is a bit insane :/ feel worried that it’s wearing me out physically and that I’m wasting what could be some of the best years of my life. But aside from bumming on my parents couch, I can’t imagine what else I’d be doing at this point in life.

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