The Side Effects of Graduate School


For  this piece, I am very pleased to welcome guest author Ryan Rivera. Ryan is a writer and former anxiety sufferer who spends his time writing about anxiety causes and treatments at Calm Clinic. Ryan brings seven years of experience researching and writing about anxiety and related conditions.

Ryan has offered some insights concerning the conditions that graduate students face within an academic environment that can potentially result in anxiety or related issues of mental health. Ryan offers this as a follow up to my own piece entitled Grad School Anxiety. Matters of mental health among university students at all levels is an increasingly serious concern and it’s important to recognize the causes that trigger these issues if we are to confront them. 

I do not endorse everything written here and the opinions expressed here are those of Mr. Rivera. Nonetheless, I believe that any graduate student can relate to at least some of what is discussed below and I would encourage anyone who does to make an effort to learn more about depression and anxiety and also to utilize appropriate services available to them on campus. Ryan’s writings at Calm Clinic are a great place to start and offer a wealth of suggestions on how one can proactively counter anxiety and depression.

I’d like to thank Ryan once again for offering his experience and expertise and will now hand it over to him.

__________________________________________

One of the most fascinating manifestations of anxiety that I’ve come across of late is that of grad school anxiety. It’s been covered on this website before, albeit in a more reflective sense, but I’d like to address some of the issues that I’ve noticed as they relate to what graduate students experience during their five to ten extra years of college.

Causes of Anxiety

Though the author of this blog has previously discussed some causes of anxiety in graduate school, conditions that might trigger issues of mental health in such an environment are far more wide ranging. I believe that for many people that may be a side effect. The research world is grueling to be sure, and the field of academics is loaded with politics and regulations that make it impossible to be a true game changer, but I also believe that there are other issues at play, including possibly the following:

General Coping

I think one of the main issues is a simple lack of coping time, resulting in a loss of elementary coping strategies. During college, and potentially before college, one could cope with anxiety by simply going home and watching hours upon hours of television, or reading a book, or focusing your mind on things other than your studies.

Graduate student life is often too demanding. In the legal field, depression and anxiety are at an all time high, and one of the proposed reasons is that during law school there is essentially no time to socialize outside of class, little time to relax, and hours upon hours complex work every day, leaving the students mentally drained without relieving their stress.

Grad students vary in what takes up their time. For some it’s research, for others it’s reading, but the demand is still there. Combine a field that is intellectually demanding with one that leaves little time for sleep and relaxation and you get a career that can be extremely stressful.

Rigidity

Similarly, there is a rigidity to graduate school that can be highly disconcerting, and lead to a considerable amount of stress and anxiety. In the research field, for example, there are a very strict set of guidelines to complete a research project with any accuracy. But it’s not just the research either. Studies have to be based on other studies. The focus of your research has to be within realistic expectations. You’re also expected to generate valuable results. Journals don’t publish non-findings (even though they should), so there is a black and white way of looking at the research process.

All of it is unsettling to the excited mind ready to break into the field. But I don’t necessarily believe that the anxiety of what one can accomplish in graduate school is hindered by this. I think that these experiences simply lead to a feeling of anxiety in general; an unease, in a way, that leaks into other areas of life.

The Grad School Personality

Finally, I believe that there may be a natural anxiety of those that try to break into graduate school as well that lends itself to negative thinking. This is not a knock against graduate students – in fact, I believe that this way of looking at the world is beneficial for research. Unyielding optimism and hope can be too blinding. Indeed, as a researcher, your goal is to never believe you have proven anything. Only that you indicate something. “Did I really cut my arm off with this giant cleaver? Or did my cells simply decide to split at the exact moment I swung the knife downward?” It’s a personality characteristic that needs to look for the potential flaws and potential problems in any given situation, and that’s one that lends itself to anxiety.

Effects of Anxiety

Now, this is all my own personal theory, and I also believe that every graduate student likely experiences these things differently. But my belief is that these natural anxiety/stress causes lead to unfortunate and subsequent other issues, especially in someone intelligent that reflects on their life. Without coping strategies it’s easy to feel like graduate school is too demanding, even if you’re generally thriving. With rigidity, it’s easy to feel as though you’ll never become who you wish to become, even though you still have decades ahead of you to create your fate. With a personality that looks for the negatives, it’s easy to believe that the academic world holds little opportunity, even though there are plenty of positive things that have come from it despite its problems.

I don’t believe that everyone should go to graduate school. In fact, I think that there is a serious issue of young men and women believing that they need to go to graduate school despite being otherwise unprepared, as well as incredibly intelligent men and women that are never recruited or turned off from the idea because of the perception on the issues above. But I also believe that some of the doubts and anxieties about graduate school are not necessarily problems with graduate school in general, but side effects of the way graduate school affects one’s life.

 

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