There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about

  • 2015-11-20
  • Quartz

One night during the third year of my PhD program, I sat on my bed with a packet of tranquilizers and a bottle of vodka. I popped a few pills in my mouth and swigged out of the bottle, feeling them burn down my throat. Moments later, I realized I was making a terrible mistake. I stopped, trembling as I realized what I’d nearly done.

I called a friend and met her in a bar exactly halfway between my house and hers. That night changed things for both of us. She met the love of her life—the bartender, who she later married. And I decided I wanted to live. The morning after, I found a therapist and considered quitting my PhD.

It’s common knowledge that getting a PhD is hard. It’s meant to be. Some even say that if you’re not up all night working or skipping meals, you’re doing it wrong. But while PhD students are not so naive as to enter the program expecting an easy ride, there is a cost to the endeavor that no one talks about: a psychological one.

The days I spent pursuing my PhD in physics were some of my darkest. It wasn’t the intellectual challenges or the workload that brought me down; it was my deteriorating mental health. I felt unsupported, isolated and adrift in uncertainty. Anxiety attacks became a part of my daily life. I drank and cut myself. I sometimes thought I wanted to die.

I might not have felt so alone had I known how many people struggle with mental health issues in academia. A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article. The same article notes that the percentage of academics with mental illness in the United Kingdom has been estimated at 53%.