Photographer: Keegan Houser/Flickr

An Academic Job Slump is Making Graduate Students Depressed

Berkeley Ph.D. candidates who were anxious about getting a job were more likely to report being depressed and unsatisfied with life

An unforgiving job market and insufficient emotional support can make graduate school a tough slog—so much so that, at the University of California at Berkeley, 47 percent of Ph.D. students and 37 percent of master's students appear to be depressed, according to a new report.

For the study (pdf), released by Berkeley's Graduate Division and Graduate Assembly this week, researchers surveyed 790 graduate students on their academic progress, satisfaction with life, and mental health. They found the top predictor of students' well-being was how they felt about their job prospects. 

"Students who feel upbeat about their career prospects are significantly happier and less depressed than students who don't," the report said.

Pessimism about the job search—which one student described as "tremendously uncertain, and thus fear-inducing"—colored many of the anonymous responses recorded in the report. Another reported feeling lost in a system that offers little support to graduates pursuing careers outside academia, and a third felt wholly unprepared to take on an academic job after graduation.

"I think that in some sense it is a failure of both my adviser and the graduate system to even admit people like me into Ph.D. programs," the student said.

Although the study focused on Berkeley students, the report is bound to resonate with other graduate student communities. Both everyday stressors and problems unique to academia can take a toll on students' mental health. Decades ago, graduate school might have offered hardworking recruits a shot at a tenure-track job. But those jobs have become increasingly scarce as universities with strained finances have slashed their budgets and leaned on nontenure-track faculty.

The number of academic positions advertised in the humanities has declined at least 30 percent in every field except classical studies, according to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Not everyone surveyed, however, felt their professors got it. 

"Many faculty are utterly unaware of the current academic job market and of the precarious financial situation graduate students find themselves in,"  one student wrote.

Students mentioned financial concerns in the survey responses more than any other topic. Graduate students who were less confident about their finances showed more signs of depression and were less satisfied with their lives than those who didn't. 

Not everyone was dissatisfied. One student called Berkeley "one of the best places I've ever seen as far as inclusion and support of trans and genderqueer individuals," and another described graduate school as "a wonderful experience." Yet the report suggested that Berkeley could do more to help graduate students who appear to be depressed and struggling to cope.

"Graduate school is a formative experience where the self is reconceived, possibilities for one’s life are imagined, and life-long habits are adopted," the report said. "This process should not occur in the context of depression."

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