By Anne M. Burton
Mental health is important and often overlooked. Graduate school is an especially stressful prolonged life event that can take a toll on graduate students’ mental health. How severe is the extent of mental health issues among economics graduate students and what can be done about it? This article provides a starting point and some resources for answering these questions.
How severe is the extent of mental health issues among economics graduate students?
A recent paper by Valentin Bolotnyy, Matthew Basilico, and Paul Barreira in the Journal of Economic Literature and featured in an AEA Research Highlightcharacterized the extent of mental health conditions among graduate students in economics. The authors surveyed graduate students from eight highly ranked U.S. economics Ph.D. programs and found that rates of several indicators of poor mental health (depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation) were more than double the prevalence in the general population. Furthermore, the prevalence of these mental health concerns increased as students progressed throughout the Ph.D. program (Figure 1).
Source: Figure 1 of Bolotnyy, Basilica, and Barreira. 2022. “Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments”. Journal of Economic Literature [Copyright American Economic Association; reproduced with permission of the Journal of Economic Literature].
The job market, typically taking place during years five or six, can be an especially stressful time for graduate students. The time-consuming nature of applying for jobs; the existential crisis of figuring out what kind of economist you want to be and whether you will be able to get a job in that sector (academic at a research-focused university, academic at a liberal arts college, non-tenure-track faculty, government, industry, think-tank, banking, etc.); the uncertainty over what city, state, or country you will soon live in; and the financial expense of attending conferences and flyouts can be overwhelming.
What can graduate students do to improve their mental health?
A great resource for mental health and preparation during the various stages of the job market was written by Chase Eck, Kelli Marquardt, and Dana Shaat, three Ph.D. graduates of the class of 2021.
Tips for graduate students:
- Find things to do outside of grad school: a sport, hobby, club, or other social circle
- Befriend other students in your graduate program or in other departments
- Take breaks every now and then (don’t stop working for months at a time but it’s ok to not work on weekends or take a weeklong vacation every so often)
- There’s a strong link between physical and mental health: exercise, eat a balanced diet, get more sleep, go out in nature
- Don’t be afraid to go to therapy: you may need to try out different providers to find a good match, and you may need to check with your insurance to see who/what is covered, but if you are concerned about the cost, many therapists have a sliding scale payment structure (income based)
How can we, as faculty, departments, and health economists, improve the climate for graduate students in economics?
If you interact with graduate students in some capacity, a good first step is to engage in some self-reflection: do you model a culture of overwork? Do you constantly walk around visibly stressed out? Do you only ever talk about working all the time with your graduate students or do you mention every now and then other hobbies or obligations you have (hiking, family, travel, sports, TV shows you watch, books you read, etc.)? Graduate students look to faculty for cues for how to behave and how to allocate their time. Modeling healthy behaviors and a healthy relationship with work can have positive spillover effects on graduate students. If you advise students, you can check in on them periodically and ask how they are doing, and emphasize the importance of rest, self-care, and taking periodic breaks.
Departments also play a vital role in promoting (or not hindering) mental health. Departments can foster social connections by hosting departmental social events for faculty and graduate students, such as holiday parties and picnics. Department Chairs or Directors of Graduate Studies can provide more information about the different stages of the Ph.D. program, more structure, and clearer expectations to reduce graduate students’ stress and anxiety (particularly concerning the job market). Departments can also work to ensure that all graduate students feel welcome and connected, particularly students from historically underrepresented groups. They can also rein in the sometimes unnecessarily harsh culture of seminars and job talks, by setting norms of constructive criticism and politeness in seminar interactions.
Lastly, as health economists, we have a comparative advantage in researching determinants and consequences of mental health issues. By researching the effectiveness of various mental health interventions, we can provide evidence-based solutions to mitigating the mental health issues among economics graduate students.
Bolotnyy, Valentin, Matthew Basilico, and Paul Barreira. 2022. “Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments.” Journal of Economic Literature 60(4):1188-1222 10.1257/jel.20201555 https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/jel.20201555
Eck, Chase, Kelli Marquardt, and Dana Shaat. 2021. “How to Mentally Prepare for the Job Market.” https://sites.google.com/view/ejm-mentalhealth/home
Smith, Tyler. 2023. “Graduate School and Mental Health.” AEA Research Highlight https://www.aeaweb.org/research/mental-health-graduate-student-economics
At least economics has a good number of jobs; other academic disciplines do not have nearly as many job openings.