Depression and grad school (+how to cope)

This article will discuss what is the link between being in grad school and depression. For that, the article will explain what depression is, and how the environment of graduate school impacts a person’s mental health. Along with that, the article will show what are ways to cope with the depression that can happen due to grad school.

Depression and grad school

Graduate school is always a stressful period. And the students going through it have a higher chance of developing depression than the next regular person. The process of graduate school can impact the person. You may invest a lot of your time and energy in experiments.

And some of them may take longer than you thought it would, or may even not become true. This can make it hard for you to apply for a grant or some awards you wanted to. 

This sense of frustration can hit you extremely hard. You can feel like you are failing not only as a student, but you may feel like this failure extends to the rest of your life as well.

The impostor syndrome, and the overwhelming sense that you won’t be able to handle everything, be it the deadlines, other people’s expectations, or even the workload, can make you feel desperate. It can also lead you to isolate yourself from your peers.

What you may fail to realize is that many of the people around you are dealing with a similar situation. There is something in the graduate school system that seems to lead people to such distress, and even depression.

But thankfully learning institutions have been discussing such things more openly. At John Hopkins, for example, nowadays there is a Student Assistance Program (SAP), that is a part of the University of mental health. 

This program offers support for students looking for help to manage their stress levels, as well as mental illness. They offer free short-term counseling and some online self-help resources that can help the person learn ways to cope with stress, how to find the balance between work and personal life, as well as how to handle burnout.

Having universities that are willing to look at their students from that perspective can be a revolutionary act. It not only offers the graduate student the help they need, but it shows how not only the deadlines, research, and grants are important. 

You should also focus on people because without them it is impossible to reach breakthroughs.

What is depression?

Depression is a mental health condition that affects around 5% of the world’s population. It causes people to feel an intense sense of sadness, and lose pleasure in most things in their lives. Along with that, they can feel hopeless, empty, and without any energy.

Depression also impacts the person’s self-esteem, causing it to go low, the same happens to their sense of self-worth. And even though not everyone experiences depression in the same manner, meaning not everyone shows the same symptoms, other common symptoms of depression are:

  • Change in eating pattern
  • Change in sleeping pattern
  • Isolation
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Inability to focus
  • Loss of energy
  • Self-harm
  • Thoughts of death and suicidal thoughts

Depression can be caused by multiple things. It can happen due to a chemical imbalance in the brain, or because you have a genetic disposition. But not only that, but the external environment also has a say in whether you develop depression or not. 

If you are going through a traumatic experience, and that can even be something related to your graduate school. Be it a situation with a professor, the pressure you are in, or the pressure you are putting yourself in, you can develop depression.

How can I cope with depression during graduate school? 

Although it is common for graduate students to become depressed, it doesn’t mean you should just accept it. There are some things you can do to try and cope with it. Let’s discuss what they are.

Look for professional help 

When you are going through depression, one of the most important ways to treat it is with professional help. It can be a therapist, or a psychiatrist, which is a doctor that specializes in mental health and can prescribe medication to treat it.

Most times a joint treatment with both can be extremely important. The psychiatrist will help manage the symptoms of depression. The therapist will help you understand your emotions better. It can help you understand the root of your depression, and how to get a better handle on your feelings.

Strive for some balance 

Although it may seem hard, it is possible to work towards balance in your study/work life and the other aspects of it. Understand that taking some time to do things that you feel good about will also allow you to go back to work with more energy and motivation.

Center yourself

Having some strategies to go through when it seems everything is falling apart around you can be beneficial. You can use meditation, such as mindfulness, or even breathing exercises as a way to center yourself, and regroup your emotions when it all seems all over the place.

Maintain your social contact

Depression, and the imposter syndrome that graduate school brings you, can make you want to distance yourself from others. But keep in mind how having a few laughs, and enjoying some time with the people you love can help you cope with the hard times.

Maintain healthy habits 

Trying to keep healthy habits, meaning sleeping well, eating healthy, and exercising will help you maintain some sort of structure in your life. Along with that, it allows you to care for many of the depressive symptoms such as fatigue, and lack of energy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ): Can graduate school make me depressed? 

Is it okay to leave grad school? 

Yes, it is completely normal to quit grad school. But it is not a simple decision to make. You should take into consideration how you feel about the work you have been doing. Aside from that, you may recollect what made you choose to go into a Ph.D. program.

It may be a long-time passion, or you had an interest in the research you were developing. But this may have changed over the years. You might not be identifying with the work you are doing anymore, and that is okay. 

Or the Ph.D. research may be harming your mental health, or even in other aspects of your life. And if that is the case, you might consider stepping back from it. Don’t blame yourself, or make it seem like a failure. Know that sometimes it is important to take a step back so you can take other steps ahead.

How can I be happy in grad school? 

Because grad school can be so hard, you may want to find some strategies to make you feel better during it. The first thing to do is to manage your time well. Save time for work, but also for things that will make you happy. This may even help you go back to work with more energy and motivation.

Try to have a healthy lifestyle. Eat and sleep well, and give yourself some time to exercise. You shouldn’t overlook your hobbies, and things that can bring you a positive feeling. In the same way, you shouldn’t let go of your social life and relationships.

Those people will help you through it. They will be able to listen to you, make you laugh, and feel supported when you need to. You should also make it a rule to take some time off when you are in grad school. Take some vacation to see and do different things when you can.

What is a good way to quit grad school?

If you have decided to quit, you may discuss it with people that are going through similar situations, and that will be able to relate to how you feel. And as you go through the process of quitting, do it respectfully so you can leave as many doors open as possible. 

Take under consideration how your life will be once you quit. How it will affect your financial life or even future work prospects. And if it is possible, once you get out, stay in touch with people. It can be your advisor or former peers. 

How is life after a Ph.D.?

A Ph.D. is an incredibly stressful time. And it might be good to know that after that life can improve. You may find yourself many new job opportunities, but with that, you will also be able to select what you are interested in and what doesn’t feel like a good option for you.

You may realize how not every opportunity is urgent or important. You may feel like you got a new sense of control of your life. Different from the time you were doing your research, in which you had very little control over how it would turn out. Now you can choose the path you want your life to have.

And you can make those based on your beliefs, not on what your advisor or other people will tell you. Knowing all of this may be something that will hold you through your Ph.D. period when stress seems to consume you.

What are the benefits of having a Ph.D. for my career?

Having gone through a Ph.D. you may become someone that employers will look for. When you have gone through a Ph.D., you might become someone that knows how to find answers, and is well versed in looking for them.

As a former Ph.D. student, you may also learn how to handle failures, and take lessons from them. Even if the situation doesn’t come out as they expect, they will surely be able to take something out of it. Aside from that, they know how to handle pressure, and even overbearing bosses, because of the difficult relationships in academia.

Doing research is always an uncertain moment. So when an employer hires someone with that background, they know they will have someone open to handle those types of situations. 

Another important matter about having a former Ph.D. student in your company is that they are not people that only reply to other people’s information, they are good at creating new ones.

They are also good at dealing with competition and can work well in collaboration with others. And they usually are a good fit for many spots in different industries.


This article showed how being in graduate school can harm your mental health to the point that it can lead you to develop depression. For that, the article also explained what depression is. Aside from that, the article also showed what are ways people can cope with depression in graduate school.