The average student loan balance for Americans who completed research doctorate programs was $108,400 in 2016, according to data from the US National Center for Education Statistics. The average balance for those who completed master’s degrees was a still-hefty $66,000. It’s worth thinking carefully, before enrolling, about how that debt may change the way you live your life once you’re out of school.

Why grad students are so depressed

This brings me to another problem with thinking about grad school as a way to ride out recessions: If you don’t genuinely, passionately want the degree in question, you may well find the experience incredibly demoralizing.

Mental-health problems are very common in academia. A 2015 study of 790 graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, found that 47% of PhD students suffered from depression. A 2018 study of 2,279 graduate students across 234 institutions found that participants were six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared to the general population.

Researchers don’t know exactly why depression and anxiety are so prevalent among grad students. There are so many possible contributing factors to choose from! A lot of programs notoriously avoid any notion of work-life balance, creating a lifestyle that’s low on sleep, exercise, and sunlight, and high on stress and booze, which is practically guaranteed to put people in bad mental shape. Working diligently to prepare for a career with dismal hiring prospects can certainly send people spiraling into existential crises.

Grad students also are often submerged in lonely work that requires little human interaction, and if they feel insufficiently supported by their advisers, they can really start spinning out. (In the 2018 study, about half of the students with anxiety and depression said they felt their advisers didn’t offer “real” mentorship.) The list goes on and on.

If you’re someone who really, truly wants to become a professor or otherwise has a clear professional end goal tied to getting that degree, all that stress may very well be worth it, and you can power through.

But if you’re thinking of grad school more as a way to weather a bad economic period—or because you’re not sure what else to do—you may just be swapping out one set of problems for another.

I was definitely in the latter situation. “Is everything in the world horrible,” I once asked my friends mid-grad school, “or is it just the rain?” We were in Oregon, so there was a lot of rain, to be fair. But I was also consumed with fears about my future and the sense that I was wasting a lot of time and emotional energy on the pursuit of a degree that I didn’t want and wouldn’t help me. Everything in the world wasn’t horrible, but my mental state certainly was.

Mistakes happen

Having said all this, I must also add, with the utmost sincerity: What the hell do I know?

It’s fine if you read this article and decide to pay $100,000 for a master’s in art history anyway. Nobody can predict how another person’s experience will turn out. I know plenty of people who say they’re grateful they went to grad school even if it was expensive and not strictly necessary. They point out that they made invaluable connections that led to jobs down the line, or that they got the chance to move to a new country, or that they had opportunities for personal and professional growth that they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.

Personally, I think my decision to go to grad school was a mistake. But people make mistakes all the time, especially when they’re in their early 20s; their brains aren’t even fully formed yet. It doesn’t mean that their lives are doomed forever. Plus, some very good things came out of grad school for me, too. I made some of my best friends there; I can’t imagine my life now without them. And after I dropped out, we started a blog together, which helped me advance my journalism career.

So if you’re going ahead with the grad-school plan, just remember you don’t have to stick with the decisions you make. If you apply to grad school and get in, you don’t have to go. If you go to grad school and realize it’s not right for you, you can ignore the sunk costs (that is, the time and money you’ve already invested in the program) and drop out, thereby potentially saving yourself more time and money down the line. If you spend six years getting a PhD in marine biology and then decide that what you really want to do with your life is to run a dairy farm, that’s perfectly wonderful, too.

A lot of careers are shaped by trial and error, and there’s no shame in experimentation.

But my most important piece of advice, when it comes to grad school, is that you shouldn’t use it as a way to avoid an undesirable situation, whether it’s a recession or the threat of impending adulthood or just something to do while you’re sitting around the house all day during a pandemic. We make progress in life when we go after the things we really want—not when we run away from things that frighten us.

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