Of depressed graduate students

Notwithstanding what you may have read, PhD students in Indian universities are paid about 4 times the median per capita income in the country (and from what I can make out, about twice the median income in cities, which is perhaps the more relevant figure), and this income is pretty well guaranteed for the duration of our research.

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Kavitha pointed me to this The Guardian article about how common mental illness is among PhD students. The article paints a grim picture of what it is to be a graduate student. I am by no means an expert, or perhaps even a typical case; but I do have first hand experience of both mild depression and graduate school (not at the same time, though) and I thought I’d compare my experience with what the article says.

The author of the article is the head of the student counselling unit of some university. The article doesn’t disclose the identity of the author, but I think it’s safe to assume that this is some university in the US.

In short, the author makes the following observations about graduate students from her experience:

1) Many PhD students often work themselves to the point of physical and mental illness, and maybe also think that this isn’t just fait accompli but is also a necessary part of training in academic research.

2) Supervisors are by and large unsympathetic to the plight of graduate students, mostly because people who become professors are usually those people that either did not go through this, or were able to cope.

3) Graduate students and professors view developing a mental illness as an admission of defeat, as a blemish on their career.

They do all this, notes the article almost in passing, while also going through significant financial trouble.

I doubt there are numbers to be found on the prevalence of mental illness in Indian universities, but I do not doubt that students and professors in India are as oblivious to the reality of mental illness as they are in the US. I also have no doubt that there are cases, varying in the degree of severity, of burnout among graduate students with attendant consequences .

In a very important way, however, Indian universities and research centres are different from most universities in the US: notwithstanding what you may have read, PhD students in Indian universities are paid about 4 times the median per capita income in the country (and from what I can make out*, about twice the median income in cities, which is perhaps the more relevant figure). This income is also pretty well guaranteed for the duration of our research, in stark contrast to the constant struggle for funding that defines academic life in universities in the US.

The fact that I have a steady income regardless of what I do with my work makes a world of difference, I think. Is this enough to make the issues the The Guardian article raises irrelevant for Indian universities? I don’t know. I work for professors who have taken all my problems–academic and personal– in stride; but I also know of professors that range from simply uncooperative to downright mean in their treatment of students. It isn’t a stretch to imagine that this could drive a student nuts, and a proper support system would then be necessary and invaluable. My experience has been that the problem cases are few and far between, but I am willing to be corrected on this point.

* How did I get this? The wikipedia page says about a third of India’s population lives in its cities and produces about two thirds the GDP. Even if we assume that all this GDP is equally distributed among the people (and not taken, say, by corporations), this means the average urban dweller makes twice the national per capita income.

2 thoughts on “Of depressed graduate students”

  1. “Not taken by corporations”. You make them sound like alien entities out to rob people. Corporations are made of people after all.

  2. Mother,

    My point was that money that goes to a corporation is unavailable as income to (the vast majority) of people living in the city; that, therefore, graduate students in India are better off monetarily than a very large fraction of the population of the country.

    Yes, shareholders are people; but the number of people holding stock in some company or other is a very small fraction of the population of this country (about 1% is a reasonable estimate). I’d guess that the number of people making significant money on the stock market is an even smaller fraction.

    (What I can only assume was) Your lame attempt at riling me up with the ‘corporations are people’ line has failed, as you can see.

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