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From Courses to Candidacy: Overcoming Graduate School Mental Health Hurdles

Compared to the general population, graduate students are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. This may be due to the high levels of stress caused by the unique challenges and uncertainties that graduate students face in their programs. Despite these higher rates of mental health issues, graduate students are also less likely to seek help to try to combat these challenges. Different periods of intense stress can exacerbate mental health issues. For me, the transition period from coursework to candidacy was a particularly stressful time. Moving towards candidacy increased my own levels of depression and anxiety to the point that I sought help, utilizing my university’s resources to assist me with my mental health hurdles.

In my experience, transitioning from coursework to research meant that I was no longer in a classroom setting with my peers. During coursework, graduate students are able to more readily foster a sense of community as they engage with shared readings and their experiences on campus and in the classroom. In-person facetime also provides more opportunities to talk and commiserate with each other about the hardships of graduate school. In candidacy, however, we can lose the sense of networking that we had before, especially as our time on campus decreases and we begin research in (often lonely) archives.

I concluded my coursework just after the end of COVID-19 quarantine, and the sense of camaraderie I experienced before the pandemic felt diminished and feelings of isolation, nervousness, and depression began to set-in. I felt disconnected from many of my colleagues, despite the advancements for online connectivity like Zoom. I was unable to turn to colleagues easily for feedback and the closure of library services stymied my ability to produce the high-quality work I expected from myself; the sense of loss felt insurmountable. Furthermore, whereas before the pandemic I had weekly classes with lively discussions, afterwards everything seemed less connected than before. My professors and fellow students were less likely to be on campus, and events, such as the open house meet-and-greet between graduate students that had occurred in my first year, were slow to resume.

I passed into candidacy just as the pandemic eased, but because I finished coursework, I could no longer go back to the in-person experience I had in my first year. My own research had reached a standstill as well. As the pandemic eased and I passed into candidacy, I was unsure if visiting the necessary archives in London would even be possible. Some of that anxiety began to dissipate as things started to fall into place to support my research and I was able to make the trip to London, but I soon found the distance from friends and family, the culture shock of a new environment, and the stress of research would foster a more profound sense of loneliness. Although I was not completely alone, with other students in my program also in London, we all suffered from a lack of a wider community. None of us wanted to express weakness and felt that we needed to figure out our woes on our own. These feelings, unfortunately, did not dissipate even as I returned from my research trip abroad.

As a woman in academia, I also worried about how others might see me if I shared my mental health challenges. As noted by Lauren Haslem and Jennifer Foray, mental health challenges are often dismissed as simply par for course when you’ve chosen a life in academia. Coupling this with working in a field coded for "women" (gender and sexuality) forced me to wonder if voicing my fears would make me appear weak in front of those who might one day have to vouch for me.

When these challenging mental health periods occur, it is important to actively find ways to address them. While everyone’s solutions might differ, for me, accessing mental health resources available through my university helped me to understand and cope with the isolation, transition, and mental health issues that seemed too daunting to overcome on my own. I learned that I was not as alone in my struggles as I previously thought. In reality, there is a wide network of people one can reach out to in order to help us feel more connected to other scholars both within and outside of our fields. Thankfully, my department highlighted resources available to graduate students for not only helping with the strain of the pandemic, but with graduate life more generally. One such resource was our campus’s counseling center, which had Group Counseling (Group) sessions dedicated specifically for graduate students.

I began going to Group with other graduate students throughout the university as I finished up with coursework. Group counseling is not an instantaneous solution that "cured" my mental health issues right away, but as I brought up my feelings to those in Group, I began to understand that my feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and even depression were something many other graduate students, in many other fields, also felt. Unfortunately, in order to receive these services through the university, I was required to be in Tallahassee (despite the university offering telehealth appointments). In candidacy, few students can stay near campus to do their research, and this forced break in appointments led to my mental health to continue to deteriorate while abroad. In resuming Group once I returned to Tallahassee, it helped me realize that I could lean a bit more on my friends and establish a support network that could help raise me up when I needed it. In turn I could help others when they began to feel the strain of academia. Having colleagues to turn to when things do not quite go the right way, such as with rejected grant applications, strict feedback, or even just feeling out of place, helped to combat those feelings of isolation and other mental health challenges I was facing.

Mental health in academia, while an often stigmatized or ignored issue, is something that many graduate students grapple with, particularly as we become more isolated in our research after candidacy. With the right resources and help, graduate students can learn coping skills that will help them to thrive in a demanding field. Your school may provide counseling, your colleagues can provide support, and your friends and family can help keep you grounded and feel more connected, even when you are physically alone. Above all, for me, the most important part of handling any mental health challenge was keeping attuned to my own emotions and feelings and recognizing when I needed to lean on my support network. Becoming a PhD Candidate makes it easier to slip away from your department, but keeping yourself apprised of events and changes can help you stave off the feelings of isolation. I hope that with this post, those in academia who are currently struggling with mental health issues realize that they are not alone, and that there are resources available to them to help them through trying times.


Kiri Raber is a fifth year Ph.D. Candidate at Florida State University. She earned her M.A. in History from the University of South Florida in 2019. Her research interests include the early modern world, the British Empire, gender and race in the Atlantic world, and public history. Her dissertation research focuses on family, race, and gender relations in eighteenth century Jamaica, comparing kinship networks in Jamaica to those across the Atlantic to determine the scope of the early Empire through the lens of familial connections. As part of her dissertation research, in the Spring of 2023 Raber analyzed plays, correspondences, and legal documents stemming from Jamaica within the British Library and National Archives funded by FSU History Department’s Martin-Vegue Fellowship.


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