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Career Diversity and the Crisis of Grad Student Mental Health

Recent debates about career diversity and its role in the restructuring of the historical profession have resonated with us at the University of California, Berkeley. Although we work in a top-ranked graduate program in history, within the past five years less than 40 percent of our PhD alumni have secured tenure-track positions. So, with a grant from the AHA in 2018, we spent a year developing and implementing a career diversity initiative with the aim of embedding it within the graduate program. 

But in our efforts, we began to observe something unanticipated but obvious. Mental health was the elephant in the room. At every professional development workshop and focus group we ran, the conversation quickly turned from careers for historians to questions of mental health. Whether our subject was the creation of online profiles, networking and informational interviews, the mechanics of assembling CVs and résumés, or the broader issues of work-life balance, we ended up addressing the challenges of depression and anxiety. Often in our discussions we confronted the obstacle that a sense of powerlessness and inadequacy poses to taking forward action when it comes to career transitions. And those were the conversations we had with the handful of students prepared to show up for these events in the first place.

Fortunately, the past few years have seen an increased awareness of mental health issues on campus, including an acknowledgment of the mental health crisis among graduate students. There is now plenty of evidence of the scale of this crisis. A study at Berkeley five years ago, in the midst of continuing deterioration of the academic job market and the escalation of living costs, discovered that 64 percent of graduate students in the humanities were depressed. A recent survey in our own department asked students to rate their experience of stress and anxiety on a scale of 1 to 7 (with 7 being the worst) and found that the average response was between 5 and 6.

There are of course various explanations for this crisis. Yet graduate programs do appear to propagate unpromising conditions for mental health, inasmuch as they promote a culture that measures PhDs’ success solely in terms of whether they eventually become tenured academics. Despite tacit awareness of the elephant in the room—at least from what some of our students tell us—it is clear that indifference, and in some instances outright hostility, to career diversity runs deep among graduate students as much as faculty. 

Read entire article at AHA Perspectives