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The following series by the Harvard Crimson sheds light on the university’s issues with depression and suicide.

“Harvard students do not suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at a rate higher than the general population, according to Carney, but a “high prevalence” of anxiety and depression is linked to achievement.”

“Mackenzie left Harvard after her junior year. Living at home, she was able to hold a job and receive counseling. “I met people who didn’t think less of me away from Harvard,” she says. “I actually realized that life outside of here is a lot easier. For the first time I thought, ‘Maybe life won’t actually get harder. Maybe some things will be easier outside of Harvard.’”

“For Christine, life away from Harvard was not easier at all. She took a year off after her second hospitalization in the spring of her sophomore year, but she had no money and no ties to her family to fall back on. No longer living in a dorm, she moved into an abandoned building in Central Square.”

You can read the full text at the following links.

Part I:
http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/12/10/suicide-harvard-mental-health/

Part II:
http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/12/12/mental-health-time-off/

Part III:
http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/12/14/mental-health-harvard/?page=1

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“Hello Clayton,
It was a huge relief to come across your WordPress and see that there are other unemployed Ivy grads out there.

I just turned 23. I graduated from Brown a few weeks ago, and I am terrified of the future. None of my job applications have gone through (I only have a B.S. in biology, so I cannot compete with PhDs). Whenever I see a job posting, I see a wide variety of skills that I have explored at least once (e.g., Stem cell culturing, eastern blots, Java programming), but my skill set is spread too thin and unspecialized.

Due to depression, I was on sick leave for a year. For part of that time, I tried to turn one of my synthetic biology projects into a company (it failed spectacularly). When I got back I was effectively a second-semester sophmore that hadn’t received any of the advising that students go through before that time. Combined with my mistake of only taking the advanced biology and biochemistry classes, my GPA sunk to a 3.2 (which is not good when you’re at a school with a reputation for grade inflation). All my companies have failed. There is only one lab I have spent more than one year in, and for most of that I was just doing data analysis. I cannot even get a letter of recommendation from my PI (my thesis project of over a year lost all of its data in a catastrophic computer failure). Since I ended up collapsing from exhaustion during the last GRE I could take and still get my scores in on time, my dreams of grad school have been at the very least postponed for 1.5 years. I doubt I’d even be able to get into one researching Aging.

I am reaching out to people I know at a few labs and trying to ask them if I can work as an unpaid intern. At the moment, I don’t know of any other way of getting back into biological research. I cannot think of anything else in my life that makes me feel complete. I neglected fostering friendships during my time a Brown (I was so focused on school). I see all my classmates going off to well paying jobs, jobs that fill them with fulfillment, and jobs that are well paying and fulfilling. I don’t have any of those opportunities. I’m still mooching off of my parents, whom I still owe tens of thousands of dollars. I am trying to avoid relapsing into depression, but I am scared.

I am trying to get online certifications in machine learning and genomic data science. I’m also working with two nonprofits, one of which I am helping to design a probiotic that would produce anti-aging molecules. Neither of these are paid, I just need something on my resume. Despite this progress, I estimate that I have about 4 months left before I will no longer be able to live on my own.

I would very much like to talk to you about your experiences. Are you open to an informal Skype interview sometime?

Cheers,
[redacted]”

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This Isn’t About Me

I thought I should take a moment to address a few emails I’ve received, along the lines of “stop complaining” or “you picked the wrong degree, suck it up.”

For what it’s worth, I’m no longer poor, and I no longer live with my mother. I have zero debt. I now make six figures as a software consultant and I have a six-figure bank balance. And I’ve been happily living abroad and traveling the world for more than three years (I’m working in Europe at the moment). So no, I’m not sour grapes. No, I’m not a failure. I made a catastrophically bad decision, but I eventually dusted myself off and found a better path.

Yet I still maintain and post to this blog – why? Because the purpose of this site is not to voice petty personal complaints (of which I have few these days) – it’s to highlight a wider cultural phenomenon which continues to threaten the economic future, not to mention the mental health, of a generation of Americans. Tuitions are still rising rapidly and millions of students every year take out massive loans that they probably won’t be able to pay back. Some remain saddled with debt for decades, never able to attain the proper independence that every adult craves. I think no greater blow can be dealt to one’s self-esteem than to invest many years of one’s life in something, only to find that it never pays off. This needs to be talked about, as much as when I launched this site. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops: look before you leap!

If all you see in this site is personal gripes, then you need to look a bit harder, because this is far bigger than me. This site is here to help you, your peers, your children, avoid making a terrible decision that could haunt you for the rest of your lives. It is a chronicle of mistakes and bad judgment calls made by me and by others like me; it is, hopefully, a collection of examples of what not to do if you want to be a success. Take my advice or leave it, but rest assured, this site isn’t about me – it’s about what’s happening in American private education.

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A Mother Writes

Gotta love those souvenirs, like the university email address… and the 200 grand in debt.

“Hey Clayton

You got this great free prestigious email address that you can keep forever—you did get something from your education J

I went through something similar to you a generation ago (but the tuition was considerably less) and built my own business with no benefit from my education at all.  My son is following in your footsteps at another Ivy right now–biology, the whole bit, even a love of languages and linguistics.  You validate everything I know to be true about the situation.  I constantly tell him that before investing so much time, effort and golden years of youth he should  see where it is all going.

Some people in bright economic times may be able to leverage their Ivy league degree as validation that they are intelligent and have learned “how to think”– but not too often.

My son considering switching to comp sci but he will probably stay at the Ivy.  So thanks for sharing your information.  It is helpful—but I will not sleep well tonight.

I am really glad that it all worked out for you, and I am sure you will continue with your success.

I do not donate to my alma mater either!”

I couldn’t have said it better…

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beer-pongI got another round of questions from a reader, to which I’ve responded below:

1. When talking to a graduate of Columbia University (and former professor there) , I asked if he knew any students or taught any students that were/are struggling with depression and he said there was not ONE graduate student he knew that didn’t suffer from both. He says grad school was a “cavalcade of misery, at least for the first three years”. He says he does not know this to be true of undergrad students attending elite schools. Do you believe this to be true?

Could be. I don’t have a graduate degree myself, so I can’t attest to the difficulty of getting one. It seems like PhD programs often get a bad rap (I remember reading a tongue-in-cheek article on the lifestyle of PhD students entitled “So You’ve Chosen to Ruin Your Life”), but I don’t know how dependent it is on the specific school attended. I’m guessing it varies a lot.

As far as intensity of undergrad coursework is concerned, I think it depends heavily on what you study, and I’m guessing the same is true in grad school as well. I found Duke to be an intense and draining experience, but that’s probably because I was pre-med (and a science major) so many of my courses had heavy workloads and were graded on a curve. And since medicine tends to attract some of the best and brightest at the university, I was competing with an above-average demographic for a limited number of A’s, and many of the top students seemed to do nothing but study. If I had pursued sociology or art history instead, I would probably have a very different perspective. Then again, I don’t think Duke is as famous for grade inflation as many of the Ivies are, so the challenge probably varies quite a lot from place to place as well as from program to program.

(more…)

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