Is there a better way to educate smart people?

Alia Wong at The Atlantic reports about a new Harvard study that

surveyed roughly 500 economics Ph.D. candidates at eight elite universities, and found that 18 percent of them experienced moderate or severe symptoms of depression and anxiety. That’s more than three times the national average, according to the study. Roughly one in 10 students in the Harvard survey also reported having suicidal thoughts on at least several days within the prior two weeks. (Other recent studies have had similar findings, including one published earlier this year that described graduate-student mental health as a “crisis.”) The study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences. They also felt

…that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.

This is why I teach at a place like Bluffton University rather than working at a research university. I feel like I am doing useful work and making a positive impact on my community. I decided to go this direction when my advisor, Joe Persky, was complaining about how hard it is to do anything beneficial for society through economic research and yet that is what economics graduate school is completely oriented towards. He said that even most Nobel Prize winners in economics really don’t make a positive difference for the world. However, I was teaching classes at the time and I saw that I was making a difference in the lives of my students in the work I was doing, so I decided to focus on teaching after I finished my research.

That is also why I spend more time blogging than trying to publish academic research. I get a lot more readers on my blog than most academics ever get for all their academic publications. The life of PhD students is pretty brutal and while struggling with poverty and exams, there is sometimes rampant sexual harassment.  A 2016 survey at the University of Oregon found that 38% of female graduate students and 23% of men said they had been sexually harassed by faculty or staff.  These challenges are why half of Ph.D. Students quit without finishing. For the few who do finish, it takes a long time, on average about eight years. That is a lot of lost income. And then it is hard to find an academic job in most fields. Alia Wong wrote:

A 2014 report found that nearly 40 percent of the doctoral students surveyed hadn’t secured a job at the time of graduation. What’s more, roughly 13 percent of Ph.D. recipients graduate with more than $70,000 in education-related debt, though in the humanities the percentage is about twice that. And for those who do secure an academic post, census data suggest that close to a third of part-time university faculty—many of whom are graduate students—live near or below the poverty line.

In contrast, the statistics for medical school make it look super easy.  Almost everyone graduates from medical school.  When the graduation rate for medical doctors declined from 98% in the 1970s to only 97% in the 2000s, there was freaking out with numerous publications fretting about the high dropout rate!

And unlike Ph.D. students, medical students all get a job that pays more than at least 90% of Americans get.  Medical students, despite their huge advantages, have mental health that is about as bad as it is for Ph.D. students:

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), almost 30% of medical students suffer from depression or symptoms of depression. In addition, 1 out of 10 medical students report experiencing suicidal thoughts. That means medical students are five times more susceptible to depression than the general population.

Why are med students so depressed when they don’t have to worry about jobs or debt after graduation and there is little chance of dropping out? One of my doctor friends said the worst part of his training was the forced sleep deprivation during the years of practice after classes end when medical students are used as cheap labor thereby boosting profits for their supervisors.

[Medical] interns are routinely kept awake for 24hr shifts which may lead to increased patient deaths because “practicing medicine while sleep-deprived is akin to working while drunk.” There is no educational rationale for making the least experienced doctors work while fatigued and sleep deprived, but many doctors who have passed through this initiation rite defend it with cult-like devotion and it does provide a lot of cheap labor for their supervisors and makes a great barrier to make it harder to become a doctor.  Medical students typically work 80 hours per week on shifts often lasting 24 hours at a time for years during their residencies and that reflects a considerable cutback due to new regulations in the 2000s.

Fortunately, my experience in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago was mostly very positive.  I had my days of anxiety, but I mostly enjoyed the challenges and found it very interesting and stimulating and I enjoyed working with my community of students and faculty.  I was also never completely set upon finishing so I didn’t stress out much when I saw about 80% of my fellow students fail to finish.  I just took it one month at a time,

I also think that graduate school in economics is better than most disciplines, particularly disciplines in the humanities. If you want to know more, Noah Smith explains why economics is one of the best kinds of PhD degrees.  Public Health also seems like a great area from what I know of the experience of my wife and her classmates at our alma mater.

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