Graduate School Can Be Bad for Your Health
May 10, 2000 -- Call her the typical grad school student. At age 27, Marni
Silverman is studying neuroscience at Emory University School of Medicine in
Atlanta. A hard-working student in her third year, she's faced with the oral
exam for her thesis. Now she's obsessing about reworking it.
"Everybody gets stressed for exams, but seriously, I don't remember
getting nervous for an exam until I got to grad school," says Silverman.
"Everything is so much more intense now." A lot of times, she says,
it's after an exam that her health crashes. "That's when I get
Many stressed-out grad school students face a similar pattern of health
problems linked with stress, according to a new study.
For many years, author Hymie Anisman, PhD, and colleagues have studied the
effects of stress on chemical systems in both the brain and the body, and how
these are related to various health risks.
"Our primary concern has been [depression]," but along the way they
also started to look at the immune system, which fights off illnesses, Anisman
tells WebMD. He is professor of neuroscience at Carleton University Institute
of Neurosciences and Institute of Mental Health Research at the Royal Ottawa
Hospital in Canada.
In this study, Anisman looked at stress over a two-month time frame before
the oral exam -- the "moment of truth" when graduate students describe
their thesis idea to a panel of judges. Volunteers for the study were 18
graduate students facing oral exams; people used for comparison were 18 grad
students who were not required to produce a thesis.
Blood samples were taken several times: two months before the oral exam, two
weeks before the exam, the day of the exam, and two weeks afterward. Students
also kept a diary of various illnesses they had, including viruses, colds,
headaches, sore throats, and backaches. To help researchers assess their stress
levels, coping abilities, symptoms of depression -- as well as their sense of
control over events in their lives -- students filled out various
Researchers found that students facing oral exams were more likely to get
sick than other grad students -- and that illnesses often lasted after the
exams were over. They also found that the function of the immune system and
brain hormone levels changed in relation to stress levels during the two-month
period. The impact of the stress was strong even two to four weeks before the
exam, when the anticipation itself can create stress.
John Newcomer, MD, who was not involved in the study, tells WebMD, "This
paper is neat because it brings it into very real context the kind of situation
that lots of people have been through. ... It adds to the growing literature
describing the effects of stress" on the body. Newcomer, associate
professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, adds that other
studies have shown that stressors like exams may impair memory -- something
students probably don't want to hear.
- Scientists say they think there is a connection between stress and the
body's ability to fight off disease. In a recent study of graduate students,
those facing exams were more likely to get sick than their peers who didn't
have to take them.
- The researchers also found their students' immune systems and levels of
brain hormones changed, according to the stress they were under during the
- An observer says the new research is appealing because it applies changes
in body chemistry to familiar situations like getting ready for a big test. He
adds other studies have shown stress can affect memory as well.