Graduate School Can Be Bad for Your Health

From the WebMD Archives

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 sick."

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 questionnaires.

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.

Vital Information:

  • 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 study.
  • 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.