Should I mention I'm mentally ill on a graduate school statement of intent
November 16, 2009 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Should I mention my mental illness on my graduate school statement of intent?

Brief background - I have social anxiety, depression, and Asperger's syndrome and a year ago, I graduated with a B.S. in Economics from a fairly prestigious technical school. I really want to go on to get a Master's in Economics, followed by a PhD.

However, mostly due to depression and anxiety, my grades were not that fantastic, 2.6 or so overall and my grades in some of my econ courses were not that great (for instance, I got a C in my Math Methods of Econ mostly because I had to miss a week of class since I was in the mental ward at a hospital because I was ready to kill myself). I do have support from one professor who I actually talked to when I was in school who would be glad to write letters of recommendation to some schools I'm looking at he thinks are realistic options given my background, not to mention I did pretty alright on the GREs (though only a 670 on the Math and 580 on the writing).

However, it was suggested to me by someone that I mention the fact I have mental illness, especially Asperger's, on my statement of intent, that is my essay on why I want to attend graduate school. I've been told that schools like to let in disabled applicants because it makes their departments look good, and that having Asperger's would be an asset as people would think I'm some kind of genius (to be honest, I really wish I had that super-Aspie power of concentration on academic subjects, as I tend to obsess over the Internet and more useless topics). Likewise, someone else suggested I use it as saying that I've "overcame adversity."

But I'm concerned about the fact that there's a stigma associated with mental illness and that an economics department might be reluctant to accept me into their program because they think I'm sort of skizo who hears voices or has multiple personalities or more or less just flake out. I'll also be honest - I really don't think I've "overcome" my mental illness. I wish I could give an inspiring personal account how I overcame it but it's something I struggle with everyday but if I mention it, it would explain why my grades were less than stellar. I think that they might view the fact I'm mentally ill as more of a liability than an asset to their department.

As a tangential issue, I'd like to have the aforementioned professor look over my statement of intent since I can't think of anyone else to do it, but I'm afraid if I do mention it, he'll find out I'm mentally ill and that would ruin our relationship and he'd stop wanting to help me.

So should I bother mentioning I'm mentally ill in my statement of intent? If so, how should I go about it?

I'm not so much ashamed that I'm mentally ill, only that I don't want to be rejected on the account of the stigma associated with mental illness.

As a final clarifying note, yes, I do realize that graduate school will be harder than my undergraduate program. However, I do want to get a PhD eventually because I love doing research and that's something I'd like to do for the rest of my life because it actually makes me happy.
posted by anonymous to Education (24 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My understanding is that it doesn't belong on the statement of intent because that is a statement of your research intent. If you want to include it as supplemental info, that should be fine.
posted by Rubbstone at 6:12 AM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've been told that schools like to let in disabled applicants because it makes their departments look good

This is really fishy. Unless you're applying to a school that has tons of cash to throw around (and, in the post-Madoff, recession world we live in now, that would be the rare school), departments are looking for people who can actually do the work, not people whose hands they'll have to hold. You'll be competing for PhD funding against other applicants-- living with Asperger's could set you apart if your work is as impressive as the other applicants, but otherwise, you're telling the schools you apply to that they should spend several tens of thousands of dollars on you not because you have tons of experience or a special talent, but because you have Asperger's. I don't see that flying anywhere.

If you really do want a PhD, it's worth the time to build up a résumé that proves you're a good economist. GPA won't matter so much if you've done real work in the field and have good references.

And don't worry about this: As a tangential issue, I'd like to have the aforementioned professor look over my statement of intent since I can't think of anyone else to do it, but I'm afraid if I do mention it, he'll find out I'm mentally ill and that would ruin our relationship and he'd stop wanting to help me. Asperger's isn't leprosy. I'm sure that, as a professor, he's worked with students with Asperger's before-- maybe he'll have some good advice if you go to him and ask for it.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:13 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

IANAL but check with your state education laws, As far as I know they (the school) has no right to know about your mental or physical health unless YOU want them too. IE for financial aid, special scheduling. That's how it was at my undergrad. So it may be the same there.

If you really did "overcome adversity" then you should say that, but it's up to you how to phrase it, as long as you don't legally have to disclose your condition(s) to the university prior to being accepted, you can say. "During my undergrad course work I overcame great adversity in my personal and academic life." (or something to that effect.)

As far as reducing the stigma of mental illness, it will never go away completely. But, if you are in treatment, pharmaceutical and counseling, it should help you and in reducing the stimga.

Good luck.
posted by tropikal at 6:21 AM on November 16, 2009

My knee-jerk reaction is that mentioning your mental illness will engender two reactions from the people who read these applications (who are often 2nd year students, etc.), neither of them good.

The first is that they might instinctively reject your application in order to mitigate risk of you flipping out and harming other students, even if there's no risk you'd do this. Institutions are jumpy after Virginia Tech. The other is that some readers might see it as though you are requesting special accommodations, which could hurt your chances for acceptance.

In other words, your instinct that they'd view your mental illness as more of a liability is probably right. I'd do your best to explain away the bad grades without mentioning the mental ward, get strong letters of recommendation and write a very convincing letter of intent about your future, not your past.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:21 AM on November 16, 2009

From the graduate students with whom I'm acquainted, sounds like you'd fit right in!


I'm not a graduate admissions officer, but I have an advanced degree and applied for a doctoral program this year (took a Real Job instead), so I'm not completely out of the loop either.

Honestly though, I'm not sure there's an easy answer here. Your GPA is going to be an issue, and your GRE isn't going to help you much, given that you're applying for programs that tend to involve some pretty hardcore math. 700 Quant/600 Reading is what I'd consider to be a baseline competitive score. I don't know where you did your undergrad, but so far your application does not exactly appear to be a slam dunk. This is actually important, for reasons I will discuss later.

As far as whether or not to mention your diagnosis, I think the analysis would go something like this:

Pro: Yes, having a disability of some sort could help your resume for a department interested in boosting its "diversity" numbers.

Con: Using mental illness to explain poor performance is not likely to help, and may in fact hurt, your chances of admission. It's one thing to say that you have a disability, but it doesn't interfere with your ability to do your job, but it's another thing to blame poor past performance on a disability.

That last has nothing to do with any stigma associated with diagnosable mental disorders and everything to do with a department interested in high quality applicants. If they, or an employer for that matter, has reason to suspect that you won't be able to perform well, they've good reason not to hire you, and that reason is both entirely permissable under the law and perfectly ethical. If they think your disability is going to jeopardize your ability to finish the program or hurt the quality of your work, it would be wrong for them to admit you.

With that in mind, let's return to the question of the strength of your resume. To me, it sounds like you've got an average application at best, with your GPA hurting you quite a bit. Since your disability seems to have contributed to your poor performance, my gut says that you might be better off not mentioning it. It would be one thing if you could point to a specific traumatic incident in college which nuked your GPA--someone died, you got meningitis, etc.--but which is no longer a factor. I'd definitely mention that one. If you had stellar marks and a killer GRE, I'd say by all means, go for it, because it would show that you've got your situation in hand. But given that your application is borderline to begin with, the fact that you appear to have an ongoing problem which has real potential to interfere with your professional life, I'd not only consider leaving it off your application but think long and hard about applying to grad school anyways.

I would commend the following to your attention: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go. The odds are good that your understanding of the realities of the academic job market are rather poor, and since it doesn't sound like you'll be getting into a top school, you may have a huge problem finding a job. Just something to think about.
posted by valkyryn at 6:30 AM on November 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

M.C. Lo-Carb, I'd say that admissions committees would probably be more concerned about an applicant flipping out and dropping out. That would represent x years of funding down the tube which could have been spent on a candidate who will finish their degree.

Unlike undergrad admissions, where admitting or rejecting a student is basically a numbers game about the kind of class they want to have, graduate school admissions represent a pretty significant investment on the part of the department. We're talking upwards of $100k over 5-7 years. In today's period of strapped academic budgets, that's not chump change. So any hint that a candidate might not finish a program is going to be a huge black mark.
posted by valkyryn at 6:33 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would recommend against mentioning mental illness on your statement of intent. It is irrelevant information, and a reputable school wouldn't give someone an admit solely on the basis of their mental illness to "make themselves look good." I also have a hard time believing that a graduate admissions committee would believe you're "some kind of genius" because you self-disclose having Asperger's.

This also depends on the schools you're applying to, but 670 on the quantitative section of the GRE seems a bit low for MA in economics. Not sure if retaking would do you any good, but if you have a lot of time left, you might consider it and try to score closer to 800. Verbal score is mostly irrelevant for econ.

Basically, as commenters have said above, the admissions committee is looking for someone who'll not only get through the program without dropping out, but do well in it. From what you've told us there isn't anything in your application proving that you would do better this time around.

I also agree w/ valkyryn re: the academic job market. But I also think MA Economics is one of the more useful humanities degrees to have if you'd be willing to work outside of academia. It's quite quantitative and depending on what you study, you could go into finance or do stats work (think consultancies, government, etc.)
posted by pravit at 6:34 AM on November 16, 2009

I would not mention it for exactly the reasons you list. If you feel like you have to say something about affected grades, I would say simply that your grade in math methods reflects an extended absence for medical purposes that made it hard to catch back up.

Graduate admissions are different from undergraduate, and nobody will care how much adversity you've overcome. Departments are going to have lots of applicants with middling-good GREs and middling-low GPAs. You're not likely to help yourself by shifting from "a boring normal applicant" to "a boring normal applicant with added bonus mental illnesses."

I would commend the following to your attention: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go.

Econ isn't a humanity and the employment situation in the social sciences is (in normal years, unlike the current few) is notably better than the humanities.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:43 AM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Also, duh. Way to miss the point there, valkyryn. *facepalm*

Your statement of intent is not an undergraduate admissions essay.

It's where you lay out why you want to go to graduate school to do study x, with x being a substantially developed but not too-narrow area of research. That's a tightrope in and of itself, as you don't want to appear either that you're just screwing around or that you aren't intellectually omnivorous, which you kind of need to be to be a good researcher.

What it isn't the place for is a discussion of your personal life. There may be a place where this sort of issue could be brought up--a cover letter, perhaps--but this isn't that place.
posted by valkyryn at 6:49 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Honestly though, I'm not sure there's an easy answer here. Your GPA is going to be an issue, and your GRE isn't going to help you much, given that you're applying for programs that tend to involve some pretty hardcore math.

Graduate admissions are different from undergraduate, and nobody will care how much adversity you've overcome. Departments are going to have lots of applicants with middling-good GREs and middling-low GPAs. You're not likely to help yourself by shifting from "a boring normal applicant" to "a boring normal applicant with added bonus mental illnesses."

Having sat on graduate admissions committees, I'd agree with these points. By all means have your professor look over your statement of intent. It should state precisely your research interests and abilities to achieve specific goals.
posted by vincele at 6:50 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Voting no on mentioning your mental illness, as it's not relevant to your proposed research.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:56 AM on November 16, 2009

ROU_Xenophone: I recognize that economics isn't one of the humanities, but a "notably better" job market than a "downright disasterous" one can still suck pretty bad. The difference seems to me to be one of degree, not of kind, and the underlying realities of the academic job market still obtain, i.e. absolutely no control over your location, years spent working for less than minimum wage for a relatively low-odds shot at a job which pays less than those of your peers, and a limited market for your degree outside the academy which is even worse than it was a decade ago.

So yeah, economics isn't one of the humanities, but most of what the article discusses is still true, even if the situation isn't quite as bad as all that.

Of further note: the discipline of economics as a whole has come under fire and may well undergo significant theoretical and even structural changes in the coming years, so it doesn't exactly look like a solid bet for a budding career.
posted by valkyryn at 6:57 AM on November 16, 2009

My recommendations for you: Don't mention mental illness- not because of any sort of stigma, but because it sounds like you're using it as an excuse for past poor performance, which may make them think it would affect your future performance. Also, grad school applications should be more technical and professional than your typical Personal Statement for undergrad. They don't want to know anything about your personal life- they want to know about your interests in a subject- why do you want to study economics and what sort of research are you interested in? as well as why you are qualified to succeed in the program- focus on the positives (i.e. I did an independent reserch project on subject X with Professor Y).

Not meaning to be harsh, but your application is currently very weak. I had shitty grades in college, but I got in to very competitive grad school programs because I had work experience in research (very important! the longer you've been out of college, the less people care about your undergrad grades), excellent GRE scores, and I took a night class in statistics while I was working and got an A.

I think you should consider working for a year (or more) before you apply- email every Econ professor you can think of to see if anyone has any potential job openings. Also, you definitely need to retake the GRE.

Good luck!
posted by emd3737 at 6:59 AM on November 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Should I mention my mental illness on my graduate school statement of intent?

posted by bunny hugger at 7:37 AM on November 16, 2009

No. No. No. No. No.
posted by xammerboy at 7:44 AM on November 16, 2009

Valkryn's comments are extremely insightful, astute, and cogent. They should be heeded by the OP.
posted by dfriedman at 7:55 AM on November 16, 2009

You say that you hesitate to include this information because you feel as though you haven't overcome your mental illness. I would hesitate to apply to graduate school under those circumstances. PhD programs are notorious for making people depressed and anxious and for exacerbating problems people already have. If I were you, I'd take a few years to really get a handle on things so that when you apply, you can honestly say that you have figured out how to work with your problems (and you'll have a record of steady employment to back you up).

Having problems will not help you. Putting some distance and time between your application and those problems will help.
posted by decathecting at 8:55 AM on November 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

I have served on graduate school admissions committees. This was in a very different discipline from econ, but I bet the experience applies.

As others have said, the statement of research intent/interest is not the place for this sort of thing.

A supplemental letter that explains that you do not feel your grades represent your potential because you had health problems in college might be ok, but there is no need to detail what your health problems are. They are your business. Offer other evidence of said "potential" perhaps by highlighting GRE scores or some other experience.

As far as I am aware, chronic mental illnesses are not on some list of disabilities that get a department "diversity credits" though I could be wrong. We were trying to tackle much more basic demographics like "let's not have a class of entirely white males" when I served. And in case my tone is opaque, I wholeheartedly support such diversity and equity considerations.

In recessions, the number of people applying to graduate school goes up (because there are fewer jobs) so getting in becomes more competitive. If you have poor grades or any otherwise-not-stellar application, you should make sure you're applying to programs that you have a realistic chance of getting into, even in a more competitive year.

Honestly, your best chance might be to find an advocate on the faculty of the department you're interested in. Find someone that you would like to work with, whose research interests are your own, contact them and convince them that you belong there. Make a personal connection. Ethical or not (and I'm not sure that it's not), this kind of patronage matters.

All that having been said, I have to echo the sentiments about graduate school in general. It is not just more college. It is different. It is more isolating, more depressing, (sometimes) more competitive; it breaks even the healthy. If I were you I would seriously consider whether you're going to make it in grad school at all. If you do go, put finding a doctor and a therapist as high on your to-do list as finding an apartment.
posted by secretseasons at 9:54 AM on November 16, 2009 [5 favorites]

No. Don't mention them.

I'd spend some time beefing up your GPA and GRE. This is a terribly competitive time.

Also, FWIW, academia + some forms of social anxiety = bad.

People are going to RIP APART your work.

People are going to make you feel like an imposter.

Be prepared.
posted by k8t at 10:00 AM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been told that schools like to let in disabled applicants because it makes their departments look good

This may be true-- but it applies to "Sesame Street diversity" visible/physical disabilities, not mental illnesses.
posted by availablelight at 12:32 PM on November 16, 2009

I'm going to agree that you should not include it in your statement of intent.

When I applied to graduate school, I felt similarly compelled to explain a year of grades that were uncharacteristically lower than my other grades, and I did - with a supplemental statement. I'd had a really rough year and was going through some personal trauma and depression, and naturally this affected my academic performance. So I included a brief "Statement of Explanation" with my application, which in no way detailed the personal hell I'd been through that year, as no one wants to read sob stories or excuses. Rather, I used the statement to explain that I'd been through a difficult time, but I'd successfully moved forward, I was as dedicated as ever to succeed and focus on said efforts to move forward, and there would be no foreseeable obstacles to my future academic success. I acknowledged the intensity of the program I was applying to and indicated that I was eager and excited to delve deeper into the field of study I was so passionate about. I used it to highlight my strengths. Perhaps you should do the same.

Further, you should make sure your statement of intent and recommendations are really strong. Really, really strong. And don't get down on yourself if you don't get in right away. PhD programs are tough to get into. If you aren't immediately accepted, it would be a good opportunity for you to do some things that might beef up your resume and strengthen your chances later.

Good luck!
posted by blackcatcuriouser at 4:00 PM on November 16, 2009

follow-up from the OP

I tried for a year to find a job, ideally a research job, but the best I've done is getting a part time sales associate job at Wal Mart. All the jobs that involve research from my experience want Master's degrees and/or 3.0 GPAs, neither which I have.

I should have mention I have done an independent research paper from my senior year that I presented at a student panel at a state economists association meeting. I'm not sure if it's enough that it really helps me tremendously.


Not to hijack the thread but any suggestions how I would go about contacting a professor to more or less become my advocate?

Everyone else, thanks but I really do want to go to graduate school. I'd rather get my Master's first to see if I can handle graduate school. More appropriately, there's not much economics I can do with my degree as it stands and the best my bachelor's has gotten me is a part time job selling jewelry at Wal Mart, which isn't something I spent 4 year and $120,000 in school to do.
posted by jessamyn at 5:20 AM on November 17, 2009

To the OP:
This is going to be quick. There are a ton of resources out there for how to get into grad school, on mentoring, etc etc. Please consult them widely.

Anyway, I'd heed this advice and just ignore the fact that it's a science discipline. And this advice is good too.

Common thread: do the homework -- lots of it -- first.
posted by secretseasons at 11:09 AM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

If you're already that far in debt, I'm not sure doubling down is a good idea. Okay, so the Wal-Mart gig sucks, but adding another $30k to your debt for a degree which only marginally improves your job prospects seems like a bad move as far as I'm concerned.
posted by valkyryn at 5:36 AM on November 19, 2009

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