Although graduate school offers you opportunities to learn more, meet new people, and gain new perspectives, keeping up with coursework and balancing multiple commitments — such as work and family life — can be overwhelming. To relieve stress, many graduate students actively participate in activities outside of school. Whereas some prefer healthy activities like hiking, swimming, lifting weights, or running, research shows that about 80% of graduate students consume alcohol, often as a way to decompress.
Social drinking can be a fun activity for many grad students, but if not regulated, it can easily spiral into alcohol addiction. You may have even wondered if your drinking habits are healthy or if you’re leaning toward alcohol dependence. If you have, you’re not alone, and it’s a valid concern. A 2021 study shows that 13% of college students meet the criteria for Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
If you want to understand the difference between healthy drinking habits and alcohol abuse or avoid the consequences of excessive drinking, you’re in the right place. Keep reading to find out the common reasons behind grad student’s drinking habits, the signs and symptoms of excessive drinking, and the alcohol abuse solutions and resources available for grad students.
Common Reasons Graduate Students Drink Alcohol
In the U.S., as many as 63% of American adults drink alcohol, making it a fairly common practice. Naturally, this norm has seeped into college life, with students typically drinking to celebrate good times or unwind during stressful times. Considering that graduate students often face more stressors than undergrads, they may also find themselves drinking for one of the reasons outlined below.
Celebrating milestones is a common motivation behind knocking back a few drinks and letting loose, especially after a stressful period or event. After all, what better way to celebrate the end of a successful semester, research project, or dissertation defense than popping a bottle of champagne? This motivation is fairly popular, with Sunnyside — an app based around creating mindful drinking habits — finding that 8% of users reported drinking as a form of celebration or reward.
Coping with Negative Emotions
As a graduate student, your academic environment typically involves keeping up with coursework, fulfilling your research obligations, and meeting assignment deadlines. Failing to accomplish your academic objectives or receiving negative feedback on important projects can evoke negative emotions like sadness, stress, and anxiety. Even though alcohol is a depressant, a poll by American Addiction Centers revealed that drinking makes about 95% of alcohol users happy, confirming alcohol’s ability to suppress negative emotions in many people.
Easing Social Anxiety
Graduate school typically offers many social interaction opportunities among classmates within and outside the campus setting. Unlike classroom interactions that usually involve academic matters, outside-school interactions are more personal and may force you to burst out of your social bubble. While networking with peers and interacting with other students is sometimes difficult or awkward, alcohol acts as a social lubricant, making it easier to break the ice and get a conversation going.
Managing Social Isolation
Graduate students in master’s and PhD programs may grapple with isolation and loneliness, particularly those enrolled in online degree programs. The absence of physical interactions and peer connections can lead to emotional distress. This heightened sense of loneliness and a lack of social support can sometimes drive students towards alcohol consumption to cope, exacerbating an already challenging situation. Alcohol typically increases your endorphins, leaving you in a euphoric state where you feel less lonely. Additionally, alcohol consumption locations like bars and clubs offer a social setting where you can interact with others to combat loneliness.
Relieving Academic Pressure
Apart from completing assignments, attending lectures, and preparing for exams, the fear of failing also contributes to academic pressure for grad students. Maintaining an effective work-life balance schedule can help you decompress to avoid burnout. Although it’s not a long-term solution, alcohol can momentarily minimize the overwhelming feeling of academic pressure.
Succumbing to Peer Pressure
As much as internal factors play a predominant role in influencing grad student’s alcohol habits, external factors like peer pressure may also have an impact. Grad students working in small groups on group projects spend a lot of time together. You may find yourself getting roped into attending parties, trivia nights, and other social events where you end up overindulging in alcohol to fit in with your classmates. Research shows that peer pressure is a major contributor to risk-taking behaviors (e.g., alcohol, drug, and tobacco use).
Drinking Patterns Defined
As drinking is so ingrained in American culture, it can be difficult to gauge whether your habits are healthy, especially when you are surrounded by peers who drink excessively. As this is often the case in college environments, it’s important to remain aware of how your drinking habits compare to moderate, binge, heavy, and severe drinking patterns. Review the table below to gauge how your drinking patterns align with moderate, binge, heavy, and abuse drinking patterns.
|Moderate Drinking||≤ 2/day||≤ 1/day|
|Binge Drinking||≤ 5/occasion||≤ 4/occasion|
|Alcohol Use Disorder||
Heavy drinking, along with:
Assessing Your Alcohol Intake: Signs and Symptoms of Excessive Drinking
While understanding the nuances between drinking patterns is a helpful starting point, problems with alcohol cannot just be measured by the number of drinks a person consumes per hour or within a given week. If you’re still unsure whether your drinking habits are impeding your life, health, or academics, read through the following indicators of excessive drinking and consider:
- Have you ever experienced this symptom during or immediately after drinking?
- If so, how often have you experienced this symptom over the past month?
- Has this symptom gotten worse over time?
Keep these questions in mind as you read through the following behavioral, emotional, and physical signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse. It may be helpful to grab a pen and paper to write your answers down.
Behavioral Indicators of Excessive Drinking
Do you feel guilty about your drinking habit? Do you wake up to cravings and occasionally need a drink first thing in the morning to help you steady your nerves? If your answer to these questions is a yes, then you might need to reach out for help with your drinking. Some warning signs that indicate a serious problem include:
Concealing Drinking from Others
Hiding how much or how often you drink is a warning sign that you are aware that your drinking habits may cause concern from loved ones and that you don’t want to or can’t slow down. Hiding your drinking from others may include:
- Physically hiding bottles or containers.
- Lying about how many drinks you’ve had.
- Drinking alone or “pre-gaming” before events or meeting up with other people.
- Hiding or lying about how often you drink.
- Concealing how much money you’re spending on alcohol.
Declining Academic Performance
Excessive alcohol consumption can significantly affect your cognitive function, causing memory loss, dementia, and impaired concentration, significantly impairing your learning capability. In fact, there’s a 46% greater chance of heavy drinkers developing cognitive impairment later in life than non-drinkers, adding weight to the fact that alcohol harms your brain functions. Indications of declining academic performance may include:
- Decreased concentration in class.
- Reduced participation in class.
- Declining grades overall.
Inability to Limit Drinking
Alcohol dependence often comes with strong cravings and withdrawal symptoms, filling your mind with constant thoughts of drinking. The need to alleviate withdrawal symptoms such as tremors and headaches makes putting the bottle down difficult. Signs that you’re struggling to limit alcohol consumption include:
- Blacking out even when you intend to drink moderately.
- Craving alcohol, even in settings where it doesn’t belong.
- Being unsuccessful in your attempts to cut down on your consumption.
Neglecting Responsibilities and Commitments
Neglecting your commitments and responsibilities is a warning sign that you know the consequences of not fulfilling your obligations but cannot align your priorities because of alcohol. Neglecting your obligations can include:
- Failing to attend lectures.
- Submitting assignments past their deadlines.
- Missing Continuous Assessment Tests (CATs) or exams.
Emotional Indicators of Excessive Drinking
Identifying the emotional indicators of excessive drinking isn’t as straightforward as identifying the physical or behavioral indicators. Here’s a list of some signs you can be on the lookout for to guide your assessment:
Physical Indicators of Excessive Drinking
It can be hard to objectively gauge physical changes in yourself, but there are some concrete changes you can look out for. Physical indicators of excessive drinking to watch for as you assess your drinking habits include:
Understanding the Risks of Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Now that you’ve considered your drinking habits in relation to warning signs, it’s important to understand the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption. As you read through the following short- and long-term risks, consider whether you have ever experienced them, and how often. Again, you may want to write down or consider how often you have experienced these risks and how much they have impacted your life.
As drinking impairs our cognition, movement, and speech, it can lead to the following painful and embarrassing short-term consequences.
Accidents and Injuries
You may sometimes be unable to walk in a straight line or perform simple tasks like tying your shoelaces or picking up a small object when under the influence of alcohol. Ethanol causes inflammation and death of your cerebellar cells, causing temporary cerebellar ataxia, or the inability to coordinate muscle movements. The cerebellar cortex in the brain is responsible for motor coordination, balance, and posture.
Alcohol affects the prefrontal cortex in the brain responsible for decision-making and reduces your inhibition, which would typically help you weigh the pros and cons of your decisions. For this reason, you’re more likely to make decisions that promote alcohol consumption, regardless of their negative consequences in a drunken state. A good example is staying out all night before finals.
Blackouts and Memory Gaps
Blacking out from excessive alcohol consumption is an indication of the body getting overwhelmed. Besides the physical consequences of blacking out and memory loss, the guilt and emotional distress of not remembering what happened can take an emotional toll on you.
The impaired decision-making that comes with alcohol consumption can put you in unsafe situations. For example, deciding to operate heavy machinery like power tools leaves you vulnerable to accidents. Trusting strangers when under the influence increases your chances of getting robbed, stranded, or sexually assaulted.
In addition to negatively impacting our health and mental well-being, impaired decision-making while drinking can lead to serious long-term consequences that our sober selves will have to reconcile and manage.
Mental Health Problems
Although alcohol temporarily suppresses negative emotions, alcohol dependence can cause long-term mental health problems. Temporary relief from negative emotions may prevent you from dealing with the root cause of your problems. Over-reliance on alcohol can also permanently alter your brain chemistry, exacerbating depression and sadness.
Drinking and Driving
About 37 people in the U.S. die in drunk driving collisions every day. That means there is a death every 39 minutes, even though we’ve had it drummed into our heads that we should never drink and drive. Apart from the blurred vision that comes with excess alcohol consumption, slowed reaction times can also contribute to accidents when driving.
Besides affecting your memory, concentration, and speech, alcohol use can cause long-term cognitive impairment through Wernicke-Korsakoff or wet brain syndrome. Thiamine is essential to facilitate glucose breakdown in the brain and provide neuronal function energy. And since alcohol affects thiamine absorption, it causes wet brain syndrome, leading to death in 10-15% of cases or permanent brain damage.
Liver Damage and Health Complications
Alcohol dependence severely affects several body organs, such as the brain, liver, kidneys, and digestive system. Since the liver is primarily responsible for breaking down alcohol, it’s the most affected organ. It predisposes you to long-term liver diseases like cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and liver cancer.
Alcoholism and Dependency
As you get into alcohol dependence, your body organs adapt their functions to accommodate the changes alcohol induces in your body, leading to alcohol tolerance. Suddenly cutting down your alcohol intake to break your drinking habits rather than pursuing a gradual approach exposes you to severe side effects due to the above-mentioned organ changes.
According to Alcohol Rehab Guide, about one in every 20 deaths globally results from alcohol-related disease, injury, accidents, or suicide, emphasizing that the short and long-term consequences of alcohol dependence can ultimately lead to death. Mental health impairment can drive you to suicidal ideations, the physical health effects can cause your body to shut down, and impaired judgment can put you into life-threatening situations.
Combating and Preventing Unsafe Drinking Habits
Chances are high that you’ve accidentally knocked back one too many drinks at least once during your time in grad school. If so, you’ve likely experienced one or more of the signs, symptoms, or risks associated with drinking (hangxiety, anyone?). You may have even experienced some of the short-term risks that can come along with drinking too much alcohol, perhaps waking up with a few mystery bruises or a foggy memory of the night before.
However, if you found yourself identifying with many of the signs and symptoms of excessive drinking, and you’ve experienced more than your fair share of the short-term (and maybe even long-term) consequences, it’s time to stop and consider your drinking habits before it seriously impacts your graduate school experience and overall health. If you’re ready to begin tackling your unhealthy drinking habits, consider implementing some of the following tips.
Establish a Support Network
When combating unhealthy drinking habits, your company can significantly influence the outcomes. Below are some tips you can use to help you establish supportive networks in your journey to quit or limit your drinking:
- Educate the people around you about your triggers and the general alcohol recovery process.
- Join support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), to share your struggles during recovery and get accountability partners.
- Minimize contact with former drinking buddies and alcohol enablers.
Develop Healthier Coping Strategies
If alcohol has been your coping strategy for a long time, finding a healthier way to decompress or handle stress is crucial when fighting alcohol dependence. Analyze the following tips to develop healthy coping strategies:
- Engage in hobbies and social activities.
- Set clear goals and priorities to avoid getting overwhelmed.
- Participate in stress reduction activities such as meditation.
Practice Healthier Drinking Habits
Healthy drinking habits involve moderating your alcohol consumption to prevent dependence. If you’re looking for ways to establish healthier drinking habits, review the following tips:
- Give yourself abstinence breaks.
- Alternate drinking alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Know your limits.
- Choose low-alcohol options such as beer and wine.
Seek Professional Help
Seeking guidance from medical specialists can guide you in understanding the steps to take in alcohol recovery and how to manage withdrawal symptoms and other chronic health effects. If you’re unsure of which professional services to seek, below is a list of experts who can help you:
- Alcohol abuse counselor
Alcohol Awareness Resources
Regardless of your geographical location, numerous resources are available to help you navigate the process of combating alcohol abuse. Review these 15 resources as a starting point.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. This free-to-join group connects people globally trying to overcome their drinking problems.
- Al-Anon Family Groups. This is a support group where loved ones of people suffering from alcohol addiction can share their experiences and learn how to provide a supportive recovery environment.
- Association of Recovery in Higher Education. This national support college organization provides recovering students with the community connections and education they need to turn their lives around.
- Center Point Drug Abuse Alternative Centre (DAAC). This California-based organization combats social problems like alcohol abuse by offering rehabilitation and treatment services.
- Centerstone. It’s a non-profit health organization with medical professionals such as physicians and clinicians offering treatment solutions for substance abuse disorder patients.
- College Drinking Prevention. This organization under the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) focuses on providing information on alcohol abuse, specifically among college students.
- Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Program (DAAPP). This college-based program offers one-on-one weekly classes on abstinence and harm reduction for recovering alcoholics.
- National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP). This non-profit organization connects recovering alcoholics with medical specialists for private therapy, outpatient, or residential treatment.
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This community of professional social workers offers follow-up and accountability support to recovering alcoholics.
- Prevention Action Alliance. This nonprofit organization focuses on promoting mental health wellness among substance abuse patients.
- Recovery Answers. Recovery Answers is a Massachusetts General Hospital research institute that promotes advancements in recovery along with treatment and recovery solutions.
- SAFE campuses. It’s an independent organization that creates a safe learning environment for campus students free from gender violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse.
- SMART Recovery. This Self-Management and Recovery Training program offers individual empowerment, guiding students to develop the willingness to accept positive changes in their substance abuse habits.
- Sober Nation Podcast. It’s a network of shows where people at different points of their sobriety stages talk about their experiences, encouraging others to continue their sobriety journey.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA is an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, making information on substance abuse and mental health impairment more accessible.
Interview with a Licensed Therapist and Counselor
Cheryl Groskopf is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC) with master’s degrees in psychology and counseling. Her private practice, Evolution to Healing Psychotherapy, has locations in West Los Angeles and Pasadena, California. As a holistic therapist, Cheryl specializes in treating anxiety and trauma (including intergenerational trauma) and improving the quality of relationships through securing attachment. For more information on her holistic therapy practices, you can check out Cheryl’s website and blog.
Graduate students often face different challenges than undergraduate students. How might these challenges, such as thesis stress and funding concerns, affect their drinking habits?
Many graduate students rely on scholarships or grants to cover their tuition and living expenses. Financial concerns can feel like a burden to graduate students, who may not have time to work full-time jobs while generating research for their thesis. These challenges may lead to using alcohol as a way to cope with stress, relax, or socialize with others. Unlike undergraduates, most graduate students are over 21 and can easily access alcohol. Parties, meeting at bars, and socializing with peers with alcohol present are not uncommon as a way to socialize and relate with their peers.
Are there tailored strategies that can help graduate students navigate these specific challenges while maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol?
Tailored strategies, including prioritizing self-care, can help graduate students manage their stress in healthier ways than problem drinking or dependence on alcohol. It’s not uncommon for grad students to neglect self-care due to the demands of their program, but setting boundaries and engaging in mindfulness techniques that help keep the individual grounded are extremely helpful.
I also recommend that graduate students set realistic expectations and practice intentionality if they want to maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol. If they recognize that they are drinking more often to manage their stress levels, they can reflect on their current relationship with alcohol and whether it aligns with their intentions and long-term goals.
How does problem drinking intersect with mental health concerns specific to the graduate student population, such as imposter syndrome or intense academic pressures?
Being in a graduate program in and of itself is stressful. Adding in the intense academic pressure and being surrounded by other intelligent students and faculty can be really intimidating. Imposter syndrome can cause an individual to feel overwhelmed or insecure with their abilities. In graduate school, these insecurities may come in the form of questioning whether they are good enough, if they truly deserve to be in that program, or if their achievements and success have just been a fluke. The feeling of not belonging or “not being good enough” can cause a graduate student to want to seek temporary relief or escape. But adding alcohol to the mix is just adding fuel to the fire.
Alcohol impacts concentration, sleep patterns, and overall well-being, making it even more difficult to keep up with all the expectations of grad school. If you find yourself turning to alcohol as a way to cope with imposter syndrome or academic pressures in graduate school, it might be time to take a step back and assess your well-being. Remember, you don’t have to face it alone! Seeking support from friends, loved ones, and mental health professionals (such as your campus counselor) can make all the difference in finding healthier ways to navigate grad student life.
Graduate students often form close-knit communities. How can peers effectively support their colleagues who might be struggling with alcohol-related problems without invading their privacy?
Never underestimate the power of listening. I highly recommend not jumping to conclusions or offering advice. Remember, you are not their therapist, but a peer who wants to provide support. If you notice that a colleague may be struggling with alcohol-related problems, it’s important to remember to use empathy and compassion. Pointing this out to a peer can make them feel shame, which can lead to isolation and self-judgment. Creating an environment of trust, without judgment, can encourage open conversations about mental health and drinking.
Can you share any instances of successful peer-led interventions or support systems that have positively impacted the drinking habits of graduate students?
There currently isn’t much research about peer-led interventions and the effectiveness of impacting the drinking habits of graduate students. However, we do know the importance of feeling connected to others and not feeling alone. Peer support groups and peer counseling are becoming more common and less stigmatized than before with the addition to online communities. If you notice that you are drinking to cope but feel embarrassed or ashamed discussing this with your peers, online support groups are a great way to authentically share your story without sharing your identity.
How can graduate programs integrate alcohol awareness discussions into their curriculum in a meaningful and impactful way?
Supervision may be a great place to integrate alcohol discussions in an impactful way. Supervisors in both the research labs and practicums can create an open and non-judgmental conversation about alcohol use in graduate school. Remember, graduate students are adults, and using scare tactics or forcing information down their throats isn’t going to be successful. Can we remember how unsuccessful D.A.R.E was in the 90s?
Beyond short-term awareness campaigns, what sustainable strategies can universities adopt to create a lasting culture of responsible drinking among graduate students?
There’s one thing I remember about graduate school: the access to therapy and counseling was not so stellar. Many graduate programs offer limited insurance benefits to their students, and the opportunities on campus aren’t so great, either. Many universities often offer only 5-10 therapy sessions to their students for the entire year. Plus, many universities don’t have enough counselors to see their student population, which makes getting an appointment even more difficult. Investing in mental health care and mental health access for their students could be a great way for universities to create a more lasting culture of not just responsible drinking, but truly exploring, processing, and providing coping tools to help students deal with the stressors of being in a grad program.
As graduate students transition into their professional lives, how can they sustain the lessons and awareness gained during their academic years regarding alcohol consumption?
It’s important to recognize that not only is being in graduate school difficult, but so is transitioning to a career. As students transition to their professional lives, practicing self-care, engaging in self-reflection and regular check-ins, and staying connected to support systems are all great strategies to continue.
If you find yourself developing unhealthy patterns or are struggling to maintain control over your drinking, you are not alone. Reaching out to a therapist or support group that specializes in alcohol abuse can not only help you develop a healthier relationship with alcohol but also provide a safe space to discuss the deeper issues that are contributing to the problem of drinking.
Be patient and kind with yourself, monitor your habits, and continue to prioritize self-care. And remember, you just finished graduate school! How amazing is that?