Mental health in graduate school

I recently posted a link to an article on mental health in graduate school on Facebook (via a grad school friend of mine), and it sparked a fair bit of discussion there. The article is worth reading, and I am sure will echo with many of the readers. The discussion veered towards particularities of graduate school pressures in STEM, and the contributing factors to mental stress that are driven by funding structures and the advisor/student relationship. The starting point comes from this part of the article:

In this advisor-advisee arrangement, the student trades her labor as a researcher for the advisor’s mentorship and, ultimately, the advisor’s approval of her degree before she can graduate. For students seeking an academic position after graduate school, an advisor’s letter of recommendation can be the difference between landing a job and being left out in the cold, a harsh reality given today’s sparse academic job market. All of these factors mean that the faculty advisors hold tremendous power in the advisor-advisee relationships. They are the gatekeepers of success in the graduate endeavor.

This notion of “trading labor for mentorship” is most directly monetized in grant-funded fields like engineering, where graduate students are “working in the lab” on a project that is (hopefully) related to their thesis topic. In some cases, this works out fine, but in others, the research for the grant-relevant project does not contribute directly to their thesis. For funding agencies which want “deliverables,” this pressure to produce results on schedule creates a tension. The advisor becomes a boss.

Some of the points raised in the discussion on Facebook seemed important to bring out to a wider audience. One suggestion is to disentangle NSF support for projects and research from grad student salaries. So students could apply for NSF support and then they take their funding with them to find an advisor. In STEM this would be difficult, given the large number of international students who would not be qualified for such support, but it does give some power to students to walk away from a bad situation and more incentives for PIs to be more mentors than bosses. I am not entirely convinced it would help in terms of mental health though — students need more and better mentoring, not just the means to walk away. Also, Roy pointed out, having the student and advisor both convinced that a problem is important and solvable creates a shared commitment that helps students feel less isolated. For postdocs, though, this model would be a significant improvement over the status quo. Right now, there is almost no consensus on what a postdoc should be, and I’ve seen postdoc jobs that range from factotum to co-PI.

When one is on the other side (post-PhD), it’s tempting to say that grad school would have been easier if I had been a bit more organized or had better time-management skills. Perhaps the difficulties one has can be solved with “one weird trick.” I think that’s terribly naïve. As advisors, we definitely can do things to help students learn to work better — that’s the transition from being a student to being a researcher. But the notion that depression comes about as a result of simply not being productive enough, or feeling behind, or any other “outcomes”-based reason, misses the environmental and social factors that are equally important.

Graduate research is often very isolating. Perhaps some STEM students actually enjoy this kind of solitary work, but generalizing is dangerous. Having a grad student social organization, weekly happy hour, softball league, or other “outlet” isn’t enough. I used my startup funds to help buy a table-tennis table for my department at Rutgers, and while the students seem pretty happy about it, it’s not actually creating a community. One important question to ask is how the faculty and the department can help create and support that kind of community so that it can go on its own, organically.

In a department like mine, the majority of graduate students are international, and have a host of other stressors about being in a new (and often much more expensive) country. Using mental health resources may not be normalized in their home country or culture. Regardless of where they are from however, the big challenge is this:

…awareness of the existing resources among the graduate student population remains frustratingly low, due in part to the insular nature of traditional academic departments. A broader culture of wellness may prove even more elusive in the face of a rigidly hierarchical academic culture that often rewards drive and sacrifice without encouraging balance. In this climate, graduate student mental health advocates—students, staff, and administrators—face an uphill struggle in the years to come. The consequences of this struggle tear at the very fabric of the academic experience and suggest fundamental misalignment of priorities.

It’s only a misalignment of priorities if we don’t interrogate our priorities. This isn’t two trains crashing into each other, but it does require a “structural” recognition that graduate students are a part of the family, as it were, and treating them as such.

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6 thoughts on “Mental health in graduate school

  1. How about smaller departments? One thing that I’ve noticed that creates community is the daily rubbing of elbows with the same people. This was what my PhD department was like. And what the building of my first postdoc was like (even though we weren’t part of the department). Somehow being a bit isolationist as a group actually created community.

    • I think splitting large departments into smaller departments is actually bad in terms of the organizational politics of the university — administration already has a disproportionate share of the power and resources, and small departments are less able to advocate on behalf of their students, for example. But I definitely see your point — community through shared adversity perhaps?

  2. This is a very insightful post, and I think you are absolutely correct to point out that it is not about under-performing; I know several cases of excellent students who were doing extremely well in grad school, but who still had mental health issues.

    I think we should remember another factor that contributes to poor mental health. Most students go to grad school at an age when people are trying to figure out their place in the world, and are experiencing “growing pains”. Thus they are in an already fragile mental state. This is a generally frustrating time for everyone, not just grad students. However, young adults at this age who work in regular jobs have more outlets for this sort of frustration — friends who are in a similar situation, or the assurance at the very least that they are doing well financially, so there’s some sort of progress in their lives. In grad school, there are fewer such outlets, and the nature of research often makes it difficult to remember that one is making day-to-day progress. This ends up exacerbating the problem.

    • Yes, absolutely true! The fact that people students are, by and large, young and trying to find themselves is a really big factor at play here. The isolation only makes it harder.

  3. I wonder if academic-focused grad departments can take some lessons from their MBA/law school counterparts. There are obviously huge differences between doing a Ph.D. and an MBA, but I find it sad that I am closer with my wife’s MBA classmates than almost anyone from my 6 years in grad school. In business school, there is a huge emphasis on team-building activities and regular events, because of how important networking is in the business world. Well guess what? It’s very important in engineering as well, and team-building activities and group projects, at least early on in grad school, could possibly aid the problem. I wish I did know more of my Ph.D. colleagues better so I had more contacts in my field.

    It is a very difficult problem because of the overarching culture of grad school. I remember making a half-assed attempt to start a mentorship program, but no one seemed to care, and I was actually discouraged from doing so (so as to not interfere with the weeding-out process, basically). There aren’t any one-shot solutions here; I think any attempt would have to build up the culture slowly over several years.

  4. I have a couple of ideas that we can borrow from other areas. First, in medical school, they do what is called shadowing, where basically a new intern follows an MD like a remora. You could do something similar in Grad School albeit not so intrusive.

    Also, in sports, they do have a psychologist on call, whose job is just to see to the mental health of the players. I’ve seen these pros at work, and is not your day to day psychologist, they sit with you and ask you how do you feel about the win, an about the loose. Why do you think you loose.

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