Stress and Graduate School

According to a new study, graduate students may be 3 times more likely to experience mental health issues and depression compared to the general population, with 1 in 10 having suicidal thoughts. This situation is hardly surprising and largely a byproduct of the setting. For a primer on the context, see previous articles here and herePsychological pressures are a well established, yet often under acknowledge facet of the graduate experience. Anxiety associated with deadlines and performance requirements may have an internal or external basis, but these are only some of the stress causing factors. The pressure to measure up to friends and acquaintances who have forgone studies or have opted for a more job-directed approach to education weighs heavily on many graduate students. Given that PhD recipients are usually out of high-school for over a decade, friends who opt for limited higher education or forgo it altogether may have achievements which socials norms dictate as indicators of success: living on your own, buying a house, having a stable job etc…

One of the main stressors is a lack of certainty about the future. The prospects facing millennials is vastly different from the baby boomer era and results from a combination of economic changes (higher cost of living and fewer mid-level jobs) and rapidly shifting market demands (novel technology and requisite skill-sets). While recent graduates face a barren landscape of job opportunities, those with well paying jobs may also be hard pressed to compete with young up-and-comers. Graduate students invest a greater amount of time in their education than those with a bachelor’s degree and may thus feel they are taking a larger gamble. Regardless, the current state of affairs certainly adds to the stresses faced by graduate students.  

Students are offered a guarantee of sorts upon acceptance into a graduate program, this yearly income is insufficient when taking into account the cost of living in metro Vancouver. The average PhD student is paid significantly less than those who attend the University of Toronto for example (in Canada’s second most expensive city!). Changes are being discussed, but are even now long overdue. Students are largely left to fend for themselves, with emergency bursaries for housing and groceries hard to acquire. On campus housing, at below the market value should be set aside for graduate students. Increasing salaries (and perhaps freezing tuition) could also prove beneficial. Institution level commitment to helping students better prepare for the future will require university level collaboration and a pooling of resources to achieve.

More centralized guidance and streamlined programs that incorporate coop-like work experience would help prepare students for life after graduate school. Being a Research Assistant does little beyond giving students the technical know-how to work in relevant fields. Perhaps the option to replace course requirements with job placements would allow for students to get their foot in the door, so to speak and have more concrete options post-graduation. Coop-like opportunities for graduate students in the STEM fields are provided by Mitacs fellowships, but the impetus is on the student to find industry collaborators and convince their supervisor of the benefits. Such work placements are uncommon and finding one that aligns with the goals of your thesis project even more so. All in all, students faces an uphill battle to make things happen! Most departments have coop offices that focus on undergraduates. Having one member of the team focus, even part-time on graduate level opportunities would be more than sufficient given the relative number of students.

Given the age demographics, time spent in graduate school often coincides with the formative years. Keeping in mind individual needs, supervisors should guide both educational and personal journeys; something that is rarely done. The combination of previously discussed considerations create a perfect storm of stress in graduate school. Proof in point is the level of stress surrounding the fabled thesis defense. The current practice, whereby supervisors try to squeeze out every last ounce of productivity is unfair. Student should go into the defense with sufficient time to prepare – it should be a celebration of the things they have learned rather than a harrowing experience which they face after scrambling for months to finish additional experiments. Many students struggle to produce “enough” results to complete program requirements, a large part of the issue lies in the lack of clear guidelines. The requirements are highly subjective and vary from one supervisor to the next. Even more surprising is the variance of requirements for students within the same lab. In such a setting, where success is intangible, those who push hard are often not rewarded as they should be, instead they head into their defense because they have nothing left in the tank. Anecdotally, those who have a more relaxed approach to graduate school, often finish with comparable results and are not spent at the termination of the degree.

Leaders in the world of industry often cite more work as the means to get ahead and millions of people watch so called “hustle porn”. But there is now mounting evidence against such a mindset and in the years to come this relatively new trend will surely be discarded as a result of the health risks it entails. As it stands, this mentality is very much prevalent in graduate school. Most supervisors acknowledge their privileged position but fail to take into account the pressures which graduate students are burdened with. Acknowledging these unsavory truths is a necessary step and may act as a catalyst for a change in the general attitude towards students, as well as their treatment, and expectations for their work-life balance, etc.

Following a series of highly publicized events, the university administration is beginning to recognize the importance of student mental health. SFU health and counseling services exists, but students face delays in getting help when their situation is not deemed an “emergency”. A suggestion would be to require monthly progress meetings with a counselor as suggested previously and incorporate an exploration of the graduate students psychological well being into these sessions. Impetus is needed to make institutional level policy changes which include making available resources for all the students who need them, all the time. 

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