The Stress of Science: Mental Health in Graduate School

Most graduate students I know have had a string of academic successes in their lives – they maintain good grades and are considered the ‘smart ones’ in the family. In fact, their hard-working nature has made them accustomed to being successful. Graduate school, however, tends to cause an abrupt end to their streak of success – a steep plunge into the abyss of failing scientific experiments. Scientific projects are infamously maligned by far too many reproducible failures. One can argue that it is the nature of scientific research – when you’re pushing the boundaries of the unknown, you are bound to encounter a few hurdles, right? Being a graduate student myself, I often wish I had been forewarned, so I could have equipped myself with the tools required to survive the storm.65121bb5-f233-44d2-9249-88693f900fe4

  This is not an isolated perspective; graduate schools across the nation have recorded the deteriorating mental health of students. A recent study published by the graduate student government at UC Berkeley in 2015 showed that almost half of the 790 graduate students surveyed showed signs of depression. The study was based on a series of specific questions that revealed the underlying causes of the students’ mental health conditions including sleep deprivation, living conditions, job prospects, academic success and student-adviser relationships. This study also identified 10% of graduate students contemplate suicide. This percentage is high in comparison to the national average of 3.7% as estimated by Emory Univeristy’s Emory Cares4U program. An article in Science magazine addressed the need for specific counseling centers targeting graduate students and their mental health needs. The problems faced by graduate students are markedly different from those faced by undergraduate students, requiring counselors to be trained to tackle them differently.

  Graduate school is not easy on anyone, and I am no exception. I moved from India to the United States for my graduate education- which, as I look back now, was a culturally, emotionally and physically challenging task. At first, course work and long lab hours helped prevent me from missing home too much. Soon though, one too many failed PCRs and Western blots made me realize that I was stuck in a vicious cycle of exhaustion and failure. I was living on ramen, coffee, very little sleep and no exercise. My support system was scattered in different time zones or challenged by sketchy Skype connectivity. I often found myself unable to describe my problems to my family; they assumed I was happily living my dream in one of the foremost research nations in the world. If you are an international student reading this and if this sounds familiar –  this isn’t how my story ends. I recognized my problem and I decided to get help. The graduate school here at UT Southwestern has readily available pamphlets to help locate Student Mental Health and Counseling. Appointments are easy to set up and the folks at the counseling center are warm and welcoming. I got the help I needed; just talking about how overwhelmed I was feeling tremendously helped my situation. I started to make a real effort to get out of lab and go for a run or meet friends and talk about non-science stuff. I called my family and told them how I was feeling and started to rebuild my support system, right here in Dallas. All of that has undoubtedly led me to be happier, calmer and a lot more accepting of failure. I still have my bad days, but overall I am better equipped to handle the ups and downs of a life in science.

None of this would have occurred had I not taken the initiative to meet with a counselor and address my issues. However, it is surprising how much of a taboo “mental health” still is. From my time spent at Student Mental Health, I noticed many acquaintances shied away from acknowledging my presence, as if being there to get help was embarrassing. I am glad that more people are talking about mental health in academia, but are academicians actually ready to acknowledge that this is a real problem? Is it unacceptable to acknowledge that what we do is challenging and that we occasionally need help to get through tough times? Why must addressing one’s mental health be perceived as a sign of weakness? Several graduate students often deny that they need help, or even refuse to get help because they are afraid of how that might be viewed by their peers and advisers.

To get my peers’ thoughts on the matter, I asked some of them about their graduate school experiences and whether they had taken a toll on their mental health. Please note that their names have been changed for anonymity. Betty* is a fifth year graduate student who is no stranger to stress but is afraid to talk to graduate school staff or her adviser about her frustrations. Boris says that “many of my lab-mates never made it work on some days, and the days I did meet them, they were often surrounded by a dark cloud of hopelessness”. He adds, “We grew up around constant positive reaffirmation and success- we just aren’t used to failing.” Karan*, a fourth year graduate student said “The counselors did provide some help but almost all of them required me to have a conversation with my adviser, who I could never gather up the courage to talk to about my issues.” That begs the question – should we be talking more openly about this? Acknowledging that mental health is a real problem might make it easier for many students to get the help they need and adopt a healthier lifestyle for graduate school. In many cases, this might even help save a life.

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From my personal experience and conversations with many graduate students, I have learned a few simple things that can make our lives easier. I would like to hand out a few of these pearls of wisdom to students reading this. There are small, simple changes that can help improve your mood and perhaps your efficiency too!

  • Generate a support system! Either talk to someone (preferably on a daily or weekly basis) about how you are feeling or spend time with them away from work.
  • Find a hobby that helps you de-stress: run, play a sport, paint, read a book, play an instrument, cook!
  • Talk to your adviser if that is a viable option and if it can solve some of your issues.
  • This one may be hard, but try to detach your self-worth from your science. Learn the difference between an experiment failing and you failing!
  • Also, here’s a great article in NatureJobs that also provides some great tips.
  • Talk to someone at Student Wellness and Counseling. Here’s their number and location on campus- 214-645-8680, S2.100, Student Support Services Building, UT Southwestern Medical Center, 5323 Harry Hines Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75390

Images from:

1)PHD Comics on Twitter  https://twitter.com/phdcomics/status/682571176745381888

2) http://cen.acs.org/articles/93/i36/Opening-Stress-Graduate-School.html

Editor: Anushka Wickramaratne

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