Today's post is a summary of a recent survey conducted at the University of Maryland regarding physics graduate student mental health- Zach can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for access to the full report and data.
Graduate school is hard. I imagine that’s not news to any academic. Graduate students move across the country or across the world to spend at least five years taking difficult classes, engaging in high-stakes qualifier processes, and producing a thesis of original, worthwhile research. They do all of this in an environment of bad pay, few labor protections, and in an academic culture with an infamously poor sense of work-life balance. Students from marginalized backgrounds have it even worse than those of us from more privileged settings, facing a culture that meets them with hostility both active and passive.
In 2016, the University of Maryland’s Physics Graduate Student Committee, along with our colleagues in the Access Network, decided to start an initiative to address mental health concerns among the graduate population. What became known as the Mental Health Task Force included Abhinav Deshpande, Gina Quan, Steve Ragole, Erin Sohr, and myself -- all graduate students. We soon realized that when it came to mental health, we had a lot of guesses and rough ideas and not so many facts. If pressed, what sort of mental health concerns would we say were most serious? Did we know what people were suffering from, or were we just guessing or extrapolating from our own experience? It was hard to get a handle on the contours of such a private problem.
We decided to start with a survey, to allow people to tell us what their experience was like and what they felt was harmful to them. We would ask people what mental health problems they had experienced, what they’d seen colleagues struggle with, and how they had responded to the stressors in their lives. That way, when we went to department leadership with requests, we would be able to demonstrate the very real phenomena that made action necessary. In this, we were greatly inspired by the Berkeley Graduate Student Well-Being Report, a comprehensive report on graduate mental health undertaken by the Graduate Assembly at UC-Berkeley.
The survey, administered mostly online with a few in-person paper responses, mixed a few different questions: some Likert-scale responses on statements ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” others allowing free responses from respondents. We promised from the start to preserve confidentiality: no individual response would be reported on, only aggregate data.
Our first survey was in May 2016, and then in the 2016-2017 academic year, we had two events focused on raising awareness of mental health concerns. In one event, the head of the University’s Mental Health Center came to speak to our graduate students. We encouraged attendees to break down into small groups and have discussions about what changes could be made.
This May, we repeated the survey, now armed with experience. The 2016 survey had collected very little demographic data – we were skittish about our abilities to analyze it and were worried that asking students with non-dominant identities to share their experiences would run the risk of de-anonymizing their survey response. In 2017, we decided we would ask for more data on respondents’ gender and allow them space to share “other issues raised by your identity,” which we believed would allow people to volunteer information that they wanted to disclose without pushing for information that they didn’t. We also decided to inquire more about not just whether or not people had experienced issues, but whether or not these issues predated their entry to graduate.
All of this allowed us to produce a much more comprehensive report about our 2017 survey than we had in 2016. The top-line patterns were not too dissimilar between 2016 and 2017; it turns out we hadn’t solved the mental health crisis in the interim. We asked what conditions respondents had experienced, and found that many cited stress anxiety, and depression.
By asking about identity, we also learned a bit more about the particular experiences of marginalized populations, especially women. We received many non-quantifiable stories of harassment, social isolation, and general stress caused by trying to thrive in a department which overall is less than 20% women. It’s impossible to try to analyze our struggles as graduate students with mental health without considering each student’s individual identities—we also heard many stories from nonwhite and non-American colleagues about their feelings of exclusion. The most recent survey made it clear to me that acting on our mental health problem in academia also requires a whole-hearted commitment to equity in physics graduate education. (And, of course, the inverse – creating an inclusive department requires addressing these mental health concerns.)
We also asked respondents, after identifying their mental health issues, whether or not they had been suffering from these before graduate school began. We felt this was an important question: is graduate school attracting those with pre-existing mental illness, or is it creating mental distress? Many of our respondents fell into the second category, specifically saying that their issues arose or worsened during graduate school. We believe that graduate school is specifically worsening mental health outcomes in our department.
Throughout this process, we have been blessed with a supportive departmental leadership which was interested in talking/understanding. This gives us great hope in our efforts to improve mental health, as change in the underlying conditions can come only with their participation and support. The causes and contributors of the mental distress we saw are deeply ingrained in academic culture, but I believe that at the University of Maryland we are taking the first steps in recognizing and addressing them.
What can be done about problems so pervasive? My first recommendation is to keep doing the survey. We would also love for those at other institutions to carry out similar inventories like ours, so that different institutions can be compared against each other and the conversation can continue to spread in academia. (To that end, please contact me at email@example.com if you would like to use our survey or analysis code.) In truth, the conversation in academia is still at such an early stage that simply spreading what has already been done to more faculty and departments would be a great step forward.
Beyond that, it is time for faculty to take a hard look at an academic system which has been generated through centuries of tradition. How much of it reflects our knowledge about how best to train and nurture young scientists? How much of it reflects the reality that most students will not become academics? In general, I have come to believe that apprenticeship is failing our graduate students. We depend heavily on their advisors for job security, research advice, career development, and much else. Even wonderful, well-intentioned advisors cannot necessarily serve every mentorship role that a young scientist needs, especially since faculty receive little training or guidance in how to serve as mentors. Many of our recommendations call for diversifying the pool of people who have a stake in a graduate student’s education. A greater role for non-research advisors can allow for mentorship from someone besides their employer, and established rules of conduct for graduate student labor can lessen the immense variability in working conditions between advisors. Dedicated resources and offices should exist that can mediate between graduate students and professors when disputes or abusive working conditions arise. Graduate students must not be viewed as a source of cheap labor – they must be a part of the academic community, treated as whole and valuable humans. It is our sincere hope that our survey helps light the way toward that future.