Challenges of Graduate Students

This fall the Campus Edge board has been working to understand how we might better respond to the challenges that graduate and professional students experience. Campus Edge students identified the following as the most significant challenges:

  • Stress and/or lack of time;
  • Work/life balance (and “grad student guilt”);
  • Lack of clarity with regard to expectations and progress;
  • Mental health issues;
  • Difficult (or unhealthy) relationship with adviser and/or department/program;
  • Financial (and other socioeconomic) challenges;
  • Spiritual questions/challenges;
  • Loneliness and lack of support;
  • Difficulty in finding a job (after graduating).

A recent article in Inside Higher Education notes that, according to a recent survey of graduate students, “mental health, bullyiing, and career uncertainty” are the top challenges facing graduate students today.

The gift of Sabbath

For most folks, graduate school is a time of being busy: there is always something to do or else guilt in not doing it. Practicing Sabbath can be a challenge during this time, especially as it often takes some creativity to make happen.

Yet, Sabbath is a gift, especially of perspective. It challenges our understanding of time, seeing “time not as an enemy to subdue, but as a friend to savor.” (Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs). Furthermore, it challenges how we think about ourselves. We are not as important or as invincible as we sometimes think: the world will continue quite fine without our efforts. As much as God can use us to do good, God is certainly able to do good without us. It also challenges whatever guilt we might ahve picked up in terms of how undeserving we might be of rest:

“Even if you don’t observe Sabbath, a shift in perception is helpful. It doesn’t ever all get done. We need to train our vision. We see failure when we should see alternatives. Better to focus on the good and important things we did do instead of berating ourselves for falling short of an ideal.” McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 105.

On top of the obvious challenge of carving out time for Sabbath, it doesn’t help that one of the joys of Sabbath – delighting in one’s friends and family – is made more difficult in that most people move to a new place for grad school. The friends made in the new place tend to be busy working.

Yet, even practicing Sabbath in small doses can be an encouragement. Perhaps one of the following suggestions is something that you could work into your schedule:

  • taking one morning, afternoon, or evening to journal or read an encouraging (or challenging) non-school book;
  • going out into nature somewhere – or explore some other new place;
  • taking a break from technology for a few hours;
  • commuting in silence and/or using the commute time to sing in the car, pray and meditate, or listen to a podcast that rejuvenates you;
  • “While waiting at red lights, sitting with both hands open, as a way of practicing Psalm 46’s invitational command to “Be still and know that I am God.” See other tips for short Sabbath moments here.

Last of all, I encourage you to give yourself the grace and courage to keep trying. Taking Sabbath is a habit one needs to form and, like most habits, it takes time (and often some failure) to figure out how to grow into.

Some helpful quotes and books to keep pondering Sabbath:

  • “What happens when we stop working and controlling nature? When we don’t operate machines or pick flowers? . . . When we cease interfering in the world we are acknowledging that it is God’s world.” Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath, 6-7.
  • “Sabbath puts the focus on God and God’s gracious invitation to rest from one’s work.” Mary Ann McKibben Dana, Sabbath in the Suburbs, 22.
  • A quote from Sabbath in the Suburbs (89): “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” Mary O’Connor.
  • A helpful book to read: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time (2001)

Loneliness, Meaning, and Hope

The Los Angeles times recently published an article by Varun Soni, who is dean of religious life at USC, highlights some of the changes that he’s seen among students during the eleven years he’s been in that role. In the beginning, the conversations he had with students centered on “quests for meaning and purpose. [Students] were striving to translate values into action, cultivate joy and gratitude, live extraordinary lives.”

However, more recently the conversation has shifted more often from “how should I live?” to “why should I live?” As Soni, notes that students today are more likely to “grapple with hopelessness and meaninglessness. Every year, it seems, I encounter more stress, anxiety, and depression, and more students in crisis on campus.” He goes on to present the research that has also noticed this shift on campus.

Soni notes that students are often overwhelmed and lonely, and they find it difficult to know how to make friends, a trend that Jean M. Twenge, who has done a significant amount of research on the generation entering college, has also noticed.

Soni further notes that, while we sometimes consider this generation to be coddled,

the reality is they face unprecedented challenges and circumstances. They are entering a world in which many of the career paths of their parents’ generation no longer exist or have changed drastically. They face escalating tuition costs with little sense of whether their future opportunities justify the outlay. They have participated in active shooter trainings and campus lockdown drills for most of their lives.”

In this challenging context, Campus Edge and other religious communities strive to provide community and support for people who are struggling, as well as speaking hope into people’s lives. Please pray that we might do that well, as well as praying for all those who are struggling.

Help for when faith shifts

At Campus Edge we strive to be a welcoming place for those who are struggling with faith, especially those who aren’t sure if they’re able to continue to believe what they used to believe about God, church, and faith. If you’re connected to MSU and struggling with faith, we’d be honored to have you connect to us, either to meet others who’ve undergone the challenging journey connecting to faith shifting or simply to be able to share your own journey and struggles with someone who is committed to listening and encouraging you.

We’d also like to share resources with you in the midst of the struggles. Alongside of the series we did on faith shifting a number of years ago, we post resources periodically on this blog. The Well recently posted an article with suggestions for things you can do when your faith no longer feels familiar. The author, Jen Zamzow, noted that while we might expect our faith to shift at certain transitions in our lives, sometimes it happens unexpectedly, and “change is harder when it sneaks up on us.”

In those times, she gives the following suggestions of things to keep in mind “when we need our faith but it no longer feels familiar to us:”

  1. Be patient with yourself. Zamzow especially warns that “when we push too quickly for resolution without taking time to figure out whether this is even how we should resolve things, we end with simplistic answers that don’t even address the questions that we desperately need to ask.” After all, “faith is not about having everything figured out; it’s about doing the hard work of asking the difficult questions. Faith is not pretending to have all the right answers; it’s about trusting that the answers are there when we don’t see them.”
  2. See the opportunity. Zamzow notes that “it’s when we ask why we should pursue a life of faith that we are most likely to find a faith that connects with our deepest selves, a faith that is real and meaningful.”
  3. Be gentle with yourself. Zamzow notes that “We cannot force ourselves to believe something through sheer will; that’s not how belief works. And guilting or shaming ourselves or others into holding onto particular beliefs about God does little more than further our depression and despair. It is not how we foster deep, authentic faith; it’s how we end up overwhelmed, anxious, or angry at God.”

Mental Health and Graduate School

As we’ve noted before on this blog, “graduate students are at a greater risk for mental health issues than the general population.” A recent study by Harvard quoted in The Atlantic reiterates this, noting that “the study’s results, which also include survey responses from nearly 200 faculty members, indicate that many Ph.D. students’ mental-health troubles are exacerbated, if not caused, by their graduate-education experiences.”

The article notes the high pressure in graduate school, but also highlights how graduate school can feel meaningless:

“Compounding the pressures is the sense, at least according to the economics Ph.D. candidates surveyed by the Harvard researchers, that their work isn’t useful or beneficial to society. Only a quarter of the study’s respondents reported feeling as if their work was useful always or most of the time, compared with 63 percent of the entire working-age population. Only a fifth of the respondents thought that they had opportunities to make a positive impact on their community.”

Please continue to pray for those struggling with the challenges of graduate school: not just the difficult workload, but also the difficulty in seeing how their efforts are meaningful.

Learning to enjoy Sabbath/ Sunday

To my delight, it was fairly unanimous during our Bible Study that Sabbath (e.g., Sunday rest) is considered to be a blessing. At the same time, it was also obvious that it was complicated. Some in the group had grown up with very strict guidelines of what should and should not happen on Sunday. Others had had very little structure in their day, making the day be not all that significant. Neither of these are what we really want for our lives now, but it’s not so easy to figure out how to do Sunday/ Sabbath well in the midst of busy, full lives in a way that fits who we are and remains intentionally turned towards God.

Suprisingly enough, seeing Sabbath as being more of a gift full of freedom makes it easier, I believe, to turn towards God. This is not to say to say that things like attending church or Bible reading aren’t important – they are! – but Sabbath ought not to be limited to God things or good Christian activities. It’s not supposed to be another day we strive to be good or please God. Sabbath is about slowing down and delighting in God’s world around us, both the creation and the people in our lives. Sometimes a bit of planning helps, at least to make sure that others are also available and also to push those of us who are lazy to actively participate in enjoying. It’s also good to realize that Sabbath isn’t just about one day, but about an attitude that will hopefully (after practicing it more intentionally on Sunday) carry on throughout the week, so that we slow down, realize that we are not in control, turn actively towards God, and delight in the good gifts He has given us.

It is also helpful to see Sabbath as a practice and discipline. Not because it’s one more thing we have to be good at as Christians, but to see that it takes practice to get better at it. Furthermore, just like some people take to jogging long distances more easily than others, some people take to the discipline of Sabbath more easily than others. Those of us who are naturally more worried or tend towards feelings of guilt often have difficulties with Sabbath, and perhaps it is easiest to take it at small doses at a time or find a ‘running buddy’ to do it. For those of us who are overachievers and define ourselves a bit too much on the basis of what we do, it can help to see Sabbath as being a way to refresh and renew, recognizing that rest actually makes us better productive. My hope, though, is that Sabbath becomes a gift to all of us – a day we look forward to for spending time turning towards God, without expectations or guilt or pressure.