Academia and your Identity

Kate Samardzic recently wrote a helpful article that illustrates what she wished her friends and family knew about her PhD experience. It captures the experience of many of the graduate students that I know, reading it can be a way to understand better what it’s like to be in graduate school.

In the article, Samardzic highlights the challenge of your identity becoming too wrapped up in academia. She notes:

“For PhD students, our work becomes closely aligned with our self-worth, and we take failures hard. We need to be resilient, and as we struggle to learn academic resilience, we need our friends and family to understand that what we are feeling isn’t just normal ‘job’ stress, and respond to our requests for support accordingly.”

She challenges friends and family to encourage and challenge her in the following way:

“Our self-worth is closely aligned with our work, and when things go wrong, it can really feel like the end of the world. Remind us that it isn’t actually the end of the world. Remind us that every day is a new day and that today’s struggles are a normal part of the scientific process.”

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.

Millennial Burnout

A recent article on millennial burnout points to the challenges that millennials face in growing up in a culture that has valued being busy over one’s well-being. The author, Anne Helen Petersen, notes the following:

Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it — explicitly and implicitly — since I was young. Life has always been hard, but many millennials are unequipped to deal with the particular ways in which it’s become hard for us.

Loving the grad student in your life

Christian Courier recently published an article by Meghan Kort on how to love the grad student in your life. She begins by explaining a bit about the mental health challenges of grad school and then provides wisdom about “how churches, families, and friends can show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives. The following are some helpful (and unhelpful) questions that she provides that can help you reach out to, encourage, and love the grad students that you encounter.

  1. Asking what they’re going to do when they graduate is unhelpful because “life rarely moves as planned.” They know that there’s probably not a huge niche for their expertise “but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.”
  2. Helpful: “Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” You probably have little connection to their specific topic but you might just have connections with the how and why they came to study that topic.
  3. and 4. Not so helpful: “How is your thesis going?” or “When will you be finished?” A variation of these questions are found in PhD comic’s second most popular comic on what accounts for bad manners in grad school.
  4. Better questions might be “How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing?”

We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.

We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.

Sometimes leaving is the better decision

As a pastor to graduate and professional students, I recognize that I have a vested interested in people staying graduate students. Yet, sometimes staying isn’t what’s best for someone, and I am thankful that I have been invited into conversations with students about that.

To give you an idea of some of the challenges and why people might quit, CBC recently published an article/video about graduate students who have left. The following are a few quotes from the article (and the follow-up article where more people tell their stories).

“When I look back … to me it was just one big, stressful guilt trip,” says Fowlow. “There was always another article I should have read, another book I should have gotten, more notes I should have written.”

Cowie: “I saw so many of my colleagues … go through years of post-docs,” he says, “making very little money, with very few benefits, moving around. “I didn’t really see that as a viable future for me.”

Elsie Thorburn: “As an academic, a lot of your identity is wrapped up in your work and the successes you obtain. Realizing that despite a lengthy CV of academic success there just might not be a place for you, can really shatter your whole sense of who you are and your self-worth. No wonder so many students and graduates have mental health issues.

Andrew Alter: ” Stories of “PhD U-turns” bring so much insight about the meanings of passion, fulfilment and happiness.”

 

 

Mental Health + Graduate Students = Crisis

Colleen Flaherty from Inside Higher Education recently reported on several studies that “suggest that graduate students are at greater risk for mental health issues than those in the general population. This is largely due to social isolation, the often abstract nature of the work and feelings of inadequacy — not to mention the slim tenure-track job market.”

Flaherty notes that Nature Biotechnology speaks of graduate students being “‘more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.’”

A lack of good work-life balance (a significant difficulty amid the demands of graduate school), alongside of conflict with or lack of support from supervisors, were linked to higher anxiety and depression. The study calls for a change in the culture of academia to address the mental health crisis. Read more about the findings and call for change.

Please pray for all those affected this mental health crisis – both the graduate students who are experiencing mental health challenges and for those who have the ability to make changes for the better.