There remains a lot of uncertainty about the coming fall semester: the only certainty seems to be a consensus that it will be challenging. To get a sense of what fall might look like, I encourage you to read the communication(s) from MSU as well as to check out several Inside Higher Education articles that envision what an average day in the life of an undergraduate student might look like as well as for a faculty member.
If you’d like a slightly different experience for envisioning what the fall might look like, a graduate student, Cait S Birby, simulated several scenarios for what the fall might look like for people who are often marginalized: people who have disabilities, live with people with significant health challenges, and/or identify as LGBTQ. There is both a scenario for an undergraduate student, faculty, and graduate student. The scenarios give a sense of how overwhelming being on campus might be this fall.
This past Monday we hosted our first hybrid study – some of us were at the house while others joined the study online. While it was very good to chat with folks outside the house after we finished, the study itself was disappointing. It took us an extra 15 minutes to set up, as the original plan of being outside didn’t work. We then set up a computer attached to the television, which meant that those of us at the house no longer had access to communal chat. Because of social distancing, all (4) of us in the house were seated far from the computer microphone and not all of us could be seen by those online. With the added challenges of wearing masks, it was hard for those online to hear us. The need to speak unnaturally loud, the sense that those online were not hearing us well and that those in the house were not as easily able to participate, plus the seating arrangement that felt less conducive to building community, all of these things contributed to making it disappointing.
Even as I was disappointed in the study, I was very glad to have tried it. Next week, we will try again – and hopefully work out some of the difficulties so that we know how and if hybrid studies can work for us before school starts in the fall. Most importantly, seeing the challenges that we as a small group faced in trying a hybrid study, I became more aware of how hard the fall will be for all those trying to meet in person.
Please pray for all those who are now making plans and working through the challenges to allow people to meet in a way that is most conducive to learning while also taking into account each other’s safety and well-being.
Added August 4, 2020: For another perspective on the challenges in teaching online and in-person, see this article from Inside Higher Ed.
A recent article from Emerging Scholars Network had some helpful links for coping with disruption from Emerging Scholars network. I especially appreciated this article about how grad school had prepared the author for quarantine.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
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.