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Graduate School is Mental Work

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

This blog is an invitation for more discourse to acknowledge the fact that mental health problems are valid problems in graduate school.

In a recent article in the journal Nature[1], it was highlighted how the lack of support for mental health problems in graduate school has been plaguing the academe for a long time. It is not a secret that pursuing graduate studies such as a Master's or a PhD is a whole new level of pressure and stress. Attending courses, preparing for exams, teaching a few classes, and performing research work can take up too much time and energy that may leave a person drained and may result in neglecting their personal health. Add to this the burden of being a foreigner and minority in the field during a pandemic, the mental load for students can be more than overwhelming.

Grad school is primarily mental work. It is an endeavor that requires a huge amount of mental aptitude and clarity. Then, why is it that mental health is often neglected in universities and research institutions? As sad as it is, it has been this way for a long time now. Because the roots of these problems are embedded in the academic culture, to make a ripple of change is quite a daunting task.

One reason that can explain why there is lack of support is because of the idea that showing vulnerability is not supposed to be done in the workplace. There’s a longstanding notion that doing so can affect one’s image and credibility because it signals weakness. However, there are reasons to think that being vulnerable is quite important in the workplace. Being vulnerable can be the first step in resolving a problem. Being vulnerable also means having the courage to get exposed and get necessary help. Apart from being a sign of humility and honesty, being vulnerable opens the door to uncomfortable yet crucial conversations to fix the problem.

The rise of social media has helped in shedding light to the burdens of PhD students. As people call it, #AcademicTwitter has been a fresh new lens of looking at scientists and scientists-in-training. If anything, it humanizes the sciences and creates a more inclusive atmosphere for aspiring students of STEM. It might be one of the small steps towards changing the toxic culture of academia when it comes to mental health.

We face different burdens and stimuli throughout our daily lives. Stress is part of it. However, continuous and prolonged exposure to stress is not healthy. We are not in the proper headspace when we are under stress for prolonged periods of time. This is why it is important as early as possible to identify the things that excite and recharge you aside from your research work. These hobbies will save you from the burnout that is affecting students across countries. And most important of all, it is necessary to seek professional help once the symptoms of mental health problems arise.

Investing in your mental health should be as normal as investing in your physical health. There should be no shame attached to it. As mentioned, graduate school work consumes too much brain power and having the right headspace to do your work is therefore very important in order for you to perform properly. These mental health problems may not be exclusive to graduate school but to look at it in this way is an acknowledgement of the fact that it is very much a reality.

Investing in mental health can help students thrive in intellectually demanding graduate programs

How do we address the rise of mental health problems among graduate school students?

Advocate for inclusive structural change

Universities and institutions must first acknowledge this one simple truth: people are not robots. For us to flourish and excel, one must admit to oneself that rest is a must. It is not something to be earned after being productive in the lab. It is a part of the recipe in maintaining homeostasis between our daily stressors and our work. This does not mean that people should be lazy and rest the whole day. No, but rather this is an invitation to look at rest as something that is a prerequisite for efficient and productive work. This includes taking holidays and vacations whenever necessary, not working on weekends, and even devoting a specific amount of working hours a day and sticking to it.

Mental health problems are seen as individual problems, but most of the root causes are structural. The onus is on the individuals when in reality, the problems are deep inside the culture and system of “publish or perish”. Thus, the challenge is for everybody, not just the students, but even the administration and the professors to acknowledge this problem.

Dealing with it can start with simple things. For one, research supervisors must use language that is safe and caring for the well-being of a student. The choice of words matter: “You can do this experiment whenever you have time” is so much different from “You should do this experiment tonight”. Supervisors must acknowledge that the student has their own schedule to follow. Such an approach teaches students responsibility to take ownership of their project. Second, supervisors must not force students to work overtime. Again, this acknowledges the agency of the student. Of course, this also means not expecting a student to work 24/7 on their project. Such pressure is not realistic and frankly, in my opinion, is just a means to exclude people who don’t want to sacrifice their whole lives to their work. If we want science to be a part of our society, inclusion should be a priority. Instead of gatekeeping, we need to dismantle this toxic system that discourages talented people from further pursuing science.

Build your own support network

You moved hundreds of kilometers away from home. Everything is new. The weather, the time zone, the food, the language, and the culture is new. You have clearly sacrificed a lot in order to pursue this path, and it would be too much to further give up other aspects of your self--being a son or daughter, a sibling, a friend. By recognizing the fact that we are multi-faceted individuals who can wear different hats, not just a researcher, we can build a more inclusive work environment. Millennials and Gen Z students look for this in their workplace. The workplace for them has changed from being just a means to earn money into a social institution where their authentic selves are recognized.

With this, it is therefore important to surround ourselves with people who can understand our struggles and woes. Humans are social animals. Find a friend or two whom you can connect with even just for a few hours a week or a month. Talk to someone who knows your context and background. If you can’t find one around your area, the Internet is one great tool in connecting with like-minded people. Your struggles will vary depending where you are coming from and depending on your culture. I could not stress this enough: it is very important to build your support network early on. As Filipinos, we are warm individuals who are used to being part of a community. When we go abroad, we crave for some semblance of home. We crave for Pinoy meals prepared in our kitchens. We crave for a sense of community. Try to look for fellow Filipinos in your area who you can share home-cooked meals with. Build your support network from work if possible, but more importantly, outside of work. You want to be recharged when you socialize and not be drained. Find your kind of people, whoever they may be, and this will enhance your mood and quality of life.

Aside from these tips, getting professional help is still a priority when it comes to your mental health. There are still barriers when it comes to seeking help such as the stigma attached to it, the cost, and time. But perhaps consider it as an investment for your future self that will most likely help you in becoming a better version of you.

Think of attention as a resource

Laboratory work can be very challenging at times. Sometimes, it requires a 10-hour workday to finish an experiment or even more than 10 hours for some. But the fact is, the brain only has limited resources: energy in the form of glucose, and some other kind of resource that I truly believe is usually taken for granted: attention.

Attention in the modern age is a limited resource that we must allocate wisely. With advertisements and social media competing for our precious attention every day, one must be able to safeguard their own attention and only attend to the things that are important during work hours. This means prioritizing focused and deep work. It is not an easy skill to hone. It usually takes some practice to be able to focus at a given time of the day. Some tips that might help are turning off your phone’s notifications, not logging to social media during work hours, or not checking your email every now and then.

Cultivate hobbies and interests outside science

To flourish in grad school, I wholeheartedly believe the key is having work-life balance. Devoting time to things that recharge you—may it be a hobby or just a lazy Sunday afternoon—is very important. Doing sports and exercise is a very good way to recharge yourself. (I know, sometimes it is the last thing you want to do after a long day in the lab). Again, we are not robots. We need to feed our body and our “soul”. For me, what works is practicing mindfulness as much as possible. I don’t want to be taken by the crowd. I do my work diligently but I also do know when to take a break. Do not take things too seriously all the time. Learn to live in the moment. Life can be so much more if you break away from the constraints of society’s pressure of pursuing status and fame. Take time to reflect on the things that are happening around you and practice mindfulness to keep your brain healthy.

Cultivating hobbies and doing things outside science is key to maintaining mental health

On a last note, the inclusion of the arts in STEM (which makes it STEAM) is also an open invitation to young researchers and academics to hone not just one facet of their personality but to complete it and approach the sciences in a more holistic way. Think of the huge names in science who were also known for expressing themselves through art. (e.g., Albert Einstein and Samuel Morse). Art gives way to resting your brain and pursuing other things that can be the source of creativity and innovation. Having a creative outlet, be it music, arts, literature, film, or even food, is also one way of keeping your brain healthy. Science is an art as much as it is a human endeavor.

[1] Forrester, Nikki. “Mental Health of Graduate Students Sorely Overlooked.” Nature, vol. 595, no. 7865, 2021, pp. 135–137., doi:10.1038/d41586-021-01751-z.

John Mark Christian Dela Cruz is a PhD student at the University of Szeged, Hungary. He works under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Innovative Training Network Solar2Chem program. Previously, he obtained an Erasmus Mundus Joint Master's Degree in Functional Advanced Materials and Engineering from Technische Universität Darmstadt and Grenoble INP - Phelma.

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