Grad student stress and distress

About thirty graduate students are sitting in a classroom on a frigid and bright late Friday afternoon in mid- February. One student is recounting the typical schedule of his days and nights: he gets up early to teach, attends his own classes, then stays up long past midnight every night to try to get his grading and homework done. In one of his classes, he is assigned to read a book every week; this week, the book is over 500 pages long. He repeats this schedule day in and day out, every week of the semester. I can hear the tenseness in his voice of holding back anger and frustration. Most of the rest of the students are nodding their heads, acknowledging their familiarity with his experience. 

Another student tells of her own similar struggles to keep up with her coursework, including the sleep she has sacrificed. Through gulps of breath and pained tears, she says she wasn’t taking anxiety medication before she started graduate school.

Another student firmly says he can’t possibly take the recommended mindful walk because he would spend that time worrying about the work he should have been doing instead. He admits he hasn’t called his family in weeks for the same reason; he knows he would spend that phone call ruminating about the work he isn’t attending to.

Another student describes the down-to-the-minute scheduling she has done on a spreadsheet to keep herself on pace with the reading and project assignments (she confirms the book-a-week expectation). This student says she hasn’t talked with her parents since the winter break about eight weeks ago.

Another student says she did talk to a faculty member of one of her classes to say she was having trouble keeping up and wanted help. The faculty member told her, “This is what you signed up for.”

The first student comes back in, adding that most nights he isn’t going to bed before 3am or 4am, just to get up at 7am to teach. He says this isn’t what he signed up for, and that had he known, he wouldn’t have enrolled. He ends by apologizing for complaining.

I interrupt him. “Please don’t apologize. You aren’t complaining. This is your testimony to your experience, and we have the honor of witnessing your suffering. This is how you realize that you aren’t alone, that you have a community supporting you, that individual coping won’t resolve the core problem, and that you have more power collectively. This is how we start making it better.”

I cried when I got home from all of the hurt, frustration, grief, and anger I witnessed. I cried from the moral injury of knowing this level of overwhelm is happening to graduate students. I cried because this isn’t how I want graduate students to experience their studies. 

I am sharing this story because I want readers to know what graduate student distress sounds like. I want readers to be moved and affected by these graduate students and their peers. I want staff and faculty readers to pay attention to graduate students’ stress, believe them, and act with care toward our students. I want graduate students to know they aren’t alone. I want graduate students to feel empowered with solidarity, knowledge, and skills to put their physical and mental health first.

I had been invited to speak with graduate students in a particular program about mental health. They had previously completed a survey about their mental health administered by their director of graduate students. I was invited in, with the dgs, to help the students identify actionable, productive next steps for addressing graduate student mental health in their program. I’ve been paying attention to national reports on graduate student mental health, learning about trauma-informed practice, and sitting on campus committees about our graduate students’ mental health. 

I quickly learned that I had made several mistakes. I had prepared my remarks and suggestions with the assumption that their mental health concerns were covid-related. And I made the assumption that they needed relaxation- and mindfulness-based solutions. I deeply regret those choices of my own hubris and privilege. For these students, covid was an “add on” to a substantial stress that was already there in the Before Times: overwhelm from school work. They said they could barely make space or time to think about covid because of their stress. Remember, they weren’t even calling family or going on walks. I should have started by asking the students, “what one or two things would dramatically change your experience in graduate school right now?” 

These students are traumatized. I’m not using that term lightly. They are experiencing extraordinary distress as a result of events that feel like a threat to their lives and that they feel is beyond their control. To give them a sense of control and safety, they perform the role of “good students.” They believe this damage they incur to their physical health, mental health, and families is necessary to be good students. They believe their inability to keep up is a personal problem so they pursue individual solutions to keep up with unreasonable workloads. They adapt with spreadsheets and no sleep. They cope with therapy and medication. They fear the consequences if they don’t learn to cope and adapt.They act as captives, doing what they believe will set them free from their captors (Herman, 2015).

No amount of coping strategies, adaptation, or mindfulness is going to resolve their distress. Their distress is a reflection of the conditions, relationships, and systems that shape and define it (Cushman, 2019). They are experiencing bullying from their professors and mentors. The Wheel of Power, from The National Domestic Violence Hotline, comes to my mind in its similarities to mentor/mentee relationships in academia. I fear that it can be passed along in mentor/mentee relationships, creating a long-term toxic, abusive culture in the field. 

The faculty in that program are going to have to be willing to believe the students, be willing to change how they think about the experience of graduate education, and be willing to work on their course expectations, both individually and collectively. Yes, graduate school should be hard – intellectually hard. I don’t believe it should break students’ health and spirit. 

I want graduate students to learn to care about and for their field – the knowledge and its approaches and the people before them, now, and in the future. That care doesn’t come through burnout, overwhelm, and cramming. Graduate students develop care because of deliberate, mindful, peaceful time spent developing relationships – with themselves, with the field, and with people. I want graduate students to have time to digest ideas. I want them to have time to think, process, and integrate ideas. I want them to have time to discuss, be colleagues, and develop networks. I want them to know not just what they know, but also how they know, and why they know. I want graduate students to feel on the whole glad for the experiences they had and the expertise and wisdom they developed in their advanced studies. 

I don’t have suggestions or tips or next steps. I’m sorry. But I do have a couple resources to share that I hope will encourage graduate students to put themselves at the top of their priority list.

  • Trauma Resources: University Graduate School, Indiana University
  • Dr. Thema’s The Homecoming Podcast (on your favorite podcast app)
  • The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, 2015
  • Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence, Dr. Judith Herman, 2015
  • Travels with the Self: Interpreting Psychology as Cultural History, Dr. Phillip Cushman, 2019.
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