It is no mystery that the path of higher education is a difficult task. For graduate students in the Biomedical Graduate Studies program, the experience can be particularly onerous due to the unpredictable nature of scientific research -- students often work on projects in ambiguity for weeks or months with limited foresight on the end result. In addition, students working in competitive research fields may feel added pressure to publish quickly before getting scooped. With deadlines to meet, pressure to collect data, and an urgency for publication, the task of being a graduate student can be overwhelming. When does it all become too much?
In 2014, a Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report conducted by the University of California, Berkeley showed that 43-46% of Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Engineering PhD graduate students exhibited signs of depression . The study indicated that the top predictors of depression include inadequate sleep, decline in physical health, and academic disengagement. Similarly, another study conducted at multiple universities in Flanders, Belgium showed that graduate students were 2.5 times more likely to develop a mental health disease compared to other non-graduate students at the university .
Dr. William Alexander, from Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), states that many students "feel the weight to produce," but that they "don't recognize early on that they're slipping." The transition to graduate school from a previous job or undergraduate school experience can be difficult because academic and personal support may be hard to establish quickly. Thus, Dr. Alexander stresses the importance for students to find support from advisors within their graduate department who are likely familiar with unique academic pressures attributed by their particular field of study. In addition, Dr. Alexander advises for students to actively engage in their academic community and network of peers to build individualized support group to help share experiences and alleviate the pressures of graduate school .
Early this year, the chair of the Cellular and Molecular Biology graduate group, Dr. Dan Kessler, began holding office hours for students who needed additional guidance and support.
Dan says, “there’s no guarantee of success in this kind of creative work” and thus, “it’s unlike other academic pursuits.”
He stresses that it is a partnership between the program and students and states that the program “makes a commitment to provide the best training experience that [they] can to support [students],” but also notes the “need [for] students to speak up on their own behalf, especially for those who are struggling.”
Mental health is an important topic of discussion throughout all stages of education; however, graduate students in sciences face unique challenges due to the unpredictability of research. Thus, it is important for students to reach out if they are having a difficult time, and to express these concerns early on. Fortunately, the resources on Penn's campus are abundant and pressures can be reduced by strong support groups from surrounding peers, mentors, and program chairs. In addition, the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Penn offers free services for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students for those who are facing difficult points during their academic pursuits.