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A Closer Look at Graduate
Student Health and Well-Being   

TIP-Topics for Students

Grace Ewles, Jessica Sorenson, & Thomas Sasso
University of Guelph


Well-being” is everywhere, just look at social media, popular culture, or the self-help section of your local bookstore. Along with this growing interest, the discussion of well-being has transformed, moving from a traditional focus on the physical aspects of health to the psychological and emotional components, and from the home domain to the working environment. As I-O practitioners and researchers, we often emphasize the importance of individual well-being in supporting organizational functioning; yet, despite our knowledge and appreciation for this area, we often fail to practice what we preach.

Recent discussions of well-being have focused on academic populations, with concerns emerging based on individual functioning and stress management (e.g., Shaw & Ward, 2014; Walker, 2015; Zanfirache, 2016). We’ve all been there, the laundry list of demands facing faculty and graduate students is both stimulating and daunting. Finding a balance between career goals, workaholic tendencies, and ever increasing fatigue levels can be particularly challenging in an environment where everything is a “learning opportunity.” The discussion of health and well-being within academia is not solely restricted to demands and stressors but extends to the culture we engage with and promote.

Within academia, the concept of health and well-being has become a bit of a punchline with popular websites poking fun at the graduate student life, including the ongoing lack of balance (see PhD Comics, http://phdcomics.com/comics.php). Part of the appeal of this humor is its universal nature across disciplines; however, by sharing and engaging with this humor, we inadvertently normalize and reinforce this lifestyle by failing to question causes and potential alternatives. As future I-O academics, instructors, and practitioners, we have an obligation to practice what we preach and examine the issue of well-being within our domain in greater detail.
 
In this issue of TIP-TOPics, we have asked our readership to respond to several areas related to the overarching concept of well-being, using both quantitative and qualitative questions, in an attempt to gain some perspective and spark discussion within our discipline. We urge you not to see this as a self-guided approach to health and well-being; rather, use the results as a pulse check and as an opportunity for self-reflection. We urge that the results from the survey should be interpreted with caution as those who took the time to respond may not be representative of the entire graduate student population. To supplement the results we have added personal anecdotes to help contextualize the information.
 

Institutional Level Factors

In order to gain a representative and holistic understanding of factors influencing the health and well-being of graduate students, we use a multilevel approach, first focusing on institutional level factors that impact graduate students. In particular, institutions hold a great deal of power in terms of the demands faced by graduate students, as well as the supports available. To examine these issues, we asked our readership about their satisfaction with the three main components of their graduate experience: their program in general, their relationship with their supervisor, and the financial support they receive. According to the survey responses (n = 48), students reported being extremely satisfied with their program and supervisor (31.3% and 50%, respectively) while reporting that the financial support they receive meets little of their needs (24.5%), with the majority of students seeking additional opportunities for income (e.g., family support, loans, part-time employment, etc.) Thus, although many students are satisfied with aspects of the institutional support they receive, many feel they do not have the financial means to meet their needs (see Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Bar graph of student satisfaction with institution level factors.

 
The issue of funding reflects a type of inequality faced by graduate students, as there is a large discrepancy between those who receive a sizable income due to continuous success obtaining external funding—jokingly referred to as the “money train”—and those who are unsuccessful despite numerous attempts. Limited financial support can be a significant stressor, further complicated by additional work responsibilities required to be financially sustainable. Moreover, due to the contentious and sometimes competitive nature of this topic, the conversations between graduate students surrounding funding can be rather isolating. The discrepancy between various institutional factors provides areas for future discussion across graduate programs in order to ensure students are receiving adequate supports throughout their graduate careers.
 

Interpersonal Level Factors

Graduate school can be a difficult time for interpersonal relationships, as new responsibilities and expectations can diminish both time and energy. For example, students reported that graduate school has moderately or largely impacted their ability to engage in or maintain romantic relationships (19% and 29%, respectively), with little time available for supporting a partner. In terms of the receipt of social support, respondents in our survey indicated that they felt like other graduate students, family/friends, and significant others were supportive a lot of the time, whereas program faculty/administrators/staff were reported as being a source of support only a moderate amount of time (see Figure 2). Considering the various stressors and pressures graduate students experience, recognition of the quality of social support graduate students have available (or the lack thereof) is extremely important as this could ameliorate or exacerbate well-being.

Figure 2. Bar graph of support provided by source during graduate school.

In the experience of one of the authors (Thomas), relationships suffered greatly upon entering graduate school. Preexisting support networks were strained and less accessible. New relationships required more effort to develop and sustain, which was difficult when the degree requirements created immense time pressures. Over time, the majority of his supportive relationships became those who were familiar with graduate education and the unique demands faced by this lifestyle (e.g., working evenings and weekends; travel to conferences).
We are often told by alumni that the relationships you have during graduate school will continue for life, but this statement is based on the premise that we have sufficiently dedicated time to foster these relationships. Just as we prioritize time for research and learning, we must also schedule in social time and prioritize building relationships.
 

Individual Level Factors

The individual level of graduate student health and well-being is perhaps the most important factor but also the least visible to others. Our diets and exercise, the amount of sleep we get, and our ability to seek out professional support as needed all contribute to how we feel on a daily basis. On the surface, graduate students reported getting just shy of the recommended 7–9 hours of sleep (M = 6.92, SD = 0.85; National Sleep Foundation, 2015), and around the recommended 2.5 hours of moderate to high intensity physical activity per week (M = 3.84, SD = 3.04; Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2012). Overall, this may be an overly optimistic representation of behaviors compared to more hectic times of the year, such as when scholarship applications or dissertations are due, and may not be fully representative of all graduates students, as the survey had limited responses.

Interestingly, most students reported only sometimes engaging in restorative activities while also reporting often feeling guilty about taking time for themselves. This struggle between engagement and guilt around restorative activities may reflect the performance-oriented culture associated with graduate education. The long-term implications of this pressure can be damaging; to illustrate, most respondents (54%) indicated the need to seek out professional support during their graduate education. One author (Jessica) recently sought professional support after struggling through her first year of the master’s degree. Despite all three authors spending both work and social time together, the other authors weren’t aware of Jessica’s experiences. It wasn’t until we looked at the data and started writing this article that all three authors realized how much each of us have struggled with our physical, emotional, and psychological well-being during our graduate education.
 

Recommendations

The culture of graduate school cultivates many of these issues due to the competitive nature of resources and recognition, and limited ability to discuss personal issues with others. In order to move in a positive direction, we asked respondents to provide advice to anyone entering a graduate program in I-O psychology. The following are key recommendations for graduate students, faculty, and staff in I-O programs to consider in how they can better support themselves and their graduate students. By discussing both issues and future directions, we hope to inspire others to reflect and support one another, creating a positive collective movement for change.

Create boundaries, learn to say no, and prioritize what you want
Know your limits and what you have time and energy in which to participate. Although every offer might sound like a once in a lifetime opportunity, it also means spreading yourself thinner across activities. Prioritize your activities in relation to your current goals and needs; it’s okay if it isn’t always graduate school!
 
No one is perfect; you aren’t an imposter
Although it can sometimes seem like your peers are doing more than you, or achieving more than you, remember that everyone has their own timelines, experiences, and struggles. You were accepted into graduate school because faculty members saw your skills and potential, and although positive reinforcement and recognitions of your achievements can be sparse, you wouldn’t have been accepted if you weren’t qualified.
 
Find ways to overcome feelings of guilt
When you take time away from your graduate school tasks it can often feel like you are cheating on your responsibilities, but you have a right to your life, time with friends, and restorative activities—whatever that looks like for you. Don’t neglect your responsibilities but also don’t think you have to devote every waking breath to graduate school.
 
Find something that works for you, but don’t be afraid to ask for help
There is no universal coping mechanism or social support that will make the stress of graduate school better for everyone, so take time to figure out what is best for you. What makes life better for some people might not be your cup of tea (or glass of wine). Invest in developing the social networks that will be useful for you, whether it’s community groups, sports teams, family, or people you talk to online. If you are struggling in any part of your life, ask for help from someone you can trust. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support a graduate student.
 

Conclusion

Writing this article was an eye-opening experience for all of us. We have learned a lot about the experiences of our colleagues and peers, but also about ourselves and what we need to do in order to support our own well-being. As a field immersed in talking about wellness, we don’t always do the best job at promoting well-being, but we have the power to change that. We have the ability to modify our cultures and start acknowledging that we don’t need to privilege suffering as a sign of graduate success. We can start talking more about fostering well-being and compassion through learner-centred graduate education while still providing a challenging learning environment that promotes growth and excellence.

If you would like a more detailed summary of the survey results, or if you have any questions or comments regarding this or any of our columns, please feel free to contact us at jsorenso@uoguelph.ca.
 
 

References 

Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology. (2012). Canadian Physical Activity, and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines. Retrieved from http://www.csep.ca/en/guidelines/get-the-guidelines
 
National Sleep Foundation. (2015, February 2). National Sleep Foundation recommends new sleep durations. Retrieved from https://sleepfoundation.org/media-center/press-release/national-sleep-foundation-recommends-new-sleep-times
 
Shaw, C., & Ward, L. (2014, March). Dark thoughts: Why mental illness is on the rise in academia. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2014/mar/06/mental-health-academics-growing-problem-pressure-university
 
Walker, J. (2015, November). There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about. Quartz. Retrieved from http://qz.com/547641/theres-an-awful-cost-to-getting-a-phd-that-no-one-talks-about/
 
Zanfirache, D. (2016, February). Pulling back the curtain: Mental health in academia. Lateral Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.lateralmag.com/articles/issue-7/pulling-back-the-curtain-mental-health-in-academia