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Jenny Baker
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TIP-TOPics for Students: Graduate Students Are "Workers" Too: Applying I-O Literature to Better Understand and Bolster Graduate Student Mental Health

Andrew Tenbrink, Mallory Smith, Georgia LaMarre, Laura Pineault, & Tyleen Lopez

For many, graduate school represents an exciting period of personal and professional development as students acquire, develop, and apply their newfound knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems. Understandably, however, we often struggle to balance the demands of coursework, research, applied training, jobs/internships, maintaining relationships with family and friends, and coping with financial demands. All of this can lead to overload, role conflict, and burnout, as well as more serious outcomes such as clinical depression and anxiety.

Within I-O psychology exists a wealth of theory and research on improving worker health and productivity that can be applied to improving the “graduate school workplace” for I-O and management students. In this column, we wish to highlight examples of how the concepts we learn in our occupational health training tie in with some common challenges faced by graduate students. We will offer students evidence-based advice and strategies to cope with the demands of graduate school, as well as some words of encouragement.

While planning this article, we wanted to integrate issues that are most salient to our fellow graduate students. To guide our focus, we designed a survey to gather information about the unique challenges that graduate students face, including scales on burnout and engagement, and open-ended questions about stressors and stress-reduction strategies. We collected responses from master’s and PhD students in I-O, clinical, and social/personality psychology at Wayne State (N = 28). The responses illuminated four major themes that guide our current discussion of graduate student mental health: burnout and engagement, role conflict, social support, and the normalization of poor mental health in graduate school. We are including a summary of descriptive survey data and an in-depth exploration of these themes.

Scale

Item

Mean

Engagement

[overall]

2.84

“In my work as a graduate student, I always persevere, even when things do not go well.”

4.00

“I am proud of the graduate work that I do.”

3.57

Burnout

[overall]

3.26

“I feel burned out.”

3.54

“I feel used up at the end of a day of graduate work.”

3.93

Normalization

 

“Having poor mental health has been normalized in graduate school.”

4.18

Note. Items scored on a 5-pt. Likert scale (1 = strongly disagree; 5 = strongly agree).

 

Burnout and Engagement

This year, burnout was included in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon” (WHO, 2019). I-O psychology has a longstanding stream of literature on the burnout construct, studying it as both an antecedent and outcome of work behaviors and attitudes. In our sample of graduate students, the majority of respondents scored above the mean on burnout, with particularly high endorsement of “exhaustion” items, such as “I feel burned out” and “I feel used up at the end of a day of graduate work.” Interestingly, despite reporting some degree of burnout, our survey found that these students remain relatively engaged in their graduate student work. In fact, Moeller et al. (2018) suggest that the high levels of engagement required in graduate school may actually be contributing to burnout, a phenomenon the authors coined “engaged exhausted.”

Research on the distinction between workaholism and engagement may be useful in understanding burnout as it relates to graduate work. It may be difficult for hardworking graduate students to distinguish whether they are engaged in their work (a state that is negatively related to burnout) or suffering from workaholism (a state that is positively related to burnout; van Beek, Taris, & Schaufeli, 2011). Engagement is characterized by autonomous motivation and working for enjoyment, whereas workaholism is working for fear of not meeting high self-imposed standards (Schaufeli & Salanova, 2014). To increase autonomous motivation, we challenge you to take advantage of your ability as a graduate student to craft how, where, and when you do your “job” (Parker & Ohly, 2008; Sturges, 2012) as to maximize your person–job fit (Tims et al., 2016), whether that be through working at home or targeting internships and projects that fit with your interests (e.g., more research or applied focused).  A SIOP white paper on increasing employee engagement offers several suggestions that we believe are relevant to graduate students:

  • Identify the significance of each project with regard to personal goals and interests, and realize that not all tasks will be equally engaging.
  • Pursue task variety and seek out challenging, stimulating projects to prevent boredom and disengagement.
  • Take short breaks, and reward yourself for consistency and progress to reduce burnout.

Role Conflict

Psychology graduate students are vulnerable to stress associated with competing demands in their role, including coursework, research, assistantship responsibilities, and internships. In addition to interrole conflict, graduate students in our survey also reported difficulties balancing aspects of graduate student life and their roles outside of school. Students reported poor mental health arising from “working all the time,” “having several roles,” “reduced time for hobbies and relationships,” and “giving up a personal life.”

Depending on the type of program in which one is enrolled, graduate students may have more or less flexibility in terms of when and where to complete graduate work. For example, many of the students in one author’s master’s cohort work full time and attend classes in the evening. This leaves only evenings (and, frankly, late nights), weekends, and holidays to complete school-related tasks, significantly reducing time that can be devoted to family, friends, and nonschool tasks. Alternately, PhD or research-focused master’s students may have more flexibility in where, when, and how they complete their work compared to “traditional” jobs. This flexibility has many positives, such as the ability to job craft as aforementioned, but research on telecommuting indicates that increased schedule flexibility can blur boundaries between roles and increase the amount of decisions that must be made about time allocation depending on an individuals’ segmentation preferences (Allen, Johnson, Kiburz, & Shockley, 2013). Although many glorify the graduate student schedule, it is important to note that although schedule flexibility can buffer against work–life conflict, it can also increase stress for some.

Social Support

In our survey, a major theme that emerged was the vital role that support from other graduate students, faculty advisors, and family/friends outside the program has on reducing overall stress and improving mental health.

Seeking support from within one’s graduate program was frequently stated as a way to reduce isolation and stress. Survey respondents explained that they felt “understood” and “less alone” after sharing complaints or fears with fellow students. These comments align with previous research, which finds that graduate students with poor peer relationships have worse mental health in general (e.g., Barreira, Basilico, & Bolotnyy, 2018).

 


 

Students may also benefit from finding sources of support outside of the graduate program. Results from our survey found that perceived support from family/friends was significantly positively correlated with all facets of engagement and significantly negatively correlated with some facets of burnout (efficacy, cynicism). As one respondent suggested, expanding one’s social network outside of graduate school can sharpen the boundaries between work and life. Another respondent felt that consistently unburdening themselves to friends in the program was taxing on these friendships and found that speaking with a therapist helped reduce strain on other relationships.

We urge graduate students to be open with their friends and family outside the program about the realities of graduate school. Unfortunately, in our survey, roughly 40% indicated that they did not feel that their friends/family fully understood the pressures associated with being a graduate student. It might be helpful to send family and friends articles about graduate student mental health (like this one) or show them humorous posts from social media accounts that highlight the demands of graduate student life (see examples at the end of this article). 

Normalization of Poor Mental Health in Graduate School

The conversation surrounding graduate student mental health has often focused on the stigmatization of discussing or seeking help for mental health issues. Stigmatization is an important aspect of understanding this picture, but in academia and graduate school programs, another issue may emerge: a culture that normalizes poor mental health and its antecedents. In our survey, the mean response to the statement “Having poor mental health has been normalized in graduate school” received staggeringly high endorsement, indicating the need to discuss graduate student mental health in the context of the culture of academia that influences it.

Allie Schad, a mental health counselor for students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill medical school, spoke on this topic in an interview with Science. She explained that “our mental health isn’t just something in and of us—it comes from the environment we’re in and the experiences that we have.” She spoke to the culture of high work demands in science but challenged readers to question “Do we have to perpetuate a culture that negatively impacts the mental health of the people within the system?”

We ask readers to consider the impact of formal and informal reward systems in graduate school (and academia in general). In the vein of Kerr’s (1975) article “The Folly of Rewarding A While Hoping for B,” we ask: Is it practical for the I-O community to advocate support for graduate student mental health while simultaneously incentivizing a lifestyle that involves sacrificing sleep, relationships, and time off for research productivity? Changing the culture surrounding high demands and high stress in academia is a tall order, but we can start by being more introspective about which behaviors we value and informally reward. Is the fellow graduate student who took a summer vacation to the beach not busy or productive enough? Or do they have great time management skills and are taking a well-deserved break before diving back in? Why do we interpret so many behaviors that cause us stress as signifiers of dedication, intelligence, or competence?

Although social connection with other graduate students is an effective way to relieve stress (as we advocate in our previous section), these conversations may unintentionally perpetuate a culture of high demands and high stress. Research has found that co-rumination can exacerbate emotional exhaustion for graduate students (Boren, 2013). Don’t allow supportive conversations about graduate school experiences to devolve into “competitions” about who got the fewest hours of sleep, had the least amount of time to study, or has the most research projects to work on this week. It’s important to remember that even if your colleagues are experiencing similar struggles, it does not invalidate or reduce your feelings.

Advice for Students

It’s clear that there are systemic issues in academia that contribute to poor mental health within graduate student populations. The increasing volume of conversations related to mental health has sparked awareness that will hopefully lead to student-centric culture changes in academia, where student worth is calibrated against ones’ personal goals rather than dominating benchmarks of student success, such as publication count, internship prestige, and so on. In the meantime, there are steps graduate students can take to practice self-care, take control of their internal dialogue, and prioritize mental health during their studies and beyond. In this section, we will offer suggestions based on our experiences as graduate students and advice from our survey respondents.

  • Use a reward schedule.
    • Laura: The marathon of graduate school is punctuated by periods of intense work and dormancy. I intentionally schedule rewards for myself, such as a massage or dinner with friends, as the “light at the end of the tunnel” after a big deadline. This gives me the motivation to persevere during busy times (e.g., thesis defense deadlines), knowing that I will be contingently rewarded afterwards.
  • Establish routines/set boundaries.
    • Georgia: I tend to procrastinate on unstructured days, so I try to start the day with a structured event, such as going to the gym or a coffee shop.
    • Survey respondent: I schedule no-meeting/no-email days so I can focus on writing and research. Students who teach may consider building an email-answering policy into the syllabus, so a schedule of when emails will be answered is clearly defined.
    • Survey respondent: Learn to get comfortable saying “No.”
  • Schedule work/study sessions with fellow graduate students to reduce feelings of isolation while remaining productive.
    • Mallory: Early on in our master’s program, my cohorts found an invaluable support system in one another. Realizing we shared similar worries, struggles, and insecurities bonded us together. Before exams and project deadlines, we organize study sessions to work through difficult material and share ideas. We celebrate milestones by going out after class or scheduling other social activities as a group.
  • Communicate openly with your professors/primary advisor.
    • Laura: I make a point to set aside time in one-on-one meetings with my advisor to discuss my current stress levels and mental health so that they can respond accordingly (e.g., increase or decrease workload, brainstorm strategies to manage competing demands). This empowers me to say “no” to opportunities when I feel overwhelmed, knowing that they are in-tune with where I’m at and can serve as my advocate if denied requests are coming from other faculty.

  • Seek professional counselling.
    • If you are struggling or simply wish to develop additional skills to cope with stress, consider meeting with a professional therapist/counselor. This is especially important if you have a mental health diagnosis or are experiencing unusual levels of distress.

Advice for Faculty (and Others Influencing the Graduate School Experience)

Faculty can improve the experiences of graduate students by taking an active role in cultivating a culture of mental wellness. As discussed in the earlier section about normalization of poor mental health, these outcomes are heavily influenced by the culture of the academic environment (Langin, 2019).

  • Model a balanced approach to academic work. 
    • Set realistic expectations regarding work volume and deadlines and demonstrate flexibility in how/when work is done (e.g., plan time off, set reasonable working hours). This conveys to students that they can balance being a productive graduate student and enjoying things outside of school/work.
  • Make mental health resources readily accessible to students.
    • Create a list of local mental health resources, provide this information to students during orientation, and post it in a location where students can access it any time. If your institution has a counseling center, they may already have something like this, or can work with you to develop these materials.
    • Include both on-campus and off-campus options; particularly with psychology graduate students, on-campus counselling centers may be run by the program they are a part of. This creates awkwardness for students who wish to seek mental health services if the only apparent option is staffed by peers and program faculty.
  • Prioritize healthy and supportive advisor/student relationships

Graduate students can thrive in challenging environments but require more resources to cope as work becomes more demanding (Bakker et al., 2007). Some ways to cultivate a supportive advising relationship may include

  • Offering realistic job previews (RJPs) to prospective and incoming students to define clear and transparent expectations about graduate work. RJPs can be an effective way to manage expectations about aspects of work–life balance at a new position (O’Brian & Hebl, 2015), which may help students prepare for the challenges of balancing multiple roles and long hours.
  • Providing timely and constructive feedback on graduate work.

Conclusion

Although graduate school is demanding, we hope graduate students also recognize it as a time to celebrate learning and setting and achieving goals. It’s important to realize that there will be a combination of positive experiences as well as times of change, uncertainty, disappointment, and emotional lows. Struggling at times is not an indication that you don’t belong in graduate school! Acknowledging the challenges we collectively face as graduate students and supporting one another through them is one way we can make sure I-O is inclusive of and accessible to everyone. Remember what motivates you to do well as a graduate student, leverage and participate in the support systems around you, and have compassion for yourself throughout the process.

As a final note, we would like to acknowledge that because we are not mental health professionals, there are many topics within the realm of mental health that we are unable to address in this article. While we hope that the information we’ve included is helpful to many, it is best to consult a trained professional for individual advice. We would also like to thank our survey participants for sharing their experiences and suggestions with us.

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Team Bios

Andrew Tenbrink is a third-year PhD student in I-O Psychology. He received his BS in Psychology from Kansas State University. His research interests include selection, assessment, and performance management, with a specific focus on factors affecting the performance appraisal process. Starting this fall, Andrew will begin a one-year internship working as a research, development, and analytics associate at Denison Consulting in Ann Arbor, MI. Andrew is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. After earning his PhD, he would like to pursue a career in academia. andrewtenbrink@wayne.edu

 

Mallory Smith is pursuing a Master of Arts in I-O Psychology. She earned her BA in Psychology and German from Wayne State University in 2017 and is employed full time at the university providing support for academic technologies. Her interests include factors influencing employee attitudes, efficacy, and perceptions of justice during organizational change. Following graduation, she is interested in an applied career in the private sector—ideally in a role where she can help employees and businesses anticipate, prepare for, and navigate periods of uncertainty. smithy@wayne.edu
 

Georgia LaMarre is a second-year PhD student in I-O Psychology. Originally from Canada, she completed her undergraduate education at the University of Waterloo before moving over the border to live in Michigan. Georgia is currently working with an interdisciplinary grant-funded team to study the workplace correlates of police officer stress in addition to pursuing interests in team decision making, workplace identity, and paramilitary organizational culture. After graduate school, she hopes to apply her I-O knowledge to help solve problems in public-sector organizations. georgia.lamarre@wayne.edu

 

Laura Pineault is a third-year PhD student in I-O Psychology. Her research interests lie at the intersection of leadership and work–life organizational culture, with emphasis on the impact of work–life organizational practices on the leadership success of women. Laura graduated with Distinction from the Honours Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program at the University of Windsor in June 2016. Currently, she serves as a quantitative methods consultant for the Department of Psychology’s Research Design and Analysis Unit. Laura is expected to graduate in the spring of 2021. After graduate school, she hopes to pursue a career in academia. laura.pineault@wayne.edu

 

Tyleen Lopez is a first-year PhD student in I-O Psychology. She received her BA in Psychology from St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Her research interests include diversity, inclusion, and leadership—particularly regarding Latinas in the workplace. Tyleen is currently a graduate research assistant and lab manager for Dr. Lars Johnson’s Leadership, Wellbeing and Productivity Lab at Wayne State. Tyleen is expected to graduate in the spring of 2023. After earning her PhD, she would like to pursue a career in academia. tyleen.lopez@wayne.edu

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