What Nobody Likes to Discuss, But We Are All Starting to Care About: Mental Health in Graduate School



Sofia Perez-Guzman
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute



Kimia Vahdat
North Carolina State University



Vasilis Pavlopoulos
Washington State University

Mental health issues of university-affiliated people have gained attention only fairly recently. The reasoning behind this neglect is possibly a belief held by many: that academic work is less stressful than industry life. While it is hard to argue which one is more stressful due to the problem’s subjective nature, we argue that it is indeed vital to emphasize graduate students’ challenges related to mental health-related problems. It will be self-explanatory once the relevant evidence is shown in the later sections of this article.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It also relates to how we feel, think, perceive things, and, eventually, act. Within graduate school, anxiety and depression are always the obstacles that one needs to overcome, be it the subject is networking, acquiring information, creating academic profiles, assembling CVs and resumes, or even just broader issues of striking a work-life balance or handling learning and research pressures. As current or former graduate students, we know it too well, either from discussions with peers or reflections on our own experiences.

Despite being a serious matter, mental health in the academic spectrum is a problem that has only recently received people’s attention. According to [6], there is an increased discussion of the topic. Yet, there is still a long way to go. Although it may be impossible to eliminate all mental health-related problems of all graduate students, it is still possible to provide helpful plans or tools to graduate students, staff, and faculty to effectively navigate the mental health battles that arise in academic environments. To achieve that, it is critical to find the roots of the problem and understand what is going on currently.

Factors associated with mental health problems in graduate students

Based on [17], the stress factors that historically affect graduate students are (1) marital stress, (2) exam anxiety, (3) work (current/future) stress, and (4) peer competition. Regardless of the source(s) of stress, its influence on our health system is identical. Common psychological results from stress include anxiety, depression, behavioral problems (i.e., negative evaluation of the future), irritability, psychosis for success, and trauma (fear of failure). It goes without saying that stress is commonly associated with mental health issues in graduate students and that there are many matters that one could feel stressed about in graduate school.

Other factors associated with mental health issues in graduate school include: (1) not having work-life balance (as reported by nearly 40% of the respondents in [21] ); (2) working excessive amounts of time, e.g., according to [21], 76% worked more than 40 hours and around half agreed that their institution had a long-hour culture; (3) lack of sleep, e.g., 28% of the respondents reported losing sleep over worriness [13]; (4) toxic work environments, e.g., 21% of the surveyed students in [5] experienced harassment or discrimination; (5) imposter syndrome, the never-ending self-doubt of one’s abilities despite the actual evidence that demonstrates the person’s achievements [16], e.g., respondents in North America from [21] were more likely to struggle with imposter syndrome than those in other regions of the world; (6) job and financial insecurity [13], e.g., it was listed as one of the two top sources of emotional strain in [21], where the respondents did not feel well prepared for a satisfying career after their Ph.D.

Symptoms from mental health problems that affect graduate students

Although several degrees of severity are at play, graduate students’ most common mental health issues are depression, anxiety, stress, burnout, and emotional exhaustion. A 2015 report from the Graduate Assembly of the University of California at Berkeley showed that between 42% and 48% of 790 surveyed graduate students in STEM suffered from depression [2]. Another 2015 study from the Graduate and Professional Student Council of the University of Arizona surveyed 157 doctoral students and found that half of them suffered from increased stress [19]. Published in 2017, [13] sampled over 3,500 Ph.D. students in Belgium and found that "32% of Ph.D. students are at risk of having or developing a common psychiatric disorder, especially depression," and that it is a significantly higher probability than for the general population. The authors also found that high job demands substantially increase such risk. A 2019 survey sampled over 6,300 early-career researchers around the world and found that 36% of them had "sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their Ph.D. studies" [21]. According to [14], "graduate students are six times more likely to experience depression and anxiety than the general population". From the surveys mentioned earlier, mental health problems (and, of course, the symptoms they cause) are undoubtedly common among graduate students; however, we need more systematic review and more thorough research to draw attention from the general public and policymakers. More crucially, the surveys leave room to question how many more graduate students suffered from mental health issues but did not seek help. Failure to acknowledge mental health problems’ prevalence could result in students’ unwillingness to seek help and further exacerbate their problems.

Diversity and mental health problems

Socio-demographic differences also play a role in the Ph.D. students’ mental health [9]. [13] found that the odds of experiencing at least two psychological symptoms were 34% higher for female Ph.D. students than for males and that the odds of having at least four symptoms were 27% higher. Furthermore, several studies [12,4,3] reported that LGBTQ+ college students face more mental health challenges than their non-LGBTQ+ peers, including, but not limited to, stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. According to [9], minorities and marginalized groups (including international students) can suffer from increased academic burnout. [7] interviewed professionals working with international students in Australia and found that international students struggle with "adjusting to unfamiliar academic practices; developing skills to manage everyday life in a different cultural context; and both recognizing and seeking professional help for mental health problems". Although some of the previous studies and results are not directly related to graduate students, it is reasonable to infer that minority graduate students may encounter very similar mental health challenges as undergraduate students or junior faculty do. In short, mental health issues have unbalanced effects on different demographic groups, and minorities are more prone to be targeted.

Mental health in the COVID-19 era

Mental health issues were certainly aggravated during the Covid-pandemic, as one would expect. Research aimed to test the effects of the pandemic on university students found that there was a unanimous increase in scores for anxiety (42.5%), depression (74.3%), suicidal intention (93.5%), and loss of value in life (67.5%) [11]. In line with this research, we find a stream of papers in the literature that supports that the Covid-pandemic strengthens the factors that affect students’ mental health. According to [22], suspending in-person classes and the "evacuation" (a term coined to describe the phenomenon where the universities were closed and students returned to their "home" countries) led many students to lose their jobs. The uncertainty for their future in a changing world prevented students from managing academic routines regularly.

How does it look for OR/MS students?

Overall, there is significant data, research, and findings regarding the mental health of higher-education students. A great focus of these is on undergraduates, with some emphasis on graduate students. The bulk of the studies is not discipline-specific. This is partially justified, as did not find significant differences among disciplines in the risk of having or developing mental health problems. However, for those who are not convinced that disciplines are irrelevant regarding mental health problems, we refer the readers to [1,20,15], where they concern STEM graduate students. To the best of the authors’ knowledge, we do not find research reporting results specifically for OR/MS graduate students. It may be challenging to achieve since OR/MS is broad and spans multiple disciplines. Interestingly enough, OR/MS students have excellent tools (e.g., big data analytics and machine learning algorithms) to study this further. Encouraging this, public data sets such as http://go.nature.com/2nqjndw could be a great starting point.

What should and can be done?

Spreading awareness about mental health and relevant resources among graduate students is the essential first step toward addressing the issue of widespread mental health problems in graduate schools. There are often free counseling sessions offered by universities that many miss due to a lack of resources [8].

We list some suggestions to overcome anxiety and/or depression below; you may already be using some of these tools without realizing it.

  1. Take time off work and allow your mind to relax every few months. You may have discovered thus far that your mind works faster and more efficiently when well-rested. So, don’t underestimate the value of a long weekend vacation!
  2. Find a support group and talk to them. People often assume that there is something wrong with them when facing struggles. However, when we share our problems with peers, good chances are that we find out that everyone is struggling with the same issues. Studies have shown that 50% of the Ph.D. students in Belgium have experienced some form of psychological distress [10]. Talking with peers brings out a sense of community. It shifts the focus from "What is wrong with me?" to "Everyone struggles. I am not alone."
  3. Always compare yourself with yourself. It is easy to compare your situation (e.g., where you are in your research and how your courses are going) with your colleagues. Resist that temptation! Remind yourself of where you started, focus on your own achievements, and write down three things you have achieved and are proud of since you began your graduate degree.
  4. Commit to regular physical activities. Research has shown that exercises reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression and improve self-esteem [18]. If you are interested in group fitness, bringing your peers together for a group activity is best so you can vent and exercise!

Graduate school entails the most mentally challenging and overwhelming task and activity we have ever done in our lives: our dissertation research. And on top of that, the billion other things we must do during graduate school to keep up to speed: become experts in technical skills, improve our soft skills, network and communicate our work, serve our academic communities, meet our teaching/research responsibilities, and the list continues. It actually seems surprising that not all graduate students struggle with mental health, given all the pressure. But graduate school does not need to kill us in the process. We can thrive in graduate life with the right tools, mechanisms, and support systems. Graduate students must seek help while the institutions and their staff provide the plans to help us succeed. The question is: are we all ready to commit to this?

Finally, we note that the mental health issues of graduate students (and even staff and junior faculties, for that matter) are not only the responsibility of the university. In general, they have direct and indirect consequences on the overall welfare of our society, given that the former and current graduate students engage with the society in all walks of life. Policymakers can and should play a significant role in introducing intervention strategies for graduate students. Forming graduate students associations and properly funding them to hold group activities for the students is one example. Also, making sure students have financial support from the graduate school, which can in turn reduce the mental burden, is another possible intervention. Lastly, screening students quarterly for their mental health, especially diagnosing early symptoms of depression and anxiety, can empower the academia to step-in as necessary. Such interventions can only happen when the issue has attracted enough attention; hopefully it will not be too little, too late.



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