If you really want grad students to have better mental health, remove all the high-stakes checkpoints

Post 260: Oct 14 JDN 2458406

A study was recently published in Nature Biotechnology showing clear evidence of a mental health crisis among graduate students (no, I don’t know why they picked the biotechnology imprint—I guess it wasn’t good enough for Nature proper?). This is only the most recent of several studies showing exceptionally high rates of mental health issues among graduate students.

I’ve seen universities do a lot of public hand-wringing and lip service about this issue—but I haven’t seen any that were seriously willing to do what it takes to actually solve the problem.

I think this fact became clearest to me when I was required to fill out an official “Individual Development Plan” form as a prerequisite for my advancement to candidacy, which included one question about “What are you doing to support your own mental health and work/life balance?”

The irony here is absolutely excruciating, because advancement to candidacy has been overwhelmingly my leading source of mental health stress for at least the last six months. And it is only one of several different high-stakes checkpoints that grad students are expected to complete, always threatened with defunding or outright expulsion from the graduate program if the checkpoint is not met by a certain arbitrary deadline.

The first of these was the qualifying exams. Then comes advancement to candidacy. Then I have to complete and defend a second-year paper, then a third-year paper. Finally I have to complete and defend a dissertation, and then go onto the job market and go through a gauntlet of applications and interviews. I can’t think of any other time in my life when I was under this much academic and career pressure this consistently—even finishing high school and applying to college wasn’t like this.

If universities really wanted to improve my mental health, they would find a way to get rid of all that.

Granted, a single university does not have total control over all this: There are coordination problems between universities regarding qualifying exams, advancement, and dissertation requirements. One university that unilaterally tried to remove all these would rapidly lose prestige, as it would not be regarded as “rigorous” to reduce the pressure on your grad students. But that itself is precisely the problem—we have equated “rigor” with pressuring grad students until they are on the verge of emotional collapse. Universities don’t seem to know how to make graduate school difficult in the ways that would actually encourage excellence in research and teaching; they simply know how to make it difficult in ways that destroy their students psychologically.

The job market is even more complicated; in the current funding environment, it would be prohibitively expensive to open up enough faculty positions to actually accept even half of all graduating PhDs to tenure-track jobs. Probably the best answer here is to refocus graduate programs on supporting employment outside academia, recognizing both that PhD-level skills are valuable in many workplaces and that not every grad student really wants to become a professor.

But there are clearly ways that universities could mitigate these effects, and they don’t seem genuinely interested in doing so. They could remove the advancement exam, for example; you could simply advance to candidacy as a formality when your advisor decides you are ready, never needing to actually perform a high-stakes presentation before a committee—because what the hell does that accomplish anyway? Speaking of advisors, they could have a formalized matching process that starts with interviewing several different professors and being matched to the one that best fits your goals and interests, instead of expecting you to reach out on your own and hope for the best. They could have you write a dissertation, but not perform a “dissertation defense”—because, again, what can they possibly learn from forcing you to present in a high-stakes environment that they couldn’t have learned from reading your paper and talking with you about it over several months?

They could adjust or even remove funding deadlines—especially for international students. Here at UCI at least, once you are accepted to the program, you are ostensibly guaranteed funding for as long as you maintain reasonable academic progress—but then they define “reasonable progress” in such a way that you have to form an advancement committee, fill out forms, write a paper, and present before a committee all by a certain date or your funding is in jeopardy. Residents of California (which includes all US students who successfully established residency after a full year) are given more time if we need it—but international students aren’t. How is that fair?

The unwillingness of universities to take such actions clearly shows that their commitment to improving students’ mental health is paper-thin. They are only willing to help their students improve their work-life balance as long as it doesn’t require changing anything about the graduate program. They will provide us with counseling services and free yoga classes, but they won’t seriously reduce the pressure they put on us at every step of the way.
I understand that universities are concerned about protecting their prestige, but I ask them this: Does this really improve the quality of your research or teaching output? Do you actually graduate better students by selecting only the ones who can survive being emotionally crushed? Do all these arbitrary high-stakes performances actually result in greater advancement of human knowledge?

Or is it perhaps that you yourselves were put through such hazing rituals years ago, and now your cognitive dissonance won’t let you admit that it was all for naught? “This must be worth doing, or else they wouldn’t have put me through so much suffering!” Are you trying to transfer your own psychological pain onto your students, lest you be forced to face it yourself?