The Top 5 Stressors that CSB Graduate Students Experience

By: Elly Wong

Photo by Jason Krygier-Baum, University of Toronto

The Wellness Committee recently sent out a mental health assessment survey to the graduate students of the Cell and Systems Biology Department, and an overwhelming 70% of students reported that they either feel very stressed or have been more frequently stressed lately. Based on this survey, here are the top 5 stressors that most CSB Graduate Students reported to have experienced:

1.  Getting Experiments to Work

….what even is the point of all this?

As the very heart of graduate school is directly linked to novel research and experiments, it is not surprising that getting experiments to work is the number one stressor that impacted most students. Nothing about research is ever smooth sailing, and the worst thing for a graduate student to experience is the constant roadblocks when experiments fail to work. Our survey reported that 86% of students work quite frequently on weekends in addition to their regular work week and when experiments are not working well, it is very easy to feel that all the dedicated time and efforts are flushed down the drain – at this rate, what even is the point of all this? It is mentally debilitating and exhaustive – the longer it takes for experiments to work, the higher the pressure becomes, operating in a continuous never-ending loop that students suffer from. No single experience is the same; everyone is undergoing hardship, and it would be extremely helpful to show some kindness and encouragement to your peers from time to time.

2. The Pressure to Publish

..will I ever publish?

Similar to getting experiments to work, another major struggle is the pressure to publish (especially for PhD students). It is very easy to be caught up with imposter syndrome (or the feeling of not being good enough) especially when there is nothing to show, despite all the hard work that was dedicated to making experiments work. Sometimes, as happy as you are for that lab mate who recently published in a high-impact journal, you can’t help but compare and feel less valuable when you ponder upon your own work – will I ever publish? How long until I publish? What if journals reject my publications? While it is normal to feel concerned about the trajectory of your work, publishing, although extremely rewarding, is not the only measure of success and achievements in graduate school. It is more important to know that the grand scheme of life is not only about publications, but other measurements of success such as your mental health, happiness, fulfillment, and healthy relationships are also just as important. Pushing to publish at the expense of your mental health may have exacerbating effects. Sometimes, taking a step back to recalibrate will yield dividends. After all, a well-oiled machine is much more efficient than something at the brink of breaking down. The same applies to you!

This pressure to publish is, likely, linked to PhD students’ satisfaction with their graduate program. The survey data suggest a higher percentage of respondents who are very dissatisfied with their graduate experience in year 4 and later (17%) compared to years 1-3 (5%) of the PhD program. This is likely because of a heightened pressure to publish in order to secure grants and post-doctoral fellowships.

3. Being Constantly Away From Social Life

Being alone can lead to too much time spent overthinking, resulting in increased stress and anxiety

With the COVID-19 pandemic and back-to-back lockdown restrictions, being in close proximity and getting quality time with support groups like our family and friends becomes increasingly difficult, as 92% of students have reported that interactions with fellow lab mates were affected. From the previous two points, we already know that graduate school itself is extremely taxing and it doesn’t help that we can’t physically gather with the very people who understand the hardships we face in grad school. Being alone can lead to too much time spent overthinking, resulting in increased stress and anxiety. It can be helpful to connect with people who are a positive influence: reach out to friends and family through phone or video calls or contact formal support that can help you during high-stress times (insert community hotline).

4.  Financial Worries

As 81% of graduates reported that they are either unsure or doubtful that they are on track to complete their graduate studies on time, it becomes alarming that students often find themselves occupied with financial worries in addition to their graduate work. The longer it takes to graduate, the more tuition owed, and the further they are from settling their debts Graduates feel “financially behind”, being a student at the age of 25, while most people are receiving full-time wages after graduating from their bachelor’s degree. Although a stipend is helpful, rent, tuition, and other expenses would still be overwhelmingly exhausting. Perhaps participating in a “financial accountability group” with fellow grad students and sharing financial concerns with PIs would be helpful to address financial worries – which brings us to our last major stressor.

5. Interacting with supervisor (PI)

It is quite concerning that 57% of graduates reported that they are not comfortable with sharing financial struggles with their PIs, and that 76% do not feel comfortable or are reluctant to share mental struggles. This is quite worrisome, as it is not healthy for students to mentally suffer from no perceived outlets or means to receive help from their PIs, despite that PIs are readily available to communicate. One of the roles of a PI is to be supportive and provide guidance to their students and therefore, many issues could be alleviated from a casual, honest conversation that encourages mutual understanding from both parties.

After identifying these top stressors, the next step is to take action to alleviate some of these concerns and maintain wellbeing while in graduate school. If you are a student facing difficulties with grad school-related issues, having effective communications with your PI may help dissolve any potential barriers or misunderstandings. However, we as the Wellness Committee understand that you may not be comfortable in doing so – therefore, should there be issues that you would like to bring up anonymously or that you need help from a 3rd party with bridging that communication, please reach out to us. The Wellness Committee is here to serve you and listen to any potential concerns that you may have. If you are someone in a well-enough position to give, we encourage you to initiate a coffee chat or write a simple note for your friends – at stressful times, even little kind gestures would go a long way!

….initiate a coffee chat or write a simple note for your friends… little kind gestures would go a long way

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