This article is coauthored by Emily Neer and Gwendolyn Price
Rejection. Imposter syndrome. Burnout. I’m sure we have all heard of these feelings and experienced them at some point in our academic journey. However, have we been willing to openly talk about these feelings and experiences with one another? A recent article bringing together faculty from across universities explored the common experiences that many people in academia face, but don’t often discuss openly (Jaremka et al., in press). Reading various faculty members’ perspectives and personal stories with these issues got us to think about some common experiences graduate students face and how these experiences would look from our perspective. Graduate school is like a workplace and just like any workplace outside of academia, it has its own unique issues.
Whether thinking about graduate school or in graduate school, it is important to think about these issues and how they could be addressed. We surveyed graduate students from UCLA and other universities, compiling some of the problems that graduate students face, steps we can take to deal with them, and ideas for how the institution could facilitate change and offer support. These problems exist across academia and elsewhere, but as Jaremka et al. (in press) focused on tenured faculty’s perspectives, we focused on the graduate student perspective to take the trainee lens on some of these same issues. This article will explore experiences such as the hierarchy in academia, cost of living, mental health, and job prospects. This, of course, is not an exhaustive list, but we hope this article will prompt a conversation among graduate students and the people who impact and are impacted by these experiences. Throughout the article, we have provided some direct quotes from our anonymous survey (used with permission). We end the article with some general resources that should be available to graduate students at their university as well as some specific UCLA resources for graduate students.
Hierarchy. One of the common experiences graduate students face during their graduate studies is difficulty with the hierarchical structure of academia. These mentoring relationships can be incredibly positive as faculty mentors support our interests and challenge us to become better researchers. However, some faculty-student mentor relationships can be more challenging due to the hierarchical nature of academia. There is a clear separation between faculty and graduate students in more ways than one. Faculty mentors can dictate the research a student pursues in graduate school, what grants they can apply to, and more, if they so choose. We rely on faculty mentors for recommendations for fellowships, scholarships, and post-graduate school opportunities. As such, the cost of a ruptured relationship is felt more keenly by the student than by the mentor. Some students may not feel comfortable addressing concerns with their mentor due to this power structure.
“Power hierarchy between graduate students and faculty makes it difficult to discuss problems/concerns with them without feeling like there could be repercussions for it.”
Graduate students who may not have a positive working relationship with their faculty mentor may feel stuck. While students have the option of switching advisors, this can still be a daunting step to initiate. One option is for programs to have a faculty member who is designated as a Graduate Student Representative. This faculty member would be responsible for being an advocate for graduate students and helping them navigate any concerns and challenges, such as switching advisors. This faculty member would need to clearly advertise their role with graduate students and be committed to building a good rapport with the students. In addition, students can seek support from outside the department or university. For example, connecting in person or online with others going through the same experience (e.g., academic Twitter). Finally, universities could provide a resource for graduate students within a human resources department. This resource would work to enforce changes and ensure ethical behavior on behalf of the faculty. An additional, third-party institutional support may prove to be beneficial to students who feel uncomfortable seeking support within their own department.
“I do believe that real structural problems exist in grad school as well (e.g., abuse of power, preferential treatment). And faculty should take responsibility for those.”
Cost of living. Another major common experience that graduate students face is the cost of living. A student with a Teaching Assistantship or other similar graduate student job can typically expect to make between 13 and 34 thousand dollars a year (Flaherty, 2018). Depending on the actual salary and the location, this is not enough to get them through the month. To make up the difference, students sometimes tutor or are forced to take up another job in order to meet their monthly needs. Not all graduate programs are funded forcing students to take out loans in order to pay for tuition and fees as well as to afford to live. On average, graduate students accumulate $71,000 in debt — just from their graduate study (Lane, 2019). As graduate students in Los Angeles, anywhere from 50 to 80% of our monthly stipend goes towards paying rent.
Universities need to ensure that graduate student workers are paid enough to afford to live and thrive on their stipends. In addition, universities can provide resources to help graduate students such as food pantries and emergency loans. Another way to ease the cost of living burden would be to apply for funding before entering graduate school and during graduate school. Many programs will have databases of fellowships and scholarships available to graduate students. In addition, never underestimate the power of a “gap year” between undergraduate and graduate school. We understand this option is not feasible for everyone, but if there is an opportunity to save for a couple of years before starting graduate school, it could be worth the financial peace of mind to have some savings. Finally, it is important to understand what we are getting into when considering graduate school. Graduate school is not a career, it sets us up for one.
Mental health. Mental health is a serious issue in graduate school, and it is important to know that we are not alone. A recent survey of Ph.D. candidates across 234 institutions and 26 countries found that 41% of respondents showed moderate to severe anxiety and 39% moderate to severe depression (Pain, 2018). In addition to anxiety and depression, many graduate students experience burnout. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is defined as chronic workplace stress that is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.” With the amount of responsibilities and work that graduate students commit to on a weekly basis, burnout is a common feeling.
Imposter syndrome, another common mental health issue, is a form of intellectual self-doubt and can correlate with anxiety and depression (Weir, 2013). Feeling out of place is not unusual, even for tenured professors (Jaremka et al., in press). It is not widely talked about for many reasons, including the fear of having those imposter feelings confirmed. However, research is for anyone who cares to know more, and we all belong here to make new knowledge, to improve our fields, and to pass on what we know to students. People become graduate students because they want to be there, and that drive in and of itself is what makes us belong, not any other arbitrary metric or negative feedback.
It is always important to keep an eye on and prioritize mental health, especially when undertaking a graduate degree program. It is important to check in, set good boundaries, find good support systems, and most importantly to be kind to oneself. Personally, for one of the authors, she knows that if she skips a meal or does not get enough sleep, her feelings of self-doubt and anxiety flare up. Knowing the signs of a flare up can help address problems before they begin or get worse. It is also important to know when to say no. There are so many things we need to and can do, trying to do everything all the time is impossible. Scheduling breaks as needed during the day can help, but a degree should be one part of life, not all of it. Taking a day to do something enjoyable might be the reset needed in order to come back to work feeling energized and clear-headed. Don’t compromise on hobbies and activities for graduate school. It is important to hold onto these in order to prevent burnout.
Finding good support systems, in other graduate students, family, or mental health systems is a necessity. Universities have resources for graduate students such as a psychological services centers. These centers work to help identify the needed support such as support groups, therapists, or psychiatrists. Sometimes we need that uninvolved, third party in our lives to help us conceptualize, reframe, and teach us coping strategies to deal with our anxiety and depression. Overall, it is important to support one another and be willing to talk about the self-doubt and anxiety we may feel in graduate school. The more that we talk about and prioritize our mental health, the more we normalize our experiences and do not feel ashamed for them.
“Burnout is real. Taking time to find inspiration in things outside of work is important. I spend time with friends, exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. These things are fulfilling to me (not just relaxing or fun), which can bolster my inner inspiration when work is not going well.”
Job prospects. Another common experience that graduate students inevitably face is declining academic job prospects. Many of us strive for the tenure-track faculty positions or are only trained for these positions. This can lead to long periods as an adjunct or post-doc. However, the tenure track is not our only option. The most current estimate suggests that 30% of psychology and social science Ph.D.s hold a tenure-track position (Langin, 2019). The number of doctorate degrees awarded is increasing each year, yet the number of tenure-track positions are declining. There is a trend in which Ph.D. employment rates in the private sector (42%) is the same as in universities and educational institutions (43%) (Langin, 2019). The job market is changing for Ph.D. students and we should have the resources in graduate school to anticipate and prepare for the diverse job options once we graduate. Currently, there seems to be a lack of information and resources for those who may seek a career outside of academia.
Many universities will host seminars for graduate students who are looking to explore career options outside of academia. This is a great first step in learning more about these options. If the university does not hold such events, ask for or try organizing one. These seminars will provide valuable insight into the skills needed to work in industry or in another field outside of a research university. Also, use the university and department’s alumni networks to seek out alumni who are working in industry. Don’t hesitate to reach out to administrative staff, career centers, or even faculty who could help facilitate these connections with alumni. In addition, there are resources available online such as this Twitter account on academic Twitter that provides information for Ph.D.s seeking jobs outside of academia. There are also books available as well. The best way to get any job is to find resources that are interesting and relevant: people, workshops, and literature. Even if the primary goal is to continue on the academic path, it is never a bad idea to know of other options.
Graduate school can be a very stressful period, but it can also be a wonderful experience when we have access to resources and can support each other through the stressful times. There are some unique common experiences that graduate students share including the hierarchical structure of academia, cost of living, mental health issues, and job prospects. There are steps we can take to address these experiences (and structural change that needs to happen), but the two biggest takeaways we would like to impart are seeking out resources and finding community. Use the university resources such as food pantries, counseling and psychological services, and career centers. They exist for all students. Below is a list of UCLA-specific resources available to graduate students.
Most importantly, find community. Do not be intimidated to share experiences with other graduate students. We all experience similar feelings and issues at points throughout our graduate careers. The more we are willing to openly talk to each other about these challenges, the easier it will be to find support and build a community of trust and understanding. Graduate school can be challenging in both positive and negative ways, but we are all in this together and everyone deserves to feel supported and to thrive.
“Again – openness. Unfortunately, it seems the pattern is to remind students that there are resources for them only intermittently or when there is a significant issue. We should remind everyone that the experiences we have are common and do not mean we aren’t worthy of being in the field. In doing so, we should remind students that resources exist for a reason and are completely okay to seek out!”
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
If an emergency, call 911.
If in crisis, call 310-825-0768 (CAPS 24-hour line)
UCLA Financial Wellness Program
Food security resources
Health and well-being resources
Flaherty, C. (2018, October 26). Graduate student assistants at campuses across the U.S. are pushing for $15 per hour, what they call a minimum living wage. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/26/graduate-student-assistants-campuses-across-us-are-pushing-15-hour-what-they-call
Jaremka, L. M., Ackerman, J. M., Gawronski, B., Rule, N. O., Sweeny, K., Tropp, L. R., … Vick, S. B. (in press). Common academic experiences no one talks about: Repeated rejection, imposter syndrome, and burnout. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication /336408985_Common_Academic_Experiences_No_One_Talks_About_Repeated_Rejection_Impostor_Syndrome_and_Burnout
Lane, R. (2019, December 6). What Is the Average Student Loan Debt for Graduate School? Retrieved from https://www.nerdwallet.com/blog/loans/student-loans/average-student-loan-debt-graduate-school/
Langin, K. (2019, March 12). In a first, U.S. private sector employs nearly as many Ph.D.s as schools do. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/03/first-us-private-sector-employs-nearly-many-phds-schools-do
Pain, E. (2018, March 6). Graduate students need more mental health support, study highlights. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2018/03/graduate-students-need-more-mental-health-support-new-study-highlights
Weir, K. (2013, November). Feel like a fraud? gradPSYCH Magazine, 11, 24.
World Health Organization. (2019). Burn-out and “occupational phenomenon”: International classification of diseases. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/