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Scientists Don’t Succeed in a Vacuum. Why Expect This of Graduate Students?

Graduate student isolation existed long before the pandemic, thanks to go-it-alone culture in physics programs. Then as now, peer support groups can help.

Published Sep 09, 2022
Credit: Jorm S/Adobe

Imagine you’re in a subway car, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with other riders. Do you feel isolated?

If you don’t know any of the people around you, you probably do. That’s because isolation isn’t solved by the presence of others; it’s solved by authentic connection with others. A crowd of strangers won’t make you feel less alone.

It’s no different in PhD programs. For graduate students, isolation is a major symptom of an always-on, go-it-alone culture in PhD programs, a culture that promotes overwork and leaves very little room for community. This culture, and the isolation it fosters, preceded the COVID-19 pandemic — but peer support groups can help reverse it.

Many graduate students in physics have long coped with isolation

In the cultures of many graduate programs, students have little time to devote to non-academic activities. They work long days, into evenings and on weekends, and when they’re not working, they’re still reachable by email, sometimes at all hours of the night. When I was a graduate student, I once received an email on December 24, when I was visiting family. When I didn’t respond right away, I received one on December 26, asking if I had seen the previous email.

Students are also weighed down, day-to-day, by traditional metrics of success. Any deviation from the goals of an academic — to publish papers, get grants, or acquire a faculty position at a top institution — feels to many students like settling or failing, a deeply isolating experience.

Meanwhile, Principal Investigators (PIs), the faculty who lead research groups, often view students like apprentices, learning a narrow type of work that they’ll continue somewhere else. This can leave PIs ill-equipped to do all the other things good teachers must do: Help students plan for their futures, cultivate students’ individual interests, and build a sense of community.

The problem with all these norms is that they’re usually unspoken. No PI needs to say, “I expect you to work 16 hours a day, or “If you don’t publish work, you’re failing.” Even unsaid, these norms shape many graduate programs in physics. I felt this in my program, and many people I’ve spoken to have said they’ve felt it, too.

When you’re entrenched in this culture, it can become hard to see its impacts — but the impacts are real and measurable. It’s well known that isolation can foster or worsen anxiety and depression1, and this is certainly the case in students. Research has shown that at least a third of graduate students experience severe mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety; this percentage rises for cisgender women and students who are transgender or gender-non-conforming2. Difficult relationships with advisors, financial insecurity, and a highly competitive job market all contribute to mental health issues3, 4 . And suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students5— a horrifying statistic.

And that, I remind you, was pre-pandemic. Now enter COVID-19.

For graduate students, the pandemic exacerbated isolation

In the early days of the pandemic, and almost overnight, students whose primary social contacts were office- or lab-mates were suddenly mostly alone. Faculty advisors who were already hard to contact, necessitating long waits outside their office doors, became unreachable. A student with a minor technical question — about, say, a Matlab function — could no longer turn to an office mate for quick help. Some groups tried to adapt by creating chat channels on apps like Slack or Discord, but many people still lacked connection and guidance.

Meanwhile, the already-fuzzy boundary between work and life blurred even more. Some graduate students never left their bedrooms; many attended Zoom meetings in pajamas, hidden out of camera view. Small, vital moments of in-person connection — walking together to a student center to grab lunch, or visiting a coffee shop with peers — disappeared, replaced by solo visits to the kitchen.

These issues had, and still have, profound effects on students. In a summer 2020 survey of nearly 3,500 graduate students at US institutions, 34% had moderate or higher levels of depression, 33% had moderate or higher levels of anxiety, and 32% exhibited symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. A full two-thirds of respondents reported low well-being overall6.

And isolation isn’t felt equally. Social circles in physics graduate programs are often small and homogenous, not only in background and experience, but also identity. Those from marginalized backgrounds often feel isolation more acutely, made worse by systemic racism, sexism, and transphobia.

There is evidence, too, that professional mental health services aren’t reaching everyone equally, because of factors like lack of access, community stigma, and inadequate training on how to address the needs of specific identities. Research shows that students of color are less likely to get the help they need: 23% of Asian American students, 26% of Black students, and 33% of Latino students seek treatment for mental health issues, compared to 46% of white students. And even those students who do get treatment face challenges: Among students of color using mental health services, 70% have found these services more difficult to access since the COVID-19 pandemic7.

This is where peer support groups come in. Support groups, while not a replacement for professional mental health treatment, can help bridge the gap8, 9 .

Support groups can protect students from isolation

There is no single type of support group — that’s a strength — but all good support groups aim to create a community for folks with similar perspectives, identities, goals, or needs. For example, many schools have a society for women in STEM, and many have LGBTQ groups, campus spiritual groups, and groups for students of a certain ethnicity. Graduate physics organizations can serve this purpose, too. Over my own seven years as a graduate student, I belonged to multiple types of groups and even founded a few, including the Georgia Tech Society of Women in Physics, when I found support lacking.

Support groups are powerful tools because students need time and space to connect with peers non-academically, in an environment where they’re valued as authentic, multi-faceted human beings, rather than merely researchers or apprentices. These spaces offer, first and foremost, the chance to find reprieve from work alongside peers who understand the stresses of an academic career. In these spaces, students can freely discuss challenges they’re facing — and realize they’re not alone in facing them.

Support groups can protect students from isolation.
Credit: Jorm S/Adobe

The types of challenges that support groups can address are diverse. For example, a student facing microaggressions may connect with others who face similar (unacceptable) challenges. An international student might feel a sense of comradery with other international students; a transgender student might discover a community of supportive peers in an LGBTQ group that extends across programs. For me, finding others with invisible illnesses, often exacerbated by the stresses of graduate school, helped me understand that I wasn’t the only one dealing with them.

Support groups can also help students discuss and resolve interpersonal issues with faculty advisors, relationships that can be stressful and isolating for students. Research has shown that PI mentorship styles correlate strongly with graduate student mental health, and laissez-faire leadership is associated with significantly increased levels of psychological distress. In support groups, students can share experiences and advice — how one student has broached difficult conversations with advisors, for example, or how another student has done career planning despite an advisor’s shortcomings.

Perhaps most vitally, support groups can help students step outside their own research “bubbles” and contextualize their experiences. Inside the narrow bubble of her own research group, a student might accept an advisor’s antagonistic behavior as normal — but outside that bubble, when she can learn from students in other groups, she might realize otherwise and feel empowered to fix it. Inside that bubble, another student might believe that her academic struggles stem from her own personal failings. Outside that bubble, she might realize that those struggles stem from her advisor’s unrealistic expectations, and that, importantly, she’s not alone in her experience.

Even though a support group can serve first and foremost as a resource for comradery and community, they can also provide vital support for career-building. Many people in support groups are in similar stages of their professional career. This allows them to gain and share crucial feedback on job-finding that advisors, who are often older and further from the job-search process, might be unable to share.

For students who plan to stay in academia, support group peers often navigate the same processes around the same time — applying for grants and fellowships, searching for faculty positions, or negotiating salaries — which can give students avenues of support for years to come. For a student seeking non-academic careers, support group peers can help one another market their skills effectively, share networking resources, and prepare for a transition into a different work culture.

Faculty must proactively back support groups — for students’ sake

Many faculty are deeply supportive of their students’ involvement in peer groups.

But some faculty are not, which I’ve learned from students across schools. I’ve met students whose PIs look down on support groups as “time away from work” or a “waste of time" — both quotes — including personal time spent at events for women in physics, and even at counseling. Once, I organized a coffee discussion for the Society of Women in Physics, which was advertised clearly on the door of the department lounge. A professor, walking in to grab his lunch, loudly interrupted to ask, “Why are you all sitting around?” We explained, but the damage was done. Multiple students in the group mumbled something about being away from the office too long and needing to go back. I didn’t see them at the next events.

Worse still, students facing this kind of hostility may have limited room for recourse. They may feel that they can’t bring up these issues with other department faculty, for fear of retaliation. After all, for students, years of effort are on the line, or even whether they’ll ultimately earn their PhD.

For students’ sake, departments and faculty in physics, and those in graduate programs more broadly, must do more to proactively back the creation and upkeep of student support groups. Students must be free to join and participate in groups that exist already, and — where networks haven’t yet been established — they must be empowered to create groups of their own that address their specific needs. Alongside access to high-quality mental health services, this type of peer support can transform the experiences of graduate students in physics.

It isn’t enough that some PIs choose to do the right thing; doing the right thing must be expected of everyone in a position of power in graduate programs. And neither is it enough that a group of students drifts around in the same PhD program. To feel connected, students must feel like part of a community.

After all, standing in a crowd of strangers probably won’t make you feel less alone — but having friends by your side just might.

Andrea Welsh

Dr. Andrea Welsh is a postdoctoral researcher in mathematical biology at the University of Pittsburgh.

  1. Leal Filho, W., Wall, T., Rayman-Bacchus, L. et al. Impacts of COVID-19 and social isolation on academic staff and students at universities: a cross-sectional study. BMC Public Health 21, 1213 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11040-z

  2. Evans, T., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. et al. Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nat Biotechnol 36, 282–284 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

  3. Graduate Student Happiness & Well-Being Report 2014, University of California, Berkeley.

  4. Katia Levecque et al. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy 46, 868-879 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008

  5. Investing in Student Mental Health, American Council of Education (2019).

  6. NSF RAPID: Graduate Student Experiences of Support and Stress During the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020).

  7. The Steve Fund Crisis Response Task Force. “Adapting and Innovating to Promote Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being of Young People of Color: COVID-19 and Beyond,” The Steve Fund (2020).

  8. Earlise Ward et al. African American Men and Women's Attitude Toward Mental Illness, Perceptions of Stigma, and Preferred Coping Behaviors. Nursing Research 62, 185-194 (May/June 2013). 10.1097/NNR.0b013e31827bf533

  9. Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-being. A Report by the Council of Graduate Schools and The Jed Foundation (2021).

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