Chemistry Students Uknight to Combat Graduate Level Stress

Graduate School Stress

Like many graduate students, Karen Chiang entered her Ph.D. program full of enthusiasm, and she looked forward to earning her scientific wings.

But instead, graduate school became associated with some of the lowest points in her life, because of the overwhelming stress and self-doubt she experienced. “I had a very difficult time seeing myself in a positive light,” says Chiang, who recently earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and is now teaching at a liberal arts college and working as an adjunct for a community college in San Diego. Although Chiang was never diagnosed as being depressed, she acknowledges that she likely was.

Chiang is not alone. According to a 2011 survey by the nonprofit group Grad Resources, 43% of U.S. graduate students who participated reported experiencing more stress than they could handle. Stress continues to be one of the biggest mental health issues that graduate students face, and although attempts have been made to mitigate the problem, the issue of stress largely flies under the radar, quieted by the unrelenting pressure to publish. The stress can cause some graduate students to contemplate leaving their Ph.D. programs. “There were at least two times when I seriously considered dropping out of graduate school,” says Cheri Ackerman, a chemistry graduate student at UC Berkeley.

For Casey Schwarz, who is now a postdoc at the University of Central Florida (UCF), stress interfered with her ability to sleep.

The pressures of graduate school are often magnified for international students. Not only are they acclimating to a new culture, but taking time off to return home for a visit is nearly impossible. “I can take vacation for two or three days here and there, but going back to India is not possible in two or three days,” says Rashi Sharma, who came to the U.S. four years ago and is now a graduate student at UCF.

Schwarz found healing through therapy, although she admits that she felt self-conscious to be seen entering and leaving the counseling building. “It was embarrassing,” she says.

Therapy often comes with a stigma. “My experience here has been that when I gently encourage a friend to go to therapy, it will be months or years before they will do it,” says Ackerman, who has gone to therapy herself. “It doesn’t mean that you’re screwed up; it just means that you need a little help, and that’s okay.”

At UCF, Schwarz and her peers formed the Uknighted Chemistry Graduate Student Association this past January to provide a more supportive community for graduate students. “You go into the black hole that’s your lab, and you stay there,” says Julie Donnelly, a third-year chemistry graduate student and president of the association. “We thought if we formed this association, it would bring people together.”

Schwarz says learning how to manage her stress in graduate school has made her much better prepared to deal with stressful situations in the future—and she sleeps much better these days. “The skills I learned from counseling and from being more involved in groups and talking to more people is a life changer for me,” she says. “Right now, I’m pretty proud of the way I can handle most stress.”

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