Response to 'Colleges Struggle to Respond'

Colleges Struggle to Respond

I think they (both the colleges and the author) missed a key point here. All of these suggested responses are reactions to existing stresses, but a number of the "major concerns" listed at the end of the article could be prevented (or diminished through prevention). The obvious –yet surprisingly overlooked– answer to me is to work toward a better graduate school culture.

What does this better culture look like? Faculty advisors need to set clear, reasonable expectations: when are working hours? How many days a week? How many hours a day? How much time off? How easy is it to get time off? (I mean really, not just on paper.)

Yes, a lot of the burden of change will fall on the faculty.

The comment by mj_zorro is particularly on point here:

I am surprised and disappointed by the focus on the medical needs of [students], to the exclusion of the active role that some faculty play in their students' problems. ... There are undoubtedly students whose fragile mental health is independent of the behavior of their mentors, but there are also far too many examples of faculty who publicly humiliate their students, or dismiss the idea of wanting eight hours of sleep and time with one's family as laziness, as opposed to healthy human behavior and basic self-maintenance. ... Abusive supervision is detrimental to performance, as well as student health, but people who have learned to be productive in these kinds of environments often fail to understand the damage it does, in part because it is widely tolerated in academic environments.

I think we'll find that stress levels go down (and anxiety, too), when we treat others humanely and can expect the same in return. Stay up all night doing research if you want to, or if it makes you happy, not because Boss said so, or implied it.

Let's all work with nice people by being nice people.

mj_zorro concludes:

Yes, graduate students need access to mental health services, and we need to make it easier for them to feel comfortable taking advantage of those services, but we also need to do a much better job of training faculty to respect the humanity of their students, ands [sic] encourage their development in a positive way.

See also the comment by not4nothing, especially:

I suggest that part of the problem is what my advisor referred to as the "Paris Island Syndrome." It was done to me, so now I get to do it to you. ... I say the abuse ends here with me. I will not confuse bullying with academic rigor. I will not pass it on. I refuse to subject my students to what amounts to institutionalized hazing.

Yes, yes, yes! This! This is why I chose my advisor as I did. I chose someone who treats people as people, rather than robots.

In contrast is graddirector, who, based on the name, one might assume is coming at this from "within the system" so to speak, and who offers a few defenses:

While there are some abusive mentors out there, the students in my program who were experiencing true mental health issues were often not in that handful of labs, instead [sic] were working in quite nurturing environments. ... I have seen students "stressed" by the workload but in reality were [sic] basically doing nothing at all.

Forgive my eye-rolling, but apparently distress is not a "true mental health issue." I also find it odd that, as graddirector presents it, the students with "true mental health issues" were better able to avoid the abusive mentors than those without. It sounds like Spider-Sense to me, which is to say, malarkey. Mental health issues can be totally invisible. Plenty of people cope with things well enough not to let on, and that doesn't mean that internally things are hunky-dory. I'd guess there were (as a percentage) just as many students with mental aches and pains under those abusive mentors as elsewhere. Perhaps they were bullied into hiding it, or bullied out of their places.

The commenter continues to argue along the "distressed grad students are actually lazy and ineffectual" line with this:

Some folks just do not have the ability to be productive enough to even be minimally functional in the profession.

Well then why did you let them into grad school? That sounds like poor admissions to me. Read: excuses, excuses.

Then it takes an odd turn:

Both behavioral modification and being in over your head does cause anxiety. However, what is the alternative?

Grammar issues aside, those two sentences irk me. Behavioral modification? This sounds right in line with the position that it's entirely the grad students' fault if they are uncomfortable in their current environment. And what is the alternative? If the environment is hostile, how about we change the environment?

And while I'm at it, one more uncomfortable comment from graddirector:

I do agree that positive reinforcement is the way to go, ... however a subset of students progress best with ultimatums and threats (these students will even say they work best to a "deadline" which I personally can not understand but whatever works for them.) [sic] ... Even if someone has perfect credentials on paper, sometimes their personality does not allow for productivity when working independently (procrastination is a big problem)...

This from the same person who later admits:

... I am procrastinating from working on editing one of my doctoral students papers we are preparing for publication ...

That crap just gets under my skin. In my mind, Merlin Mann is asking "Are you the kind of hypocrite you can live with?" Maybe this person is fine with that flavor of hypocrite. I'm not.

And mention of Merlin Mann brings me around full-circle. The problem of distress does not come out of thin air. Some of it is baggage brought along by the individuals present, sure. But some of it comes from –or is aggravated by– the hostile, toxic environment. The work culture. And that's something that colleges aren't addressing yet.