How to do research without losing our minds

This week it was my turn to lead the seminar of my research group, and for the occasion, I wanted to spread some light on the evidence for mental health crisis in (under)graduate education & research. I presented a paper related to the topic (see below), and I provided some tips/guides to deal with the mental crisis (without losing our minds) while providing a secure space where we could all (voluntarily) share our experiences/thoughts/worries.

Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education – Evans et al., (2018)

Nature Biotechnology. 2018 Mar 6;36(3):282-284. DOI: 10.1038/nbt.4089.
Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education
Teresa M. Evans, Lindsay Bira, Jazmin Beltran Gastelum, L. Todd Weiss, and Nathan L. Vanderford

Source: Pexels

As the authors state in the paper’s introduction, there is a growing cry for help from graduate students (GS) across the globe who struggle with a significant mental health concern.

  • Science fields are falling under immense pressure (e.g., an increment of Ph.D. positions, not enough future academic prospects, going behind fundings to continue doing research…) given the current sctructures of the scientific system.
  • Idyllic stereotypes of scientists are present in our collective unconscious (leading to ‘imposter syndromes’ and inner criticism) and we have to deal with them.
  • Career success is gauged by a spectrum of measurements (i.e., publications, citations, funding, contributions to conferences….), and we are continuously judged by our achievements.
  • Early-career jobs tend to be precarious. and not well paid for the amount of job and sourrounding circumstances.
Source: Pexels

Previous studies before Evens et al., (2018) have only focused their research on mental health in the trainee population within-institution cohorts:

  • UC Berkeley (2014) → 43–46% of graduate students in the biosciences were depressed.
  • University of Arizona (2015) → A majority of doctoral students reported “more than average” current/“tremendous” stress and endorsed school and education-related issues as the most significant contributors to their stress.

In Evans et al., (2018), researchers studied the prevalence of mental health issues and the role of gender, mentorship relationships, and perceived work-life balance on susceptibility to mental health struggles in the trainee population. Their underlying hypothesis was the following: The graduate trainee community has a considerable prevalence of individuals with anxiety and depression (compared to the general population).

To answer their research question, they run a survey to N=2,279 students (90% Ph.D. students and 10% master’s students) that included clinically validated scales for anxiety (GAD07) and depression (PHQ09) via social media and direct email. Respondents were from 26 countries  and 234 institutions, and represented diverse fields of study, such as biological/physical science (38%), engineering (2%), humanities/social science (56%) % “other” (4%).

What they found is not surprising at all: Graduate students (GS) are 6 times as likely to experience depression & anxiety as compared to the general population (GP).

  • As seen in Fig. 1A, 41% of GS scored as having moderate to severe anxiety as compared to 6% of the GP, as demonstrated previously (Löwe et al., 2008).  Additionally, 39% of GS scored in the moderate to severe depression range in our study, as compared to 6% of the GP (Kocalevent et al., 2013).
  • Both transgender/gender-nonconforming and female graduate students are significantly more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their male graduate student counterparts (Fig. 1B).
  • Good work–life balance is significantly correlated with better mental health outcomes (Fig. 1C).
  • Strong, supportive and positive mentoring relationships between GS and their PI/advisors correlate significantly with less anxiety and depression (Fig. 1D).
Figure 1. The prevalence of anxiety and depression within the population of graduate students studied. (a) Overall prevalence. (b) Prevalence of anxiety and depression by gender. (c) Effect of perceived work–life balance. (d) Effect of relationship with mentor. SOURCE: Evans et al., (2018) from Nature.

Tips for dealing with mental health crisis in graduate education

What I’m going to write in this second part of the post are different points that have helped me get through different moments of mental health difficulty I had during my PhD journey and my life. They worked for me but that does not mean it can also work for whoever is reading this post. So, I invite you to read them and give them an opportunity to check trough personal experience whether that tool/point is useful for you or not. All right, here we go!

“Perfectionism slows us down. It makes tasks feel too hard. It drives ‘just one more’ literature search and the need to rewrite the same sentence over and over, despite diminishing returns. When the expectation is perfection, then procrastination is commonplace. You feel that you don’t have the time to immerse yourself fully, so you don’t start”.

DESIREE DICKERSONCareer colum | Nature (2020)
Building a healthy mind
  • Shutting down our inner critic
    • Overcome the imposter syndrome
    • Overcome perfectionism
    • Overcome judgement of ourselves & others
    • By questioning our thoughts & beliefs (with tools like The Work by Byron Katie)
  • Avoiding comparison to other GS
    • Each person is an entire world
    • Not all research proceeds at the same pace
    • Focus on what we want to bring to the table

BUILDING A MIND-BODY BALANCE
  • Benefits of daily routines
    • Restructuration of activities to be more productive
  • Move your ass!
    • Play sports, go for a run, swim a bit, dance…
  • Be aware of your diet & sleep rate
    • Eat healthy (a brain full of beans is non-stoppable!)
    • Sleep enough to charge your batteries
  • Work on your mind-body connection
    • Gain control over mind wandering
    • Yoga, meditation, pilates, chi kung…

BUILDING A SOCIAL LIFE

  • Play down the PhD
    • There are more important things in your life
    • It’s not all about the PhD
    • Get some hobbies!
  • No workaholics!
    • Be aware of how much time you are spending in you PhD
    • Can you work fewer hours while still being productive?
    • When going home or ludocrative activities leave “no-working guilt” at the office
  • Go to the bar!
    • Be part of a colleague-network from your work
    • Go out with your friends

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