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Into the Minds of Graduate Students: The cost of a Degree
2017 Essay contest: 2nd Place Winner
2017년 12월 07일 (목) 11:27:40 Stephani Joy Y. Macalino evoice@ewha.ac.kr
   

When we hear the word “struggle,” we often think of an obstacle that is almost impossible to overcome—perhaps a final exam during your senior year that you have to pass in order to graduate or an illness that has no cure. No one ever thinks that for a lot of people, their struggle is to just get up from their own beds in the morning. Our society has long shunned the issue of mental health as if it was a revolting piece of trash we found in our own backyards. There has always been this shame and fear in people who suffers from mental illnesses. It was only in the last several years that we have taken an interest in speaking out in trying to eradicate the stigma of mental illness and solving this festering problem by understanding the root cause.
Due to the emotional nature of the symptoms, people often dismiss the legitimacy of mental illnesses and give unsolicited advice to people diagnosed with depression to “just be happy” or “just think positive.” The brain is a very complex organ and continues to mystify researchers; and while several studies have already implicated a number of genes and biomarkers for different types of psychiatric disorders, more work has to be done to fully elucidate the workings of mental illnesses. This complexity disallows the choice of just being happy or positive, since most psychiatric illnesses are biologically- or chemically-caused in the brain. Similar to other diseases, there is also an aspect of nature or nurture in mental illnesses. In this case, nurture encompasses environmental situations and everything that isn't related to the genetics of psychiatry. Environmental conditions, such as stress, affects the psychosocial perception of a person, and can therefore impact overall mental health.
The increasing pace of everyday life has led to more stress factors as compared to several years or even decades ago. This is especially observed in the academia, both in the humanities and sciences field, more specifically in graduate schools. Recent reports stated that roughly one-third of the PhD student population are at risk of developing psychiatric disorders, while one-half suffers through psychological distress due to the working conditions experienced in the academia. Students who participated in one study mentioned being under constant stress, being depressed, not having enough sleep due to worry, and not being able to enjoy normal daily activities. Though it may be argued that stress is a normal part of any student’s life, the rising pressure to publish in a high-quality journal in order to graduate and the recurrent pattern of having severely demanding and critical advisers or Principal Investigators (PIs) can slowly grate into a student’s confidence and self-esteem, leading to hopelessness, which is a common risk factor for depression. Almost all graduate schools today entertain the “publish-or-perish” culture, requiring one or two first author publications from a prospective graduating PhD student. Other universities even require a minimum impact factor of journals where the students’ articles will be published. With these requirements, it is not surprising that advisers have become more critical of their students’ work. While they might think that this is necessary for a graduate student to improve, it should be noted that different students require different approaches when critiquing their work. The stress of a nitpicky supervisor, on top of the strain of wanting to garner good results to be able to publish in a high impact factor journal, is often taxing to a student’s mental and physical health. In the end, whatever accomplishment a student has achieved during and at the end of their graduate school life, be it a first author article or an award from a well-known international conference or academic society, the sense of triumph will no longer be there. Why? Because the road to that so-called achievement has viciously cut down a person’s self-worth, making them question if they were ever qualified, intelligent, or even strong enough for their chosen field.
One of the main problem is that it seems like this culture and behavior has become “normal” and “accepted” in the academia, where students are expected to just take the abuse and still do well to be able to get good results from their studies and publish first class papers in high impact factor journals. Students often learn these from their seniors and therefore pass it down to the next generation of students. What’s more is that there are advisers and PIs that encourage this culture of abuse in academia, thinking that this is a good way to enforce strength of character in their subordinates. We should be disillusioned of this thinking. What graduate students need are constructive criticisms and encouragement in the middle of this academic society that has since become a warzone. PIs should learn how to be competent leaders and mentors for their students. They should also be more observant of their working environments and how it affects everyone in it.
Despite all these, one should not forget that there is always a solution to a problem. In this case, a support system is the key; graduate students should always remember that they are not alone in their suffering and should seek either professional help or the presence of friends and family. Moreover, the same study found that working with an inspirational adviser, having an interest in the chosen academic career, and having a clear path or goal in mind after obtaining the degree can somewhat counteract the risks for mental disorders. This again underlines the crucial role of work conditions in the mental health of graduate students. In light of this, graduate students should be discerning in choosing their advisers, workplace, and academic careers, and not be ashamed to tell their supervisors if changes are needed or even leave when they feel like their mental health is being threatened. We should always remember that the choice between a degree and our own mental health should not be hard—mental health is always first!

Essay review by Editor-in-Chief Son Young-chai
Mental health conditions are one of the most prevalent yet underrated in it’s effects among health issues. This essay helps bring this topic, that many deem toboo or shameful, into light. By integrating two unlikely subjects - a graduate degree and mental health, Macalino was convincing of the relation of us, as a university community and mental illness. Hopefully, the next reader of Macalino’s essay will find themselves in a new spectrum of thought, and become more knowledgeable and aware of such issues in school. As the essay shares, support is key. However, support is sought perhaps only after recognition. It is in this spirit that we must spread awareness of mental setbacks, however minor, and build a society that is tolerant of those who experience a dip in their mental health.

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