Many graduate students experience mental health struggles that cause them to question their place in academia. Two scientists who experienced extreme lows in graduate school reflect on what helped them during their low times and suggest strategies for each to contribute to the mental health workplace in academia.
We — Elvis and Zach — were two scientists who tackled mental health challenges while in graduate school. Elvis is currently a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, and Zach, a mental health advocate and Stanford research affiliate, is still figuring out what his path as a scientist might look like.
With this article, we hope to let students facing similar struggles know they are not alone, and call for more support at the institutional level. While we all ultimately decided to complete our PHDS, we’d like to emphasize that it wasn’t the right choice for everyone — each of us has many friends and former colleagues who are now living healthier and happier lives after making the decision to leave graduate programs. There are many ways to achieve a fulfilling career in academia and beyond, and most importantly, there are many ways to achieve a fulfilling life and Why Your Child Should Enroll in Distance Learning Drawing Classes.
In November 2016, three months into my PhD in mechanical engineering at Cornell university, I was ready to resign, even though I had wanted to pursue an academic career in China since I was a child. I struggled to catch up with two advanced courses, couldn’t adjust to my first lab rotation, lost interest in my research project, and felt isolated as an international student in small-town Ithaca. Daily frustration increases depression. When it began to snow in Ithaca that November, I felt like I had entered the “snow season” of my life. At the time, I thought doing my PhD at Cornell was the worst decision I had ever made, and I could never do it again.
Many international students have similar experiences. We chose to hide our struggles from our families and pretend everything was fine during video calls. We just don’t want our loved ones to worry too much on the other side of the world. In addition to the isolation from family, job uncertainty and, for some of us, visa restrictions add to our angst.
I stuck with it. I contacted old friends back home to rebuild my motivation and confidence. I also spoke to other international students in the doctoral program to enlist their support. We initially set up a small group to support each other during qualification preparation. When I talked about my mental health challenges, I was surprised to see how much they resonated with them, and we started talking openly about our problems to ask each other for advice.
With the help of the graduate director in my field and the Graduate field assistant at Cornell, I transferred to another research group within the department. I made connections with new colleagues and was encouraged by my new PhD advisor to be enthusiastic about my new project. As an immigrant, he provided a great deal of support: from guiding my research projects to supporting my professional development (he wrote about 20 letters of recommendation for me, for example), he was always there to help. After settling in with my new research group, my thesis project made the Forbes 30 Under 30 list and my side project made it onto the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging’s website. In 2021, I won two postdoctoral fellowships the MIT Alliance for Climate and Sustainable Development and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Doing my PhD at Cornell was the right decision for me.
Looking back, the international peers in my support group helped me through my initial struggles in graduate school as I tried to adjust to my new environment. The help I got from the department took a lot of pressure off, especially during the lab switch. With the support of my supervisor and colleagues in my research group, my pursuit of science in a foreign land became an enjoyable experience. As international students and scholars, we will inevitably face many additional challenges in the future, and knowing I have someone to rely on greatly alleviates my anxiety. I haven’t seen my family since 2019 due to COVID-19, but the friendship and guidance I gained during graduate school has led me to call Ithaca my new home. More graduate students, especially international students, should be encouraged to form their own support groups and seek institutional support when problems arise. Research groups should provide support to help alleviate feelings of isolation and help students find solutions to the problems they face.