November 27, 2006

Graduate School Heightens Stress

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“I think a lot of my friends have been depressed. They feel used and sometimes have no motivation. I have personally had a really hard time in graduate school. Sometimes I feel like it is a war between me and Cornell, and I refuse to lose. I don’t think Cornell is helpful in treating or diagnosing it. It is the grad school community that helps gets us through the tough times,” said a graduate student studying science at Cornell.

Ellen Gainor, associate dean of the Graduate School, disagrees.

“[The administration] is very aware of the issues and concerns that graduate students face. The Graduate School has been trying to help students and faculty members deal with the common stresses,” Gainor said.

Cornell’s graduate school, with a current enrollment of 4,354 students, 42 percent of which are international, makes up more than a fifth of the population of campus. Its students are participating in an array of academic programs funded through various departments on campus, and the wide range of their studies contributes to a subsequent lack of cohesion amongst the students, rendering a “grad student community” somewhat hard to find and causing stress factors that affect both undergraduates and graduates to become exacerbated amongst the later.

Lindsey Trevino grad said, “In college, the emphasis was on grades, so the stress levels would rise every time there was an upcoming exam. So for me, the duration of high stress levels depended on my course load for the particular semester. This stress was based on a high academic standard I set for myself. In grad school, the stress level is still high, but it is a different type of stress. The stress comes from meeting all the requirements for your specific program i.e. qualifying exams, seminar talks, teaching assistantships as well as exceeding expectations your mentor and others might have.”

Pooneh Bagher grad agrees that stress is greater in graduate school than in college.

“I think graduate school is more stressful to me than my undergraduate career. There is a level of pressure on graduate students, in the sciences in particular, because obtaining our degree is dependent on the success of experiments and publishing papers. It is not like an undergraduate curriculum where you can take and pass courses and earn a degree,” he said.

The Cornell administration, in conjunction with Gannett Health Services and faculty members, has addressed this issue of stress and mental health in the graduate student community through the formation of the Council on Mental Health.

This Council, according to Gainor, “is addressing the University’s burgeoning need for ensuring a high level of mental health on campus.”

The Council works to ensure that the student issues are understood throughout the campus community and that faculty and staff members are aware and able to take steps in addressing them. The Council formulates helpful teaching and learning strategies as well as academic and residential initiatives, which “act upon the connections between mental health and classroom success,” according to its mission statement.

“Cornell is a major research university, so there is always going to be a sense of competition amongst the students. How does one succeed academically while living a normal life? We find that students are often working against themselves,” said Dr. Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Gannett.

And unbeknownst to many, the idea of “living a normal life,” is a significant cause of stress to a large number of graduate students.

“A lot is at stake for graduate students. They are trying to launch a career, find a job and figure out exactly what they want to do. They are in a different arena in terms of responsibilities [than undergrads], and additional stress occurs as a result of their stages of life — they can’t just focus on work, they have family and financial pressures as well,” Gainor said.

Kevin Lamb, a graduate student in the English department, also feels that grad students are juggling more than just course work at Cornell.

“A grad student has made a choice to do specific things with his education and is not just trying to gain an education,” Lamb said.

Additionally, many graduate students, specifically international students, face a number of unique pressures that can impact their academic careers.

“Cornell can be somewhat intimidating to walk into,” Eells said. “Many other cultures may be more structured in terms of what one is supposed to do and what the expectations are. Now, students might be forced to make your own decisions and have a sense of freedom and independence that they are not necessarily used to. Here, no one is telling you what to do anymore.”

Cornell administration, in response to a growing need to address some of the issues facing graduate students specifically, has begun to draft a policy geared specifically towards graduate students with families, which would enable them to more easily balance life with work. The program “will be similar to the one which is offered to faculty members” and “is aimed at accommodating students who are undergoing important personal milestones like childbirth, child adoption or taking care of children with acute medical illnesses,” said Gainor.

CAPS, Gannet’s Counseling and Psychological Services, will continue to offer special therapy sessions for graduate students which, according to its website, focus on issues such as cultural or geographic adjustment, academic pressures, relationship or family concerns, difficulties in dealing with faculty or social isolation.

“A goal of the University has been to identify problems and take care of them up front to prevent a student from spiraling down,” Gainor said.