May 6, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Just Admit You Don’t Care About (Grad) Student Mental Health

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“Briefly summarize activity and progress on your research and scholarship in the past year.” 

“List academic presentations given in the past year.” 

“List academic papers submitted or published in the past year.” 

“List grant, fellowship, or other funding applications submitted or awarded in the past year.” 

These are just the first of 14 questions on the Student Progress Review (SPR), a formalized process for Ph.D. students to reflect on our progress over the academic year. Essentially an engaging performance review we complete with our advisors, the SPR plays a critical role in graduate student professional development. Since I completed my first SPR in May 2018, these questions have not changed at all; however, as I sit down to answer these questions again in May 2021, the world around us has changed a lot. 

After what has been an indisputably challenging and awful year for so many students, these interrogating questions about our productivity and academic successes read with a much different tone. With stunning insensitivity to our mental health and wellbeing, these questions make (even more) invisible the role graduate students have played in Cornell’s pandemic response while being provided with little (if any) additional support. We’ve seen an increase in teaching responsibilities along with the transition to virtual learning or socially distanced classrooms; we’ve experienced a dramatic rise in the uncompensated costs associated with conducting university work from our lonely apartments; we’ve continued to request (unsuccessfully) any amount of certainty or security about our funding packages and degree deadlines as we prepare for an abysmal job market; we’ve watched our hometowns and families ravaged by a virus that has unmasked an even more divisive political one.

One of the final questions on the SPR asks graduate students to “Describe any obstacles that affected or impeded [our] academic progress or professional development. What actions have [we] taken to overcome these obstacles?” 

It shouldn’t be on each of us to explain the varying degrees in which we have been affected, or even traumatized, by the unacknowledged stresses of graduate school during a global health crisis that has had profoundly unequal impacts. It shouldn’t be on each of us to craft these explanations into a coherent justification for our productivity (or lack-there-of), while delicately dancing around disclosure of our financial, emotional or health information — without whining! — to people with profound power over our careers. 

In anticipation of this year’s SPR, in January I began urging the Graduate School to consider reframing the exercise. I suggested that in our third semester of a pandemic, measuring academic productivity without this context is harmful and reifies pre-existing inequalities within academia. I later learned I am not the only student to make this request. In its current form the SPR misses an excellent opportunity for encouraging graduate students and their advisors to look at ways we can redefine our success, and conduct a more holistic reflection uncharacteristic to academia. 

The smallest changes to the SPR could cause less harm to, or even benefit, graduate students. A few  examples: (1) Acknowledge some of our new, shared stresses in the SPR instructions; (2) Within the questions themselves, emphasize that it is perfectly okay if our progress does not match up with our stated goals from May 2020, while reiterating the importance of documenting our successes anyway; (3) Add a question asking us to reflect on the ways we’ve had to reimagine our dissertation projects while restricted from travel, the lab, or other fieldwork, and how this might relate to previous goals or expected timelines; (4) Include a question asking us what resources we need; (5) Encourage reflection on the advisee-advisor relationship, with avenues for confidentially raising concerns to our departments or to the Graduate School if we are not getting the support we need; (6) Consider reordering the questions. 

For me, the most frustrating thing about the choice not to make any changes to the SPR has nothing to do with what I did or did not accomplish in terms of dissertation chapters or publications this year. I feel that a formalized reflection is important, as is the relative consistency of analysis across years. Rather, my frustration has everything to do with how predictable the (non)response was; it has everything to do with our University’s tradition of unwillingness to prioritize student mental health and community wellbeing within some of the most basic policy decisions – even when students take on the work themselves.

Last week, the Council of Graduate Schools and The Jed Foundation published a report on “Supporting Graduate Student Mental Health and Well-being.” The 68-page report highlights the substantial gap in universities’ attention to the mental health of their graduate students, specifically, despite a growing recognition that they must prioritize the well-being of the entire campus community. In its list of recommendations, the report emphasizes the fact that “Graduate students have a critical role to play in helping faculty and administrators understand the challenges they face and the resources they need” (pg. 21). 

We’re tired of the kids’ table. We’re eager to engage. We know what we need; we talk about this amongst ourselves constantly and have even offered possible solutions. And sometimes, like in the seemingly minor case of reframing the SPR questions, the solutions we have are free. Yet we seldom get the chance to offer our ideas outside of anonymous surveys and canceled Zoom meetings with administrators who admit to rarely meeting with graduate students. Even Cornell’s own Mental Health Review, published in October 2020, does little to acknowledge graduate students (beyond, of course, our roles in supporting undergraduates (pg. 7)). 

Buried within the Mental Health Review’s impressive list of recommendations and next steps for approaching our continued need for mental health resources for students, faculty, and staff is, quite literally, the undeveloped recommendation to “Address the concerns raised by graduate students” (pg. 15). 

Graduate students have raised these concerns since the very beginning of the pandemic and frankly, for years. Even in my own capacity on Cornell’s Teaching Reactivation Committee last summer, alarmingly little attention was paid to the psychological or emotional side of “health considerations” in the University response to COVID-19. When I raised early concerns about the lack of mental health expertise on the committee itself, I was told by administrators that it was a “Great question.” Once again, students — particularly graduate students — find ourselves in spaces where we must beg for support for ourselves and our peers. Whether this support looks like more accessible and inclusive professional mental health services or simply more empathetic rhetoric and academic policies, I don’t think students are asking for a lot. 

Especially at the close of such a challenging year, graduate students shouldn’t be so tempted to list “Cornell” itself as one of the biggest obstacles towards our progress. 

Rebecca Harrison ’14 is a graduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected].Guest Rooms runs periodically throughout the semester.