Grad school is hard on mental health. Here’s an antidote.

Posted on July 21st, 2017

I knew grad school would be difficult, but I was surprised to find one way in which I wanted to work harder: learning how to talk about science. I grew up seeing science misrepresented or misunderstood in the news and pop culture. I thought the relationship between science and society needed repair, and I saw scientists’ isolation as part of the problem. So I couldn’t believe that my Ph.D. program was willing to release me into the world without teaching me how to talk to people outside academe.

That’s why, when I joined Carnegie Mellon University as a graduate student in biology, I started a group called Public Communication for Researchers. My fellow graduate students Adona Iosif and Jesse Dunietz and I created the workshops we wanted to take. Over the past five years we’ve worked with more than 500 graduate students across STEM fields, hosted numerous speakers, and created a dozen workshops on science communication. Our initial goal was to learn how to explain our work, but I’m now convinced that this training has unexpected benefits for another challenge in higher education: our own mental health.

Grad students take a psychological beating. In a 2014 study, the University of California at Berkeley found that 47 percent of its Ph.D. students showed signs of depression. One of the main reasons cited was academic disengagement. Humans can be resilient through a great deal of stress, but it’s harder when working on abstract problems without clear indicators of progress — we lose perspective on why our work matters.

Science communication was my antidote because it reconnected me to motivation. The first thing we practiced was how to talk passionately about why we love research, what inspired us, what problem we’re obsessed with. The practicalities of biology sometimes look like drudgery, moving around a thousand drops of clear liquid. Seeing the big picture infused my day with magic: I was working on unsolved problems!

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