Confronting the graduate student mental health crisis

This article, by Jon Bomar of the University of Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on May 7, 2019.

In this April 30, 2018 file photo, striking teaching assistants protest on the Columbia University campus in New York. Graduate students at the university are on strike to protest the school’s refusal to negotiate with their newly formed union. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

With the debut of the first ever image of a black hole, the public eye has focused on the incredible work by Dr. Katie Bouman, a former graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which led to the capture.

This is the dream for many graduate students across the country: making the decision to continue the pursuit of education, stemming from a desire to make a positive impact on the world. Occasionally, this dream materializes in one way or another. More often, the reality of graduate school is a much different picture.

In reality, about half of all doctoral students never complete their degrees.

Two months prior to the black hole image, an engineering PhD student in his fifth year of study at Stanford University took his own life. A month later, another Stanford University graduate student, and former U.S. Olympian, made the same choice.

Research shows that 1 in 10 graduate students experience suicidal thoughts. Nationwide, upticks in mental health issues among graduate students has been deemed a crisis and contributes largely to burnout.

Some contributing factors for the graduate student mental health crisis include:

The expectation that students should be miserable. A common belief is that if you don’t at times regret your decision to pursue graduate education, you aren’t working hard enough. Students also grapple with imposter syndrome, economic hardship, time exploitation by university employers and an overarching sense of dread related to post-graduate job-seeking in an increasingly competitive market and under the pressure of impending student loan repayment.

A lack of support for developing positive mentor relationships. Universities and advisory agencies are beginning to look more closely at this relationship and offer recommendations for how to support developing effective mentorship. The proposed recommendations could lead to key policy changes in funding agencies and universities.

Financial stress. Graduate student stipends typically range from $13,000 to $34,000 per year, creating an extreme burden. While some may imply this means students are paid to attend school, when closely examined, their role on campus more closely aligns with university employees. Graduate students teach classes, conduct key recruitment enhancing research and work in critical offices, which support the function of their universities.

Recent research has shown that over half of graduate students stress about their finances, with over one-third of them unsure if they can meet month-to-month needs. These students serve key functions within their universities, so it would not be extraordinary to demand adequate compensation, such as employment benefits. However, when faced with a budget crunch, many universities look to their graduate student populations when they need to balance the books.

Here are areas for advocacy:

Support student-centric policy at all levels such as federal legislation, university policy and universal practices. Federal dollars should go only to institutions that can demonstrate evidence of their commitment to effective mentorship training.

The Higher Education Act of 1965, which governs higher education in the United States, is up for reauthorization this year. Now is the time for members of Congress to seek provisions to address the many problems within our graduate schools that are contributing to low graduation rates in the post-undergraduate student population.

Graduate students want to improve the structure, function, and efficiency of business, industry, local economy, states and nation. They are workers, teachers, colleagues, neighbors and future employees. They are parents who raise children with scant funds and resources, struggling against prevailing societal attitudes that parents, especially mothers, must prove themselves capable of being more than just a parent. They are international students separated from their families by thousands of miles, individually facing anything from uncertainty in immigration policy to hate crimes.

Graduate students are the new generation of scientists, educators, and leaders that will inform the next generation and work to advance our world into the new century. With higher degrees increasingly demanded by employers, it is important for universities to comprehensively support the success of their graduate students by creating strategic plans to combat the issues facing this population.

Jon Bomar is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit

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