In 2014, the legislative body representing graduate students at University of California, Berkeley, launched a research project to investigate the major influences on graduate student well-being. They surveyed 790 graduate students, and the results were quite unexpected. For students, the key determinant to well-being, depression and life satisfaction rested with their beliefs about their career prospects. As one student described it, “The largest source of anxiety for me is my job outlook. It is tremendously uncertain and thus fear-inducing.” The situation only worsened from master’s to PhD students, with the latter feeling “less upbeat about their career prospects” and less supported by resources they felt were necessary for their long-term success.
A global survey of over 5,700 doctoral students mirrored Berkeley’s findings. Nature Biotechnology researchers reported that while 55 percent of respondents ranked their career path as their top concern, many said they lacked clarity with respect to their career aspirations. Only 15 percent of respondents said that they found career resources at their institution helpful for their development.
Perception is everything
Summarizing the research, these surveys suggest that the higher the degree level, the higher the student anxiety and the lower the perceived support around career development. The data makes one aspect of this conundrum perfectly clear: student support, wellness and success may not be based on the actual availability of resources and opportunities, but rather students’ perceptions of what is possible and available. Resources differ from campus to campus, and sometimes even from faculty to faculty within a university. Considering the variable and uncertain career support landscape for graduate schools, it isn’t surprising that much of students’ actual well-being is based on their perceptions. Real service options are often difficult to find and even more complex to navigate for students and their supervisors.
The power of belief
According to the Nature Biotechnology survey, 50 percent of graduate students perceive that their supervisor is open to having a career conversation about options within academia or beyond. This means that half of all graduate students believe that their supervisor is not open to having a conversation. The study did not examine how many students actually engaged their supervisors in career conversations, or whether their feelings about their supervisors’ openness to such conversations were correct.
These studies point to the power of belief. For graduate students, their perceptions of opportunity, support and acceptance influence not only their actions, but also their wellness and life satisfaction. Students’ beliefs have a real and lasting impact, regardless of whether those beliefs prove true or false. Graduate students could have tremendous support available to them on a given campus or in a specific program, but if they do not perceive its value and availability, they will not necessarily take action or seek out those resources.
What can be done?
If graduate students will not necessarily seek out assistance unless or until they believe in the value and availability of the services that are accessible to them, then the burden falls on faculty members. Supervisors and graduate program chairs need to openly endorse the services available to their students and encourage the use of campus resources. Encouragement includes sharing information about accessible resources, releasing students from research obligations to attend training workshops, and even participating as mentors when approached. Initiate non-judgmental career conversations with graduate students. Merely letting them know that all career paths are valid, and can benefit from a graduate degree, will go a long way to making students feel accepted and appreciated.
Faculty have the closest relationships with their graduate students, spend the most time with them, and have the greatest potential for influence and mentorship. By virtue of this proximity, faculty members are likely in the best position to open the dialogue and facilitate connections between staff and graduate students. However, the burden for providing career advice doesn’t and shouldn’t rest solely on faculty members. Graduate, career and student affairs staff should lend their expertise and can offer faculty scripts for initiating conversations, as well as provide training for new faculty supervisors and follow-up with one-on-one student consultations.
By working together, faculty members, graduate students and staff can overcome the barriers created by students’ perceptions in order to facilitate critical career conversations, increase student wellness, and set graduates up for long-term success and life satisfaction.
Lisa Dyce is a student educational developer and student partner with the Paul R. MacPherson Institute for Leadership, Innovation, and Excellence in Teaching at McMaster University. Catherine Maybrey is the career integration specialist at McMaster in the faculty of science, and the owner of CM Coaching Services.