Supervisor Perspectives: Realistic Advice, Peer Support, and Career Options

One of our goals here at the AMHC is to provide resources to help those who support graduate students. We’ve published several articles about how fellow graduate students can be allies and support their struggling peers. But what is the role of the faculty supervisor?

In a series of upcoming posts, AHMC will share brief written interviews with faculty. We hope that this part of our website will become an important resource for faculty who are seeking to provide effective mental health support to their students. In our first interview, we speak with Dr. Winnifred Louis of the University of Queensland. 

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How common or uncommon has it been, in your experience, to see grad students who might be struggling with a mental illness or psychological vulnerability whilst working through their Masters/PhD degrees

It’s very common.  I think anxiety in particular is widespread among graduate students especially because of the job market and competitiveness of academia.  And as with so much in academia, it’s a challenge that faculty supervisors meet without much specific training.  Advisers are experts in their content areas, not necessarily in supporting PhD students with mental health challenges.

What has been your approach in guiding such students? 

There are many, many points to address and I think seeking mentoring from other academics on this topic is wise for any new supervisor early in the piece.  To pick three, focusing on anxiety:

First, at the selection phase, I think that it is important to communicate early realistic advice about the stressfulness and difficulty of doing a PhD. Emphasizing the unstructured nature of the work, the high rate of rejection and negative feedback — especially compared to those reassuring strings of As in undergrad – all this is important in my view. So too is communicating the extreme difficulty of getting an academic job. Having this information is vital in helping students to make a decision about what is best for them.

During the first year, PhD students typically experience a high rate of self-doubt and confusion, and this transition can hit those with anxiety particularly hard. I think a lot of structured mentoring about unstructured work is very important, particularly peer mentoring.  This applies especially to programs like ours in Australia where there is no coursework, and students can be really unsure about standards and expectations.  My experience over the last 15 years is that getting students in a room can help a lot: establishing some clear messages from yourself and the other students about what it looks like to be “good enough” – what the aims should be for the first few weeks, months, and year.  And normalizing the negative emotions and anxieties – encouraging people to share, seek support, and set boundaries with the job for self-care.  Being explicit that it’s good to have psychological support is really important.  Of course it’s possible that some students would be too competitive with each other, too fearful of academic judgement, or perhaps too ignorant of mental health issues themselves to provide validation and support.  However, my experience is that with the leadership of the academic / faculty member (who would be setting some positive norms around mutual support in the lab and giving some clear de-stigmatising messages), a safe environment can be established.

pexels-photo-30342
A silhouette in black and white shows a group of students sitting down on chairs in front of a large window.

Finally, a particular challenge is the middle/end of the PhD where someone is not on track (e.g., publications) to get an academic job and they start to see that horizon coming towards them.  I think a frank conversation about the 18 months out mark (depending on the student) can really help to orient students to what other options are: teaching-focused universities, leaving academia, etc.  To have this happen can be disappointing for anyone, but it is an extreme mental challenge for anxious students especially.  I think a lot of advisors would shirk from giving clear feedback hoping that the student will figure it out on their own, but in my experience this can backfire, with the student wildly procrastinating on their PhD (perhaps due to being immobilized by anxiety) and experiencing a breakdown.  So, while it can be a difficult conversation to have, the alternative of avoiding clear feedback may be even more detrimental to the student.

It can in fact be the best option to protect your mental health and family time.

Part of facilitating this conversation is to communicate throughout the PhD that leaving academia is an option – that it can in fact be the best option to protect your mental health and family time, depending on the individual!  And the question for advisors is where else their students can go – again, new advisors can ask around.  Depending on the city, stats consulting, government, and industry might all be options.  But it is genuinely tough to get a job outside academia (as it is inside academia, and for youth more generally) so it is important to be supportive without being glib.

The early message is important because a student who is aiming outside a research-focused university may have a different path for the final 18 months – for example, there could be a new emphasis about seeking to work with community groups; to give talks to industry; to reach out to former graduates who are working in the areas to network and get advice on what is missing from the non-academic CV.  Or the student may seek to develop a more intensive teaching profile, including guest lecturing or curriculum innovation, if aiming at teaching-focused jobs.  Waiting until the last few months to have the conversation means they miss out on those chances.  Plus, there is an erosion of trust if they think that the advisor is giving false hope.

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Winnifred R. Louis (PhD McGill, 2001) is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Queensland. Her research interests focus on the influence of identity and norms on social decision-making.

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