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Depression afflicts almost half of STEM graduate students at UC Berkeley

Between 42% and 48% of University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D. students in science and engineering are depressed, according to data from a report released by the university’s Graduate Assembly. Science and engineering Ph.D. students also report minimal career optimism and academic engagement, according to additional analyses conducted by study author Galen Panger, who is a Ph.D. student at the UC Berkeley School of Information, in collaboration with Science Careers. On a somewhat more positive note, these science and engineering students report that their advisers are important career assets who have provided some positive mentorship.   

The report summarizes results from a survey completed by 790 graduate students in master’s degree programs, professional schools, and Ph.D. programs. “We designed it to speak to graduate students as a population because generally graduate students are an afterthought” on university campuses, where undergraduates are usually the focus, Panger says. “One of the high-level goals is to say, ‘Look, graduate students are different. … They’re not just older undergrads. They’re distinct, and they have distinct needs.’”

Our goal was really just to take a first step and say, ‘Graduate students have unique needs, and we need to expand the mental health conversation beyond mental illness and talk about everyone’s performance and everyone’s well-being.’

–Galen Panger

Because of this broad focus, there are limits on the extent to which the data can be used to investigate the differences in experiences between those in various programs. Nonetheless, the respondents included 526 Ph.D. students, roughly half of which are in science or engineering; their responses hint at some interesting results specific to students in the sciences.

On average, science and engineering students reported only slight agreement with the statement, “I’m upbeat about my post-graduate career prospects.” Responding on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 corresponding to “strongly disagree,” 4 to “neither agree nor disagree,” and 7 to “strongly agree,” the average response value was 4.5. They also reported only slight disagreement with the statement that “I’m not very engaged by my day-to-day work.” The scale for this question was reversed, with 1 corresponding to “strongly agree” and 7 to “strongly disagree;” the average response value was 4.4. For comparison, the average response to this question from nonscience Ph.D. students was 4.9, indicating somewhat more intellectual engagement.

Regarding their lab heads, science students on average agree—though somewhat weakly—that these advisers are “an asset to my academic and professional career.” These students also “slightly agree” that their advisers are “a real mentor to me.” The average response values were 5.6 regarding adviser as career asset and 4.8 regarding adviser mentorship.

Finally, the data suggest some possible differences between disciplines within the sciences, although the response numbers are quite low and more data needs to be collected to confirm these preliminary findings. With that caveat in mind, students in the biological sciences appear to be faring more poorly than those in the physical sciences and engineering: Their average depression score is slightly higher, and their career optimism score is lower (4.1 versus 4.7). Biological science students also appear to be more worried about money than the rest of their science classmates, as indicated by their responses to questions about whether they are “confident about my financial situation” and “concerned about money lately”—although they still scored better than their nonscientist counterparts on both of these questions.  

Although these data are limited to a single campus, Panger believes that some of the findings would be replicated if the survey were conducted elsewhere—and he hopes others will test that prediction by implementing the survey at their own campuses. “We really want people to build off our work,” Panger says. To that end, the full survey is included in the report for others to adapt and implement at their own institutions.

“This is not just Berkeley hand-waving stuff. Thirty years of academic research has gone into showing that happiness, apart from being valuable in its own right, is critical for performance on so many levels. … This couldn’t be more true for graduate students. Graduate school requires a long-term goal pursuit that people who are well and happy are best positioned to do. … Our goal was really just to take a first step and say, ‘Graduate students have unique needs, and we need to expand the mental health conversation beyond mental illness and talk about everyone’s performance and everyone’s well-being.’”

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