There’s probably one in your neighbourhood, one or two in your church, several in your favourite coffee shop. Grad students. You may know them as elusive studious creatures who smell faintly of pizza. You may also know from experience that you should never ask them, “what do you study?” Whether the response is stuttered stares or verbal diarrhea, you always regret it.
As much as you may struggle to find points of connection with the grad students in your life, the awkward interactions may be a symptom of larger problems in their life and the academic world. The late Dr. Ed VanKley, a History professor at Calvin College, once described grad school as “about as friendly as riding an elevator with a crowd of strangers.” The competitive nature of many graduate programs creates an environment in which productivity comes before personal health. A study published in Nature Biotechnology spanning 234 institutions in 26 countries found that grad students, both those in master’s and PhD programs, were six times more likely than the general population to experience anxiety and depression. The researchers found a close correlation between mental illness and poor supervisor-student relationships. Since these professors often hold power over reference letters, completion timelines, funding opportunities and job prospects, grad students who lacked their support felt especially hopeless.
Even grad students experiencing healthy supervisor relationships are at a high risk for mental health struggles. They may be facing the loneliness of living in a new city, publishing pressure, funding shortages, poor academic job prospects and large looming deadlines, all topped off with a heap of self-doubt, since everyone else seems smarter and faster.
How can churches, families and friends show more love when we encounter stressed-out grad students in our lives? To guide the conversation, here’s a report card for small talk with grad students:
Future plans foggy
“What are you going to do with that when you graduate?” (F)
We all know that life rarely moves as planned. Why pretend that grad students have their next career move down to a science? Asking this question with a judgemental tone will only water the seeds of doubt that have already sprung up in their minds. Grad students know most people are not hiring experts in cetacean procreation or ancient Chinese literature, but they are working on figuring out how their God-given curiosities fit into the larger questions that run this world.
Genuine interest welcome
“Your research sounds really specific/interesting/unique. What led you to this area of study?” (A+)
This question shows that you are listening and value their personhood. I studied girls who attended convent schools and became nuns in seventeenth-century France. You probably have very few connection points to that sentence. But if you asked me how I got to this topic, you would find out that I grew-up attending a Christian school and as a teenager, I felt called into fulltime ministry. I also love travel, so studying something pre-modern felt more exotic than recent history. This question opened at least a few conversation directions that take us away from the books and deep into our real lives.
“How is your thesis going?” (B-)
If this question is embedded in a longer conversation, it could show genuine interest. But if it is the first or only thing you ever ask the grad students in your life, they will probably avoid standing near you in the coffee line. Unfortunately, this is the exact question the student has to face every time they meet with their supervisor and it will likely throw them onto the defensive. Try these questions instead: How was your week? Have you been reading anything interesting lately? What parts of your research/writing/teaching do you find most energizing? Do you find you still have time for your hobbies now that you’re a grad student?
“When are you going to be done?” (C)
Grad school, unlike most educational programs, does not have a defined end date. Completion is entirely dependent on the success of research, clarity of data, efficiency of writing, and the decisions of advisory committees. “You can have weeks where experiments fail and it feels like you’ve accomplished nothing,” explains one Chemistry PhD student. “It’s hard to not take that as a reflection of you as a person.” We need to lend extra understanding and patience to grad students as they experience the stops and starts of their academic paths. Some months, they may disappear into the lab or library and check out of church life. At other times they are surprisingly available and eager to apply their skills to church ministries. Ask “what works best for you?” when looking for commitments and try to be flexible with last minute changes.
We need to challenge ourselves to look past what we do not understand about grad students’ research or career decisions and engage with them as valuable members of our churches, families and communities. Long-time campus chaplains and professors, Neil and Virginia Lettinga hope that “more churches would bluntly say to grad students that they are a beloved part of the community – even as they flutter in and out.” As we extend our patience, compassion and love, grad students will find that your presence is a welcome embrace next to the sometimes icy and often isolating ivory tower.
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