Guest post: Suggestions from a Wellness Counselor on Coronavirus and Managing Mental Health

Kate Hagadone is the Wellness Counselor at Michigan Medical School’s Office of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies (OGPS). She sent the information in this post to an OGPS listserv at the end of last week. I thought the information would be of interest to lots more folks, so, with her permission, am reproducing her email here:

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Some Advice for PhD Students and Their Mentors in the Time of Coronavirus

This blog post started as an email conversation between Dana Turjeman and Meghan Duffy. Dana turned her initial outline into a twitter thread (starting here). We decided it would be fun (and hopefully helpful!) to turn this into a blog post that expands on these ideas. So, here are the perspectives of a PhD student and a faculty member who are trying to figure out how to maintain mental health and also hopefully some productivity, but that definitely comes second to physical & mental health while social distancing.

First, this assumes that you are not going about your normal routine, but, rather, trying to stay home as much as possible. This is strongly encouraged! If you aren’t sure of why, please read this.

Here’s our advice:

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Productivity, planning, and self-care: work-life balance requires planning ahead

As I’ve done work related to Michigan’s Grad Student Mental Health task force, and done my own “regular” work this semester, I’ve realized that discussions related to self-care and work/life balance often focus on things like making sure you get enough sleep or leaving time to go for a run or do yoga or things like that, but they leave out something important: if you want to do all those things (and I think they’re extremely important) and still submit manuscripts and proposals with deadlines, get feedback to lab folks in a timely manner, etc., you need to plan ahead. 

I’d been thinking about this for a while, but then had a really great conversation with a colleague about this that led to me coming up with this framework:

Top axis is "work-life balance/self care", right axis is "Plan ahead?" and left axis is "highly deadline motivated"

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Graduate student mental health at Michigan: some key factors & potential things to address

As I’ve written about before, I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. We started our work last summer, and have spent the past several months especially focused on identifying needs. This was done by evaluating what others have found; in one-on-one conversations with graduate students, mentors, and mental health professionals; and by hosting a couple of town halls. This post summarizes the major themes that emerged out of these conversations.

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On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

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Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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Cohort-based mentoring for graduate students: a “bright spot” worth emulating?

I recently learned about an approach to mentoring that I think has a lot of potential. My initial conversations with others suggests they think it has promise, too. The goal of this post is both to share the idea and to (hopefully!) hear from people with experience with this approach.

Here’s the general idea: some larger graduate programs at Michigan use an approach where each cohort is assigned a mentor. So, there is one mentor for all of the first year students, a different one for all of the second year students, etc. That person is an additional resource for those students – someone who they can turn to for advice. They also host regular events (I think maybe ~monthly) for the cohort, which helps them develop skills, explore different topics, and crucially, helps build community.*

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On getting—and giving—well-meaning but bad advice

Listen to other people’s advice, but that doesn’t mean you should follow it.

– Janet Currie, as quoted in Air & Light & Time & Space by Helen Sword

When I was thinking about coming up for promotion to full professor, I asked some senior colleagues whether they thought it would make sense. Two senior colleagues independently said that, while they thought I was definitely deserving of promotion, they were worried that I hadn’t done enough teaching at Michigan; they thought that might cause problems for promotion. I had actually taught somewhat more than I should have, but had had several leaves, including based on having two children at Michigan. These colleagues were concerned that those gaps in my teaching record might cause problems for promotion. I decided to come up for promotion anyway—I felt confident I could write a strong teaching statement. I was promoted…and got a teaching award as part of the process.

I truly think my colleagues had my best interests in mind when they gave the advice—they have been incredibly strong advocates for women in science. (Indeed, they have surely contributed to a climate and culture that has allowed me to be successful.) But, in my case, following their advice would have led to me postponing a promotion, which would have meant postponing the raise & other benefits that come with it. As one example of the latter—I don’t think I would have been able to do some of the things I’ve done this past year related to grad student mental health without being at the full professor rank.

In the past few months, I’ve shared this story a couple of times, using it as an anecdote about how some people mean well but end up giving advice that isn’t in the best interests of the advisee. Now, based on the results of the poll we did on listing parental & other leaves on CVs, I’m realizing that I have probably* been doing the same thing. I have been advising people not to list parental leave on CVs. I didn’t have direct evidence of listing leaves on a CV being used against anyone, but was focusing on the downsides (we know some people doubt whether moms will really be committed to their work) and not on potential upsides (that committee members might productively use that information).

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What do you most think you should know but don’t?

I recently attended an event related to graduate student mental health. One point of emphasis was imposter syndrome (something I’ve blogged about before), and one thing the presenter stated was that it’s important to remind ourselves that it’s okay not to know what we’re doing. As a strategy for doing that, he suggested listing what you most think you should know but don’t. I thought this was an interesting idea, and thought it would be interesting to think about this question in three different areas:

  1. a specific area of ecology
  2. something that relates to my professional life but isn’t a content-related thing, and
  3. something outside my professional life.

I then wrote Brian & Jeremy who were on board with thinking about those questions, too, leading to this post. Read on to see what we think we should know but don’t, and please tell us what your responses are in the comments! Continue reading