Climate survey catalyzes conversations about graduate student support, well-being

By Meghan Chua
The Graduate School

Eight students sit on a half wall that says "Chemistry"
Chemistry graduate students on the climate survey team (from left to right): Margaret Lumley, Lydia Manger, Nicole Thomas, Maddy Beasley, Trisha Tucholski, Rebeca Fernandez, Lauren Whitmire, and Tesia Janicki.

As the conversation about mental health and well-being during graduate school grows nationally, graduate students at UW–Madison are leading a charge to make talking about department climate and mental health the norm.

A climate survey in the Department of Chemistry at UW–Madison is improving support for graduate students and postdocs in the department, due to leadership from graduate students with the backing of faculty, staff, and campus mental health professionals.

Broadly, the student team’s work administering and sharing results from the survey within their department has made it clear that it’s OK to talk about mental health and other challenges that graduate students face, said PhD student Tesia Janicki.

“One of the most powerful outcomes of the survey was the initiation of conversations,” Janicki said. “Having this kind of communication among students, among faculty and staff, has opened the door for a more open work environment, to be able to comb over those issues in a much more organic and non-intrusive way.”

A paper detailing the survey process and questions is available online, soon to be published in the Journal of Chemical Education.

The most recent survey, conducted in 2017, covered topics like mental health, mentoring, work-life balance, and research practices. It asked about weaknesses in the department that could improve, but also asked about the strengths that students see in the department – often, support from their lab mates. A department seminar where the climate survey team shared the results was one of the most widely attended seminars that year.

The Department of Chemistry has administered climate surveys in the past, but the recent surveys have been more transparent and students have been more involved, said department chair Judith Burstyn. Transparency about the results and follow-up to challenges the survey uncovers are both key in making a climate survey successful.

“If you do climate surveys without an intention to share and be open about the results, you create more damage than you solve,” Burstyn said.

Informed by the climate surveys, the Department of Chemistry has increased programming for students about mental health and the resources available on campus. A staff member from University Health Services visits the department every other week to offer informal, confidential drop-in hours where students can discuss concerns about mental health and wellbeing.

There is also a renewed focus on revising departmental procedures in ways that reduce stress for graduate students who are at points of transition, such as joining a lab group.

“It’s kind of impressive [to see] some of the stuff that’s happened as a result of letting the students get involved and do some of the driving,” Burstyn said. “The faculty were driven to work through those issues, in part because the students wanted them to happen.”

PhD student Rebeca Fernandez, who is a member of the climate survey team, said that the changes speak to how faculty want students to be happier and more productive.

“We have told them, this is what would make us better graduate students, and they listen and they do it,” Fernandez said.

As a relatively new graduate student in 2017, Fernandez had been surprised to see from the survey results that she wasn’t alone in wanting a clearer idea of faculty expectations in the lab.

To address that concern, the climate survey team developed a document template to clarify the faculty’s expectations, which the department encourages all labs to use. The team also recommended the use of Individual Development Plans to outline the students’ personal and professional goals. Now, as a more experienced grad student, Fernandez said those tools have helped her.

“It’s on the student to really take ownership of their career and of their PhD journey, whatever that may be. But it’s also on the faculty to check in and make sure that they are accomplishing what they said they would, and what is the best way to do that,” she said.

The students hope that other students and postdocs will take the initiative to develop more strategies, such as regular forums on mental health, that can alleviate some of the stress associated with graduate school. They also underscored the importance of providing leadership opportunities to further increase student involvement.

Having students as leaders of the climate survey with faculty in the department supporting them is one of the main reasons their initiative has been so successful, Fernandez said.

“Part of the reason our department is [becoming] a more mentally healthy place is because of the involvement of our students,” Fernandez said. “If you are unhappy in a situation and you do something to change it, then odds are you will feel better about it and that you will be able to be more active in your communities.”

The climate surveys have seen high response rates, with over 50 percent of graduate students responding to each survey starting with 2015. Janicki said that’s far beyond the standard for email surveys.

Janicki hopes that the student-led, faculty-supported model of their survey will help inspire graduate students in other departments to know that they can do this, too. Some graduate students across UW–Madison’s campus have already reached out to the team to ask about their process.

“The fact that ours is really a ground-up kind of initiative is what sets this apart to say that grad students in other universities can set this up with the support of their department,” Janicki said.

Burstyn said that department leaders who want to support such an initiative need to recognize that dealing with the issues that can arise from climate surveys is not easy.

“One does not want to go into it with a naive assumption that it’s easy to resolve problems. You have to have more than just a willingness to engage; you actually have to do something to help support change. And that’s a pretty tricky place to be,” she said. “I think the worst thing you can do is to ask people to be honest, and then behave as if they didn’t tell you anything.”

As the student group continues issuing surveys, they hope to be able to compare results to identify growing strengths and areas for further improvement. They also want to be able to analyze aggregate data for underrepresented populations once there are enough results to protect the identities of those who have answered the survey.

“As we try to have more inclusion in STEM and in chemistry, it’s important to make sure that the resources that we provide are LGBTQ-friendly, diversity-friendly, and that we support everybody in a way that is specific to them,” Fernandez said.

She added that the team will always be working to improve both the survey and the department as they move forward each year.

“We’re all proud of our department and want it to get better and want it to evolve and be an excellent representation of a chemistry department,” she said.

Fernandez is supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (T32GM008505). Janicki’s work, which the survey is based upon, is supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (DGE-1747503).