By Mason Braasch and Caroline Cole
The Department of Chemistry at UW–Madison is a leader in the country for undergraduate education, graduate research, and teaching programs. However, with success comes hard work, and hard work can have mental health impacts.
“Nationwide statistics indicate that graduate students are at a higher risk for exhibiting symptoms of mental health disorders than the general population,” said Tesia Janicki, a co-leader of the 2019 climate survey. “This is certainly true for UW–Madison, as well as chemistry – one of the largest chemistry Ph.D. programs.”
To combat this cycle, the Graduate Student Faculty Liaison Committee’s (GSFLC) Climate Survey Team (CST) implemented the third iteration of its biennial climate survey. Through the survey, they probe graduate students’ and postdocs’ attitudes regarding stress, mental health and the department’s work environment.
“We chose questions that we thought would encompass the graduate student experience,” Rebeca Fernandez, a co-leader of the 2019 climate survey, said. The four main themes that arose from the responses were clarity of advisor/PI expectations, mentorship, diversity and bias, and teaching.
In 2017, the survey was revised by an eight-person team to ask about both the negative and positive aspects of the department in contrast to the prior survey to ensure more accurate results. The 2019 survey was revised to encompass feedback received for the 2017 survey.
“We paid special attention to the dynamic between PIs and postdocs, PIs and students, and the demographics,” Janicki said. “The demographics are important for us so we can understand how different groups, especially minoritized populations in the STEM field including women, BIPOC, LGBTQ, may feel in our department in comparison to the majority population.”
The survey conclusions support requests to implement solutions to common graduate program problems seen in the UW–Madison Department of Chemistry. For example, the conclusions demonstrated a variability in graduate student experience dependent on one’s identity, which can be addressed by providing documents with detailed expectations for each PI’s research environment and group dynamics. Although this is not a department requirement, the survey hopes to encourage PIs to create such a document for their groups. The findings also brought increased awareness to the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, as those who identify with historically marginalized groups may find some mentorship styles and support structures less effective.
The CST’s survey has gone beyond the Department of Chemistry and inspired other departments on and off campus to initiate their own surveys.
“Our graduate students are amazing,” said Judith Burstyn, department chair. “They talked to other departments and to graduate school leaders. They published their work and they also shared their survey with people around the country who want to emulate what they have done – I think that level of hard work and influence is impressive.”