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The silent mental health crisis of engineering graduate students

Research on graduate-level engineering student mental health is vastly under-studied. University of Michigan researchers take a closer look at what has been researched and what still needs to be addressed.

Reports of mental health concerns have risen with an estimated one in three college students meeting criteria for a clinically significant mental health problem. 

University of Michigan Engineering Education Research Program Ph.D. Candidate, Sarah Jane Bork and her faculty advisor, U-M Industrial and Operations Engineering (IOE) Assistant Professor, Joi Mondisa examined the current literature surrounding the mental health of engineering graduate students and found several areas for improvement.

“This work provides a synthesis that helps clarify the need for additional research and practices that support the mental health of engineering graduate students,” said Mondisa.

Overlooking graduate students

“Engineering graduate students’ are less likely to seek help than their peers which can severely impact the length and severity of their mental health problems,” said Bork.

Graduate students from a variety of fields are six times more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as non-students their age. On top of this, engineering graduate students are less likely to ask for help concerning mental health problems despite over 25 percent of students meeting the criteria for self-reported mental health problems. 

“Understanding why that is can help us develop targeted interventions,” said Bork. “This in turn can bring about policies that promote positive mental health experiences that can be translated to other groups outside of engineering graduate students in hopes to bring about larger systemic changes.” 

The process

To analyze current research, Bork and Mondisa identified 4,826 unique studies about mental health in college-aged individuals. After screening the studies for mentions of items such as; engineering, graduate-level, peer-reviewed, U.S. students, etc., they were able to identify 19 studies on mental health research in U.S. graduate-level engineering students.

Bork and Mondisa then analyzed the 19 papers and sorted the findings into five key themes: Social support and sense of belonging, student–advisor relationship, cultural barriers faced by international students, gender and racial stereotypes, and generalized findings.

What they found

Bork and Mondisa discovered that research about engineering graduate student mental health is limited, varies greatly and needs more exploration into the racialized, gendered and intersectional experiences of various populations. Here are their key findings:

  • Graduate-level students perceived going to faculty for support as a last resort. Students dissatisfied with their advisors attributed this to misalignment in research interests, advising/communication styles, expected work-life balance, anticipated financial support and expected encouragement.
  • Women had higher levels of distress, even though there were no differences in academic performance. Researchers hypothesize this could be due to their lower self-evaluations.
  • Minoritized students in engineering faced additional barriers in their studies, from assumptions of intellectual inferiority to discrimination. 
  • Black students often felt that they were unwanted in engineering communities. Students commented on the lack of support available to their specific lived-experiences compared to their peers and instances of feeling othered, often attributed to the small numbers of Black students and faculty in academia.
  • International graduate-level students were less likely to know about or access mental health resources compared to domestic students. However, international students’ reports on their mental health problems are on par with domestic student rates.
  • Studies found that having faculty with shared identities helped students come forward with experiences of sexual assault or harassment. Studies strongly suggested that a positive student advisor relationship could be more beneficial to student success than other measures.
  • No study reported on help-seeking behaviors or suicidal ideation/attempts even though suicidal ideation has nearly doubled during the last decade in college-aged individuals. 

Student and advisor relationships are essential to student success

Arguably, one the most important findings by Bork and Mondisa was that a student’s relationship with their advisor greatly influenced academic outcomes, including students’ intentions to persist, publication rates and post-graduation career intentions.

“Establishing a psychologically healthy relationship with your advisor is central to a graduate student’s success. This requires good intentions, trust, respect, and healthy communication on both sides. However, many students and faculty are not provided with tools or resources to successfully navigate this relationship.”

Sarah Jane Bork

Moving forward

Bork and Mondisa found that there is a significant need for further research in mental health. They hope that researchers use their literature review as a resource and a starting point to begin developing a consistent framework and language for discussing and studying mental health in engineering education.

“We hope that all stakeholders take this work as a call to action,” said Bork. “We need to strengthen relationships across the many disciplines and stakeholders of this work. This can foster much needed communication on norms and best practices to help not only engineering graduate students, but all students.”

This research was funded in part by the University of Michigan’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) Program. To read the full paper please visit the Journal of Engineering Education.