Saturday, August 21, 2010

Stress and Graduate School

In the August issue of Wired magazine, there is an interesting article on stress titled "Under Pressure." The main point made in the article is that chronic stress contributes to health problems and can even have a negative impact on treatments, such as medication and surgery. When stressed, the body releases a group of stress hormones called glucocorticoids, which "rapidly increase levels of glucose in the blood, thus providing muscles with a burst of energy," and "also shut down all nonessential bodily processes, such as digestion and the immune response" (136). This is great when your being chased by a lion but can over time have a lot of negative effects. Chronic stress puts your body in a state of constant alertness.

The article also argues that status can impact levels of stress. The lower status a person is the more stress they experience. Research has shown that in organizations where employees have access to the same healthcare, the lower status employees will face more health problems than higher status employees; the mail clerk is more likely to have heart problems than the executive. The higher levels of stress experienced by lower status employees is based on what researchers call the "demand-control" model of stress; stress is related not only to the demands placed on an individual but also on the level of control an individual has to respond to the demands. Executives often report feeling high levels of stress because they are making decisions that affect a large number of people but they have a lot of control over what they do, much more than the date-entry employee who gets chewed about by his/her boss everyday and has to just do what he/she is told to do.

As I read this article, I started thinking about stress in graduate school. Being a graduate student is an interesting position in society. Pursuing an advanced degree is seen as high status in society but within the organization of most university departments, graduate students are at the bottom in terms of status. (It would be interesting to study stress levels of graduate students compared to university staff and student workers, who are the lowest status people employed at most universities). Graduate students are treated differently depending on the situation. As instructors, they are of higher status than their students but most still have a supervisor in charge of the course they teach. With faculty, some treat grad students as colleagues but grad students are still students in many situations.

Most of the grad students I know, including myself, would consider themselves to be at least somewhat stressed. Grad students have to balance the demands of being an instructor, researcher and student. All of these responsibilities offer varying levels of control.

As the researchers in the article found, control is sought by most people; people want to feel that they have some control over what happens in their lives. Research is probably the area grad students have the most control. While the thesis and dissertation can be intimidating projects, grad students are often eager to begin working on these projects because they signify a grad student's independent research, as opposed to doing something to fulfill a class requirement.

Many grad students also take control through ownership of the decision to pursue an advanced degree. Feeling that you chose to attend graduate school instead of being required to can help an individual feel a sense of control over their education and may help reduce stress. Related to this decision is the ability to leave. Because grad school isn't a requirement, many people feel a sense of control by recognizing that they could leave and find a job elsewhere. After finishing my Master's, I worked at a legal publishing company for a year or so before leaving to pursue my PhD. That decision to return to grad school has been one of the things that has helped me deal with stress; I experienced the corporate world and knew it wasn't for me and returned to academia.

Finally, a way many grad students deal with stress and gain a sense of control is through the common, but not much discussed, "bitch session." Go to any grad student office in this country and you will often find the occupants arguing over or debating university policy, course requirements, etc. What may be seen as nothing but whining and complaining from the outside I would argue is an attempt to gain some control over the grad student experience; the ability to talk about your situation with people in the same situation helps people feel some sense of control over what is going on in their lives. I know from experience that employees in corporations also take part in similar forms of talk. While they may not be able to do much to influence the policies and decisions made by higher-ups, grad students, and others, are able to exercise their freedom to talk about these decisions through these "bitch sessions." It's not surprising that cubicle workers are more likely to engage in this kind of discussion than the executives in the corner offices. I would argue that the "bitch session" is an important means for people to deal with the stress they experience.

These are just a few thoughts I had in response to the Wired article. I would love to hear from others about how you deal with stress.