Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.

If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Graduate School

For grad students and postdocs, mental health begins with faculty

Want to solve the mental health crisis among grad students and postdocs? Start with faculty

by Jen Heemstra
June 4, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 23


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock
It's healthy to seek help.

I would like to raise mental health awareness among faculty members within my department. I think there is generally a lack of awareness and advocacy for student mental health, particularly for graduate students. I would like to ask if you have specific advice on what I can do as a faculty member and what obstacles I should anticipate.—Anonymous assistant professor

A mental health crisis exists among students and postdocs. As faculty, we are often the first responders in this crisis, and there is much we can do to provide support and help individuals seek out treatment when needed. But before we get to that, we need to talk about something else, and this column will be the first in a two-part series aimed at addressing this crisis.

If someone is drowning, who should they look to for help? Someone else who is drowning? Of course not. They should look to the person who has made it out of the water and knows where to find the life preserver. Same goes for the mental health crisis. As faculty, we can’t be of much help to students struggling with their mental health if we’re not taking care of our own. After all, how can we serve as effective mentors and teachers if we don’t have the emotional bandwidth to meet our own needs? How can we expect students and postdocs to practice good self-care and seek out help when they need it if we don’t or if we’re afraid to admit that we do?

It’s good that we talk about student and postdoc mental health, but we also need to talk about faculty mental health. Let’s face it, being a professor self-selects for people who have very high expectations for themselves and obsess over their craft, and it places them in an environment where failure is the norm and isolation is the default. We are perfectly primed to struggle with stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression. What can we do about this? Talking about it helps, and we also need to change the culture to value self-care and destigmatize seeking professional help.

Let’s tackle self-care first. We spend a lot of time discussing how much we work and how little we sleep. Could it be that we do this because we think that everyone else around us is working harder than us, and that thought breeds insecurity? If that’s the case, then this response creates a self-reinforcing cycle that quickly spirals out of control. What if we intentionally shifted our conversations to talk more about what we do when we’re not working—the concert we went to last night, the yoga class we’re going to this afternoon, the family vacation planned for next month? Sometimes my schedule makes it such that the only time I can get out for a run is during the workday. I used to surreptitiously change into my running clothes and then bolt for the door, hoping to make it outside without anyone seeing me and thinking I was slacking on work. That’s ridiculous. I should feel comfortable managing my time how I see best and feel proud—not ashamed—of modeling good self-care for my lab members.

And then there’s the topic of seeing a counselor, therapist, or other mental health professional. While students and postdocs are becoming increasingly open about this, a much larger stigma remains for faculty. We hold a view that seeking help means we’re weak, and if we’re weak, then we don’t belong in leadership positions. I’d argue that we need to embrace the opposite mind-set. It’s hard to believe that any faculty member is immune from stress and burnout, and many will also face depression or anxiety. Everyone struggles, and the people who have the self-awareness to recognize they need help and the courage to seek it out are exactly the type of people we want in positions of leadership. I personally have found value in the ability of a counselor to recenter my perspective and help me manage stress productively, which makes me more effective at work and a more enjoyable person to be around.

So how do we change the culture to encourage more discussion about mental health and self-care? It can feel daunting to think about changing an entire culture, but our culture is just made up of all the things that we think, say, and do. We can join together and recognize that we have a problem, start talking openly about it, and decide that taking care of ourselves is something that we value. It’s only when we get this right for ourselves that we’ll be prepared to help our students and postdocs. Stay tuned for more on that topic next month.

Jen Heemstra is an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Jotie Saini (June 4, 2019 6:51 PM)
I agree with some aspects what that author has written about in terms that professors themselves may have been or currently be in the same boat as the graduate students/postdocs with mental health issues. Unfortunately, seeking help for mental health issues is still stigmatized, and often to an escalated degree in intellectual settings where the fear of people knowing hinders the will to seek help. More awareness needs to be raised about these issues and faculty, students and researchers need to be made comfortable with the idea of taking that step to address their metal health. However, I feel that the author left out the major cause cure for depression and anxiety in graduate students and postdocs. Most of them are under a tremendous amount of pressure from their advisors or faculty, which many times borders abuse and harassment. While there are amazing mentors and advisors in faculty around the world, it is not uncommon to have some that run their labs with fear and intimidation, and treat their students and postdocs as cheap labor. The author mentions activities outside of work hours but there are numerous grad students and postdocs who have to spend late nights in labs and are expected to answer their phones and emails, often with more assignments to follow up, at all hours of day and night. Most of the times, such abuse is unreported due to the fear of retaliation since normal HR rules don't always apply when it comes to academic labs. I believe, in order to address mental health issues in students and postdocs, we need to gather knowledge about what the grad students and postdocs are experiencing because while many points the author touches upon may be contributing factors to depression and anxiety among students and postdocs, the major underlying cause is the way they are treated.
Laurie Gower (June 5, 2019 12:41 PM)
I'm not trying to make excuses for abusive faculty, but I imagine that a solution to the grad/postdoc stress also relates to this article, because if there was less pressure on faculty, then they most likely wouldn't be so demanding on their students. In addition, because we faculty know how challenging the job market is, we push the students to get all those pubs they are going to need to get the type of job they want to pursue. If that is an academic path, they need a paper in a high impact journal. Sadly, these days that cannot be obtained from just a doctoral students work; it seems to require a collaborative team of about 20 co-authors. In any case, while I think open discussion about these things is desirable, I know from experience there is likely to be some backlash, so I wouldn't recommend it.
Fenton Heirtzler (June 5, 2019 11:26 AM)
Dr. Heemstra,

My first reaction to the topic of your article is to punch a wall and afterwards jump off of a bridge..There are far, FAR more PhD-level chemists who are unemployed than there are stressed out tenure track university faculty. What about their mental health?* What about the sea of gig-professor-lecturers who are hoping to somehow ascend above being adjuncts and “visiting” professors?** I will claim that most of them see little purpose in ACS membership.

*”CJ” banned me from his blog after I accidentally learned his real name.

*Until Organic Chemistry was de-structured from my employer’s remit, I was assistant professor. I invite you to confirm this with my former colleagues. Subsequent job applications for both academic and industrial jobs were 95% ignored.

Dr. F. Heirtzler
Steve Carlo (June 22, 2019 8:48 PM)
I believe the problem is only partly the expectations placed on assistant professors...the other part is they are typically very focused, have almost no people skills, certainly minimal empathy and EQ, have no managerial skills, or mentoring ability. They are also typically the source of grad student and post doc stress as they don’t care about *you* just their next grant.

When I sought help and advice from the university health center they asked me why I didn’t “just” switch to another advisor (4th year student); the ombudsman admitted my advisor hadn’t acted very nicely (in threatening me) and suggested maybe I wasn’t suited for graduate school.
Helen (June 30, 2019 8:55 PM)
This is horrifying. And, unfortunately, all too true. I am very sorry that this happened to you.
I had a similar experience when I was a post doc. Fortunately, mine was not a university health center. I decided on the spot that if this dude's 5-minute diagnosis what that I needed a career change, I would need a treating physician change.

It is generally true that mental health is much less stigmatized than it was when I was in grad school. But that does not mean that there are not seriously destructive pockets of stigma. its is irresponsible to think otherwise.
Helen (June 30, 2019 8:52 PM)
"We hold a view that seeking help means we’re weak, and if we’re weak, then we don’t belong in leadership positions."

I do not hold this view. The reason that I have not talked about my mental health, my therapist, my diagnosis, or my medications is not because I think it means I am weak, or I think it meas that I don't belong in a leadership position. I don't talk about it because *others*, including others who have a say in whether or not I advance to the next level, think that. And, dare I say, it's a good bet that some students think this. So there is absolutely no way in hell that I will ever disclose any of this to students, out of fear for how this would be portrayed when I make an unpopular decision. Yes, I know that they say those things anyway, and they say them about my other female colleagues who make unpopular decisions. I just choose not to give them ammunition.

But now that I am a full Professor, and I no longer have a small child, I find that I have much more control over my wellness. I get around 7 hours of sleep each night, I exercise every single day, I don't eat crap (otherwise known as refined carbohydrates), and I limit my alcohol intake. I talk about this openly and freely. Nobody thinks I am weak for not behaving like a drunken fool in front of my colleagues and students. Nobody thinks I don't belong because I skip dessert. Nobody thinks I am unqualified for leadership because I am at the gym at 5 AM. In fact, people pretty much think I am a badass.

That being said, I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten where I am now without all the stress and sleepless nights and weight gain. I'm not saying such things are necessary. I'm saying that, imperfect as they are, they were for me coping mechanisms to the enormously stressful career path that I chose.

So please forgive me if I don't go around advertising that I have been in therapy for most of my adult life or that I was at various times on Lithium or Bupropion or Trileptal. I prefer to talk about, and model, the importance of sleep, diet, exercize, and moderation of alcohol for being at the top of my game and being relatively happy.
KC (July 7, 2019 12:58 PM)
I found this article to be very insightful. To be brief, I'd like to not go into detail about my experience other than to say that my mentor refused to mentor me which contributed to feelings of insecurity. I will say that this didnt happen in academia but in my work life. I'm glad that there are articles now addressing mental health to destigmatize the issue. This is normal for everyone, and it helps to know that I'm not alone in this. Striving for perfection is not a battle that one can win. One should strive for acceptance and be one's own approval in individual abilities.
Frank (August 7, 2019 3:16 PM)
The sediment expressed by the author is perhaps as it should be.

My major professor was a wonderful man and we worked on projects to together for a least a couple of decades after graduation. In my career, I met a select few that were great scientists and human beings. (The two do not always go together.)

I also knew other professors who were nasty individuals eager to find an excuse to make life miserable for students. Some of these professors had serious mental health issues. One these came to my defense just to heckle me and had to be removed forcibly by the committee. From these individuals, I learned to be tough and stick by my position when I was sure (a sure as possible, anyway) i was scientifically or ethically correct. Yes there was pain, but I was prepared.

Leave A Comment

*Required to comment