Supervisor Perspectives: Check-Ins, Listening, and Establishing Structure

One of our goals here at the AMHC is to provide resources to help those who support graduate students. We’ve published several articles about how fellow graduate students can be allies and support their struggling peers. But what is the role of the faculty supervisor?

In a series of upcoming posts, AHMC will share brief written interviews with faculty. We hope that this part of our website will become an important resource for faculty who are seeking to provide effective mental health support to their students. In this interview, we speak with Dr. Rosemary Joyce at the University of California, Berkeley.

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How common or uncommon has it been, in your experience, to see grad students struggling with a mental illness or psychological vulnerability? How do you go about identifying students with mental health vulnerabilities?

I see all students struggling with challenges that exist beyond research and writing. I try to restrain myself from guessing whether individual students have specific mental health conditions – I’m not trained to diagnose symptoms of mental illness, and the chance of my own implicit biases leading me to misrecognize behaviours as symptoms is too high.

But for all students, an important signal I have come to be alert to is disengagement.

But for all students, an important signal I have come to be alert to is disengagement. What constitutes disengagement needs to be calibrated to the student’s point in their career. For instance, at the dissertation writing stage there is naturally less interaction between the student and supervisor, and we [supervisors] often have this idea that the student is off creating unique knowledge alone, with less need of our support.

But as a rough guide, if someone doesn’t show up for an appointment, doesn’t reschedule a cancelled appointment, and/or doesn’t respond to two emails, I assume something is happening with them that could require support. Support could include having someone to talk to, counselling, a more ­­­serious intervention, or just something pragmatic like financial support in an emergency. But I believe that the student shouldn’t have to do all the work to make me pay attention when they are struggling.  Part of my role as a supervisor is to pay attention to the well-being of my students.

So I try to be attentive to changes in behaviour that I might otherwise ignore, including those from very successful students. I’ve learned the hard way – by failing to treat these signals seriously – that simple things like not responding to emails, missing appointments and not rescheduling, or missing an agreed-upon writing deadline may be signals of broader distress. For myself and my students, I take those signals seriously.

At the same time, I am wary of asking students direct questions about their personal lives. I think the power differential inherent in every supervisor-student relationship, no matter what your intentions, creates too much vulnerability. Faculty and staff have confidential counselling available outside the workplace. Students need the same. So I may ask if things are going OK, and I will ask about stressful factors (housing, teaching, and research). Sometimes these questions lead to disclosures of more personal distress. I always, always let students know that there are confidential services available to them, and that they do not need to give me details they might later regret sharing.

Two people’s hands are visible, holding pencils above work papers. They are sitting in front of of laptops.

What has been your approach in guiding students struggling with mental health? What advice would you give to other academics to help them in this context?

When I have been working with students under pressure or in distress (which, really, I think we should admit means every student, at some point, in some way), I have tried to continue to treat them as competent, creative, engaged scholars first. So my checking on them personally may come at the end of a meeting about writing, or in separate conversations in more socially relaxed environments, like over coffee. I try to acknowledge that the important reality of being a successful researcher does not mean you won’t struggle with your personal life.

Faculty who were graduate students under very different conditions can easily fail to take certain differences into account, making things worse.

Indeed, looking at today’s students, I see that compared to my generation, many aren’t willing to sequester their personal life from their research persona. As an example, my generation of women tended to take for granted that “normal” family life would be deferred or perhaps never happen. My students today – both women and men – don’t want that sacrifice, and many of them add to their research challenges the satisfactions and demands of parenting. Many of these changes are healthy, but universities need to support that reality, and faculty who were graduate students under very different conditions can easily fail to take those differences into account and make things worse.

There have also been specific cases where students I was working with disclosed to me that they had been diagnosed with and were professionally treated for mental illness. For those students, I found that it was useful for me to seek insights from professionals. For example, Berkeley has mental health specialists at Student Health Services. They have put together written resources on how to intervene, and if something gets really bad, they are at the centre of the University’s response as well. In fact, the advice I sometimes received went counter to my own instincts. My first real confrontation with this was actually with an undergraduate working closely with me who experienced severe symptoms that led to hospitalization. When the symptoms started, I kept trying to ground the student in the reality around us, reassuring him that “everything is alright“. But this approach did not take into account his needs – everything is not alright when you are mentally ill, and what I learned I should have done was reach out to mental health professionals. When I did, the student was hospitalized for his own protection, something I would never have considered trying to initiate but that did in fact get him on the road to recovery.

It is important to recognize that many of the prevailing beliefs and ideas about supporting mental health in academia are less than helpful. For instance, I have gotten bad advice from peers who believe in the “tough love” approach. They suggest confronting students who are lagging behind in some way, to essentially accuse them of not being capable of being an academic. This often includes the idea of setting draconian consequences if students don’t meet up to some pre-set expectations. It seems clear that this approach would only reinforce the sense of failure and alienation – one of the most common forms of distress I see students struggling with.

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Maintaining mental health during graduate school can be especially difficult for those from marginalized backgrounds, including people of colour, people from working class backgrounds, people with disabilities and members of LGBTIQ2S+ communities. Do you have recommendations for supporting students from marginalized backgrounds?

As the composition of the academy broadens, there is a lingering mismatch between the experiences of faculty and students. The first thing I recommend is for faculty to recognize that too often they are asking their students to pretend there are no differences, to assimilate and approximate the faculty member’s experiential approach. Equally horrifying to me, though, is when faculty treat graduate students as embodiments of the “grad student” stereotype. So faculty need to a broader understanding and acceptance that each student is unique, we need to talk to students about their own experiences, lives, and backgrounds, and we need to listen (we are not trained to listen!) and not fill in the space with your own insights.

I am often tempted to say “I know what you mean“. I’ve committed to try not to say that. Some of my students may, like me, be first generation college students, from working class families; but it is very unlikely that I know what the experience of a first generation student of colour is like. We may have some common ground that allows for a productive conversation about how one deals with the sense of alienation when you cannot talk to your family because they have no idea what you do, or how you deal with knowing that some people see you as weird because you haven’t pursued the family life they consider normative. But that has to be a dialogue in which the student is able to voice their experience, not one where I do it for them. Neither assimilate nor exoticize.

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Regardless of whether their students struggle with serious mental illness, what are some strategies that all faculty can use to help support the well-being of their students?

Talking to students about how to measure progress is critical. I suggest to students that they spend one week accounting for any and all time spent in research activities – not discounting any mundane or small tasks they might be tempted to. This can make it clearer that you are doing more than you feel you are.

A stack of large binders filled with papers.

Yes, maybe you didn’t finish the article or chapter, but what about the grant proposal, or conference abstract, or meeting with an undergrad you did instead? It all counts. Revising your CV can serve a similar purpose, at least for me. It’s an objective way to remind yourself that you are doing things. I convinced some dubious grad students to try this, and they found it worked.

Students should also be encouraged to embrace structure and a regular routine. The worst times for any of us are the unstructured times – those times when it seems like you could get a lot done, but instead end up doing far less than you might have if you had to account for your time. And setting goals that are chunked to the right scale helps. I joke that when things get out of control, my to do list gets more granular – but it’s not a joke. It’s how I re-orient myself to getting through one step at a time. I lay out the next ten tiny steps, and credit myself as I complete them.

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How do you approach maintaining your own psychological wellbeing in a high functioning, demanding environment like academia?

Separating work from life is the goal I strive for. This can be a challenge when your friends (and in my case, my spouse as well) all come from the same work environment. I recommend that you have something that you do that is for you only. That could be practicing a craft or art or music.

It’s important to have a clear assessment of what things I want to do, need to do, and should do as an academic.

Having sharply defined times when the world of work is off-limits also helps. I can relax this expectation during especially busy times, but it should be clearly an exception, not the norm. And, as discussed above, I like to keep track of what I have accomplished, along with what I set out to do. It’s important to have a clear assessment of what things I want to do, need to do, and should do as an academic.

Earlier in my career I had an email folder called “said no” just to remind myself I could say no sometimes. In theory, I was supposed to give one no for every yes; that never worked for me, but it did allow me to acknowledge that I don’t need to infinitely expand my burdens.

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Dr. Rosemary Joyce is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has been the committee chair or committee member for more than 90 masters or doctoral students across a range of humanities and social science disciplines, and for many years has served as graduate advisor for the archaeology program within anthropology. From 2011 to 2015 she was Associate Dean of Berkeley’s Graduate Division.


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