Nicole Haloupek

In 2014, the UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly released the widely publicized Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report, a synthesis and summary of the results of a major campus-wide survey of graduate students. The findings of the survey were not encouraging: although an individual diagnosis would require professional evaluation, 47 percent of PhD students answered questions in a way consistent with depression. In spite of the bleak results, the survey found several factors with a positive correlation to mental wellbeing.

Survey respondents mentioned social relationships second only to financial factors in their written comments, with some emphasizing the impact of camaraderie with colleagues. But this kind of support isn’t something that can simply be manufactured by people who need it—for those who don’t already have support, it’s not always easy to know how to reach out. That’s where Thriving in Science comes in.

Founded by Diane Wiener and Troy Lionberger, the UC Berkeley program aimed at science and engineering grad students and postdocs takes a two-pronged approach. First, it hosts an open seminar series in which speakers talk about issues facing grad students and postdocs, from burnout to relationships with mentors. And second, it maintains a peer support network, partly by matching people in similar stages of their careers (early grad students, for example) into small groups that meet twice a month, and partly by hosting program-wide social events open to all members.

In the peer support groups, problems and questions can be discussed confidentially with others who may have experienced similar circumstances—or at least, with people who may know a labmate who has. Each group has a facilitator, a person who undergoes training to learn to ensure that discussions remain productive rather than devolving into mutual complaining or worse, despairing. The goal is to provide a safe environment for participants to explore solutions to the many difficulties we face as grad students and postdocs—and simply to give participants a judgement-free place to be understood by others who know their struggles.

Enrollment in the peer support groups mainly takes place in the beginning of each Fall Semester, but interested grad students and postdocs can sign up at any time. The Thriving in Science program is already reaching hundreds of participants, and the hope is that as the word spreads further—and as other fields, perhaps, develop similar programs tailored to their own grad students and postdocs—the next Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report may look a little brighter.

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