An Open Letter to Graduate Students About Anxiety

An Open Letter to Graduate Students About Anxiety
An Open Letter to Graduate Students About Anxiety
Graduate students have been shown to be 3 times more likely than the average person to experience poor mental health, and that the symptoms of poor mental health worsen the longer the students are in their respective programs. Yet, it's rarely discussed.

Written by: Leah McMunn

As students near the end of their post-secondary education, the concern of what comes next often arises. While there are countless options available, choosing to pursue further education through a graduate degree is one option that is becoming increasingly more common. Graduate programs that lead to a master’s degree or a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) can open many doors for careers and give you a leg up on other applicants in the job pool. Unfortunately, for many students this may come at the cost of their mental health – something very rarely talked about.

A recent 2018 study from Harvard University showed that graduate students are three times more likely than the average person to experience poor mental health, and that the symptoms of poor mental health worsen the longer the students had been in their respective programs. While my experience is within the thesis-based graduate programs of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field, I am very unsurprised about these findings due to the fundamental nature of completing a graduate degree. You often won’t find graduate students cramming for an exam or attending 8-hours of class a day. Instead, you’ll find them doing research, reading articles, and writing papers that will hopefully be read by future graduate students. Graduate students are often looked at more like full-time employees rather than students, and while they are compensated for their work, their salaries are often near- to below- minimum wage. 

A recent study by the Canadian Federation of Students anonymously surveyed 2,001 graduate students across 20 different institutions in Ontario. During their study, they investigated some of the factors that negatively affect student’s mental health. They found that: 

  1. 59% of student’s worried about paying their tuition fees 
    • An issue compounded by the low salaries given for highly skilled work
  2. 63% of respondents suffered from imposter syndrome 
    • A fear or anxiety of failing, appearing weak and unknowledgeable, to your peers and/or superiors
  3. 31% of respondents felt anxiety directly related to their ability to find and/or afford mental health support. 

These numbers are again, unsurprising to me. For me, mental health is a common discussion with my colleagues when we are out after a long day of work. And yet, the mental health landscape is lagging in its support for this cohort of students. Resources are often unavailable, or do not adequately fit the stresses that graduate students go through daily. 

As someone who has suffered from both anxiety and depression over the years, here are some of the tips/tools and resources I have found extremely helpful throughout the beginning of my graduate school journey so far (compiled from both personal experience and my colleagues recommendations):


      • Dragonfly Mental Health develops, deploys, and evaluates evidence-based strategies to produce sustainable mental health culture in higher education.
      • A free, confidential service for post-secondary students in Ontario and Nova Scotia. You can receive professional counselling as well as referrals for mental health, addictions, and well-being.
      • Dr. Zoe Ayres is a mental health advocate focusing on the academic landscape. Her aim is to increase awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in post-graduate studies. 

Major Tips & Tools

  1. Communicate with colleagues and take advantage of other people’s knowledge! 
  2. Never be afraid to ask questions and learn from others. Work-life balance! 
    • Graduate school has been a time where I have forced myself to take time to learn new skills and hobbies. 
  3. While it may seem like there is no time to learn how to knit, start taking a new dance class, or reading new books (outside of your field) – taking time to do these tasks will actually make you happier and therefore more productive in your research. Work the hours that are productive for you. 
    • 80hour work-week culture is prominent throughout graduate school (especially so in STEM fields), but research has shown this to be extremely unhealthy
    • Make them most of your time by scheduling everything – including personal time – into a calendar and sticking to it! 


Finally, remember that everyone is different! While this strategies and resources may have been helpful for me, they may not work for you. It is extremely important to find what works best for you – and thankfully there are so many available to try. Things like techniques for breathing, mindfulness, and grounding are super easy to learn and a great first step to try for reducing anxiety and stress. You can find information on many of these topics on our website –

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