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How Graduate Students Can Advocate for a Healthier Academic Culture

academic culture

Academia often has a “productivity at all costs” mentality, in which publication and prestige are the only metrics for success. Such pressure often falls hard on graduate students, but students can advocate for change in multiple ways. (Illustration by Hanna McIntosh)

By Hanna McIntosh

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

Hanna McIntosh

Hanna McIntosh

When I started graduate school, I was aware that academic work environments are known to be competitive, and sometimes even toxic. I worked hard to develop a healthy work-life balance and found myself thinking that things weren’t so bad. A year later, though, I began to see how wrong I was. I saw fellow graduate students experiencing extreme stress. Friends told me about their advisors’ extreme lab policies that expected 60-80 hour work weeks. Tragically, a student at my university died by suicide after ongoing abuse by his advisor. And I learned more about the additional barriers to success that marginalized graduate students face.

A Toxic Academic Culture

These issues are not unique to my institution. Academia often has a “productivity at all costs” mentality, in which publication and prestige are the only metrics for success. They’re prioritized above all else. Many academics believe that excessive working hours are necessary to achieve this success. These issues are pervasive across academic fields, including entomology. As I heard from my peers and experienced myself, this burden of overwork falls heavily on graduate students. It makes achieving a healthy work-life balance nearly impossible and can have grave consequences. We are students and employees, so there are often unclear expectations or limits for work hours. Many of us have 50 percent appointments, which should total 20 hours a week of work as a teaching assistant or research assistant. Since we are also students, however, our coursework and professional development blends with research and paid work. It’s easy for students’ work hours to bleed into evenings and weekends. Some advisors expect students to consistently work on weekends.

Beyond excessive hours in the office, many entomology students’ research requires field work. We all need a few extra-long field days to get everything done, but some students are expected to be in the field 60-80 hours a week all summer. This favors young, able-bodied graduate students with no children or other dependents, excluding some students from research with field work.

Mentoring relationships are also notorious for greatly impacting graduate students’ experience and success. Advisors hold enormous power over students’ career trajectory, degree completion, financial compensation, and day-to-day wellbeing. Unfortunately, most professors receive little to no training in management or mentoring skills. Students also receive no training on how to work with advisors. At best, this can lead to strained mentoring relationships. At worst, students suffer abuse.

Underrepresented graduate students face many additional barriers. Since academia is still predominantly white, graduate students of color experience racism, discrimination, and daily microaggressions. This can exacerbate feelings of isolation and lack of belonging. Because of these experiences, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) students often spend more time working on diversity and inclusion initiatives and receive no compensation for this critical work. Entomology is especially white compared to other STEM fields. In 2019, approximately 2.7 percent of Entomological Society of America members identified as Black, 9.7 percent as Asian, 6.7 percent as Hispanic, and 0.6 percent as Native American. Because of this lack of diversity, these issues of racial prejudice may be increased for BIPOC students in entomology.

This toxic work environment has contributed to a mental health crisis for graduate students. One study found that graduate students are more than twice as likely to develop a psychological disorder than the highly educated general population. These rates are shockingly high, and this mental health crisis is not being talked about enough. Good work-life balance and positive mentoring relationships are correlated with better mental health outcomes. Taking action to improve these two factors is critical for improving work conditions for graduate students.

We need concrete, systemic change at a university level to improve the toxic work culture in academia. We need better regulations that protect graduate students and other workers. We need accountability. But, change can also be made at the department level.

How Students Can Advocate for Change

Students can advocate for change in multiple ways. I am lucky to be a part of a department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with highly engaged, passionate students that work hard to make our department more equitable, diverse, and healthier for everyone. From their work and my own involvement, I suggest the following ways that students can take action:

1. Create a code of conduct to set healthy standards for your department. Define what values everyone in your department should uphold, and declare what behaviors are not acceptable. At the UW-Madison, a small committee of faculty and graduate students created a code of conduct for the Department of Entomology. It lists our departmental values (like respect, inclusion, integrity, and community) and clearly defines unacceptable behaviors (like discrimination, harassment, and retaliation). The document also includes an exhaustive list of campus resources for reporting and seeking mental health care. The code of conduct is in its final stages of finalization, so cannot be shared yet in this post.

2. Create a document defining expectations of students and advisors. Setting clear expectations can help improve students’ mentoring relationships. Created alongside the code of conduct, my department’s document of expectations for graduate students and advisors includes protections that the university does not guarantee all graduate students. It declares that graduate students are expected to work around 40 hours a week and that work on weekends is not expected. We are guaranteed minimum sick and vacation leave. We are not expected to do extracurricular activities for advisors unrelated to our research (examples at UW-Madison had included babysitting and laundry). The document also requires advisors to prioritize their students’ emotional and physical wellbeing.

3. Get involved in diversity initiatives. Diversity, inclusion, and social justice work should not be carried out primarily by BIPOC students. White students (and faculty) need to share this workload. Find out what initiatives are happening in your department or university and ask how you can help.

4. Support students’ right to unionize. Graduate student labor unions represent graduate students in collective bargaining and provide critical protections for pay and working conditions. This year, the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association succeeded in getting the university to include RA positions in graduate assistantship policies, guaranteeing important rights like sick leave. If your university already has a graduate student union, support it! Consider becoming a member or learn about their current campaigns. If your university does not have a union, learn more about efforts on your campus to form one.

5. Set boundaries for yourself, and model what it’s like to work in a healthier culture. Creating a healthier academic culture starts with us. We can refuse to perpetuate toxic practices. Do this by creating boundaries that will help you succeed as a student while maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Your first boundary should be prioritizing your physical and mental health above all else. Other boundaries could address work hours, work on the weekends, or saying no to new projects that don’t benefit you.

Students are part of the solution to academia’s toxic culture, but the responsibility and work should not fall solely on us. Faculty need to be engaged in making the culture healthier, too. Most faculty members truly care about their students, and now is the time for them to listen to our needs and take action with us.

Hanna McIntosh is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Twitter: @hrmcintosh. Email: hrmcintosh@wisc.edu.

4 Comments »

  1. This article is relevant, necessary, needed, and OVERDUE. It should have been written a century ago. But better late than never. Hopefully, the gist of this plea for inclusion does not get filed away into the annals of NO-ACTION. Pardon the acerbic tone of my comment. I an still unemployed since graduating, in 1985, with a PhD degree in entomology and publish papers that have contributed to the improvement of particulate biological insecticides for controlling immature filter-feeding, medically-important aquatic insects. I am a victim of inadequate and toxic mentoring of coloured and under-represented graduate students.

  2. Having spent five years in industry before heading back to graduate school, I would agree with this author: academic institutions are poorly equipped to handle many human resource problems, and even when these resources are available to employees, they are often not extended to graduate students. This is why I am so glad that the author brought up point four: UNIONIZE. If you like having the same healthcare afforded to undergraduates (let alone other fulltime employees), you may have to fight for access to these basic human needs. If you need someone to support you when your advisor harasses you or ignores harassment in your lab, you will want their support. Your graduate student union can help you find emotional, medical, and legal support in the aftermath of said harassment whether it is sexual, racial (as with the commenter above), ethnic, age, disability, or religious in nature. You should not expect more professional behavior from industry than you should from academia.

  3. Great awareness-raising post. I agree, change is sorely need. Myself, I was shocked at the disrespectful and demeaning atmosphere of graduate school. And, as an older student, I was like “Heck no, you’re not treating me like this” and I had the confidence of being more mature and less willing to put up with bad treatment. But I can’t imagine how rough it is on younger students and how discouraged they must get in that sort of environment.

  4. Yes as Stephen has rightly said, this is a long overdue topic, languishing because not all graduate students are not supportive of each other. If you are the privileged one in the lab, certainly you are gonna turn a deaf ear to others complaints. Of course there are exceptions! However, what I feel is breaking the chain of advisor gangs. These exist for sure and they function to show authority and not rigorous science. No advisor is entitled to harass a student in the name of rigorous science. Hopefully more students should come and express their discontent. Some PI’s threaten their students, that they will never give “glowing” recommendations to their students. Wow! are we still living in the Victorian ages, where a maid or a butler gets a reco letter from one of their former employers for wiping some bodys cutlery…shameful practice in research…

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