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Champine: The Inhumane Pressure of Graduate Student Research

College is supposed to be a time of discovery, and no place is better for discovery than a graduate research program.
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Madelyn Foulger
(Design by Madelyn Foulger | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

 

The opportunity to pursue graduate research is incredible. The University of Utah has exceptional research programs. However, concerns over nepotism, publication and cost take away from the joys of research. According to Campus Technology, academia is a field wrought with issues. Access to higher education, transparency in costs, lack of diverse representation and unsupportive curriculum are a few of many issues that exist in graduate research programs. The pressure put on graduate students is immense and detrimental, which leads to grad programs being inhumane.   

Costs

Financial stress is a major concern for college students. A survey from Inside Higher Ed reports that six in 10 college students have experienced acute stress. It also reports that 56% of students have experienced chronic stress.

College is supposed to be a time of discovery, and no place is better for discovery than a graduate research program. However, the costs of graduate research programs at the U are immense. Using the U’s tuition estimator, a non-resident Biochemistry Ph.D. student would pay approximately $16,700 for a 12-credit semester. A resident student would pay around $5,000.

These costs can make it virtually impossible for poor students to continue their research. Glassdoor found that grad students at the U are paid around $34,000 per year, which is not nearly enough for non-resident students — considering how difficult it is for grad students to work outside their research due to the commitment required by their programs.

Issues at the U

Out of concern from backlash from their departments, many U grad students are afraid to speak out. Students should be free to speak out against issues without fearing retaliation.

The competitive behavior of graduate programs often leads to mental health crises. The National Library of Medicine states that competitive behavior is linked to anxiety, depression and self-harm.

According to their website, the U’s graduate school requires a minimum of 30 credit hours of graduate courses. For students who are physically disabled or neurodivergent, these hours can be incredibly difficult to obtain without accommodations, which the U lacks.

In a January 2022 interview with the Chronicle, then-Ph.D. student Olosengbuan Obuhoro described the admissions for the U’s grad programs as focused on standardized test scores, writing samples, research proposals and letters of recommendation. If a student struggles with testing, they may miss out on the opportunity to join a grad program. If a student fails to create close relationships with professors due to anxiety, they may also struggle to obtain a letter of recommendation. Equality of opportunity is vital.  

There is a Grad Student Union forming at the U. They plan to call for better conditions and push back against inhumane practices. The graduate student task force also aims to support grad students. It’s examining the level of financial support available. It has succeeded in making health insurance free for grad students at the U. However, the task force focuses mainly on financial stressors, neglecting other mental health impacts on grad students.  

Publish or Perish 

These issues are not limited to the U. Graduate research programs across the board have a staggering mental health crisis.

An article by Harvard blog writer Wei Li describes the phrase “publish or perish,” which was coined in 1932. The phrase describes the idea that if students don’t constantly publish work, their career and opportunities will perish. This term, which began as little more than a dramatic metaphor, does not feel so dramatic anymore. In the face of a rising mental health crisis in graduate research, the choice may be much more real.

Another big issue in grad programs is concern over judgments that will be passed on to future career choices.  

A student at UC Berkeley, who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said, “If you decide to go into industry, you’re not trying as hard anymore. You’re giving up.”

Research programs should be about research. Grad students should not be concerned with anything except their projects and programs. It is disappointing that the U and other universities allow their programs to become about more than research.

“The nature of research is that nobody knows what’s going on,” the UC Berkeley student said. When you’re able to figure these things out, that’s the most rewarding part.”

Grad programs should be focused on the rewarding discoveries that students are making. Research paves the way for the future, but without healthy environments, it becomes more about problems.  

 

[email protected]

@MorganChampine

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About the Contributors
Morgan Champine, Assistant Opinion Editor
(they/them) Morgan Champine is pursuing a career in creative writing and majoring in English. Morgan was born and raised in Utah, and when they're not writing, they're attending concerts, exploring the outdoors, and reading.
Madelyn Foulger, Social Media Manager, Design Contributer
Madelyn started at the Chronicle in 2022 as a social media contributor and designer before becoming Social Media Manager in May 2023. She's majoring in film and media arts with a minor in human rights and resources. Madelyn enjoys various creative pursuits, including writing, illustration, design, film, and photography.

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