Department culture and mental health

Tyler Chen

August 11, 2020

The mental health of graduate students has been gaining increased attention, in part due to the high incident rates of mental illness among graduate students 1. As noted by a recent study 2, “Graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population.” Mental health struggles are not unique to graduate students. Early career academics face similar struggles 3, and burnout among researchers high 4.

In this piece, I briefly discuss imposter syndrome and the overuse of imposter syndrome as a catch-all for any negative feelings encountered in grad school before transitioning into some ideas on how to creating supportive department cultures. Department culture can have a significant impact on mental health (I’m just taking this as given), so one particular step towards addressing the mental health crisis in academia is modifying department cultures.

Imposter syndrome

“Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved” 5. Originally studied in the context of high achieving women 6, imposter syndrome is now recognized to affect people from all backgrounds. It’s especially prevalent in academia, impacting both students and faculty.

Imposter syndrome is so prevalent in academia that it is easy to blame any feelings of not belonging on imposter syndrome. However, sometimes such difficulties aren’t just imposter syndrome, but the result of the fact that academia is hostile towards non-men, people of color, and those from other marginalized groups. This viewpoint is summarized in the following quote, taken from the article “Imposter syndrome isn’t the problem—toxic workplaces are” by Christine Liu which explores imposter syndrome and marginalization.

Imposter syndrome is a convenient scapegoat for the systemic and institutional oppression that pushes people out of science. Hyper-focus on imposter syndrome can be a form of victim-blaming. It promotes the idea that people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and just feel better in order to do better.

More succinctly, as Merci Victoria Grace posts on Twitter,

Maybe you don’t have imposter syndrome. Maybe you’ve been treated like an imposter your entire career.

A brief interlude

To me, the broader takeaway from these commentaries on imposter syndrome is that we must be mindful of the impact of viewing the experiences of oppressed people through the lens of the oppressor/oppressive system. This is intrinsically tied to intersectionality 7, but goes further in recognizing that even the frameworks through which we study and work to minimize harm can themselves perpetuate oppression.

For instance, in STEM and tech there is a widespread push to address the lack of gender/racial diversity through programs meant to support and provide opportunities to those from underrepresented backgrounds. While this paradigm does assist less privileged folks in succeeding in such environments, it does little to directly address the underlying issues which created led to the lack of diversity and hostile environments in the first place. Rather, it is reliant on the hope that if eventually enough underrepresented folks are able to succeed, then they will be able to amass enough power to be able to change the system.

Such an approach, which requires the often uncompensated labor of more established individuals from marginalized groups, who are asked to to act as leaders and mentors for less established individuals, places the onus of improving the situation on the very people the system is designed to work against; for instance, even following best practices such as having underrepresented minority faculty serve on hiring committees means asking additional work of the (likely few) URM faculty in the department.

Obviously we shouldn’t just eliminate these programs and practices; clearly they are hugely beneficial and have made great strides towards increased representation. In fact, it is often the case that the people who take on these roles do so willingly. What we should do is recognize this labor, and reflect on why this is the model by which we have decided on to address the lack of diversity in STEM so that we can strive towards more equitable approaches and work to fundamentally restructure the unjust systems themselves.

Building healthier department cultures

While this high level commentary is certainly relevant, let’s get back to a more concrete and actionable discussion on grad student mental health. Specifically, I want to provide a brief commentary on my views on some of the things we should be doing to create more equitable department cultures. The idea of department culture is itself a somewhat nebulous concept, but in my mind it essentially boils down to the norms and expectations which members of the department follow. This encompasses everything from how courses are taught and how students are advised to the kinds of interactions department members have with cleaning staff, and clearly can have a large impact on the mental health of department members.

These days, most departments assert a commitment towards diversity and equity. Often, this manifests itself in the form of a diversity statement, diversity committee, and perhaps diversity related programs like those mentioned in the previous section, and while beneficial, such initiatives often fail to have a significant impact on department culture. This is because they are “opt-in”; there is no expectation for everyone to participate, and as a result the dominant majority is able to say “look, our department cares about diversity” without actually having to change their behavior. As a result, many of the actions (e.g. microaggressions, discriminatory statements/actions, excessive work expectations, etc.) which contribute hostile department cultures and disproportionately impact those from URM backgrounds goes unaddressed.

One alternative is to create an expectation that department members contribute to outreach in the same way they are expected to contribute to research and/or teaching; i.e. shift the norm from caring about equity from being “opt-in” to “opt-out”, where opting out carries with it a black mark. The big question is then, how do you create this “opt-out” culture? This is a difficult question with no easy solution, but even so, there is a reasonable amount which can be done towards this end.

Obviously, the higher up the academic power hierarchy you are, the easier it is to enact change unilaterally. Department chairs can “mandate” attendance of certain department events, faculty with tenure can advocate for ideas without risk of losing their jobs, advisors can encourage their students to get involved in the department, etc. The flip side of this statement is that those without much institutional power cannot enact such change in the same way. While graduate students certainly fall into this category, that does not mean all hope is lost.

Ultimately, most departments rely on graduate students to function, and that means that graduate students have quite a bit of collective power. This means an effective approach to impact department culture is harness this collective power by organizing the student body; a unified student voice is far more likely to catch the attention of those who do have the power to make policy change than a few individuals. Since students cycle through programs every few years, there is a constant supply of incoming students looking towards more established students for queues on how to behave. This is a huge opportunity as it means that several strong voices can set expectations for new students which ideally will have a cascading effect in the future. Setting these expectations might be through example or more explicitly through an event/training which new students are strongly encouraged to attend.

Beyond the broader goal of creating structural change to the department culture, this bottom up approach is effective because a large number of the interactions graduate students have are with other graduate students. Setting clear expectations for new students has the potential to create healthier peer-to-peer interactions, better support systems, and stronger community, all of which have immediate positive effects on the mental health of graduate students.


I’m going to leave it at that… I think there is a lot of analysis, especially with regards to intersectionality, which could be developed further, but I want to keep this fairly concise.

If you have thoughts or feedback on any of these ideas presented here I would love to hear them.

  1. “Mental Health Disorders Disproportionately Affect Graduate School Students”. The Atlantic. 2018

  2. “Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education”. Nature Biotechnology. 2018.

  3. “Mental Health in Academia: A question of support”. eLife. 2019.

  4. “Understanding mental health in the research environment”. Rand Health. 2018.


  6. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women”. Clance and Imes. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 1978.

  7. here intersectionality refers to the concept that our experiences, privileges, and disadvantages are impacted by the intersection of our unique identities